Can you truly know yourself? A penetrating inward reflection on this question may reveal its misleading nature. If there is you, then who is yourself that you want to know? As you keep looking deeper, you may notice that you’ve created an image of yourself in your mind. An image that you believe to be you.
It’s one of the questions that Eckhart Tolle explores in The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment which, since its publication in 1997, has become one of the most influential spiritual books of our time. Following a lifelong struggle with anxiety, depression, and eventual moment of inner awakening that he experienced at the age of twenty-nine, Eckhart Tolle has been teaching how to achieve vibrantly alive inner peace through the cultivation of the power of Presence, the awakened state of consciousness which transcends ego and discursive thinking.
Here’s how he describes the process of ego-formation:
As you grow up, you form a mental image of who you are, based on your personal and cultural conditioning. We may call this phantom self the ego. It consists of mind activity and can only be kept going through constant thinking. The term ego means different things to different people, but when I use it here it means a false self, created by unconscious identification with the mind.
Its basic disfunction, Eckhart Tolle continues, lies in its inability to be fully in the now: it always perceives things through the distortion of past and future:
To the ego, the present moment hardly exists. Only past and future are considered important. … It is always concerned with keeping the past alive, because without it — who are you? It constantly projects itself into the future to ensure its continued survival … “One day, when this, that, or the other happens, I am going to be okay, happy, at peace.
Having learned this, we may feel the need to understand the workings of our mind better, but this, Eckhart Tolle insists, is a futile endeavor:
The problems of the mind cannot be solved on the level of the mind. Once you have understood the basic dysfunction, there isn’t really much else that you need to learn or understand. Studying the complexities of the mind may make you a good psychologist, but doing so won’t take you beyond the mind, just as the study of madness isn’t enough to create sanity.
The key to liberation, he continues, lies in the present moment, the only place where we can find out true self rooted in Being:
So once you recognize the root of unconsciousness as identification with the mind, which of course includes the emotions, you step out of it. You become present. When you are present, you can allow the mind to be as it is without getting entangled in it. The mind in itself is not dysfunctional. It is a wonderful tool. Dysfunction sets in when you seek your self in it and mistake it for who you are. It then becomes the egoic mind and takes over your whole life.