THE POWER OF NOW: A GUIDE TO SPIRITUAL ENLIGHTENMENT by Eckhart Tolle (New World Library, 2004)
A book like this wouldn’t have become such a best seller without it containing a modicum of truth and wisdom.
Ekhart Tolle has won high-profile fans in the form Oprah Winfey, Jim Carey and Meg Ryan as well as hundreds of enthusiastic endorsements on Amazon, exemplified by one who gushes: “I have no words to describe how profoundly this book has changed me AND my life. This book is unbelievable!. I was mesmerized by every word … AWESOME! Whewwwww!”
I think it is hard to argue with statements like “every addiction starts with pain” and I am willing to go along with the notion that we should live more in the moment rather than dwell on what might have been or what might be.
As William Henry Davies wrote in his poem, Leisure: “A poor life this is if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”.
The accelerated lives we lead means that, more than ever, we need to give ourselves time and space to take stock of where and who are.
But to turn all this into a spiritual teaching is over egging it a bit. Tolle’s guru qualifications are very flimsy. His epiphany came during a sleepless night at the age of 29 after which he overcame his suicidal tendencies with a realisation that nice things happen when you just stop thinking. This might have been an excuse to overdose on daytime TV but he decided that becoming a spiritual leader was better career move.
Tolle takes Descartes to task for claiming that thinking is what makes us human. He implies that the French philosopher should have said ‘I am therefore I think’ rather than vice versa. Or better still, he could have affirmed that all this thinking baloney is overrated anyway – to live and be happy we can just BE in the moment.
This is summed up by snappy aphorisms such as: “Your life situation exists in time. – Your life is now – Your life situation is mind-stuff – Your life is real”.
If concepts like sound familiar it may be because none of them is really so original. The Power of Now is a pick and mix of Zen Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity without being tied to one specific religion.
Whenever I come across self-help/ personal growth books of this type, one of my first questions I ask is where the author stands in relation to God. Tolle is so adamant that we all have the power within us to awaken our inner selves that it would be perfectly logical to conclude that we don’t need faith in any higher being. But, if he took such a radical line, I doubt there would be so many in awe of his wisdom.
Instead, he takes the conventional faith-based view with reassurances that “God is being itself”, “All love is the love of God” and the old chestnut that “God is in us”. In other words, according to him, we can relax and let the mystery be since this is a deity that we don’t need to think too much about – He just is. To make this point he points out that God said “I am that I am” (didn’t Popeye the sailorman say something similar?).
It’s not just because I am an Atheist that I don’t buy into the gospel according to Tolle. I also find that his absolute rejection of “mind-stuff” is irrational. Deep thinking might not make you happy but isn’t this close to saying that ignorance is bliss?
The advice presented here, and repeated ad nauseam, is that we should not try to understand, we should be in the now; “to be present out of mind”. Yet Tolle gives more than a few indications that he doesn’t always practice what he preaches.
Take this passage, for instance: “Because we live in such a mind-dominated world, most modern art, architecture, music and literature are devoid of beauty, of inner essence, with very few exceptions”.
A statement as sweeping as this cannot (or at least should not) be made thoughtlessly. A judgment of this type depends on how one chooses to define beauty. This is relative and personal but also involves the application of a few brain cells.
To have a gut reaction to cultural artefacts is all well and good, but what Tolle says goes beyond this. To dismiss the majority of modern art as ugly is to imply that classical painting or sculpture is superior. You cannot support such rash generalisations by “intelligence beyond thought”.
Ultimately, John Lennon expressed it best, and more succinctly, when he sang “whatever gets you through the night is alright” but, personally, during my waking hours I intend to keep my brain switched on.