Saturday, February 1, 2014

Zen and Now

I work with this eccentric, hilarious Indian gastroenterologist named Dr. Sandhu.  I've met people that are passionate, but Sandhu redefines the term.  Every few months, it seems, some new fascination has latched on his brain, and he begins seeing the world through a completely different lens.  Paleo dieting was among these crazes, and for months, we found the good doctor in our breakroom analyzing the paleo propriety of our lunches.  Some nurses accused him of paleovangelism and he softened his pronouncements upon our plates, relegating himself to a milder form of endorsement.  During his golf obsession, he was often to be seen reviewing instructional videos on YouTube and, on one occasion, I walked in the room as he was practicing his putt by swinging a colonoscope like a golf club.  These obsessions dominate his conversations and offer him new analogies on how to view life.  (I heard how life was like a fairway so many times, I was about ready to knock myself out with a 5-iron.)  The man's zeal for his interests is unsurpassed.

A number of months ago, my friends Jeff Harris and Natalie Thorsen suggested a book called "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle.  Trusting their judgment implicitly, I bought the book and read.  I then bought the audiobook and listened.  I picked up the book again to review.  Review wasn't enough so I read it through a second time within five weeks.  Every time I went to the gym, Eckhart's soothing, German-accented voice preached peace and presence as I groaned out another few bicep curls.  The book was one of the most powerful and influential books I've read in my life.  I couldn't get enough of it.

Tolle's premise is that if we abandon regret and concern for the past, and surrender angst and anticipation for the future, we can be happy, regardless of circumstance, in the present moment.  As a relatively analytic person, I was somewhat confused by his concept that "you are not your thoughts."  Our brains are tools we use to analyze and process, but we are not our minds.  Our identity, according to Tolle, is far more intrinsic and eternal.  Our worth is unimpeachable and unconditional.  If we learn to disassociate ourselves with the judgments of thought, our "egoic mind," we can find a deep, abiding peace that transcends every circumstance and a value that doesn't need justification.  Tolle's message is one of worth, joy, and peace.  And I didn't buy a word of it.

For me, I've always dwelt on problems, concerned myself with the future, and lived in past mistakes and experience.  I figured that was how I could improve as a person.  Learn from the past, prepare for the future, and seek to improve.  Sounds healthy, right?  In some sense, it absolutely is.  But as I read, I started to question, by degrees, my modus operandi.  Instead of analyzing past mistakes, was I instead dwelling on those mistakes, effectively reliving them and punishing myself repeatedly for them?  Undoubtedly, yes.  Instead of planning and preparing for the future, was I often stressing and dwelling about potentials that were complete fictions?  Guilty.  The "what if's" about the future often flash through my mind at such a pitch, I'm effectively paralyzed by them, rendered unable to even prepare for the very potential I dread.  Instead of learning from the past and readying for the future, I agonize over moments that no longer exist and grow intensely anxious for moments that may never exist at all.  Clearly, I can suck at life.

Upon identifying the destructive potential my fixation on the past and future became and how pervasive those fixations were, I began to listen to Tolle.  He points out that the past and future don't exist.  The past is a "shadow of things that have been."  (very Dickensian, really.)  Our memories are so imperfect that we often see the past through a very skewed lens.  And the future, while we feebly try to predict it, simply does not exist, and can't be at all reliably anticipated.  He suggests that our western paradigms (as opposed to eastern, Buddhist or Taoist paradigms) are terminally focused on falsehoods, things that no longer are, or things that don't yet exist.

Arguing that our "egoic mind"--the false sense of self we derive from our thoughts--is the source of all this, he offers suggestions on how to disengage from that identity and simply be present in the now.  Among these are--oddly--"mindfulness," an ill-termed moniker for attentiveness and connection to the five senses in a deep way.  I rarely notice what it feel like to actually breathe, to feel the oxygen fill my lungs and get ferried off to every corner of my body, a constant refreshing that is done independent of my conscious thought.  I rarely concentrate on the ambient sounds--the hum of the computer or the whir of the heater in my apartment, for example.  I never check in with my body to see what it feels like to have the cotton of my t-shirt rest against my chest, or to feel my heart beat, or to smell my newly-vacuumed carpet, or taste the residual mint post-tooth brushing.  While sight is our most commonly used sense, I rarely notice the beautiful, irregular complexity in the patterns wood grains sketch across the top of my desk.  All this to say that if I'm utilizing these senses, in the most literal way being sensual, neither the future nor past is at all concerning.

In simpler vernacular, Tolle's viewpoints are really a fresh view on the Chinese-Buddhist philosophy of zen, which is defined by the regrettable website as: "A state of focus that incorporates a total togetherness of body and mind. Zen is a way of being. It also is a state of mind. Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts."

Sparked in part by Tolle, and fed by other thinkers like Dr. Jon Kabat Zin who authored an amazing book called "Full Catastrophe Living," mindfulness and Tolle's version of zen have been gaining momentum in western thought, even being vindicated by scientific study. Time magazine's most recent cover addressed the subject well, and books by the dozens are adding their voice to the movement.

By the end of Tolle's book, I was a disciple.  While I don't buy every word wholesale, I feel that I have been vastly benefited by the counsel it offered.  Moreover, it meshes so well with my own spiritual beliefs (another post for another day, perhaps), that it has been very easy to fold into my daily life.  I now make an effort, among other daily habits, to meditate ten minutes a day.  The effect has been staggering.  I'm more at peace with life now than I've ever been.  I'm more grateful and happy much of the time.  And, at least when I'm actively applying the principles, I'm always at peace.

One day while in the middle of a stranger's colon, I casually asked Dr. Sandhu if he'd read the book.  He gasped, looked away from the screen and peered at me, his eyes flashed with the excited zeal I've come to recognize.  Dr. Sandhu and I had respectively stumbled into a new fixation at the same time.  We have since been eagerly discussing the application of thoughtfulness as taught by Tolle, Zinn, and others.  To the consternation of any nurse unfortunate enough to work with us, Dr. Sandhu and I talk excitedly--with frustration at times because we both have so much we want to say--about being zen, and now, and mindful, and at peace.  Who knew that you could be zen during a colonoscopy?  I have Eckhart Tolle, Jeff Harris, Natalie Thorsen, and Iqbal Sandhu to thank for that.

1 comment:

  1. Love this. You already downloaded this book on my Ipad. I started listening to it on the cruise. (GREAT place to get "Zen") Keep writing. I love reading your blog.