For the past few weeks, I have been enjoying the “Tolle Afterglow”. For 5 days in June, 2015, I had the privilege of attending a Retreat for Helping Professionals offered by Eckhart Tolle. I was very curious and eager to learn if some of Tolle’s ideas could be utilized in my teaching and clinical practice with families suffering with serious illness and to my personal life as well. I believe I was open to Tolle’s ideas because I have long believed that suffering opens the door to the spiritual domain.
The Helping Professionals (the participants):
Some 600 “helping professionals” (not health professionals) were in attendance from 25 countries. Despite most participants being familiar with Tolle’s ideas in his two internationally renowned books (The Power of Now and A New Earth); his Webinar with Oprah Winfrey in 2009; the EckhartTolleTV.com and YouTube video clips, we still believed there was more we could learn from him. And he did not disappoint or more accurately, perhaps we did not disappoint ourselves. But familiarity with his written ideas or listening to his DVD’s could not begin to match the learning context that he created for this retreat nor his engaging, humble yet powerful presence.
The Larger Context: the setting was idyllic for creating a retreat from one’s usual life. It was held at Asilomar Conference Grounds, Pacific Grove, California located just a short walk from the Pacific Ocean. But it was not a typical beach landscape but rather one with small and large sand dunes; determined flowers growing within the sand dunes; and carefully constructed boardwalks so as to protect the beach’s treasures and beauties.
Opportunities to enjoy walks by the ocean between sessions were plentiful. The accommodations were substantially spread out in modest buildings so that it never felt crowded despite the number of participants. No televisions or phones were in the rooms. Healthy food choices were efficiently provided each day in the large dining room. You could chose to talk or sit at tables with “silence” banners.
The Tolle Content: I simply cannot do justice to discuss or summarize 5 days of content that Tolle offered at the retreat and his numerous pearls of spiritual wisdom. But what I would like to offer is a few of Tolle’s ideas and/that can be applied to family nursing.
The Tolle Takeaways: Application to Family Nursing
1. Creating silence and presence: one of our key concepts in family nursing is learning how to engage in a relationship with patients and families, with the ultimate goal of creating a context for change to soften suffering. Tolle beautifully drew us into a relationship with him by first having us experience silence. He requested that there be no talking once we entered the conference room. So there we sat, some 600 people, not chatting to one another as is the norm while waiting for a speaker but just being. We became one collective presence and when Tolle would arrive for each session and begin speaking, we were much more present and focused with him.
This is clearly something we can implement in our own practice by simply inviting ourselves to moments of silence before beginning a family interview to quiet our minds and be more fully present and attentive to hear stories of illness suffering.
2. Sticking with the facts: another useful Tolle idea for application in clinical practice is distinguishing “the story” from “the facts”. Too often our patients/families create an unhelpful story from the facts. The facts are normally the particular illness or condition with which they have been diagnosed. But then stories unfold around these conditions that are most often unhelpful, negative, and victim based about their illness. In the context of illness, these stories invite suffering rather than dealing with the facts and responding accordingly. This is similar to the idea that I recently wrote in a paper about brain science and illness beliefs, specifically, that the brain has a negativity bias. (Wright, L. M. (2015). Brain science and illness beliefs: An unexpected explanation of the healing power of therapeutic conversations and the family interventions that matter. Journal of Family Nursing, 21(2), 186-205. doi:10.1177/1074840715575822)
Tolle’s powerful comment that we don’t have to believe our thoughts or at least not take them so seriously, can be a very empowering notion. It enables us to assist others in their illness journey in by engaging in a more hopeful and healing relational practice. In other words, we need to stick to the facts and help family members (and ourselves) to resist creating unhelpful, negative stories about the cause and/or impact of a particular illness.
3: Inviting acceptance of ‘what is”: my experience in clinical practice is that suffering with serious illness often invites a spiritual awakening. I’ve also gleaned that suffering is enhanced or softened by the illness beliefs that we hold (www.illnessbeliefsmodel.com). In my clinical practice, I make conscious efforts to attend to the suffering of family members; explore their illness beliefs that may be enhancing the suffering; and ask who in the family is suffering the most. However, Tolle’s ideas expanded my understanding of suffering in the context of illness.
For example, Tolle would offer comments such as: “You can’t argue with what is, with what you are experiencing. Well, you can, but if you do, you suffer more.” In other words, Tolle offers the useful notion that frequently our suffering arises from resisting “what is”. Comments such as “I haven’t been a bad person, therefore it’s not fair that I have this illness; or “If only I had not been so stressed with my work, this heart attack would not have happened.” These comments are based on illness beliefs that are focused on the past that invariably invites suffering. Or alternatively, patients and families often make comments about the future: “how will we be able to care for Mother at home?” or “how is he going to work now with this disability?”. The questions about the future also tend to invite suffering.
If one can stay in the present moment, even with an experience of serious illness, accepting ‘what is’, rather than focusing on the past or future, there is no suffering. If action needs to be taken with a particular issue with regard to managing the illness, the idea or inspiration for solutions will come from a peaceful state rather than one of suffering and angst. This may sound idealistic but I have witnessed this in my own practice but did not previously conceptualize how resistance is such a large part of the experience of suffering related to one’s constraining beliefs. Resistance stifles inspiration!
In summary, I hope the Tolle glow will continue for awhile longer. There is a peacefulness In the embracing of his ideas; an increased desire to be more compassionate; and more appreciation and inclination for living in the present moment. As Tolle would say, the present moment is all we have. In the interim, the challenge to myself is to live more present focused in my daily life and enjoy the freedom that comes from not believing all my thoughts!