Issue 322 | Correspondence | The Sun Magazine


In response to Eckhart Tolle [“Beyond Happiness and Unhappiness,” interview by Steve Donoso, July 2002], I want to defend Those Who Do Not Live in the Present. Tolle and many other philosophers and mystics ask us to live in the present. All of history is now, they explain. The Mongol invasion, Lady Godiva’s ride, the sinking of the Lusitania — all these took place in the now. Furthermore, if we live in the now, we will experience complete bliss.

When I was twelve, my friend Jeffrey said to me: “It’s always now, and we’re always here.” I had never encountered this concept before, and it struck me as profound. It still does. Wherever you go, unless you are always on a motorcycle, you are stuck in the here. And even if you spend all afternoon planning your summer vacation, you are still in the now.

So what do these philosophers mean by “living in the now”? It is difficult to say. The vagueness of their prescription accounts for much of its charm. For the sake of argument, let’s define “living in the now” as paying attention to every moment, without distraction.

The question then is: does this lead to bliss? We all know the answer: no. If “living in the now” led inexorably to bliss, all of humanity would be sitting in their living rooms, breathing.

But, alas, the now leads not to bliss, but to agitation, boredom, and anxiety. This is why we spend all our time escaping — or, rather, attempting to escape — nowness.

There is one time in our lives when most of us lived in the now: childhood. That galaxial, excruciating tedium (sometimes accompanied by siblings) is unforgettable. The rest of our earthly existence, we strive to avoid such torment. This is why we watch TV, listen to books on tape, and talk on the phone while surfing the Internet.

Incidentally, I am not opposed to mysticism. I respect mysticism. In fact, I perform mystical practices. But my experience is that “living in the now” is not pleasant. It evokes suffering — most of it low-level, but some of it extreme.

Human life includes irritation and pain. Buddha made this observation and named it the First Noble Truth. “Living in the now” means feeling all this crappy misery. Rather than say, “Experience the bliss of the now,” it would be more honest for New Age philosophers to say, “Follow the path of crappy misery.”

Personally, I respect the path of crappy misery. To me, it’s an honorable choice. When you have a headache, you don’t take a Tylenol. When you are sad, you don’t drink a beer. You just sit around feeling awful. Perhaps you find another miserable person to speak to. Once in a while, you take a hot bath, but that’s it.

You may wish to practice meditation, or prayer, or another system that purports to transform misery into higher awareness and peace. Perhaps these systems work, and perhaps they don’t. Who knows? Certainly, most of the time, high-level awareness and peace are elusive. Most of the time, the path of crappy misery is strewn with crappy misery.

But so what? Who needs cheerful happiness? Who needs wild, cigarette-smoking excess? The way of crappy misery is for the few, the brave, the despondent. And if bliss comes, after a few centuries of disastrous grief, fine.

Sparrow Phoenicia, New York

I have a question for Eckhart Tolle about the “tendency to escape.” I recently read about an eighteen-year-old woman from India who testified to having been beaten and raped by ten men every day for ten days in preparation for prostitution. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident, but happens all too frequently in our world. My question is: how can a woman enduring such indescribable pain live in the now and find joy in the present?

Berit Westby Louisville, Colorado

Although Eckhart Tolle sees “a shift in consciousness happening in more than just a few individuals,” he gives no evidence of it. He further says, “I’d say the change is happening now . . . because it has to happen now.” This is an example of forced logic, which may sound good to him but does little for those waiting for rain in Zimbabwe.

The changes he sees happening are all negated by his conditional ending: “If it happens, humankind will survive. If it doesn’t . . .” He gives a little hope, and then he takes it away. Now you see it; now you don’t. Tolle exhibits little substance and offers as much comfort as lukewarm coffee.

Tom Aylward Sonoita, Arizona

Eckhart Tolle says equating thought with self is destructive, and he traces this collective mental illness back to the time of Buddha and Jesus. As time has progressed, he says, the illness has become more pronounced, rising to astonishing levels in the twentieth century.

I resist the urge to categorize this illness as another enemy. I’d like to discover a way to understand its presence and historical growth as part of the natural world. My instincts tell me that this would be useful for my own change in consciousness. What is the root of this illness?

While reading the interview, I was reminded of the late Alan Watts, who said that, without the “I” inside our head, we knew how to be born and how to color our eyes; we know how to grow our hair, and we will know how to die.

Warren Kress Chelsea, Michigan

I thoroughly enjoyed both the interview with Eckhart Tolle and the excerpt from his book [“The Greatest Obstacle to Enlightenment,” July 2002]. Simply reading what he had to say put me at the edge of that special place he talked about. As a veteran corrections officer who deals daily with emotional behavior and problematic personalities, I can’t help but wonder what benefit Tolle’s practices would offer to the incarcerated and those with mild mental illness.

R. Todd Fredrickson Monroe, Washington

The quote from D.T. Suzuki [Sunbeams, July 2002] reminds me why Zen religious attitudes, which have found such favor in America, consistently irk me. A student asks an innocent question — “Am I in possession of Buddha consciousness?” — and finds himself subtly humiliated: “All things are in possession of Buddha consciousness,” the master replies, “but not you.” When the student asks why, the master tells him, “Because you are asking this question.” Presumably, once the student fully accepts the dogma of “Buddha consciousness,” he can join the universe from which the master has excluded him.

Forty years ago, Ernest Becker, in a book titled Zen: A Rational Critique, showed how Zen training could be compared to brainwashing. Some Zen stories go beyond subtle psychological disorientation, recommending physical threats or actual violence to achieve conversion. After all, this is the same D.T. Suzuki who aligned the Zen doctrine of “no-mind” with Japanese imperial militarism. To all Sun readers flirting with Zen, I recommend Brian Victoria’s Zen at War, a startling cautionary history of where Zen thoughtlessness can lead.

Richard Mehl Kalamazoo, Michigan

I was an air-force brat living in Stuttgart, Germany, in the early seventies. As a high-school senior, I traveled to Dachau for a class field trip. I was stunned by what I saw.

After I graduated, I moved to Munich and attended a foreign branch of the University of Maryland that actually held classes in the old SS headquarters building. (It still read Reichposton the electrical boxes.) When people would visit, they’d inevitably ask to see Dachau, so I wound up going there five more times during my first year of college.

Among the Ashes,” by Gloria Baker Feinstein [July 2002], brought back a flood of memories: the rusty meat hooks still embedded in the rafters; the German manufacturer’s name embossed proudly on the crematorium’s metal door. But something important was missing from her story: the smell. When you stand in front of the ovens at Dachau, you are overwhelmed by the smell of death. It is a smell that never leaves you.

The last time I went to Dachau, there was an old man walking with two children down one of the gravel paths. The man had been held at Dachau during the war, and the two children were his grandchildren. I overheard him matter-of-factly recount the litany of horrors he had suffered at the hands of his captors.

He told his grandchildren that his job at the camp had been to gather up ashes out of the crematoriums after bodies were burned, so the Germans could sell the remains to loved ones in other countries. I have no way of knowing whether his story was true or not, but everything else he told the children was accurate. Imagine the audacity of a regime that could murder millions and still find a way to make a buck off their burned bones.

The saddest part is that the mentality that allowed the Holocaust to happen still exists. We remember, but we haven’t learned.

Michael Richards Columbia, Missouri

Susan Feldman’s “Yahrzeit” [July 2002] expressed my own feelings about how living with a chronic disease seems to isolate you from the crowd. It is a lonely battle. As Feldman states, “The life I live is always in the context of living in this body.”

In spite of her lupus, she has fashioned a life of writing and accomplishment, and, in that sense, she is not her disease. I felt strengthened reading her words and grateful that she addressed her pain. Suffering is suffering. But, as the therapist told her, she has the more “authentic life.”

Kelly Aanrud Amherst Junction, Wisconsin

I work out of my home, for an organization that provides domestic-violence training and education to physicians and nurses. I took a break yesterday to read the June issue of The Sun. The Readers Write piece on “Desire” that began, “Life should be simpler now,” made me cry.

That anonymous author courageously tackled the taboo subject of how abused women sometimes deeply miss their abusive partners. Those feelings are seldom discussed, as they scare and confuse well-meaning friends. Relationships that combine sexuality and intimacy with the fear of great harm are difficult to understand for those who have not been in one.

At the age of forty-five, I fell in love with a man whom I alternately called “Sweet Pea” and “The Devil.” We had many good things in common, but he could also explode into rage. His need for control and attention ruled my life. I was with him constantly, except when I showered or he went to sleep first. I went back to him four times before I accepted that he could kill me — though he swore he never would — and that his paranoid rage would never go away; it was too much a part of him.

It’s been three years since we were divorced. I fell in love again last year, this time with a gentler, less worldly man who had a black belt in lying. My desire is now on ice. I’m not sure whether I will ever trust my heart again. Some days, I feel very much alone, even in the company of friends and family. The Sun has once again helped me to feel less alone.

Liz K. Tucson, Arizona
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