Sunday, February 2, 2014

Eckhart Tolle’s “catch me if you can” experiment

Traditionally, spirituality is associated more with faith rather than experimentation. However, some spiritual teachers such as Eckhart Tolle speak the language of experimentation. In fact, Ekchart’s experiments are typically low-cost. For example, he says, “One conscious breath in and out is a meditation”. In this article, let’s explore one such experiment Eckhart suggests which I call “Catch me if you can”.

Well, the overall objective is simple – you want your mind to be peaceful as much as possible. Perhaps it is peaceful most of the time, except, may be, when you are provoked by someone – say your boss. Dimitry from Moscow asked this question to Eckhart during Eckhart's interview with Oprah Winfrey, “When I am criticized, I get into power games, so can you recommend something?” To which Eckhart asked Dimitry, “When do you become aware of your frustrated state? after a few minutes? End of the day?” Dimitry answered, “It depends upon the situation. If the situation is minor, I am aware of it five minutes after. But when I am deeply criticized by my boss, I can be in this state for a week.”

Now, Eckhart’s experiment is as follows. Whenever you get into a negative emotion such as frustration or anger, you need to observe how long you remain completely lost in that state. Note that once you are lost in, say anger, there is nothing you can do about it because you and anger are not different in that state. The recovery towards peaceful mind starts once you notice, “Oh, there is that anger in me.” At what point of time such an observation happens is the crux of this experiment.

The objective of this experiment (or game) is to catch yourself in the state as early as possible. Eckhart divides your "Gotcha" point into three stages.

·         Stage-1: You catch yourself just before you are going to become angry – perhaps you notice the trigger such as your boss’s criticism and become alert. Your goal is to catch yourself in stage-1 as much as possible. Why? Because your emotion can’t sustain itself for long when you detach yourself from it.
·         Stage-2: You catch yourself as you are entering the state i.e. you catch yourself getting angry. Perhaps you can’t do much about it and you get angry anyway. Perhaps the awareness subsides the emotion before it takes off.
·         Stage-3: Like Dimitry, you catch yourself in the state (say anger) after some time. It could be a few minutes or as much as a week after you enter into the state. This is when most of us become aware of our emotional state.

For example, the last time I got angry was when I was standing in a payment queue at Adiga restaurant on M G Road and one person just barged in and went directly to the counter. I got angry and told him to stand in the queue. He did. And within a minute I became aware of my anger and it subsided 10-15 minutes later. It was a stage-3 observation i.e. catching myself in angry state. Could it be in stage-2 next time? Let’s see.

I see following challenge in extending this experiment. It may work for extreme emotions such as frustration or anger. Could it also work for low-intensity emotions such as anxiety? How easy will it be to catch yourself getting anxious? I don’t know. Any ideas?

Source: Primary source for this reflection is Eckhart’s interview by Oprah Winfrey on chapter 4 of Eckhart’s book “A New Earth”. Dimtry’s question starts at 53:10. A similar question was asked by Dionne from Port of Spain, Trinidad at 44:06. Unfortunately, the video is no longer available online.

Eckhart describes this experiment in the following video "Dealing with anger, resistance and pessimism" (7:15)