When I first met Eckhart Tolle, nearly 12 years ago now, he spoke very little. His quiet, gentle demeanor could make him seem shy, but later I learned that he is simply careful with words. In those days, very few people had read his newly-finished book, The Power of Now (which has since sold millions of copies, and been translated into more than 30 languages). Back then, he would visit Los Angeles occasionally when asked to speak to groups, and when he did, he would become my guest in the small house I shared with my partner. I'd make him coffee in the morning, and I'd feel quite relieved and thrilled when he'd drink it, because I'd never been a coffee drinker, myself, and I had no idea how to make coffee. At the time, I considered myself spiritual, but what that meant to me involved reading my daily horoscope, being kind and taking an interest in crystals. I was rather new to the idea of meditation. What I didn't understand was how Eckhart could stop thinking without falling asleep, a task I hadn't yet mastered. In fact, it was a task I could barely imagine.
Guests would join us in the living room for an informal satsang (group meditation and teaching), in which Eckhart would begin by taking a few deep breaths in silence. I'd follow his lead, and take a few deep breaths myself. And then he would simply sit in silence, making eye contact with each of us. My mind racing through various problems, worries, panics, memories, speculations and fantasies, it eventually dawned on me that he was not thinking at all. What a mind-blowing revelation. Slowly, I began to understand that at times it is appropriate to pay more attention to the space between thoughts than to the thoughts themselves. But what would happen to my intellectual abilities? If I didn't constantly hash and rehash thoughts, would I lose the ability to think?
In the morning when I brought him coffee, he would be reading the newspaper. Sometimes he remained silent, and other times we would have stimulating conversations about world politics. And still at other times, he would have me doubled over in fits of giggles; his sense of humor could be so spot on. Clearly his ability to stop thinking at will had not dampened his wits.
What I didn't know then -- in fact no one knew it scientifically, as it was only shown in 2007 (although long-time meditators suspected as much) -- was that the state of being he was attempting to share is rejevenating to the mind and can help to rebuild brain tissue, helping to prevent dementia and Alzheimer's, as demonstrated by studies done on Zen meditators. There's even research behind meditation's long claim not only to stress reduction, but to increasing longevity. In my own experience, once I learned to stop thinking, when I did choose to use my mind, it was more useful, creative and clear.
A common fear when it comes to meditating in the silence of the mind is that perhaps one will lose themselves. On the contrary, it seems that meditation is a keen way to find oneself, to be more of oneself than ever before. Most importantly, it can be way to find freedom from the soul's slavery to the mind, putting the mind in its rightful place as a dutiful servant, relieving neurosis, excessive fear and anxiety.
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