Eckhart Tolle’s main teaching is that we are not our thoughts and as such shouldn’t identify with them. Sounds great. But actually achieving this is difficult. In fact, dis-identifying with your thoughts is literally the entirety of the spiritual journey. Here’s a three-step process for getting there.

Step 1: Acknowledge the two selves

First, you need to become aware of and acknowledge that you and your thoughts are two distinct entities that are entangled inside. Because they are so entangled, most people think they are just one entity — their compulsive, incessant, involuntary thoughts. Peoples’ conscious selves are so swallowed up and enveloped by their thought-producing minds that they think that their thoughts are who they are.

So what needs to be acknowledged is that humans consist of two inner selves: 1. A conscious self that is the real you; the you that exists only when you are rooted in the present moment and not lost in a stream of thoughts. And 2. The egoic/unconscious self that constantly pulls your attention to your thought factory mind. This egoic self is extremely powerful. Volumes could be written about why this is so.

For now, though, let’s just stipulate that separating and then creating distance between the conscious and egoic selves is the be-all end-all of spiritual growth. And acknowledging that you are comprised of these two selves and that they are entangled is the first step toward creating separation between the two.

Step 2: Begin Practicing Meditation and Mindfulness

Meditation and mindfulness practices will facilitate further separation of the conscious and egoic selves. Why? In the case of meditation, all you’re doing is practicing “being” in, and occupying, your conscious/present self. Then when your mind sucks you into thought, you just notice that that has happened and bring your attention back to the present moment.

In that last sentence, when I say “you just notice…,” that you is your conscious self. And the more times that conscious self notices when you’ve drifted into thought and brought it back to the present, the stronger that conscious self becomes. And the stronger it becomes, the more distance is created between the two selves.

Mindfulness at the grocery store

Mindfulness, which is just meditation in your daily life, also increases the separation between the two selves. Here’s an example. You’re waiting in line at the grocery check out. It’s been a long day at work, you’re hungry and you just want to get home…but the cashier is chatting it up with someone who’s taking forever because they’re paying with a check. You feel yourself clench up inside, anger mounting.

But your meditation and mindfulness work cause a bell to go off inside your head that says, “Whoa. Chill out. Don’t let your egoic mind ruin these moments just because you may get home ninety seconds later. Close your eyes and take three deep breaths…”

Doing this kind of thing several times a day for years on end will be massively helpful in strengthening your conscious self and thereby creating more distance between it and your egoic self.

Step 3: Don’t Listen to Your Mind

After years of practicing meditation and mindfulness the chasm between your conscious and egoic selves will widen. But your mind will still suck your attention away from the present moment. The difference is you’ll notice it faster and therefore return to the present faster.

But when your conscious self becomes strong enough you can do something even better than notice the thoughts and then bring yourself back to the present. And that better thing, step three, is this: Right when the egoic thoughts come up, your conscious self will recognize this as it is happening and is so strong now that it can say, “Nope. I’m not going to listen to you, mind. You are the egoic me, not the real, conscious me and I aint listening to you.”

A ceiling leak tests me

Here’s a recent example from my own life that illuminates this. We discovered a ceiling leak in our kitchen four months ago. After much time and money investigating the source, we determined that the leak was coming from our upstairs shower. A shoddy bathroom renovation by the previous owner had caused the leak so we had to rip the entire shower up.

The ripping up and the subsequent hot mop and concrete work was completed two weeks ago. But our contractor told us it would be weeks before he could get his tile specialist there to complete the job because the guy had just gone on vacation and when he returned had to finish two other projects before he could get to ours.

How did I react? At first it was, “Damn it! This is BS. You can’t leave us hanging for weeks like this! We’ve had to use our kids’ shower for four months. Waa! Waa!”

Not listening to my egoic self

But then I caught myself, as it was happening. I said, “Wait a minute. This is my egoic self complaining that I didn’t get what I wanted. The fact is, we’ve been without this shower for several months. What’s a few more weeks? Screw it. This is the egoic me complaining and the real, conscious me is deciding here and now that I’m not going to listen to it.” And I didn’t. And I felt much better because of it.

This concept of not listening to what your mind is spewing is hard to do. After seven years of regular meditation and mindfulness practice, I’m just now getting to the point where I can do this, and only sporadically at that.

Why it’s so difficult

The difficulty of all this is not surprising when you consider that most of us have spent decades identifying with and thereby strengthening our egoic selves. It takes a lot of time and work to strengthen our real, conscious self to the point that it can actually supplant our egoic self as the captain of our life’s ship.

The fact is, most of us probably won’t get to the point that our conscious selves consistently rule the roost in our lives. But even getting to the point where it’s in charge a good chunk of the time will greatly enrich your life and make the world a better place, too.

Disentangle, then create space

Finally, if you take only thing from this piece, I hope it is this concept: that disentangling and then creating space between your conscious and egoic selves is central to spiritual growth. The hard work involved in achieving this is, as Michael Singer and Eckhart both say, the most important endeavor of your life.