Questions about Eckhart Tolle
For thousands of years many meditating monks and mystics of different religious traditions have reached deeper states of consciousness. Eckhart Tolle brings a practical version of these meditative methods to people living in the modern world. He says we can live our normal lives and be spiritual too. He also has a hopeful vision of how these methods can save our civilization from eco-catastrophe. It would be great if his teaching can do these things as they are so important.
Can meditative methods developed for and by monks and mystics be applied to people in the modern world who have family and other social responsibilities? And will it help solve our civilization’s problems? These are the two important wonderings I have about Tolle’s spiritual teachings.
The first question I wonder about is whether his emphasis on oneness with the divine and being in the moment will totally take care of the problems normal people encounter in modern life. Being totally one with the divine obviously works for monks, especially Indian monks whose emphasis is on transcending the world and getting enlightened. But modern people with responsibilities have entirely different concerns like taking care of their children and making sure they keep their jobs. To understand my wondering, it is necessary to quickly look at Tolle’s teachings.
Tolle’s most basic emphasis is on the power of the present moment. He says we should “allow the present moment to be… Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” (PN, p. 35-6) He extends this radical acceptance of the now to everything, even the death of those close to you. We think of death as tragic “but it is only tragic because you projected a separate self where there was none.” (PN, p. 100)
Being in the present does transform some things, as superfluous worldly things can be seen as trivial when one is in the spiritual present. But Tolle so emphasizes being in the now and how it will “miraculously transform your whole life.” He says we have to get out of the past and the future, and just be in the now as the “past and future obviously have no reality of their own.” (PN, p. 50)
Tolle is right that too many people get caught up in the future, thinking about how they are going to acquire material things or get a relationship, and this pulls them out of the joy of the present moment. The question is if he is going to other the extreme and neglecting the future and past totally? Could it be that if we are on our spiritual path, the future can give us energy to do things in the now because that future connects us to our spiritual path? For example, after I finished raising my three children fulltime and the youngest was enrolled in first grade, I intuited it was my spiritual path to get a scholarship to go to graduate school. To get this scholarship, I needed to intensively study for the Graduate Record Exam or GREs. In fact, to get a good score I would have to study eight hours a day for months. Even though I would ordinarily find it extremely boring to study such useless material, and a part of me wanted to just live in the now and enjoy the now by doing something else, I did not do that. I knew that if I did not intensely study for the GREs my future would be worse. This idea gave me energy in the now by connecting myself to the future. And because I was connected to my higher spiritual purpose and my future, I became energized when I studied and even felt joyful. This was something my mind helped do as it enlarged my present by connecting the present to the future. Only if I concentrated on how real the future was, could I be spiritually joyful in the present.
Tolle is right that if we are not on our spiritual path and are only concerned with ego things that we can get carried away with getting these things in the future. But if we are on our spiritual path, is it possible that a recognition of the future can be a part of making a better present – especially if we are not monks, and we have responsibilities to feed and house other people?
The same question can also be asked about the importance of the past. Tolle believes that a problem becomes a long-term problem because you keep dwelling on it, but if you would just let it go, then it would no longer reoccur. Any “problem solving” is just feeding the ego and thus feeding what he calls the pain-body, which will increase your own misery. (NE, pp. 139-140) If one is focused, like Tolle is, on a spirituality for monks whose main emphasis is on achieving enlightenment, this may make sense. The question is if the monastic technique can be applied to people living normal lives with normal responsibilities who are also trying to be spiritual in this world.
If I am overly critical of myself for no good reason, Tolle’s method will help me get over that. But what if I continually have the same pattern of behavior of treating my son in the wrong way because of some issue I have with self-centeredness? Will Tolle’s monastic mysticism of being in the present moment help me deal with that, or will it be brushing aside things I need to see? One of my friends tells me that it is very helpful for her to look at the times she messes up with her kids because she eventually notices a pattern of behavior. Once she notices this pattern, she can focus on why she does it and begin to change. Tolle continually focuses on living in the present and not focusing on the past, and so he does not seem to have a space for my friend’s learning process. Is he just sweeping the problems aside?
Jack Kornfield is a well-known American Buddhist who writes in many of his books about Buddhist meditators. He talks about many teachers who have spent decades meditating and being enlightened in the present moment similar to what Tolle describes. Especially in his book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, he says that all the spiritual teachers he knows come out of their enlightened meditative experiences of Oneness and still have big relationship problems. These people have great experiences of mystical Oneness, but when they come back to normal world, they have issues that still have to be dealt with like everyone else.
I worry that the meditative method developed by monks and for monks is not enough to solve normal everyday problems like Tolle thinks. Is Kornfield right that the kind of Oneness mysticism Tolle advocates is not as complete as Tolle thinks it is? And do people need other things like therapy (which is totally committed to the idea that the past exists in the present) to help them?
Tolle has a major difference from the monastic mystics: he wants to use their meditative methods to save our civilization from disaster. Traditionally, in India and in Buddhism, mystics meditate and are not much involved with saving the world. Tolle is to be praised for being so concerned with our civilization as it is so messed up. The question I wonder about is if his social activism is consistent with his meditative mysticism, or does he have to ignore important areas of his mysticism to develop his social activism?
To understand his solution to our civilization’s crisis, we need to understand his theory of cosmic evolution.
Tolle says that the start of the cosmos was when consciousness (something like an impersonal God) took on an outer form by creating and infusing itself in the physical cosmos. Over time, this consciousness lost awareness of itself as divine and humans identified themselves not with their inner divinity but with their outer physicalness. (PN, pp. 99-100) He says we then “started to perceive ourselves as meaningless fragments in an alien universe, unconnected to the Source.” (PN, p. 31) In a more Christian phrasing of the same theory, he says that humans “fell from the state of grace, entered the realm of time and mind, and lost awareness of Being.” (PN, p. 31)
Tolle does not claim his idea is an original insight, he says this view is what the Indian thinkers call lila, or a game God is playing. (PN, p. 100) Almost all Indian thinkers who believe in lila also say that humans should raise their consciousness and rise above worldly concerns through ascetic practices of bodily discipline and meditation. Tolle rejects this asceticism.
He says that even though over time humans lost most of their connection to the divine, they still had some connection through their bodies. Males however are generally more identified with their minds and females with their bodies. Tolle believes says that about five thousand years ago, “the mind took over and humans lost touch with the reality of their divine essence.” God was then conceived as a male. (PN, p. 165)
As this entity he calls the mind took over the world and males dominated, the sacred feminine was suppressed and demonized. This suppression was so widespread that during the witch hunts, Tolle says three to five million women were killed by the Catholic Church. (A New Earth, hereafter NE, p. 155-6) Tolle says the real problem was something called “the evolving ego,” which had a plan to take over the world. “What is it that suddenly made men feel threatened by the female? The evolving ego in them [men]. It knew it could gain full control of our planet only through the male form, and to do so, it had to render the female powerless.” (NE, p. 156) In other places he comes right out and says this evolving ego or egoic mind is an entity or being of some type: “the collective egoic mind is the most dangerously insane and destructive entity ever to inhabit this planet.” (PN, p. 102) Tolle does not label this theory but it is very close to a worldview called ecofeminism. Ecofeminism similarly blames male energy for both keeping individual women oppressed and oppressing our environment.
Tolle says this egoic mind or evolving ego is an entity that has wishes and desires. If it has wishes and desires, then it is something like a living being. Furthermore, by trying to stop humanity’s spiritual evolution and keep the sacred feminine down, it is trying to take over and control the world.
Tolle does not say much at all about this entity, but it sounds like an evil force much like the Christian devil. The conservative Christians are bold in stating they believe an evil being like the devil exists. Tolle’s egoic entity is similar to the devil or evil but by calling it an egoic entity, he gives it a more sophisticated sounding name. Thus many of his followers, who would probably laugh at the supposedly unsophisticated fundamentalist Christians for believing in the devil, have a very similar belief themselves. While serious Christians would never say “the devil made me do it,” Tolle actually comes close to saying this when he says the evolving ego, or another entity he calls the pain-body, takes us over and possesses us. (NE, p. 163)
Besides an Indian theory of cosmic evolution and an ecofeminist theory of the development of the modern
Tolle also has a New Age theory of a quantum leap in evolution.
Tolle says that in times of radical crisis, species either die or experience a radical leap in evolution. (NE, p. 20) He states that humans have killed over a hundred million people in the 20th century and “now they are engaged in destroying nature and the planet that sustains them. Unbelievable but true. Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species.” (PN, p. 81) Because humans are now in such a radical crisis, we need now to evolve to a new consciousness or die. (NE, p. 21)
Instead of this message of our likely extinction being seen as a downer, he ends his second book with the hopeful sentence: “A new species is arising on the planet. It is arising now, and you are it!” (NE, p. 309) He says the change in our species will be so profound it will be similar to the start of flowering in plants. He even says we could become transparent to light as we lose the density of the mind. (NE, p. 5)
Tolle gives many people hope that there is a way out of our civilization’s current troubles. And I praise him for being concerned for our civilization’s problems and trying to use spiritual methods to solve them. The question is whether his concern for social activism fits with his monastic meditative mysticism and the power of now. His spiritual teachings rest on this monastic mysticism, but he is taking a big gamble going beyond traditional monastic concerns and applying them to social problems. It would be great if his ideas all fit together as then being spiritual would not only be the solution to an individual’s problems, it would also be the solution to society’s problems.
I am not so sure these two things fit together. Let me share some of my wonderings.
Tolle says that he has personal experience of all his teachings. He says his book “is not derived from external sources, but from the one true Source within, so it contains no theory or speculation. I speak from inner experience.” (PN, p. 10) The question is how could he have experienced his theory of cosmic evolution? I try to figure out ways someone could experience it, but nothing makes any sense to me. He could have experienced being burnt as a witch a couple hundred years ago in a previous lifetime and that would have been awful. But could he have in any way witnessed consciousness manifesting at the beginning of time and then losing its way?
Maybe I missed something in his writings or in one of his talks, but he never seems to deal with this question. He does emphasize the importance of feelings telling us what is true. (PN, p. 10) So maybe he never experienced these things as true, but he feels they are true.
Sometimes our feelings clearly do tell us things our minds cannot. For example our feelings may sense someone is dangerous without our minds having enough information to make that conclusion. I wonder though if Tolle’s theory of cosmic evolution fits into the kind of thing our feelings can know are true.
I know a son of a Roma (Gypsy) killed in the Holocaust. He scoffs at people who trust their feelings indicate truth. He says this ignores the problem that to Germans during Hitler’s time it rang very true that the Jews, Roma and other lesser races were the cause of all their problems. I can see my friend’s point that sometimes something might feel true because you have been conditioned to believe it or want to believe it. So I started to wonder if Tolle’s ideas of cosmic evolution were something that people wanted to believe in. [More on the idea that if it rings true, it is true is discussed on this site here.]
My Roma friend (who turned on his heritage and went “white”) said that scientists and mathematicians build great things like the internet because they get beyond their feelings to an empirically testable, intellectual understanding of the nature of the physical world. On the other hand, he snorted at alternative, spiritual people who trust their feelings and can’t even agree amongst themselves when the Age of Aquarius supposedly starts or might end. Some people feel it started in the 1960s; the psychologist Carl Jung says it started in 1940; others feel that it has not quite started yet. If we are entering into the Age of Aquarius, and this is why a new age is starting, I guess it would be nice to know when it starts and how long it lasts. My Roma friend made the same point for exactly how many chakras we have or where our reflexology points are. He said he noticed how much his girlfriend benefits from meditating and yoga, but he had trouble taking her friends seriously because the New Agers emphasize feelings so much to the detriment of intellectual understanding.
Another thing I wonder about is if Tolle’s idea that spiritual people accept the now fits with his theory of cosmic evolution. Central to his teaching in The Power of Now is the idea that “all that is, is holy.” (PN, p. 134) He continually makes statements affirming that “when you live in complete acceptance of what is – which is the only sane way to live – there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in your life anymore. There is only a higher good.” (PN, p. 178) He says a wise person has a “refusal to judge anything that happens.” (NE, p. 197) When someone questions this view, saying that the present moment seems unpleasant or even awful, he responds that the present moment “is as it is. Observe how the mind labels it and how this labeling process, this continuous sitting in judgment creates pain and unhappiness.” (PN, p. 35) He continually echoes this position throughout his book by saying that instead of judging, we should accept all.
Not only should we accept everything, we should “allow the present moment to be… Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” (PN, p. 35-6) He extends this radical acceptance of the now to everything, even the death of those close to you. We think of death as tragic “but it is only tragic because you projected a separate self where there was none.” (PN, p. 100)
While on one hand he says we should accept all that is, on the other hand he continually talks about how humanity is insane and is a sick species. He says that humans have killed over a hundred million people in the 20th century and “now they are engaged in destroying nature and the planet that sustains them. Unbelievable but true. Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That is not a judgment. It’s a fact.” (PN, p. 81) Tolle tries to get around his judgment of our civilization’s sickness by calling it a fact. It seems to me calling something a fact does not make it a fact or make it less of a judgment. Am I missing something here? Does he have a way out of this seeming contradiction, but I am on too low of a level of consciousness to see it?
While it might be true that humanity is insane and is destroying the earth, it is not easy to reconcile this view with his other view of how all that is, is holy. If everything that exists is holy that would seem to mean we should accept people who are destroying the world as holy as these people obviously exist. It would also seem to mean we should accept the mind and evolving ego as holy, since, according to Tolle, they also exist.
Tolle might say that people who don’t accept the now are causing all the problems because they are living in their minds and raping the earth. But in his basic insight of accepting the now, he says a person in the now does not judge the situation as wrong, but instead sees it from a higher perspective where everything is right. Tolle either has to give up his view of the now as leading to total acceptance of all that is (which comes from mysticism), or give up his condemnation of humanity as insane (which comes from social activism) and just accept the blissfulness of the now with the massive murdering of humans and raping of the Earth.
I wonder how important are humans to consciousness/God? Tolle contends humans are very important to consciousness, saying, “You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold. That is how important you are!” (PN, p. vii) However, the earth and its creatures existed very well before us and, considering how much we have raped the earth, it would seem they would exist even better without us. If I were the “spirit of the non-human creatures of the earth,” I would call for a worldwide grand celebration lasting decades or centuries if humans became extinct.
I also question whether his monastic mysticism, with its emphasis on oneness and thus getting beyond polarities, fits with his theory of cosmic evolution. Tolle says we need to get beyond “the mind with its resistance patterns that create the positive-negative polarities,” (PN, p. 178) yet he has an extremely negative view of the mind and males, and a very positive view of the body and females. Is he himself creating a dualistic, either/or way of thinking?
Tolle continually says extremely negative things about the mind. For example he says “ultimately, there is only one problem: the time-bound mind itself.” (PN, p. 61) He also says you are only in pain when you do not accept the present moment, and this resistance comes from the mind: “the mind always seeks to deny the Now and to escape from it. In other words the more you are identified with your mind, the more you suffer.” (PN, p. 33) Not only do individuals suffer because of the mind, humans as a race will be destroyed by using the mind. He says that if humans “do not free themselves from their mind in time, they will be destroyed by it.” (PN, p. 102)
Tolle links the mind to males and the ego. He says “the ego can take root and grow more easily in the male form than in the female. This is because women are less mind-identified than men. They are more in touch with the inner body and the intelligence of the organism where the intuitive faculties originate. The female form is less rigidly encapsulated than the male, has greater openness and sensitivity toward other life-forms, and is more attuned to the natural world.” (NE, p. 155) He also says the human body is the doorway to presence (PN, p. 116) and women are closer to their bodies, so they are closer to being. (PN, p. 165) The mind, which is “essentially male…resists, fights for control, uses, manipulates, attacks, tries to grasp and possess, and so on. What we need are the opposite qualities of “surrender, non-judgment, an openness that allows life to be instead of resisting, the capacity to hold all things in the loving embrace of your knowing. All these qualities are much more closely related to the female.” (PN, p.165)
Occasionally he says positive things about the mind, but his deepest view is that we need to get beyond the mind to be in the moment. So to do his monastic mysticism, we have to turn off our mind as it gets in the way of being in the present.
In reading a spiritual thinker, one has to keep in mind that her intuition can be clouded by her personal experience. In Tolle’s case, he gives biographical details in his book that lend credence to the idea that he has personal issues with the mind. In his book A New Earth, he says that when he was young he was very intellectually oriented and thought all answers to human dilemmas could be found through thinking. “I looked upon the professors as sages who had all the answers and upon the university as the temple of knowledge.” (NE, p. 32) Then one day he met a “crazy” woman on the subway who talked continually in a very loud and angry voice. He followed her and was amazed to find she was going to the same place he was: the main library at the University of London. He then realized his mind was as continually active as hers, and he was full of emotion like her, and he was even starting to talk to himself. So he realized he was much like the crazy woman. After this realization, for the first time ever, he shifted to a deeper perspective on the nature of reality. Unfortunately for him this deeper perspective did not last very long and he said he “would spend the next three years in anxiety and depression, completely identified with my mind.” (NE, p. 33)
Looking at his biography, Tolle had identified himself with his mind when he was young and saw the mind as providing all the answers to life’s problems. I wonder if he now he goes to the opposite extreme and condemns the mind as the source of all of our problems. Maybe it was extremely positive for him to get out of his mind some, and maybe it is positive for some of his readers to hear this message, as they need to get out of their mind some too. But are they going to the opposite extreme? Is Tolle going against another insight he has about all polarities being resolved in the Oneness? I do not see how he can both be against polarizing dualities and then embrace a duality concerning the mind/males and the body/females. I am not a great spiritual teacher like Tolle is. Is he on a higher level of consciousness where these seeming contradictions fit together?
Another thing I do not understand is how he fits his continual disdain for thinking your life’s problems will be solved in the future with his idea that the solution to our current crisis is to evolve into a new species. Tolle is aware of this wondering, and he says he is not here going against his emphasis on the present moment because a new heaven and a new earth are not in the future as people in the moment are in the process of becoming a new species. (NE p. 308) If we were in the process of becoming a new species, then it would seem there should be some evidence we can see of this evolutionary leap. Am I stupid in thinking Tolle is either living in the future with his theory of an evolutionary leap solving our problems or should there be some evidence of it now? Or am I missing something that is obvious to him and his readers?
One of my friend’s nephews is an engineer and this nephew was often teased as a geek when he was in high school. He would work for years on problems, fiddling with solutions totally intent in geekland. He lived near the California redwood forests and his sister would tell him to go outside more and look at the beauty of nature and appreciate it. He would not listen and would keep fiddling with his computers. Eventually he created some geeky thing that I never understood but he was so excited about. It finally became a very small but important part of the iPod.
I used to laugh at my friend’s nephew for being so geeky and missing the outdoors like his sister, but after I used an iPod I felt so small for doing that. It was through his long, tremendously geeky work with no regard for nature or beauty or consciousness or good food or yoga or the present moment that helped create something so beautiful which gives so many people so much joy.
Now I worry that people like my friend’s nephew’s sister and Tolle have it wrong. If our civilization is in a time of dire trouble, it seems it will be the geeks who will set us free. To live even close to harmoniously on the Earth while having cool things like iPods or the internet, we need non-polluting sources of energy, more efficient water desalination and Star Trek-like teleportation. These problems will only be solved by geeks using their minds for years fiddling with problems because they are geeky or because they hope the hot cheerleaders who ignored them in school will date them once they get rich. While Tolle is right that some scientific insights come from deep intuitional insight, (PN, p. 24) most of the work on the internet and iPod and cell phones were done by geeks interested not in wholeness but just in being geeky or getting hotties.
In my bleakest moments of thinking of global catastrophe, I worry that Tolle’s preaching against the mind will hurt the chances that the geeks will save us. I worry that we need to have a worldwide pro-geek advertising campaign that thinking is good so that we encourage these skittish creatures. God forbid any of them read literature like Tolle’s or listen to their sisters telling them to get closer to nature or stop thinking so much, and they give up their geekiness. Then we might miss some important invention this geek would come up with that could truly benefit the world.
Tolle would respond that being in the moment helps everyone, and so a geek would make even better discoveries if he lived like that. I sure hope that is true as millions of his books have been bought. I doubt if many geek engineers buy them, but their sisters or uncles do. So the geeks might by osmosis pick up the idea to turn off their minds and accept being spiritual as the answer to all our problems. I worry that it would be a disaster if a geek who could have invented an essential part of a crucial desalinization process instead spent his time obtaining oneness with the divine.
As I type, a horrible thought just occurred to me: maybe the reason why we don’t have absolutely wonderful solar energy yet is that the geek who could have invented it had instead followed Tolle and stopped thinking so much and is meditating somewhere being spiritually in the now.
Tolle could respond that the new species of people that are evolving might not need or want the internet or iPods as they will be at a higher state of consciousness. But he distributes his teachings via pod casts on his web site, so he and his followers are not in this state yet. So wouldn’t it be living in the future to respond in this way?
Of course I may simply suffer from questionaphilia. If I had any sense I would turn off my mind now and get into deeper states of oneness with the Divine as Tolle and other meditative mystics advocate. So before any of my readers criticize me for thinking too much, I am going to beat them to it and stop writing.