Presence, No Guru, Part 2

Now that I’ve excoriated Eckhart Tolle, I suppose I should flip the script and talk about the right way to do presence.

For me, that began with Thomas Sterner. A few years ago, I was reading whatever self-help books I could find. I hit all the big names at the time that I could find.

Weirdly, it was one that wasn’t recommended, one that I just found on a table at an Indigo in Toronto that ended up being my favourite.

At 137 pages, it’s hardly created in the standard mold. It’s shorter than most, and it doesn’t include any listicles and studiously avoids the kind of dogmatic over-babble of most New Age authors.

Sterner focuses on process, not product, the art of staying with whatever you are doing, being deliberate and focused and present. It encourages you to use present moment focus to settle the whirling stress of your mind and all the anxieties and relative crazy talk that can occur.

In other words, it’s exactly the same message of Eckhart Tolle, stripped of all the mystical flotsam and ego with which Tolle imbues his version.

The difference is in presentation. Tolle’s message came as a “sudden transformation” according to him. Sterner’s is born the way it is for most of us – a piece at a time, a slow learning process.

Because Tolle’s apparently came all at once, it seems when the revelation was done. He stopped, and assuming he now had the ultimate answer, forgot his humility and stopped looking. He had all the answers, and where there were holes, he just made shit up or rather, appropriated and regurgitated warmed-up Taoist or Hindu redux. You’ll notice in his books all of the questions are led, and any questions that might not be conducive to his divine knowledge are noticeably absent. The Power Of Now is filled with hubris and ego, led by a fixed mind viewpoint that believes it knows everything it needs to.

Sterner’s presence is the exact opposite. It’s based on being perfectly imperfect, in that you can only ever be who you are, where you are, so you start from there, focus on what you’re doing, and enjoy it. Everything, from learning a skill to managing stress to playing with your kids is practice. It’s engaging in the moment, in the activity, in order to grow and get better.

That starts from the assumption that we are beings in a state of incompletion, that we are forever, in our limited lifespans, in a place where we can improve our knowledge, our skills, the ways we interact with others, with the world and with ourselves. This perfection imperfection means not only that the sky is the limit, but that the sky is just one facet of existence. We have tunnels to dig, space to explore, oceans, mountains, cities, whole other celestial bodies. There are no limits.

And that shows up in the work. You never get the sense that Sterner is boasting. His revelations came as hard work. He put in the time. He put in the effort. His humility, in understanding what he’s learned and that that there is always more to learn, shines through. It’s the kind of enlightenment we could all achieve, if we put in the time, rather waiting for some mystical epiphany and absolute knowledge.

You get the sense that having written The Practicing Mind, that he could easily go back to his piano tuning and his golf lessons and his family and be perfectly content. There’s a lot of we, where Tolle’s presentation is a lot of I as perfect knowledge and you as the unenlightened one being chastised for not understanding. With Tolle, it’s I and then you, whereas with Sterner, it’s us.

Sterner’s voice never raises beyond that of a soft-spoken mentor. Tolle, like many trying to push a point of dubious origin, has to be the loudest voice in the room, shouting down his opposition.

The whole of The Practicing Mind feels like a koan, 137 pages of simple advice surrounding a handful of key concepts. Personally, I love it when simple and complex coincide. Weather is a simple idea, but it can mean a thousand different things, depending on type or circumstance. We all understand paint, but what’s been done with paint goes well beyond knowing you brush it on.

For me, that makes a better experience, and a better end result. Stripped of all the bullshit, Sterner does exactly what I’m sure Tolle set out to do, before he got lost in the weeds and tried to turn the concept into a new religion for the masses.

He switches the focus. Be here now. Do what you’re doing to enjoy it now. Do it to help improve your life, little by little, in some way, meaningful or superficial. It’s the act of improvement, of engaging in the thing with deliberate intent, deliberate immersion, deliberate presence, that makes it worthwhile.

Sterner is the perfect teacher. Humble, imperfect, learning himself, but able to impart wisdom without claiming omnisicence. He has reached a higher point on the climb and is offering a hand up, to continue on the journey with him. He doesn’t want you kneeling at his feet.

He wants you standing beside him. You can feel that. It’s about camaraderie, about cooperation and kindness and finding a life of peaceful enjoyment, of smiling with your friends and neighbours, of being with the people you love as you all ascend, together.

And that’s what I want for my life. You can leave the dogma behind.

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