Echkart Tolle explained how his spiritual awakening to his true nature beyond the mind occurred when his mental suffering became intolerable. He was severely depressed, suicidal, in total despair unable to see a way out and until he uttered the words ‘Who is this ‘I’ that I cannot live with?’ Then he paused, reflecting on the profound meaning of his words. He had discovered the inner witness that some may call the soul, who lies beyond the mind, aware of every experience, thought and emotion, yet untouched by it all. This realisation changed Tolle’s life. He woke up from the dream of identifying with his mental state and went on to (eventually) write several books and become a spiritual teacher. As far as I know he has never fallen back into unconsciousness.
His dramatic awakening is unusual in its completeness; a clear boundary between ‘before’ and ‘after.’ For most people it doesn’t work like that. The path to becoming more conscious tends to follow a rugged trajectory of peaks and troughs, consisting of periods of heightened awareness before falling back into the grip of identifying with one’s conditioned self and then, at some point, emerges the realisation of being lost in the dream of mind. Ideally, the conscious periods will lengthen and the tendency to get lost will lessen over time. However, sometimes the unconscious periods intensify as the conditioned self/ego senses it is losing its hold and will hang on to whatever it can to save itself. Eventually, for those destined to awaken in this lifetime, the ego can no longer resist the force of the soul’s desire to know itself, and it begins to dissolve. Far from being a wonderful process, it is often completely horrible. This is what is known as the ‘dark night of the soul’
My own journey has definitely followed the latter trajectory. Looking back, my awakening journey probably first started when I walked away from my marriage with an narcissist, struggling with a relapse of my physical health condition, and a profoundly disabled child in tow. Until that point I was living out my life in a state of trauma as the result of my childhood and becoming seriously unwell at university. I had improved, gone to work and had a baby, only to fall very ill again. I was sensitive, empathetic, but highly insecure and lacking in self esteem, so it was not surprising I found myself attracted to my ex’s highly magnetic stage personality. After several years of mental cruelty, I finally realised that I was worth more. I don’t know how I found the courage to leave under the circumstances, but the little girl inside me had not lost her connection to the Divine despite everything. She reminded me that I was strong and would be okay, like she had been.
And so my journey really started. I sought therapy, tried alternative treatments, focused on my life with my son. Of course it was far from easy. In many ways my life actually worsened. Like Tolle, I fell into a bad depression. I remember sitting on my back doorstep, staring at the horse chestnut tree in my then-garden, tears slipping down my face, not even having the energy to wipe them away. Someone knocked at the door wanting access to the drain in my garden, can’t remember why, but I just remember the desperation I felt for them to see me, notice my pain, take away the desperate loneliness in my heart. The overriding theme of my life and particularly at that time was loneliness. I had lost my spiritual connection. I was barely surviving. My son’s behaviour was so challenging that it took everything I had. I had little support from family and no compassion or understanding from my ex. I had carers to help with my son, and emotional support from a therapist, but I still felt very alone.
A few years later, when my son was 9, I started reading a lot of spiritual books and meditating intensely. I had dipped in and out of this over the years, but not with any serious intent. This really kickstarted the next stage of my journey. It is hard to explain exactly what happened, but I ‘opened up.’ I suddenly felt more connected to spirit than I ever had before. My dreams became more intense, often containing Christian or Buddhist imagery. I saw and felt things during meditation – lights, sensations. I no longer felt alone. This was a relief because my life was spiralling further out of control. I ended up in hospital with my illness and my son’s dad started to have our son more. It took a few more years and a court case before my son went to his dad’s full time but at that point I could finally breathe. I could find myself.
My journey has been one of coming home to myself. I realise now that there was no other way things could have gone. I could not have ‘awoken’ IN the situation I was in, but THROUGH it. I was lost in the grip of trying so hard to do the impossible – be a superhuman parent to a challenging child, while I was sick. I made a difficult decision, had to overcome a lot of hatred thrown in my direction, in order to realise that who I am goes beyond the roles that I play. I began to realise that there is something within me – in all of us – that is stronger and more real than anything in this life. Moreover, I understood the true meaning of Love: I loved my son deeply; I disliked his behaviour a lot of the time, but I loved him, and I wanted him to be where he would be cared for and safe. To love him meant making sure of that, even though many people could not understand. Also, Love meant recognising my own limits and trusting my intuition, not society’s view on what I should or shouldn’t be doing.
My spiritual journey continues. Last year was particularly tough with my son. I notice when I’m lost in thoughts about being a bad mother or even just wishing things were different. I’m only human. Spiritual perfectionism is definitely a thing, but the key is to notice – notice what’s happening, notice the resistance to what is. Tolle talks about acceptance because it’s the only thing we can do but it’s often the hardest thing to do because part of us wants to fight against what we don’t want, instinctively so. I believe I have gone through my ‘dark night of the soul’ because so much has been stripped away, yet what is real remains: the connection to my soul or to the Divine, whichever way you want to look at it, which has always existed. I may not have had an ‘eureka’ moment but in my own way I understand what Tolle was experiencing with ‘Who is this ‘I’?’ Who, indeed? All I know is that I am on my way home.