The book The Power of Now has sold millions of copies and has been translated into 52 languages. Eckhart Tolle, author and spiritual teacher (the Watkins Review named him “the most spiritually influential person in the world"), promises peace from emotional suffering by continually being engaged in the present moment.
But what if I do not want to distance myself from those painful emotions? What if tapping into them is a more helpful way to find peace?
I'd have to say, of all the methods that can be used (or misused) to avoid unpleasant emotions—what I call emotional bypassing—this one takes the cake. To sit at the feet of Eckhart Tolle is to be in the presence of an ascended master. It is difficult to describe the unique quality of someone apparently in such a state of peace.
After his famous spiritual awakening he wrote, "...I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or ‘beingness,’ just observing and watching."
That is the dream of complete serenity that he is offering. However, I’ve found that we can have peace that passes understanding without necessarily having to disconnect from our emotions, ourselves, or adopt a new spiritualism.
In my new book, Give a F*ck, Actually: Reclaim Yourself with the 5 Steps of Radical Emotional Acceptance, I offer an alternative roadmap based purely on science and psychology.
Here are three ways that Radical Emotional Acceptance (REA), an action-oriented framework for embracing your emotions, can give you the peace of The Power of Now without compromising yourself.
Sad Emotions Are Not the Problem
Tolle talks about a very painful depression in his origin story; he got to the point that he simply could not go on, and I take that very seriously. As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, I help people with intense sadness to the point of having suicidal thoughts or even plans on a daily basis. While being careful to take into account their entire biological, psychological and social situation, more often than not, I find at the heart of their struggle is a problem with their relationship to their own emotions.
We all have emotions of sadness or disappointment that come and go. It can be an obvious knee-jerk reaction to want to simply get rid of them and somehow just be happy all of the time. This can become a pathology in its own right when it is supported by a family history and a culture offering endless methods to avoid or fix or work through the sadness as if it is the disease. But what if emotions in the "sad category" simply have a special purpose to play to help us in our lives?
When sharing his own bouts with depression, actor Jim Carrey spoke about an alternative to being "depressed" called "deep-rest" (pun intended). The symptoms of sadness, lethargy, hopelessness, anhedonia, etc., are the psyche's way of forcing us to take a break from a life pathway that’s not working out.
The flip side of every unpleasant emotion is an unmet desire. What is the sadness making you aware of? What is it that you want in life that you lost or you still have never had? Is your current lifestyle so stressful and anxiety-ridden that it has become unhealthy and bad for you?
If we can see sadness as a good friend trying to help us, we can reflect on our lives and our relationships with new insight only it can give. An important step of REA is to Listen to Your Emotions. What is this painful emotion telling you, and how can your emotional reality help you to see more clearly in order to make the best emotionally informed decisions?
Anger Is Not the Problem
One surprisingly common line I hear from patients is, "Oh, I'm not an angry person" or "I never get angry." Many of us were taught that anger is bad, and we need to somehow control it or get rid of it in our lives. I believe this is a dangerous misconception about one of our most helpful and powerful emotions.
The fact is, we are all angry people whether we realize that or not. Don't believe me? Just stub your toe really hard unexpectedly and notice the suppressed curse words trying to jump out of your mouth!
We do not choose our emotions, they happen to us just like color vision happens to us when our color radar, the cones in our retinas, pick up the light spectrum data. Our emotional radar is our sixth sense giving us priceless emotional data.
Another step in the REA framework is to Drop the Shield Emotion. Defense mechanisms or shield emotions like anger can happen whenever we have more painful, fearful, or otherwise vulnerable emotions buried deep. But before we drop the shield, we can take a moment to appreciate it. Like all of the other emotions, it is just there to try to help.
Anger is an indicator that some intense emotions are going on in the heat of the moment. It can alert us, protect us, and even make us intimidating, which can be life-saving in certain situations. While living a life always wrapped up in our defense mechanisms is definitely not healthy, they do serve an essential temporary purpose for precarious situations. Without anger we become docile pushovers not fully connected to our natural passion and power.
It is important to note that experiencing intense anger does not have to have anything to do with the behaviors that we can ultimately choose. At this stage, we are just recognizing the fiery cauldron of emotions occurring within us in real time.
Before exercising your anger, reconsider that this sacred part of yourself may have unique value you can tap into instead.
Fear and Anxiety Are Not the Problem
I find it most helpful to think of anxiety as a manifestation of fear. Fear is simply an emotion to make us aware of potential threats to our safety. I can't imagine how many anxiety disorders simply come from the needless suppression of this helpful emotion.
People who are trying to control their fear often end up ruminating and obsessing. It is like the cognitive mind has declared war on fear and is constantly spinning its wheels to get rid of this "problem."
In the final step of REA, we learn to Thank The Emotions. This is my favorite step because if we can find sincere gratitude for an emotion that plagues us, we make peace with and reclaim ourselves. Recognize that fear is simply our friend who makes us aware of pitfalls physically, practically or socially. All it wants to do is help keep us safe, so stop beating it down.
As we have seen, there is an alternative to disassociating from your ego or your sense of self in order to not suffer from emotional pain. By simply discovering that temporary emotional pain is inevitable, healthy, and ultimately good for us, there is often no longer a problem.
I've gotten a lot out of my relationship with the Tolle material, but somehow I always sensed something was missing. After years, I realized that the "problem" was the problem. Defining emotions as negative or a problem actually created this whole mess in the first place. By realizing that all emotions are somehow good, we can reclaim our emotional selves.