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Embracing Presence: Lessons Learned at Eckhart Tolle's Retreat

Raman Mittal: Co-Founder of Idanim
by Raman Mittal




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Lessons from Eckhart Tolle's retreat.

I would say this, I would say that, I would do this, I would do that when I will meet Eckhart Tolle who I consider one of my teachers. When I first learned about Eckhart Tolle's physical retreat taking place in Canada, I thought my time had come to meet one of my greatest teachers. Little did I anticipate the challenges that would hit my way on this journey. The retreat registration opened up just 5-6 days before I eagerly signed up, only to discover that all the seats had already been filled. I pleaded with their support team but they could not do anything. When I had made peace with it that it is not meant to be, I got a mail that a few seats have opened up due to cancelations. Without wasting a moment, I swiftly registered within 15 minutes of receiving that fortunate message. However, fate had yet another surprise in store for me. My visa application, which I had assumed would be a mere formality as a frequent traveler, was unexpectedly rejected. I found myself at a loss, unable to comprehend the reason behind this setback. Perhaps it was an error on the part of my travel agent, I speculated. Determined not to surrender to defeat, I resubmitted the application myself, fully aware of the slim chances of success after a rejection. Time was running out, with my scheduled departure on the 17th of May, and miraculously, my visa was granted on the 15th of May.

It was a great retreat and I had many moments of intense presence and silence during the retreat. I also had some insights during the retreat that deepened my silence and I thought of putting them down here:

Meditation as a means to an end

Meditation is a means to attain something in the future for many, if not all, of us. I too have fallen into this trap (maybe for years), practising meditation with the mistaken belief that it would lead me to a utopian state devoid of pain, challenges, worries, and fears. I still fall into this trap sometimes. Meditation can never be a means to an end. It only bears fruit if it is an end itself. It is a technique/practice to calm our monkey minds. It is a practice to free our attention which is possessed by our never-ending thoughts and experience the stillness within us. It is a practice to be in the present moment. It is a practice to feel our deeper self which can ONLY happen in NOW when we are out of our thought (maybe just for a very few moments). When we approach meditation with the intention of reaching a future state, we inadvertently defeat its purpose which is to bring us back into the present moment. I have myself experienced it so many times when there is nowhere to be reached then I do end up experiencing a silent, still, blissful, infinite space. On the contrary, when the focus is to attain a certain state (which is always the future) or there is resistance to the present moment which may not be pleasant sometimes, my meditation practice turns out to be a mechanical activity without any essence or stillness.

Whole attention on results

Many of us, including myself, tend to get too attached to the results fixated on specific outcomes. When those desired results fail to materialize, it often leads to suffering in the form of sadness, anger, worry, and disappointment. One might argue (I have done that) what is wrong with just focusing on results (this is what is taught in the corporate world). The only issue is that when we attach our peace and happiness to a certain outcome, it leads to deep suffering in the wake of undesired/unexpected outcomes. There is nothing wrong with wanting a certain outcome. Chances of success are in fact higher if the attention is on doing and not worrying about results. Also, when we don’t accept a certain outcome and keep on ruminating about an expected outcome then we inadvertently close ourselves off to the opportunities that life presents.

I had booked a tour of the Glacier after my retreat and I really was looking forward to that tour. I had extended my stay (after making a lot of adjustments to my entire itinerary) just for this tour. Guess what, my check-out process took a lot of time and I missed my bus by 5 minutes. I initially was very disappointed but then I let it go. I can tell it was an absolutely beautiful day. A deep sense of peace and presence dawned upon me. I can tell if I had not let go of my disappointment and surrendered to that moment, I would not have felt such peace.

I can also relate to it with the way we work at TO THE NEW. Most of the leadership team at TO THE NEW has a deep focus on doing and we learn, iterate and evolve from the results of our doing. We don’t always get the desired results and I do believe that life has been over-generous to us.

Na Raag, Na Dhwesh (no attachment, no resistance)

My first teacher used to say this in his guided meditation “Na Raag, Na Dhwesh”. I intellectually knew what it means but very few times I could experience and implement it. It is actually the same point as “whole attention on results”. This is also same as one of the most popular shlokas of Geeta “Karmanye vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhur Ma Te Sango Stv Akarmani”. I had one question that I wanted from Eckhart Tolle during the retreat. In fact, I have been wanting to ask it for many years now. There was some time allocated for questions in each session and the volunteers used to choose whose question to pick up. I would raise my hand every time, but my turn never came up. I was disappointed with it after it happened for 4-5 times. A sudden realization struck me: perhaps it wasn't meant to be answered just yet. Maybe the right time had not arrived for my question. The moment I let go, I was at peace. I did raise my hand in subsequent sessions but I was not disappointed for not getting a chance. And my question did get answered. Exactly the same question was asked by somebody else in the very next session.

One breath is good enough

They say that one conscious breath is all it takes to come back to the present moment. I like to sit for a longer duration when I sit for meditation. I never enjoyed sitting for just 5-10 minutes. It is of course better if one is able to sit in silence for a longer duration but what is more important is to keep coming back to the present moment throughout the day. It is much better to have many small moments of mindfulness throughout the day as compared to just one long sit in the morning. And one conscious breath is indeed what it takes to come back to the present. So, people who don't do meditation because of the paucity of time need not spare a lot of time. Anyone can bring their attention to the present moment and one conscious breath is all it takes. Having said that, I still feel if you spare some time for a formal practice then it will just help you come back to NOW with more ease.

Getting attached to your practice/teacher

This is one mistake that many practitioners do. This is also the reason Eckhart Tolle DOES NOT teach any formal way of meditation. Many practitioners get attached to a particular technique of meditation or their own teacher. They start deriving their sense of self (ego) from their teacher/practice/technique, for example, my teacher is the best or my technique is the best. I personally can relate to it very intimately. I used to feel the same that my teacher and his practices are the only right way to practice meditation/spirituality. It took a lot of pain and courage to let go of that identification. I sincerely feel that I have gained much wisdom and depth after letting go of my identification with my teacher. I still respect him and follow his teachings/meditations but I don't derive my sense of self out of it. Having said that, you will always find that one technique will resonate more with you. It is absolutely fine to practice it more often or solely focus on that technique, as long as you don't attach your ego to it. As many spiritual masters say, you also have to let go of meditation at the end. As the famous story goes, only when Gautam Buddha relinquished all the practices and then only he became enlightened.

Love the pain to its death

When the pain-body triggers, it needs complete attention: For the uninitiated, the pain-body is our past emotional pain/trauma stored in our body that manifests itself in the form of very unpleasant emotions like anger, fear, grief, anxiety, etc. I would recommend reading "The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle" for a better understanding. All of us have experienced it that we sometimes get triggered by something very trivial (sometimes by a naive remark by somebody) and completely lose control of ourselves. We get possessed by deep emotional pain and it drives us like a puppet till it subsides. This is of course very unpleasant and we want to get out of it. Similarly, sometimes in your meditation practice, you would have noticed some deep pain or discomfort (contrary to your expectations of only having a great experience during your meditation practice). This pain was already in you and it comes to the forefront during meditation to express itself, to get your love & attention, for the completion. It does not help to ignore it. The trick (or call it liberation) is not to shoo it away but experience it fully in its entirety. When we give our full attention to it while fully accepting it, the pain transmutes itself to peace. As Eckhart Tolle puts it, darkness can not stand light. It is true that it may be deeply painful and discomforting but it requires our complete attention. I have experienced it so many times that when I resist my pain, it keeps on creating havoc (sometimes for many days); and when I allow it to be when I listen to it with all my attention/care/love/surrender, it often dissolves (sometimes instantaneously).

The trap of spiritual ego

One important aspect Eckhart Tolle emphasized was the need to be cautious of the spiritual ego, which can be quite subtle. Many of us may have encountered practitioners who perceive themselves as "more pious" or "pure" simply because they engage in spiritual practices or practice meditation. I could personally relate to this. I observed it happening within myself, where I unknowingly fell into the trap of considering myself superior and viewing others as ego-driven individuals (unaware of my own entanglement in that superiority complex, which is nothing more than another ego trap).

My journey into spirituality and meditation began in 2009 when I attended a retreat. It was a transformative experience that brought me a newfound sense of peace, unlike anything I had ever felt before. I was committed to that institution for 4-5 years before I changed my path when I felt that the teacher, as well as practitioners (including myself), have started thinking about ourselves as the most pious, pure, and true seekers/practitioners. I would never know whether I did right or wrong but I could clearly see myself deriving a very subtle (but deep) sense of ego from that institution often looking at others as lesser beings.