Religion 232: Eckhart Tolle, Now-ness, Spirituality, and Identity…

As you probably already know, thanks to the patronage of Oprah Winfrey and others, Eckhart Tolle has been called “the most spiritually influential person in the world.”  So I was all ready to diss and dismiss him as a charlatan and pop-schlock marketeer, just because he had the temerity to title his obra maestra “The Power of Now”, such now-ness easily classified as ‘cliché’ even, or especially, within high Buddhist circles, if not just by the wannabes, academics and literary hacks like myself…

Then I decided to actually read his stuff, albeit en espanol, El Poder de Ahora, the work in translation, though he apparently speaks Spanish himself (the English-language e-version is back-ordered for streaming at my library).  Now I haven’t thoroughly absorbed the book yet, but Eckhart Tolle just may be on to something here, something very important, the basis of our identity—or lack thereof…

Cut to the chase, if you haven’t already: Tolle sees our identifying with our own thought processes as the source of all of our problems.  Wow!  Now I’m not exactly sure yet what he would have us identify with instead, but the effect is palpable, nonetheless. Apparently Tolle would have us identify with ‘consciousness’, albeit one without thought… 

Religions, Hinduism especially, have batted around the concept of ‘self’ and ‘non-self’ since time immemorial, but the details of such have been somewhat subject to interpretation.  Here we have a concept more or less spelled out, interestingly one which I had been independently batting around myself, and related to other issues, such as: is thought the cause or effect of language?

Now no one ever said that Descartes was unassailable in his assertion that, “I think, therefore I am,” but it was a pretty profound assertion of the Renaissance and Enlightenment zeitgeist.  Now here we have someone to assert the exact opposite, in all seriousness, a few short hundreds of years later.  What gives?

First, it’s probably a necessary correction to Descartes.  We humans and our celebrated thoughts are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of experience, the standard to which all other forms of life and being must be held.  But to assert that they are an absolute evil, as in Tolle’s “slavery of incessant thought” and “thought is a sickness” may be going just a bit too far (author’s note: I’m often translating from the Spanish here, so the original English version might be a bit different, though similar).

In its mild form, though, this is a healthy correction, and quite the spot-on secret to meditation: no thought.  Now this is a subject that gets batted around endlessly, too: what exactly are the best methods and goals of meditation?  While I’ve always maintained that the cessation of thought is both the method and the goal, I’m no expert and others have different notions.  Then there are walking meditation and other variations, but to me that destroys the effect: a bit of sensory deprivation and a good shot of primordial nothingness as helpful to human consciousness.

Tolle usually refers to this as something like the Manifested and Unmanifested aspects of reality, and again he’s on to something, though he didn’t invent it.  F. S. C. Northrop’s ‘differentiated’ and ‘undifferentiated aesthetic continuum’ are probably the best exegesis of this concept, and critical to understanding the difference between East and West.  In short, we Westerners tend to concentrate on the manifested ‘differentiated’ analyzable aspects of reality, while the East tends to focus on the unmanifested undifferentiated intuitive aspects.

From there Tolle gets into things much less experimentally verifiable, and highly speculative, if not arguably flaky, such as ‘energy fields’ and ‘vital energy’.  The ‘voice in my head’ is seen as something sinister, though I’d always imagined it as something more beneficial.  In his view we “identify with the ‘pain body” and “suffering needs time. It can’t survive in the Now”.  “Time is the cause of suffering and problems.”

Now I’m as concerned with accuracy and honesty as much as any supposed ‘enlightenment’, real or imagined, and some simple distinctions between statements of metaphor and fact will usually suffice here for clarification.  But, unfortunately, “the essence of what I’m saying can’t be understood by the mind.”  That’s always the ultimate cop-out, of course, that one’s ideas are beyond simple comprehension, but must be embraced in its entirety regardless.  This is the claim of a prophet, not a philosopher.

But I don’t want to be too critical, because an important service is being performed here, especially to emphasize the value of meditation and devalue the ego: “ego needs to be defended and fed constantly.”  Yep.  The best thing about ‘now-ness’ is that it helps the mind to not be “in 1000 places,” and to find sufficient satisfaction with the present.  BUT to impose a layer of silence upon unrest is not as good as seeing the causes of unrest in he first place IMHO…

…not to mention the fact that analytic thought has achieved quite a lot for us Westerners in terms of social and industrial advancement, even if that is currently subject to review vis a vis global warming and other sins of the present.  Bottom line: philosophies of NOW work best at periods of high accomplishment, and when little hope of additional material improvement can be foreseen, and we have the luxury of second-guessing ourselves…

So Tolle simply goes too far in trying to elevate meditation to metaphysics.  As per usual, the Buddhist middle ground serves us well here.  To meditate is good, but non-stop indulging in the present is not.  To not identify with your mental process is also an interesting proposition, especially in an age when people increasingly identify sexually.  But that’s another post.

And this is a Christian issue, not Buddhist.  Christianity is essentially a shamanistic religion, with its emphasis on miracles and its core beliefs based on the fuzzy logic of love.  That’s Tolle’s territory.  Both Islam and Buddhism are far more logical.  That’s Alan Watt’s territory.  “Can worry add even one day to your life?’—Jesus H. Christ.  The answer is ‘no’, of course, but some constructive analysis possibly can, and that’s the point here…

Advertisements