Apotheosis—The Hero's Journey Leads to Nirvana

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "A New Earth" by Eckhart Tolle. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is it so hard to simply be in the present moment? Why do we always seek to drown the present in thinking and activity?

If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you should know how hard it is to simply be in the present moment. When you have nothing to do, the mind begins to invent all kinds of scenarios, which rarely lead anywhere good. According to spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, we resist the present because we are caught up in the endless cycle of wanting—no matter what we have, we will always want more.

Here’s why the mind wants to escape the present moment, according to Eckhart Tolle.

The Endless Cycle of Wanting

In his book A New Earth, Tolle explains that because of the endless cycle of wanting, humans are only able to experience the present moment in one of three dysfunctional ways:

  1. As a bridge to a future moment. This is when the only value of the present moment is to reach something better in the future. This state makes us feel bored and discontent.
    1. For example, you may be enduring a business meeting by thinking about the dinner party you’re going to after.
  2. As a barrier or obligation. This is when we actively dislike what we’re doing, but we have to do it to get what we want. This results in impatience, frustration, and stress. 
    1. For example, you hate your current job and dread it the entire day, but you do it anyway because it’s the only way to make an income and get a better job in the future.
  3. As an antagonist. This is the worst state to be in—when we see our reality as inherently evil and against us. This state most commonly results from negative thoughts provided by our pain-body, like “nothing good ever happens to me,” and results in the emotional reactions that cause us to see the present as an enemy.
    1. For example, you wake up with a dead phone, miss the bus to work, and forget your lunch at home, all while fuming and complaining that it’s “just my luck because nothing good ever happens to me.” You consequently feel anger and resentment towards life.

Doing Is Preventing Us From Being in the Present

Psychologists explain that being mindful in the present moment is the key to relieving dissatisfaction and anxiety, but that our thinking mind (what Tolle calls the voice of the ego) prevents us from being mindful. They suggest that some reasons we find it difficult to be in the present moment are:

1. We’re distracted by other things we can be doing. For example, we’re responding to a text, drinking alcohol to reach a state of intoxication, watching a movie to keep busy, and so on. We, therefore, see the present as a bridge to something else we can do in the future and also as a barrier to a more pleasurable activity.

2. We’re narrating and explaining the present moment in our minds. We do this by either thinking about past experiences and comparing them to the present or thinking about how we’ll explain what’s going on right now to someone in the future. When we’re preparing to explain ourselves to someone in the future, we’re essentially viewing the present as a bridge—the future explanation is more important than what’s happening now.

3. We’re obsessed with finding meaning. Instead of simply absorbing what’s happening, we’re focused on three questions: why is this happening, what does this say about me or my life, and what do I need to do about this. Ultimately, experts explain, this happens because we don’t trust the present moment and fear what will happen if we’re not in control. In this state, we may be seeing the present as either a bridge, a barrier, an antagonist, or even all three at once. We may be finding meaning in the present because we’re telling ourselves it’s necessary to get somewhere else in the future (a bridge or barrier), or we’re trying to prepare because we’re afraid that something bad will happen and the moment will turn against us (an antagonist).

Why Is It So Difficult to Be in the Present Moment?

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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