“In normal everyday usage, “I” embodies the primordial error, a misperception of who you are, an illusory sense of identity. This is the ego,” writes Eckhart Tolle in his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. “This illusory sense of self is what Albert Einstein, who had deep insights not only into the reality of space and time but also into human nature, referred to as “an optical illusion of consciousness.”
When we start our meditation practice, for many of us it’s astonishing to realize that we live with a constant inner dialogue. It’s not that we didn’t notice it before, but that we were unaware of it being there as a separate entity, the ego. This is what Eckhart Tolle calls being spiritually unconscious. Majority of people, when told there is a voice in their head that never stops talking, say, “What voice?” or deny it altogether. They do not recognize that is the voice, is the thinker, is the unobserved mind speaking through them at that very moment. So what does it mean to be awake for the first time? It’s a brief moment we become disidentified from our thoughts and experience a shift in identity from being the content of the mind to being the awareness behind it. It happens in various ways and comes in a number of forms to different people. What follows is an account of Eckhart Tolle’s own experience presented here as an audio and text excerpt. Please enjoy:
THE VOICE IN THE HEAD
by Eckhart Tolle
That first glimpse of awareness came to me when I was a first-year student at the University of London. I would take the tube (subway) twice a week to go to the university library, usually around nine o’clock in the morning, toward the end of the rush hour. One time a woman in her early thirties sat opposite me. I had seen her before a few times on that train. One could not help but notice her. Although the train was full, the seats on either side of her were unoccupied, the reason being, no doubt, that she appeared to be quite insane. She looked extremely tense and talked to herself incessantly in a loud and angry voice.
She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she was totally unaware, it seemed, of other people or her surroundings. Her head was facing downward and slightly to the left, as if she were addressing someone sitting in the empty seat next to her. Although I don’t remember the precise content, her monologue went something like this: “And then she said to me … so I said to her you are a liar how dare you accuse me of … when you are the one who has always taken advantage of me I trusted you and you betrayed my trust….” There was the angry tone in her voice of someone who has been wronged, who needs to defend her position lest she become annihilated.
As the train approached Tottenham Court Road Station, she stood up and walked toward the door with still no break in the stream of words coming out of her mouth. That was my stop too, so I got off behind her. … My curiosity aroused, I decided to follow her as long as she was walking in the same general direction I had to go in. … Soon we were within sight of the imposing structure of Senate House, a 1930s high-rise, the university’s central administrative building and library. I was shocked. Was it possible that we were going to the same place? Yes, that’s where she was heading. Was she a teacher, a student, an office worker, a librarian? Maybe she was some psychologist’s research project. I never knew the answer. …
I was still thinking about her when I was in the men’s room prior to entering the library. As I was washing my hands, I thought: I hope I don’t end up like her. The man next to me looked briefly in my direction, and I suddenly was shocked when I realized that I hadn’t just thought those words, but mumbled them aloud. “Oh my God, I’m already like her,” I thought. Wasn’t my mind as incessantly active as hers? There were only minor differences between us. The predominant underlying emotion behind her thinking seemed to be anger. In my case, it was mostly anxiety. She thought out loud. I thought — mostly — in my head. If she was mad, then everyone was mad, including myself. There were differences in degree only.
Complement this particular portion of A New Earth, a must-read for any spiritual seeker, with Eckhart Tolle on the true self rooted in being, three mental habits that make us unhappy, what boredom can teach about us who we are and who are not, and three powerful ways to overcome challenges in life.