I had avoided this book for a long time. Friends had recommended it to me- I ignored it. People that I admire talked about it in awe- I disregarded it. I couldn’t even exactly tell why. It had something to do with the title of the book, with its hippie-new age sound, and with the author proclaiming that he is a “spiritual leader”. I am not into spirituality, I am not trying to find God in life, nor do I believe that the attempt is a wise way to spend ones time. One evening though I had nothing better to do, so I sighed and started reading “The power of now” by Eckhardt Tolle.
I tried to be objective while reading, be open to new ideas, but the language that Tolle uses made that difficult. He talks about “overcoming the pain body”, “becoming present with your whole being” and the “god-essence” of everything on earth. His premiss that the present is the only thing we will ever experience, that past and future only exist in our mind and we therefore have to learn how to turn off our minds and be fully present to the moment was something I understood and could get on board with in theory, but I didn’t see how it applied to my personal everyday life.
I didn’t feel like the book lived up to the hype and disappointedly put it aside. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, so I jumped on my bike and cycled to a mountain nearby. To get to the top of this mountain, one had to follow a steep serpentine road for several kilometers. It isn’t quite Alpe d’Huez, but the gradient is long and steep enough to push anyone who is not a professional cyclist to his limit.
At first I cycled quite easily, sitting on the saddle, breathing only a little harder than normal, thinking about what to have for dinner later that day. The longer I cycled though, the steeper the road got. I had to get out of the saddle and felt sweat running down my temples and forehead. My breath became deeper and more paced. “Damn”, I thought, “I got this far, I won’t give up now. But I really hope I reach the top soon!”
Instead of reaching the top though, the street became even steeper. I could feel my muscles burn, my back hurt from the uncomfortable posture I was cycling in, the salty sweat was burning in my eyes. I was thirsty and exhausted, but at the same time determined to not give up. My eyes pinned on the road ahead, I dreamed of the moment when this torture would finally be over, when I would finally be able to rest and overlook the city from the top of the mountain.
A road sign announced that a hotel was just one more kilometer away. So I put all my endurance, all my willpower into reaching this hotel on top of the mountain and imagined how great it would feel to reach it. But when I finally arrived there it turned out that from the hotel it was another 500 meters to the mountain top. By this time I was completely exhausted. My legs were burning and felt numb at the same time. My breath had turned into an uncontrolled gasping. I could barely see the road through my narrowed eyes. But I wouldn’t give up.
I stopped thinking about the pain in my legs or how tired I felt. I stopped thinking about how far it still was to the top. I stopped dreaming about my reward for reaching my goal. I stopped thinking at all. All I focused on was my breath. It was the only sound I heard and the only thing that mattered. Not a single thought was on my mind, because nothing mattered. The only thing that mattered to me in that moment in time was to keep breathing and to keep pedaling, to keep moving.
I eventually reached the top and literally fell from my bike and onto a patch of grass. With closed eyes I lay there, feeling my heart racing, feeling my chest lifting and lowering, feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin and the earth under my body. And suddenly a single thought came to my mind, a thought as unexpected as shocking: “I am completely present right now.”
There, on top of the mountain, in a state of complete physical and mental exhaustion, I started to understand what Eckhardt Tolle was talking about in his book. How we have to peel away layers of unconsciousness; How we have to learn to detach from our mind; How we have to stop thinking and start being; And how that will allow us to fully appreciate the present moment.
I realized how I had started the bike tour being all in my head, thinking about food, about people, about events in the past and the future, without paying much attention to the present activity I was engaging in. But the more challenging this activity became, the more I was forced to pay attention to the present moment until, during the last part of my struggle to reach the top, I had done exactly what Eckhardt Tolle asks his readers to do during deep meditation: Breath consciously, listen to your breath, ignore every thought about the past or the future, ignore every thought whatsoever, and just be. I had allowed myself to pay attention solely to the presents of bring.
After I had cycled back to my house, I finished the book. There are still a great many parts that I simply don’t understand or wouldn’t agree with. For example, I still don’t like the big role that God plays in Tolle’s ideas. But if Tolle means the feeling I had on that mountain when he talks about becoming ‘present to the moment’, then I have to agree with him that this is something worth striving for.