A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

tollee-newearthI read Eckhart Tolle’s first book The Power of Now about four years ago. In fact, I read it twice. It was one of those books that had a profound ring of truth, at least in part. But something didn’t quite sit right. I had exactly the same experience with A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Here’s an example: “Fear, anxiety, expectation, regret, guilt, anger are the dysfunctions of the time-bound state of consciousness.” Tell that to the gazelle as it runs away from the lion. Fear, far from being a dysfunction, is the emotion that is keeping the gazelle alive. Fear floods the bloodstream with adrenaline, unlocking much needed additional energy for the desperate sprint to safety. Fear is an essential living reality for animals. And if you think humans are some kind of special case, exempt from the trials that “lesser” animals face, then just imagine a zookeeper who carelessly lets a lion out of its cage during public visiting hours. A marvelously “enlightened” public apparently wouldn’t feel the urge to scream or run, or perhaps they would pragmatically choose to run while not feeling any of that pesky dysfunctional fear. But here’s the most important observation: the person who is so terrified out of his wits that he manages to scale a seven-foot wall on pure adrenaline is the one least likely to end up as the lion’s lunch. All thanks to fear.

I will give Eckhart Tolle some credit for helping to raise awareness in the West of more Eastern ways of thinking. And I do think that East has always been way ahead of West in terms of metaphysical thinking. But Tolle’s philosophy reads like Buddhism Lite. Sometimes spiritual teachers, even those with large followings, can be profoundly naïve about life and profoundly short-sighted about ordinary avenues of knowledge that would inform them of so much – in this case biology. Tolle has little or no awareness of man’s place in the animal kingdom, or of the predicament that all organic life faces. He speaks from the false perspective that most religions speak from: man is not just an animal, man is special, and man needs saved from something that has gone wrong with him. But humans are basically animals, and they don’t need enlightenment any more than dogs do. The human ego (like the ego of any animal) is not dysfuncional; it is a demonstrably successful product of evolution. Tolle views human consciousness as some sort of special case, and he sees us on a verge of evolving into a new state of consciousness, where the ego is finally defeated. This is nonsense. As long as you are a body/mind, you are an ego. You will have to deal with a world outside yourself that doesn’t always have your best interests at heart, and you will have to steal energy from other forms of life in order to continue to survive.

It strikes me that Tolle’s philosophy is only of relevance to bored affluent people who feel vaguely dissatisfied with their lives. And he provides a labyrinth of overly technical abstractions for them to ponder over. But very little of what he says is relevant to someone who faces real conflict in life, or real suffering beyond what polite society generally tosses at us. The power of now all falls apart if you’re someone who is being brutally beaten by an assailant in a dark alley.

There are a few legitimate insights scattered here and there, but the whole message is poisoned by the false premises of the ego’s alleged dysfunctionality and man’s specialness. Tolle is playing the same game (perhaps unconsciously) that religions have played for millennia – convincing the human race that there is something inherently wrong with it then offering a unique fix. The reality is that nothing went wrong with the human race. Everything is as it’s supposed to be, including the “egoic mind.” The ego is the hero of the story, not the villain to be vanquished.

There isn’t a new Earth coming; there isn’t a new consciousness on the horizon. There is only the continued forward motion of evolution, including the evolution of consciousness (which is really the organic evolution of the brain). We don’t choose our own evolutionary path. It is caused by the pressures of a changing world and the ability of organic matter to randomly mutate. When a random mutation provides a better chance of survival, the mutation thrives, and eventually becomes dominant. Tolle, unsurprisingly, doesn’t understand evolution, because he doesn’t seem to be interested in real science; he prefers to wallow in a web of philosophical abstraction that is divorced from the observable world.

Lastly, I’m going to indulge in a little ad homemin attack, but only because I think it’s relevant. I can’t stand the “holier than thou” image. I can’t stand the projection of politeness and meekness, like Tolle has transcended “ordinary” consciousness, and “Wouldn’t you like to be where I am?” It’s so phoney. Once you’ve experienced a truly down-to-earth esoteric book (and I thoroughly recommend the works of Zen Buddhist Brad Warner), actors like Tolle pale by comparison.

I’m a big supporter of monism (or non-duality), and Tolle is basically a monist. But when you take that profound truth about the universe and you mix in a bunch of faulty ideas about life, then you end up with a philosophy that’s going to do more harm than good.

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

The premise of Tolle’s worldview is that the past and future are illusions. Nothing exists except the present, the now. Memories are recollections of other “now” experiences, just as our future actions, when they happen, will be happening “now.” The now is inescapable. It’s a totally different way of looking at time. Together with this view is the idea that you are not your mind. You are what Tolle calls “being”, using the mind. I came to hold this same view a year or two ago, coming at it from a different angle than Tolle but reaching the same conclusion. For Tolle it was an experience of ongoing deep distress that led him to this. Essentially, after telling himself “I’m distressed,” he asked himself the question, “Who is that is perceiving that I am distressed?” And the answer is: “The real you behind the mind.”

Tolle’s philosophy can best be summarised by saying that the solution to most problems in life (certainly the beginning of the solution to all problems) is to become intensely present in the now – to feel and to accept your life as it is this very moment. To stop the “egoic mind” from running amuck, worrying about the future, regretting the past, etc. I’m kind of on board with Tolle’s general thinking, but where I object strongly is when he starts to talk about how there is something wrong with the human ego. He even goes as far as calling it insane. And he uses the example of how we treat the world and each other as proof of this. I beg to differ. The egoic mind is a tool that consciousness is using to interface and interact with the world. It’s doing the job it was designed to do. If we want to pin the evils of the world on something, I think we should pin it on the massively mind-controlled state that humanity is in through such influences as television, religion and the education system. How could you be anything but greedy for gain and fearful of survival in a world that teaches people to be materialistic and to compete with everyone else for the best jobs. The ego, in its highly manipulated state, is simply doing what it’s supposed to do. But there is nothing inherently wrong with a healthy ego.

The book was a mixed bag for me. At times it was overly technical, where Tolle seemed to turn enlightenment into a complex equation that was impossible to remember – and unnecessary to remember. Better to become aware of profound truths yourself by living in the now and observing its effect on your life, rather than having it all spelled out for you. Then there were those times when I very much appreciated what I was reading. I felt his insights on relationships to be particularly helpful.

Tolle does something which my past religious experience tells me is a big mistake. He divides humanity up into the enlightened and the unenlightened. The enlightened are those who live in the now, aware of “being,” and the unenlightened are those who are driven by ego. Tolle even uses the term “salvation” to describe the state of those who have attained enlightenment. Although he is not asserting anything as crass as “The unenlightened shall perish in hell” he does something that really gets up my nose, and he’s not the first spiritual teacher to do this: he tries to play nice with Christianity. Now and then, he quotes a verse from the Bible and, with no regard to context, says, “When Jesus said ***, what he actually meant was ***.” Come on, Tolle, what you’re presenting here is not Christianity. It doesn’t remotely resemble Christianity. Have the courage to call a spade a spade. Nobody who embraces Christianity arrives at the your spiritual viewpoint without first coming to the realisation that Christianity is a false religion. Dispense with this pick-and-mix Bible quoting; it does your credibility no good, except in the eyes of those readers who don’t have a thorough knowledge of the Bible.

Tolle unfortunately presents himself as one of those gurus, self-proclaimed “spiritual teachers.” Anybody who comes to me with some kind of spiritual package deal that is supposed to solve all of life’s problems immediately raises my suspicions. There is no such thing as salvation, and this thing called enlightenment is always a matter of degree, not of division.

Tolle can have his place among a long list of people who have had a mixture of useful and useless things to say to the human race. The Power of Now is worth reading, but with a critical eye. More useful than not, but also sadly presented in a way that easily attracts a herd following. I got something out of it, but it is not The Answer, as it makes itself out to be.