“Practicing Presence in Paradise”
By Joyce Tate Dvoren
The 50-mph winds beat the green plastic walls of our tent-chalet. The poled structure sways and slaps against our twin beds, threatening collapse, or worse, a tumble down our Costa Rica hilltop. Our pain-bodies awaken, our minds conjure monsters from the past and imagine new ones. That is when we allow our thoughts to take over. Otherwise, it’s just turbulence, a condition our retreat leader, Eckhart Tolle, refers to many times during our weeklong stay.
My husband, Ken, and I are 5200 feet above sea level, 20 minutes from San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital. Our temporary home is Villas Pura Vida, a 12-acre yoga retreat center surrounded by a coffee plantation, fern farm, and the Alajuela valley. Named after a familial Costa Rica greeting, Pura Vida means “pure life.” Like “namaste,” its Sanskrit brother, it signifies acceptance and oneness, which is what we are here to practice.
Ken and I love to travel. Combining outer explorations with inner searching has always appealed to us more than just “sight-seeing.” We had read Eckhart Tolle’s amazing book, “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,” and were eager to practice its seemingly easy techniques. We also wanted to visit Costa Rica. When we learned Eckhart had scheduled a retreat there at the end of January, we added our names to a long waiting list. Within a few weeks, a space had opened in the couples’ dorm, then in a more private, yet rustic tent-chalet.
Spending a weekend or longer with other spiritual “seekers” is my idea of a great vacation. But beneath my need for a spiritual respite lies a deeper longing to find a practice that I can take home and use in my daily life. One that will help me breathe deeply into my frustrations, embrace my bodily changes, and allow for other myriad life disappointments. A practice that will teach me not only that acceptance is the way to a peaceful, joyful life, but one that shows me how to do it! So far, my understanding has been mainly theoretical; my periodic attempts at embracing the now have been frustrated by the difficulty of the practice.
Our retreat began at 10:00 on Sunday morning. Our elfish leader entered Ananda Hall, dressed in freshly-pressed cottons and his signature vest. Before each session, Eckhart silently honored each one of us with a nod and a glance into his loving, luminescent eyes. When he spoke, his English/German accent was eloquent and soothing. Each word seemed carefully selected, yet he claimed the words were unimportant. More important was the care with which he delivered them and the silent spaces between the words, as he set the tone for practicing presence — the theme of our 10 sessions with him.
Like many spiritual masters, Eckhart’s awakening was sudden and dramatic and followed a period of intense suffering. Soon after his 29th birthday, he awoke in his usual state of anxiety. “I cannot live with myself any longer,” he thought repeatedly. He became aware of another thought. Was he one or two? “If ‘I’ cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.”
Because his witnessing was so total, his mind stopped. He was fully conscious, yet there were no more thoughts. He was then sucked into a “vortex of energy,” where he heard the words “resist nothing” inside his chest. Something made him trust this voice, and he surrendered to it. Instantly, all fear, all pain, as well as any remnants of his former life, dissolved. Eckhart lost everything: His prestigious position as a research scholar at Cambridge, his home, his friends, and the support of his family. They all thought he was mad, and they weren’t far off, as he had indeed lost his (identity with) mind. For two years, Eck-hart inhabited park benches in a state of “total bliss.” During this time, his basic needs were always met; someone would offer him food, or a job, and he always said “yes.” He spent another eight years integrating his experience and studying the teachings of other spiritual masters (among them Buddha, Jesus, Krishnamurti, and Ananda) before adopting a new identity — that of spiritual teacher.
Although he claims to have no “technique,” his offerings parallel mindfulness practices of Zen and Vipassana. (Eckhart teases that mindfulness is a misnomer; it should be named “mindlessness.”)
“The single most important step in achieving enlightenment,” he says, “is to learn to dis-identify with the mind.” In order to move beyond the mind, we first pay close attention to it. We witness our thoughts and emotions as they arise, paying particular attention to repetitive patterns. The more we practice bringing presence (conscious attention) to whatever is occurring now without judgment, the more easily we can accept the current condition of our lives. As we practice acceptance, presence automatically arises, and growth occurs organically, without effort.
To build presence muscles, Eckhart encourages us to practice being the noticer when the stakes are low. The lush grounds of Villas Pura Vida offer wonderful opportunities for practice. The lazy comfort of a swaying hammock. The soft belly of a pet Toucan. Succulent fruits and vivid rainbows. Soul-stirring sunsets viewed from the top of the water tower. The intensity of Ken’s and my lovemaking as we focus on each delicious sensation.
Even though I was in paradise with a man I love, I did experience arousals of what Eckhart has dubbed the “pain-body.” Whenever I was judging my fellow retreatants for being too loud or too something else, or whenever I was judging myself for judging them. Ken experienced frequent eruptions. He has difficulty sitting still for more than a few minutes, and during the two daily 90-minute sessions, his pain-body screamed for relief. Sometimes he was able to bring in loving attention and acceptance; other times he took it for a walk.
The “pain-body” is an energetic field of trapped energy that, like a cancer cell, has split off and taken on a life of its own. It is comprised of stored emotional pain from the past and present pain created by our resistance to what is. Sometimes it is dormant, and sometimes it is active. When triggered, it is a hungry devil that surfaces for “feeding” of more pain. If we bring the conscious presence of detached observation to the pain-body in its early arousal, it will do its dramatic dance and then simmer back down into dormancy. If it rushes to the surface, as with anger, or if we feed it with like-minded thoughts, then we lose consciousness and identify as what Eckhart calls the “unhappy me.”
In addition to our individual pain-bodies, we also tune into a collective pain-body. Women are generally more in touch with their pain-bodies than men. During our menstrual cycle, we may experience them as wild emotional fluctuations, cramps (resistance to the flow of life), and a general lowering of self-esteem. This collective female pain-body can also be the most powerful tool for transmutation, says Eck-hart, if we know how to use it. If we become very alert at the first sign of irritation, if we fully “inhabit” our bodies, we will not lose our power, and thus feed the collective female unconsciousness. The more we can sit with our inner and outer turbulence, the more quickly we will transcend the victim identity and experience our true roles as conscious, powerful women.
A partner or a close friend can play a pivotal role. Ken has helped me to move through my pain-body attacks just by holding a space of intense presence. Because he is willing to participate fully in my spiritual growth (and thus his own), he can usually witness my temporary insanity without fueling it with his own. As with our egos, we cannot eliminate our pain-bodies. We can only transform them through gentle observance. By bringing attention to our thoughts and emotions as they arise, we soften their intensity much like a mother comforts a crying baby. And with consistent practice, the pain-body will gradually fade until it no longer carries enough intensity to threaten our peace of mind. How long does it take? That depends upon the intensity of our pain-bodies and the consistency of our practice, says Eck-hart. But he claims to have observed people with very active pain-bodies diminish their intensity by 80-90% within two years.
There are three main levels to this practice:
1. Immediately embrace whatever arises in the now. Surrender fully into the current situation, allowing it to be just as it is.
2. If this is not possible, say “yes” to whatever feeling is associated with the denial. Thus, the feeling will stay a feeling and not become identified as the unhappy self.
3. If you bypass levels one and two, just accept the unhappiness. Don’t wallow in it, or identify with it; just watch the machinations of the “unhappy me.” Allow yourself to feel afraid and miserable, and it will shift on its own.
For two weeks following the retreat, I practiced presence. When a driver cut me off on the freeway, I was able to watch the serpent-like arousal of my pain-body. I noticed how it felt in my body — as tightness in my chest, or as pain between my eyes.
Then more potent triggers showed up. I got the flu. Ken’s and my pain-bodies battled each other. And my ego fueled my misery with mental criticisms like, “you should be more spiritual….” Slowly, I became my drama, and I lapsed into old resist-it or fix-it patterns in a desperate search for relief. Finally, exhausted by all the efforting, I surrendered. I fell back onto my bed, closed my eyes, and watched my own movie. As I was able to just observe my patterns, my heart softened around them, and my pain-body made a hasty retreat.
This practice requires commitment and persistence. But the payoffs are worth it. When I review my life, I notice that the times I was most happy, the times when my life seemed to flow effortlessly, were also the times I was able to take a very deep breath, to surrender, to say “yes” to the moment.
It seems almost paradoxical, yet when your inner dependency on form is gone, the general conditions of your life tend to improve greatly. Things, people, or conditions that you thought you needed for your happiness now come to you with no struggle or effort, and you are free to enjoy and appreciate them — while they last. All those things, of course, will still pass away, cycles will come and go, but with dependency gone there is no fear of loss anymore. Life flows with ease. (reprinted with permission from www.EckhartTolle.com)
For information on yoga and other retreats at Villas Pura Vida, visit www.puravidaspa.com , or contact R & R Resorts, P.O. Box 1496, Conyers, GA 30012. Please call (888) 767-7375, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org For further information on Eckhart Tolle’s retreats, or to order, “The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment” or audio tapes from his retreats, please visit www.eckharttolle.com or www.namastepublishing.com , or write to: Namaste Publishing Inc., P.O. Box 62084, Vancouver, BC , Canada V6J IZI. Tel. (604)224-3179, Fax (604)224-3354, or e-mail: email@example.com
Joyce Tate Dvoren is a freelance writer, editor and Reiki Master who lives in Santa Monica, California, with her husband, Ken, and two felines. Her inspirational articles have appeared in such magazines as “Unity,” “Science of Mind,” “Miracles,” “Love & Forgiveness,” “Whole Life Times,” and the “Los Angeles Times.”
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