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The Failure of Now: How Eckhart Tolle Coddles the Status Quo and Why it Matters

The following is a combined version of two posts I wrote recently about Eckhart Tolle on my home blog. Given how popular Tolle is, even amongst Buddhist practitioners, I think it’s worthwhile to consider what he’s up to. Feel free to check out the original posts and the comments that followed.

Fellow 21st Century Yoga contributer Be Scofield has a provocative, new essay out on the limitations of Eckhart Tolle’s spiritual writings, particularly when it comes to addressing systemic social issues. Some folks just roll their eyes when they see the name Tolle, but I think if you want to understand the modern, American spiritual landscape, you gotta pay a bit of attention to his work. Before we go on to look at a few points in Be’s essay, I want to state where I stand on Tolle.

First off, I don’t think he’s a charlatan. The guy seems to me to have some clear insight into how our minds work, and the ways in which humans get trapped by their thinking and habit patterns. In addition, he has figured out how to bring together elements of different religious traditions in a way that speaks across them and beyond them. I’d say this is a positive, especially in terms of spreading insights to the masses. I also like the guy’s general optimism about humanity’s potential, and that he sees practices like meditation as being a means towards awakening on a larger, collective scale.

On the flip side, like Be, I disagree with Tolle’s sense that “inner work” alone will somehow solve the systemic misery that plagues so many in this world. Having read a fair amount of his writing, and listened to some of his talks, I find his general approach to be far too individualistic in focus for my taste. Not only is social and political action downplayed or dismissed outright, but you rarely hear talk about communities, serving others, or anything else associated with being together in groups. Just as is true of a lot of American convert Buddhism,in Tolle’s writing you can’t help but notice how heavily individual psychology and psychological theories color what’s being said.

Beyond all that, there’s the fierce, capitalist machine behind Tolle’s work to contend with. Nearly everything this guy touches these days is being turned into a product intended for “your awakening,” and I don’t get the sense that he has any problem with that. In fact, I think the packaging of Tolle as a non-threatening spiritual guru has not only lead to wildly higher sales and spreading of his message, but also wholesale rejection of his work by those like myself actively resisting capitalism, colonialism, and the commodification of spiritual practice.

Along those lines, let’s take a look at a few paragraphs from Be’s essay:

In A New Earth Tolle goes so far as to claim all of the atrocities associated with Communism could have been avoided had their been a shift in their “inner reality, their state of consciousness.” Again, his absolutism in regards to the power of internal transformation is quite extreme. If communists would have only stilled their minds, connected to their bodies and dis-identified with their false egoic self he believes countless lives would have been saved. It’s important to understand that when Tolle is referring to shifting inner consciousness, he is specifically talking about stilling the mind, not shifting inner social or political consciousness. Of course the issues are far more complex than Tolle presents. No simple solution like cultivating presence, stillness or embodiment would have changed a profoundly complicated socio-political experience that spanned vast territory and numerous decades. Furthermore, he falsely believes that spiritual awakening supports his social and political positions.

Tolle is suggesting that what communists needed and what environmental polluters need is internal spiritual transformation – not education, training, relationship building, diversity training, political understanding, environmental awareness or anything else. Why? Because Tolle believes in an all-knowing divine power that once channeled knows exactly what to do. This universal intelligence is unfolding and working through humans. If only environmental polluters and communists were to connect with God the world would be a much better place. For those who successfully do, they are contributing to more joy, peace, creativity and happiness on the planet. Spirit is unfolding in a direction and it supports Tolle’s social and political agenda and reflects his social location as a wealthy, heterosexual, white male with $4 million in the bank and a Jaguar in his driveway.

Social positioning, and specifically a lack of critical consciousness around his position in society, are major players in Tolle’s philosophy. It’s so much easier for folks from privileged backgrounds to focus on “inner” transformation, and to dismiss addressing systemic social issues. Not only do they benefit from the status quo, but they’re are less likely to see how the status quo creates suffering in their own lives, let alone anyone else’s. Be’s absolutely right to point out this failure in Tolle’s work to critically examine social positions, and how they’re plugged into systems built on patterns of injustice and deliberate oppression.

However, I have to say that the qualities Tolle focuses on folks cultivating – being present now, joy, stillness, and general awareness – are pretty lacking amongst social activists as a whole. There’s decidedly too much ego, reactivity, and unexamined motives driving individuals within political and social movements, and also the collective actions of the groups they belong to or associate with. Instead of figuring out how to place the outrage, sadness, and fears into the furnace, where they might be transformed into wisdom and wise action, too often social movements either explode or sputter into the ground through power grabs, ego battles, and undigested patterns of greed, anger and hatred.

Which leads me to where I disagree with Be. Be writes:

The reason, of course, that environmental experts don’t recommend mind-body practices like meditation or yoga in order to stop worldwide pollution is because they are entirely unrelated.

This is just the opposite extreme to what Tolle’s arguing, no more or less dualistic in my opinion. And while I don’t think everyone involved in social justice movements needs to suddenly become a yogi or meditator, it sure wouldn’t hurt for more folks practicing these things to be a part of such movements. And furthermore, that a general culture of cultivating qualities like compassion and awareness be normalized amongst activists, regardless of the forms taken to bring about those qualities.

The systems developed under colonialism, and patriarchy before it, rendered a myriad of things separate in social consciousness and practice. Foremost amongst these being the creation of the categories “spiritual” and “secular,” and then the slow depositing of various activities and ways of thinking into either box. Perhaps that period of separation was helpful at some point in human history, but it’s clearly become little more than a driver of oppression and misery. And when I say that, I’m not saying that everyone should be “spiritual” or something. What I’m saying is that the categories have become calcified, to the point where the vast majority of folks fail to see them as expedient means at most.

What am I talking about here, you may be asking? I’ll try an offer some concrete examples. Take a person’s view of the environment, specifically those who aren’t concerned about exploitation, global warming, or human impacts on the planet. Or who have some concern, but whose greed or ignorance override that concern.

Person X

Claims the identity of secular, and rejects religion and all forms of spirituality. Elevates human reason above all other qualities a person might possess. Sees the point of life to fulfill your needs and desires. Might have some concerns about his children’s future, for example, but is mostly focused on how to have a “good life now.” (One of Tolle’s limitations, by the way, is his obsession on “the now” and failure to temper that with something like a seven generations approach to viewing and acting in the world.) Enjoys “nature, but feels humans are “better” or “smarter” somehow.

Person Y

Claims the identity of Christian. Views the planet as a God given resource to be used to fulfill human needs and desires. Believes the afterlife in heaven is where “the good life” truly is, and that life on Earth is mostly about being trials and tests by God. As such, she isn’t really concerned about the future of the planet, or even her children/grandchildren because what’s important is their salvation, not the preservation of the Earth.

Person Z

Claims the identity of spiritual/not religious. Sees the popularization of meditation, yoga, and other “consciousness” practices as the key to a better life for all. Any concerns about the future of the planet are turned into a messianic approach to spreading the “good news” of yoga, meditation, shamanism, and the like. Pays little attention to politics and systemic social issues, seeing all that as being “lower vibration” stuff.

The main point behind these rough, incomplete sketches is the sense that solidifying around the deepest level separation of spiritual/secular can lead to some disastrous consequences for (in this case) the planet. And it’s not just about folks on the extreme messing it up for everyone else. Each of has this dualism playing out in our lives because it’s in the cultural water, and pretty much all of us taken a drink to some degree or another. So you may not be an oil tycoon profiting off the tar sands, but odds are your daily actions are still negatively impacting the planet in some manner or another.

Which brings us to love. And our collective struggle to understand and embody it in it’s various forms. Be writes:

Love isn’t progressive, socialist or limited to any political position. People of all ideological persuasions fall in love, make love, experience love and act in love. Is global transformation really based on raising the “love” vibration on the planet? After all, Glenn Beck’s latest gathering was called “Restoring Love.” There was lots of “love” amongst Protestant and Catholic Christians in Nazi Germany. Love for spouses, children, families and God. People were kind, caring and compassionate to members of their own kind while turning a blind eye or supporting to the horrific crimes of the state. What frequency did their love vibrate on and how did it matter in the larger scheme of things? Love is not the sole property of either progressives or conservatives. If both a pro-choice and a pro-life activist group based all of their methods, techniques and actions in love who would win?

One of Be’s biggest concerns in this piece, and in others I have seen, is the view that cultivating certain qualities and/or doing certain spiritual practices are THE means needed to get to a more progressive, inclusive society for all. I share that concern, and agree that practices like yoga can be used by anyone without having a transformational impact on their politics and social views, and that simply cultivating qualities like presence or basic compassion aren’t nearly enough to liberate the world from systems of oppression and injustice.

But love. Love has the capacity to blow through separations of all sorts. To break through and heal the kinds of thinking that create solidified divisions in the first place. It’s not limited to, nor even necessarily represented by, the forms Be presents in the statement above. It’s easy to get cynical about something like the power of love to liberate folks from systems of oppression, just as it’s easy to get suckered by some limited form of love (like love of family or country) as the recipe for a better world.

If anything, the intersection of social justice and love is a koan, one we might take devote ourselves to, even if we never gain any final resolution.

I think Tolle places too much faith in our individual capacity to overcome a hell of a lot of social conditioning on our own, and that millions and millions of people doing this will somehow break through all the collective conditioning and oppressive systemic structures that we currently face. He fails to recognize or acknowledge that even our greatest spiritual/social heroes – Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. – still had issues with social conditioning that impacted their work. Awakening didn’t wipe out internalized sexism, for example. It took multiple lobbying efforts to get the Buddha to allow women into the original sangha, and I’m not convinced they ever held truly equal standing under his watch. The original Buddhist sangha was basically doing on a smaller scale what Tolle sees as the key to our evolution as a species and yet women had to beg to gain base level acceptance.

So, while I don’t expect someone like Tolle to brilliantly break down capitalism, or advocate for radical action, I do think it’s entirely fair to do what I’ve done here. Because this guy has an influence on some of the very people who have the most power and influence in our societies today. And even a little movement from him towards supporting collective social action and directly challenging systems of oppression could go a long way.

Comments (14)

  • Bryan Wagner

    Interesting.
    Just a thought.
    So the socially condition “collective” will design paradigms to solve the problem of social conditioning?
    l continue to wait for an answer to that question.
    Perhaps what a lot of “spiritual leaders” Whatever that means, simply pointed to the fact that we cannot solve a problem with the same mind that created it. So how many conditioned minds would it take to not have a conditioned mind?
    In Loving Kindness.
    Bryan

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    Yes. Reminds me of the famous quote from Audre Lorde “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” It’s a predicament, how to break through these old, tangled issues. I wish I had more answers as to what is needed. All I know is that focusing solely on what’s “inside” or solely on social issues doesn’t seem to cut it. The root-level separations can’t be healed or transformed through more separation.

  • Murray Reiss

    But Love. Let me quote William Blake for a minute:
    “Love to faults is always blind,
    Always is to Joy inclined.
    Lawless, winged and unconfined
    And breaks all chains from every mind.”
    He also claimed that “A tear is an intellectual thing.”
    Or, in other words, how to recognize love in action? Well, does it go beyond whatever law you’re confined by? Is it breaking the chains from your mind?

  • Bryan Wagner

    Just a thought.

    Love.
    A word, a concept, often used as a type of answer.
    Yet has multiple and confusing definitions subject to interpretation.
    Has been used in so many ways that it has, to some extent, lost definition.
    It has such a general meaning that to use it as a solution simply has no meaning in the social matrix.
    As used internally expressed it may have some value.
    Bryan

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    ” how to recognize love in action? Well, does it go beyond whatever law you’re confined by? Is it breaking the chains from your mind?”

    I really like these questions. I think the problems Bryan points out with the word “love” can be addressed by sitting with questions like this. Living with questions like this.

  • Jeff

    Nathan, your commentary goes right to an issue at the heart of engaged Buddhism, namely the relationship between personal spiritual evolution and humane social revolution. For me, you can’t have one without the other.

    Of course, you might expect to see societal benefits as individually cultivated mindfulness starts to percolate outward person by person. However, if one is primarily focused on developing gentleness and equanimity with folks encountered during our day-to-day routine, those ripples only travel so far. We have all seen how shortsighted and potentially reactionary Buddhist doctrine can be when pimped out by a particular ethnic group or nation.

    For most Americans, and for many Buddhists, nearly every waking moment is saturated with not-so-subtle cultural reinforcement of egoism, patriotism, and acquiescence. Whether we think we’re paying attention or not, hierarchical relations at work and the content and style of news, advertising, entertainment, and public discourse relentlessly shape our attitudes toward social status, race, and gender, pressuring us to go along to get along.

    Progress in both the soul’s and the social journey will require in-the-moment loving kindness and the political awareness and commitment to stand alongside people across town and across the world whose daily struggles to survive are nearly impossible for us to imagine. Reconciling these practices may be facilitated by way of koan or dialectics or both, but it will not happen without going outside to act.

    Perhaps one definition of “love” is making human connections to change unjust conditions, developing a collective consciousness to enable empathic and interdependent action at a community or global level. Naturally, it is impossible to know exactly how this can happen ahead of time, or what the eventual perfect society is, or even how the Eightfold Path might mesh with the confrontational politics of anti-capitalist movements. We will learn the answers by stepping out into the dusty colonial streets, cruel prisons, and warming Earth with the many sisters and brothers who are fighting there now.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “For most Americans, and for many Buddhists, nearly every waking moment is saturated with not-so-subtle cultural reinforcement of egoism, patriotism, and acquiescence.” My post today considers this point in terms of sangha in the U.S.

    “Perhaps one definition of “love” is making human connections to change unjust conditions, developing a collective consciousness to enable empathic and interdependent action at a community or global level. ” I like this a lot. It makes sense to me to view love as multi-dimensional, with more than one definition. I also agree that stepping into action, putting the teachings into practice in the world, is how we see if they “mesh” or not in a particular situation. It’s kind of scary to not have the answers beforehand, but that’s how life really is anyway.

  • Bezi

    “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.”

    WOW.

    also, to the question of identifying love in action: I think Dr. Cornel West put it perfectly:

    “justice is what love looks like in public.”

  • Matt

    Tolles claim that all of the atrocities associated with Communism could have been avoided had their been a shift in their “inner reality, their state of consciousness” is both true and absolutely meaningless. Its like saying “if eryone would be nice to each other, there would be no more wars” – thats also true but meaningless as this is just not the situation we are in . Its merely wishful thinking like it permeates a lot of New Age spirituality. I would say its a failure to acknowledge and confront the dark side, in ourselves and in this world.
    The russian revolutionaries had a good cause and likely good intentions. The could not, however, have practised in what was was then a late feudal slave society. Man has to stop being chattel before he can practice. Even the Buddha said its impossible to practise in a hell realm. Now, a full hundred years later, people in Russia can practice freely for the first time ever, and they do in increasing numbers. So history works slow. The western enlightment was a kind of social awakening too – as you say individual and social awakening are inseperable. To me, right perception and right action clearly mean that if you live in a society (i.e. you are not a hermit), you have to try and right the wrongs there are. Otherwise you will damage your own mindfulness. Compassion means also to stop the cruelty of others against the ones that are not in a position to defend themselves properly. In this Capitalism, that means pretty much everyone without ownership of property.

  • Matt

    Another thing that just appeared in my mind (not about Tolle, though, but about your concern of individual practice and social action): To do only social action without any awareness that the evil resides right in ones own mind will be entirely a projection of all the disavowed parts of oneself. George Bush’s and Lenin’s world view were exactly the same in this respect, and, as Camus writes in “The Rebel” this will always lead to murder in the end.

    But to do only spiritual practice without concern for the world we exist in would be just as futile (and that is what Carl Gustav Jung wrote about the conditions in India: a country focused too exclusively on spirituality, neglecting to care about the world). We are this world. The awakened mind, even if liberated, sees suffering very clearly. To neglect to do something about social conditions that create suffering is to neglect the awakened mind.

    The Buddha himself taught social transformation : The entire Vinaya is about how to create a healthy, democratic and thriving society of practicioners: Very few personal posessions, no hierarchies, all decisions done by a council of all sangha members.

  • Nathan G. Thompson

    “The Buddha himself taught social transformation : The entire Vinaya is about how to create a healthy, democratic and thriving society of practicioners: Very few personal posessions, no hierarchies, all decisions done by a council of all sangha members.” Yes, I think this element is often missed or overlooked. The very ways in which the original sangha came together, and how folks practiced together and interacted with others outside of the immediate sangha, were quite a radical departure from the norms of the day.

    I totally agree with you about the failure to face the dark side amongst many New Age and spiritual folks. There’s less of this amongst Buddhists from what I’ve witnessed, but when it comes to actually engaging the messiness in the world and dealing with collective issues, Buddhists aren’t doing so hot on the whole either.

  • Stephen Malagodi

    When I was much younger, one night watch the incomparable Dick Cavette show, Mr. Cavette asked his guest, the Guru Maharj Ji, “What would you say to Hitler?”

    Ji replied, “I would tell him to meditate.”

    Tolle has no better answer. We should consider him to be what he is, a talented and somewhat insightful author of popular spiritualism. There is much to criticize in his work, as there is in the work of many others.

    Not worth spending a lot of time on.

    In our time, ignorance is maintained through censorship and distraction. Let us not be distracted.

  • Bob

    “The failure of now”
    I love that as a kind of Anti poem. However it seems a little unfair to pick on Tolle. Of course he is politically about as tepid as yesterdays bathwater but that’s kind of the thing these days for us highly privileged spiritual folk.

  • Susmita

    The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance;
    it is the illusion of knowledge.
    – Daniel J. Boorstin

    We need to understand what is the true power of the people and communities around the world and how the basis of that power of the people got shortchanged by systems and structures of colonization under the placebo called democracy.

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