In my previous post I shared a list that I derived from a paragraph in Chapter Two of Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now. It teaches us about the alchemy of taking the base metal of suffering and turning it into the gold of spiritual awareness.
- Focus attention on the emotions or thoughts that are causing you to suffer.
- Accept that the suffering is there.
- Let go of thinking about it, judging it, analyzing it, whining about it. ESPECIALLY avoid making an identity (like being a Victim; I have posted about this before) out of it.
- Continue to observe the suffering. This is called being present, or staying in the Now.
In this post, I want to discuss step #3: letting go of the impulse to make an identity out of being in pain.
Tolle explains that it is the "egoic mind" that seeks to give us an identity:
"Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things. It needs to be both defended and fed constantly. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often also, political, nationalistic, racial, religious and other collective identifications. None of these is you." (page 46)
I think that Tolle's ideas about the ego, stated briefly in the above quote, but also dealt with in many of his books, are the most important part of his teaching. These are richly provocative, even radical teachings that could be the subject of many a blog post, book group meeting, or passionate discussion. But as usual in this blog, I will stick to the subject at hand: chronic pain.
What Tolle is saying about the ego -- that it will grasp anything for identity out of a "...deep-seated sense of lack or incompleteness, of not being whole." (page 45) -- is true for those of us dealing with pain every day of our lives. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn't it? I can just hear you thinking (as I did when first confronted with the idea): "WHAT? You think I WANT to be in this pain? You think I take pride in it? I'd let it go in an instant if I could."
Of course you would. Yet the fact is -- and I believe this is why Jesus had to ask in John 5:6: "Do you want to be healed?" -- there are ways in which being in pain serves our ego. If the insecure ego will grasp at anything for security, for an identity, then it will grasp at the role of suffering person in chronic pain just as quickly as it will grab at the role of smart person at the top of her industry. And it will just as easily find ways to nurture itself in the role of victim of pain as well: on compassionate attention from others; on the emotional safety of having an easy excuse for avoiding unpleasant things in life; on having something, anything, to identify with in an otherwise dramatically changed and circumscribed life.
These are not easy things to admit to ourselves. They are not easy for anyone in any circumstance. Tolle argues that we are so controlled by our egos and so accustomed to being so, that we do not even know it is happening. Our very society is grounded in the workings of our egos: sages like the Buddha, Hafiz, Jesus, and Ghandi knew this and spoke words that continue to feel radical to this day. To become aware, to allow the power of the Now to supplant power of the ego, is to approach spiritual enlightenment.
Just remember that your ego will quite happily grasp at the identity of spiritually aware person and then you are back where you started. It's humbling, to say the least.
In my next post, I share some more details about identifying with the life of pain.
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