With Eckhart Tolle’s power of now and What Matters Most by James Hollis in either hand, I found myself squeezed between two self-help books, and two (perhaps) contrasting philosophies.
I’d accidentally woken up in a foreign city without a job or a girlfriend. With the inevitable existential panic that followed, I was in desperate need to make a new framework for living, something to make my life make sense. Living life can feel easy when you’re coasting along, supported by the traditional ballasts of existence — jobs, partners, family — whatever floats your boat. When those disappear though, as they intermittently do, you’re left all at sea, wondering what the hell the purpose of the whole thing is.
In my case, I felt I was failing to get jobs I didn’t actually want. The world of employment had begun to seem insignificant and other people’s passion for jobs foolish. I’d been told during a recent interview that by the looks of my non-verbal reasoning tests, my intelligence was significantly below average. I couldn’t help crack a smile at the deadpan manner in which the HR worker delivered this news to me.
Overall, I was failing to have nearly enough zest for life and this joie de vivre deficit simply had to be resolved. Two books lay by my bed and I required a solution, a new framework to guide me before I slipped into despair. The first was The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, the second, What Matters Most by James Hollis.
While Tolle broadly encourages us to live in the present moment and embrace what is, independent of our noisy, chattering egos, Hollis advocates getting to grips with the underlying forces and desires that guide our lives. Despite their many overlaps, to me, one preached acceptance and the other, non-acceptance — Hollis’ Jungian analysis of how to live life according to what truly matters advocates finding what our contribution to the overall organism that is society should be.
So what was best? Should I live a calm life of acceptance, or vivaciously strive against what deep down I somehow knew to be true, that I was doing the wrong thing, that I didn’t really want these jobs that I was interviewing for, and that somehow, I didn’t fit in?
For Tolle, these are the desperate screams of the ego which maraud through the brain and the body leaving destruction in their wake, like the thawing of arctic ice leading to the deathly creak of a much more significant doom. Seeing them as just thoughts and faulty frameworks in my mind was comforting; I no longer needed to think about my situation, whether I was living a totally false existence and ignoring underlying creative passions incompatible with my reality.
Acceptance made all this fairly insignificant. After all, what’s an existential crisis when one can observe a butterfly or a flower, sit back and listen to the sound of the wind or the rustle of autumnal leaves winding their way through the streets.
I began to successfully soothe myself with Tolle, who is, let’s face it, a rather cute and calm little man whose collection of waistcoats just makes you want to give him a big cuddle (go to his YouTube channel for proof). I mean, who wouldn’t want to be that calm? The man looks one meditation session away from a coma, and in a good way.
That said, the calm I achieved through my constant attempts to enter Tolle’s The Now — the present moment that is arguably all that is really there, separate from the thoughts that race around in our head — made me feel a charlatan, like I was papering over the cracks of my existence and conveniently ignoring my true feelings and desires.
Who was to say that my thoughts don’t constitute reality in the first place, since I’m the one thinking them and the only reality I know of is my conscious mind?
In Tolle’s circles, made up of wonderfully spiritual and inspiring figures, it is accepted that the thinking mind is something separate from existence, that there is calm beneath that the mind floats on top of, twisting and turning and spinning and spiralling independent of eternal peace. Was I not my thoughts? Were they not my reality? And ultimately, was there not some kind of sacrifice that came from quieting a mind that at least some of the time, I really do like?
So The Power of Now was given the six-month-long status of a coaster on my bedside table. What Matters Most, in turn, was given the privilege of occasionally levitating a centimetre from the tip of my nose. Unlike Tolle’s acceptance, Hollis’ desire to engage in spiritual crisis and embrace personal growth over security made me annoyed with the reality I was working with. His words of a desire for something larger thrusting us into troubled waters, sometimes out of our conscious control.
Separated from our instinct towards who we should be or what we should do, depression emerges. The ideas we take from our childhood and our socialisation about what we need to do to be successful are faulty, and in my case, the need to do good and earn money seemed to be at loggerheads with what I actually wanted to do. I began to feel validated in my hatred of the job world. The massively uncreative nature of most jobs got to me, and I began to question even the idea that a job contributing positively to society made it worthy.
Of course, many would say that these two books don’t have to be incompatible. Perhaps Tolle would say that once the mind is quiet, the real imperatives of one’s existence shine through more clearly. Perhaps to Hollis, the religious and mystical guiding principles of Jungian thought would become clearer, the stiller one’s mind. Maybe we should try our best to live calmly while paying attention to the energies that guide us, keeping the mind at a distance while being careful not to paper too much over the cracks.
But there seems to be something missing, some paradox between eternal stillness and the somewhat violent, swirling nature of an ever-changing world where the true spirit of a human being guides them towards what they were always destined to do. Surely it’s not only an ocean of inner calm that lurks beneath our conscious mind, and is it only through peace and stillness that we achieve enlightenment?
Once you do what you’re meant to do, live the way you’re meant to live and take your rightful place in society, the ego will begin to stop screaming of its own accord, not just because you put a lot of effort into observing its chatter. Needless to say, I never developed the framework I’d hoped to build. I remain as confused as ever.
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