Saturday, July 12, 2014

Three practices from Eckhart Tolle’s teaching that I find useful

On Guru Poornima, I would like to reflect upon three practices from Eckhart Tolle’s teaching that I find useful. First, let’s note that the domain of spirituality is full of paradoxes. For example, Eckhart says, “You will need time until you realize that you don’t need time to be who you are1”. Every practice inherently involves time and is useful only until you realize that you don’t need it. Looks like presently I need time and also a practice. Here I present three practices corresponding to 3 A’s: Attention, Alertness and Acceptance. They are inter-related but each one carries a different flavour.

Shift attention away from thinking: I find this the simplest of the three practices to get started. It was a great joy to discover that I can shift my attention away from the stream of thinking - at least some times. Where do you put the attention? In the current step, whatever that is. For example, sometimes, I am able to put attention in the feet while walking, in the knees while jogging, in the gums while brushing etc. One thing you are certain to be doing at any moment is breathing. Hence, that is another place where I put my attention. There are times when I close my eyes and shift attention to all the sounds I hear – kids playing, construction work, truck honking, cooker whistling, birds singing etc. Many times when the attention is shifted away from thinking, I am able to hop off the train of thought. Until, of course, I jump on to another train later.

How often should we do this practice? Ideally, all the time. No matter how important your goal is, Eckhart says, “Give your fullest attention to the step you are taking at this moment.2” Overall, this practice works fine for me when the voice in the head is relatively light. But it doesn’t work in situations where the reaction takes off suddenly. That is when we turn to the second practice: Alertness.

Be alert in separating situation vs response: There are situations in which you are more prone to get anxious, angry, irritated etc. For me, a situation that ticks me off is when I am standing in a queue and someone cuts in. It is almost like the person cutting the queue is pressing a button in my head. Each of us has buttons which get pressed in certain situations and that triggers a strong negative emotion. Interesting part here is that we are already aware of some of these situations which make our buttons active and ready-to-be-pressed. If not, like me, you can keep a diary and make a note of them. The idea is to become alert and watch out for the emotion to arise when we enter these button-pressing situations.

What does the alertness do? Well, it creates a gap between the situation and its response in our head. Note that the person cutting the queue is not actually pressing the button. The thought which comes as a response to the queue-cutting presses the button. The alert attention separates the situation from the response and that weakens the response. Eckhart says, “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Separate thoughts from the situation which is always neutral.3

Accept the situation - then act: No matter how alert you are, there are going to be times when you are caught off-guard. Like it happened when a store keeper told me that the fifty rupees bill I gave him was fake. It meant someone had duped me. Immediately a commentary started running in the head, “How did you get fooled so easily? Why didn’t you pay attention while receiving the change?” – mostly useless thoughts. At this stage, it helps to pause and accept the situation first and say “I have a fake fifty rupees bill.” And then ask, “Is there anything I can do to change the situation, improve it or remove myself from it?4” If so, take appropriate action. If no action is possible then just surrender to the situation. In this case, I didn’t remember where I got the bill from. And hence I decided to just move on. That slowed down the commentary and eventually stopped within the next few minutes. Without the acceptance the commentary carries a power of running for a long time.

I feel acceptance is the hardest of the three practices. We realize it when we try to accept the loss of our job, a relationship or a loved one. We put ourselves into a “loser” or a “victim” role and the internal resistance engine fires full steam. It sucks the energy from our attention. Acceptance slows down the resistance engine and releases energy for more useful purposes.

Eckhart says, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.5

In summary, I find the three practices corresponding to Attention-Alertness-Acceptance very useful in day-to-day activity. I am grateful to Eckhart Tolle for making these insights accessible to us through his books and videos.


1.      “Stillness speaks”, page 54
2.      “Practicing the power of now”, page 36
3.      “The new earth”, page 96
4.      “Practicing the power of now”, page 120
5.      “The power of Now”, page 29

photo source: - photo by Kyle Hoobin