Thursday, May 22, 2008

To Eckhart or not to Eckhart

I genuinely don't know what to think about Eckhart Tolle. (On the offhand chance that some of you don't know about this wildly successful new age spiritualist, you can find a bit of background in this article. )

On the one hand, it would be easy enough to dismiss Eckhart as just another Oprah-promoted phenomenon. Him most recent book, A New Beginning, has sold 2.5 million copies year-to-date, and he has become a cottage industry in his own right. He is now making scads of money, and the whole movement is beginning to feel a little bit like a form of scientology.

But not quite; and therein lies my uncertainty.

Years ago I read Tolle's first book, The Power of Now, and found it to be a moderately helpful common-sense book. Anything that causes people to think about their spiritual growth is a pretty good thing, in my estimation. The only real quarrel I had with that earlier book was that it was very clearly derived from classic Buddhist and Hindu thought, yet didn't really acknowledge that debt. This was a small quarrel, though, since truth is truth, no matter how it's presented.

Moreover, at the time Tolle seemed to be a relatively unassuming fellow, not particularly in love with himself. In fact, he was something of a recluse, and initially didn't seem particularly interested is being seen as a saviour.

There were enough things that smacked true about his story for me to give him the benefit of the doubt. His life-turning moment came out of deep personal trouble (I know something about how this kind of thing works myself). And much of what he said has the ring of truth to anyone who has legitimately tried to pursue a spiritual path. Good for him, I thought to my self, for speaking this kind of truth in a way that people can understand.

Now, though, the thing has taken on a life of its own, and I fear that any genuine message Tolle has is now being lost in the media frenzy and the lemming-like march of the followers who think they can be enlightened by joining a club. People now imagine that they have achieved enlightenment simply because they have purchased and liked the new book. They wear their membership in the Tolle fan club as a badge, proving that they are better (more enlightened) than other people. All this now feels like a phenomenon that is sometimes called "spiritual materialism"—the wearing of one's spiritual practice as a support garment for your ego.

The maddening thing, though, is that a great many interviewers, even those who are skeptics, come away from interviewing Tolle with a sense that the man is relatively genuine and well meaning. Those who most severely ridicule him seem to be operating from resentment or jealousy rather than a well-researched foundation.

I've not yet seen anything to indicate how Tolle himself feels about this phenomenon. Is he disturbed by it, like John Lennon was when he ruefully observed that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus? Or is Tolle gratified by his prestige and power over the masses? To me, this would be a clear sign for skepticism and concern.

I've no doubt that many of you are quite familiar with Tolle's work. If you have any opinions on it, I'd love to hear them.


Jerri said...

Fascinating that this post follows the Memorial Day post.

I think some people carry and study Tolle's books like others fly flags on their cars--as shorthand definitions of themselves, as boundaries between us and them.>\

And in both cases, I think some people draw those lines as protection. They find a club to belong to and hold fast without question.

Blind, unquestioning loyalty scares me. Doesn't matter who or what it's to. People and things worthy of true loyalty stand up to scrutiny, they stand up to clear thought and thorough research.

I don't know enough about Tolle's reaction to all this to have an informed opinion. But it sure is an interesting question.

Glamourpuss said...

Actually, I agree with you. I read his first book, thought it was good but not great, but was happy that it seemed to find a wider audience. But the successive books have been disappointing and even incomprehensible at times, but he is held up as some kind of master, when really, there are people saying similar things, far more simply, elsewhere.

It seems we still need our messiahs. Sad but true.


the chaplain said...

I'd never heard of Tolle until I read your post. Based on your post and the previous comments, I'm not sure whether I want to bother reading any of his books.

Anonymous said...

I am so greatful to Eckhart Tolle and Oprah for turning me onto Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor and her beautiful book ""My Stroke of Insight"". Her story is amazing and her gift to all of us is a book purchase away I'm happy to say.

Dr Taylor was a Harvard brain scientist when she had a stroke at age 37. What was amazing was that her left brain was shut down by the stroke - where language and thinking occur - but her right brain was fully functioning. She experienced bliss and nirvana and the way she writes about it (or talks about it in her now famous TED talk) is incredible.

What I took away from Dr. Taylor's book above all, and why I recommend it so highly, is that you don't have to have a stroke or take drugs to find the deep inner peace that she talks about. Her book explains how. ""I want what she's having"", and thanks to this wonderful book, I can! Thank you Dr. Taylor, and thank you Eckhart and Oprah.