Have you ever felt unhappy even when everything was fine? It’s not uncommon for discontent and sadness to come up for no reason whatsoever. While our circumstances differ, the source of this inner contradiction may be simpler than you think.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I used to feel unhappy all the time. Getting a new job, earning more money, and buying more things provided only a temporary relief. Soon after I got what I wanted, the dissatisfaction would return, sometimes even stronger than before. At the time, I couldn’t understand why all my efforts to feel better about myself ended up the same way.
In his book A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle offers an interesting perspective on this predicament, outlining three mental habits that make us unhappy.
1. Treating the Present Moment as a Means to an End
You can reveal this mental habit by conducting a simple experiment: pay attention to your state of mind in the middle of a routine activity. For example, does waiting in line make you feel impatient and frustrated? Would you do anything to make it move faster so you can get back to more important things in your day?
Eckhart Tolle calls this mental habit treating the present moment as a means to an end. You’re so busy that you have no time to stop and take a breath. Your overpacked schedule makes you perform an activity only to get to the next moment; you don’t want to be where you are right now:
To the ego, the present moment is at best only useful as a means to an end. It gets you to some future moment that is considered more important. Even though the future never comes, except as the present moment, and is therefore never more than a thought in your head. In other words, you’re never fully here, because you’re always busy trying to get elsewhere.
2. Treating the Present Moment as an Obstacle
To understand how this mental habit works, you can write down all the problems you need to solve in the next few days, weeks, or months. How important are they to you? Once you’ve written them down, take a moment to notice how they take up all your thoughts.
Eckhart Tolle calls this mental habit treating the present moment as an obstacle. When all you can think about are your problems, you leave no space for anything new to enter, no room for joy and peace. And this type of thinking perpetuates and renews itself over and over again:
‘I’ll be whatever you want me to be,’ says Life or the Now. ‘I’ll treat you the way you treat me. If you see me as a problem, I will be a problem to you. If you treat me as an obstacle, I will be an obstacle.’
3. Treating the Present Moment as an Enemy
When you don’t want to be where you are and you turn every challenging situation into a personal problem, the world becomes an unwelcome place.
Eckhart Tolle calls this mental habit treating the present moment as an enemy. In other words, you are in conflict with what is. When you are in conflict with reality, your life situation becomes frustrating and unbearable:
You are making Life into an enemy and Life says, ‘War is what you want, and war is what you get.’ And external reality which always reflects back to you your inner state is then experienced as hostile.
Whenever you feel unhappy or discontent, you need to ask yourself this question, “What is my relationship with the present moment?” And then look deep inside to find the answer.
Very often, you may find that you’re treating the present moment as a means to an end, an obstacle, or an enemy. When that happens, Eckhart Tolle tells us, we need to remember that the present moment is inseparable from Life:
This question is an excellent way of unmasking the ego in you and bringing you into the state of presence. Although the question doesn’t embody the absolute truth — ultimately, ‘I’ and the present moment are one — it is a useful pointer in the right direction. Ask yourself it often, until you don’t need it anymore.
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