Thursday, February 11, 2010

Reconsidering New Age

I was probably 12 years old when I started reading books about spirituality and mysticism. It started with an interest in yoga philosophy, and the first descriptions I read were in the scholarly writings of Colliers Encyclopedia. It wasn't too long before I was ordering books from our local bookstore. There was no Barnes & Noble, online or otherwise in those days, and so some of the things I special-ordered took many weeks to arrive to our small town in southern Minnesota.

It's no exaggeration to say that I've read many hundreds, perhaps even thousands of books on spiritual subjects over the years. Right from the start, though, I had a very healthy skepticism of anything that reeked of too much cultural popularity. These subjects weren't all that widespread in the 1960s and early 70s——no bookstore would have a "New Age" section, for example——but I still shied away from anything that was too highly touted by celebrities. When the Beatles traveled to India to study with the Maharishi in 1968 or so, I was already quite familiar with Hindu philosophy at the age of 13, but wanted no part of anything that the Maharishi, with his fleet of Rolls Royces, was preaching. Instead I read a bit of Patanjali, and some of Krishnamurti, but you couldn't get me to sit still for the Maharishi at all.

The 1960s were the era of transcendent psychodelia, and while I might read and agree with some of what Aldous Huxley wrote, I turned off the Don Juan stories of Castanado when I came upon that silliness about parallel universes of space aliens living among us.

It seemed to me that the quickest way for a spiritual mystic to lose all credibilty was to be widely praised by popular culture, and even more, to show an eagerness to make a lot of money from one's spiritual teachings.

What this means is that for the better part of 40 years, I've eschewed the Deepak Chopras, the Robert Blyes, and always opted for the source material from which many of these people freely, and sometimes dishonestly, borrowed. Even now, I find it almnost physically painful to browse New Age, whereas the Religion sections of my local bookstores have armchairs dedicated to my patronage.

And for this reason, it's only now, with a lifestime of reading under my belt, that I just now picked up Eckhart Tolle's book, The Power of Now.

For years I've had a quiet, arm's length distain for Tolle, based partially on the cottage industry that's grown up around him, and partly for his borrowing of the name of Meister Eckhart. I sincerely doubted that anyone among the disciples of Tolle even really knew who Meister Eckhart was, much less had read him, so how legitimate could this whole Eckhart Tolle phenomenon be, anyway?

And so it has come as quite a shock to recognize that a good deal of what Tolle says in this book has the strong ring of truth. I speak as somebody who has studied these subjects in a pretty academic and serious way for many years. Unlike most of these New Age celebrities, Tolle has me more often nodding in agreement than wincing in disbelief. If there is one criticism to be made, it might be that Tolle doesn't really credit the origins of some of this wisdom, or acknowledge that his insights were discovered long ago. For example, the idea of "Now", as espoused by Eckhart, is virtually the same concept as "suchness" or "isness" which the Tibetans were studying centuries ago.

But that's a fairly minor cricisism, as it seems entirely possible that Tolle legitimately saw some of these things afresh for himself, and didn't learn them from others. As I browse the book, I am finding myself again and again agreeing with things that I've seen for myself through years of study and meditation.

Is Tolle enlightened? Did he experience a sudden awakening that transformed his life?

I don't know for sure, but it's not something I can boldly discount, either. If it wasn't for the fact that Tolle has created enormous wealth for himself, I'd be even more likely to give his book a prominent place on my shelves.

God, I hope I'm not going to have to reconsider Carlos Castanada.

3 comments:

Paul said...

And I found myself nodding in agreement with your avoidance of reading or otherwise participating in all that is trendy.

I did not read Castanada all those years ago because it seemed everyone else was. Same with "Steppenwolf." I was curious enough about Hesse to read (and enjoy) several of his other books: Demian, Siddhartha, The Glass Bead Game - but just couldn't bring myself to read Steppenwolf.

Although the "Power of Now" has been recommended to me, I doubt that I'll read it. As it is, I'm a ploddingly slow reader, and I have lots of other books vie for my attention.

On the other hand, in the spring of 1996, I came across a copy of Chopra's "Seven Spiritual Laws of Success." I had never heard of him before, and even though it did have that "trendy" feel to it, I read it anyway. It's a long story, but it was the catalyst that began a series of significant changes that led to where I am right now.

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