Eckhart Tolle, in his book A New Earth, points the way to a renewal of spiritual consciousness. At the core of this renewal is a refocusing away from our self-absorbed ego toward our true selves in the Now, our Source Being. Tolle contends that our ego uses thoughts to feed itself, and it generates thoughts-for-thought-sake creating an endless feedback that, for the most part, we have little or no control, distracting us from our truest spiritual center. Continuing this unconscious cycle for decades can result in internalized dysfunctional anxiety that Tolle calls the “pain body”.

As I read A New Earth, I examined my own internal processes, and I concluded that clearly Tolle’s theory applied to me. I am, like most people, a compulsive thinker, too often an anxious thinker. I’ve seen first hand the dysfunction of obsessive worry in various people close to me. There is abundant evidence in support of the destructive potential of our thoughts. But is it reasonable to apply Tolle’s theory in a purist manner, that is, with an absolute prohibition against all thought? Is that Tolle logical conclusion? Is all thinking bad or harmful or dysfunctional? Obviously not. Clearly, not thinking at all would be a catastrophic condition. It would be the ultimate in dysfunction. Therefore, at least some thinking, probably most thinking, must be a good thing. What then is good thinking, and what is bad thinking?

As I tried to sort this out, I was encouraged to find examples of productive, useful thinking in my own life. Here is a very practical example. I often pilot an airplane. As an aviator, I most wisely engage in extraordinary attention to safety. I learned and I adhere to a rigorous set of procedures and practices that assure a reasonable degree of safety before and while in flight. Prior to any flight I deliberately and closely examine the airplane’s tail to be as certain as I can that it is well attached and in good working order. Consequently, before every flight I have a conscious thought to examine the tail of the airplane. In fact, I use a rather lengthy checklist to assure that I examine and check not only the tail, but all essential working components that determine the airworthiness of the airplane. This thought process allows me to focus more freely and clearly on the “Now” of flying while I am flying.

Now, that’s very productive, useful thinking, don’t you agree?

But let us say that I complete my pre-flight checklist, start the airplane’s engine, taxi to the runway, get my clearance, and I depart the airport. As I’m cruising along at 9,000 feet above terra firma, I begin to think about that tail. I wonder just what it would be like if the tail suddenly fell off. I try to imagine the resulting sounds and the shutter of the airplane. I try to visualize how the airplane might tumble end over end, and how I might thrash around in the cockpit. I try to imagine how I might panic, scream out, and hyperventilate. I try to feel the emotions of utter fear and desperation. And I try to imagine my last thoughts just before impacting the ground. I try to visualized exactly what injuries I would sustain and the cause of my death. I might even try to visualize my body in the wreckage.

Now, unless I’m writing a horror story, this is definitely useless, non-productive thinking.

Although pilots regularly anticipate and practice their procedures to deal with malfunctions and emergency situations, it serves absolutely no useful purpose to try to imagine, visualize, and feel the terrifying details of a hopeless catastrophic tragedy. It’s especially useless while piloting the airplane. Engaging in this kind of thinking would be not only distracting to a pilot while in flight, it would clearly serve no useful purpose in assuring a safe flight. It might even create a hazard.

Sensible, knowledgeable precaution is very useful thinking. But worry, especially in wraparound screen, Technicolor, and stereo sound is a clear example of useless thought. It is the ego creating its best diversion from being in the Now, in the present.

A good, useful thought might be to check your bank account balance from time to time, if only to make certain a bill was paid, or to assure you transfer funds from your savings to cover a recent sizable expense. But to visualize the complete tragic scenario following your hypothetical scenario that someone stole your identity, bought himself or herself an island in Tahiti, emptied your account, and continued writing bad checks until you were put in jail is clearly useless, dysfunctional thinking.

A functional thought might be to safety-check your tire pressure before you leave on a long drive on an extra hot day. But to imagine the gory details of a tire blowout resulting in a tragic accident with you being thrown out of the car, run over by an eighteen-wheeler, and your mangled body found in the ditch by your cousin, the paramedic, goes far beyond any useful caution.

A good thought might be to offer to help your neighbor trim the hedge on your shared property line. But then you anxiously project onto your neighbor that he’s secretly an agent of the KGB, he’s trimming the hedge so the Russian spy satellite can keep a better eye on your private activities, and his daughter is trying to seduce your son into joining some counter-culture cult.

Senseless, vividly embellished worry leads the list of some of the most useless thinking. It’s good for neither your mind nor your body. Tolle advises that it is one of the tools of the ego to keep us focused on itself distracting us from our true selves and our spiritual wellbeing.

I realize that my examples of worried thought are a bit exaggerated. I like to be able to laugh a bit about my own senseless worry. But few of us humans are completely free of imaginative worry, and many engage in extreme worry. It can be quite addictive. Unconsciously many of us must believe that worry serves us well as an elixir or snake oil that wards off evil spirits, or at least, protects us from being blindsided by all the terrible possibilities that lurk out there under the next lose manhole cover.

Ceasar Millan, The Dog Whisperer, ( ) is famous for is dog training techniques, but he says that he rehabilitates dogs and he trains people. Most people have little awareness of how well dogs read our psychological and emotional state of being. Dogs are very astute at picking up on our projected anxieties and uncertainties. They know when we are distracted and focused on our worries, and they react in kind. Ceasar repeatedly reminds his clients to project “calm and assertive.” It’s a simple mantra that would serve all of us well, not only in training our dogs, but in our everyday consciousness. It is remarkable how well the assumption of that state of mind works, not only with dogs but with people. I remind my clients (and myself) on a regular basis.

Several years ago, Bobby McFerrin wrote and recorded a delightful but poignant little song that often gets replayed in my inner mind’s soundtrack. He sang this song a cappella. You could hear the sound of the smile on his face.

“Don’t worry. Be happy.”

Author's Bio: 

Chuck Jennings, a.k.a. Life Coach Chuck. After nearly forty years as a professor at California Polytechnic State University, Chuck Jennings transitioned into his new career as a life coach. His practice focuses on managing stress, building self-esteem, holistic wellness, spiritual recovery, career changes, and transitions into retirement.