13 March 2008

Oprah's Book Club Takes Its Tolle

Okay. It's about time this blog attempted to live up to its name. The latest thing passing for wisdom in the west is a book entitled A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle. Probably millions of people are reading or have read this book by this "spiritual teacher", not least because Oprah Winfrey has chosen to sponsor it in her Book Club. Let's take a look at it, shall we?

First some quotes:

"Wanting is structural, so no amount of content can provide lasting fulfillment as long as that mental structure remains in place." (p. 47) Can anyone explain to me what precisely a 'mental structure' is? It's vague, but, darn it, it sure sounds important. I think he's trying to say our desires are limitless and can never truly be satisfied. But that doesn't really sound new or profound.

"All egoic motivations are self-enhancement and self-interest, sometimes cleverly disguised, even from the person in whom the ego operates." (p. 98) This is opaque, at best. On its face, it has the structure of a logical argument: "All egoic motivations are self-enhancement... etc." but then when you read what it's saying it falls apart. The best I can get from it is something like: "Sometimes we don't even understand why we do the things we do." Okay. I'll buy that. But if that's what he's saying, why wrap it in all those hyphenated and psychological-sounding words.

"There is the dream, and there is the dreamer of the dream. The dream is a short-lived play of forms. It is the world – relatively real but not absolutely real. Then there is the dreamer, the absolute reality in which the forms come and go. The dreamer is not the person. The person is part of the dream. The dreamer is the substratum in which the dream appears, that which makes the dream possible. It is the absolute behind the relative, the timeless behind time, the consciousness in and behind form. The dreamer is consciousness itself – who you are." - (p. 209) Okay, now we seem to be getting down to the nub. This sounds like the doctrine of Maya: all is dream and illusion. But when you start throwing around terms like 'relatively real' and 'absolutely real' you totally lose me. I can venture a guess at what it might mean to be real in either an absolute or a relative way, but there's simply no way that your or his conceptions—or anyone's for that matter—are going to coincide. At best, it's pretentious jargon. Then he throws around terms like 'short-lived play of forms' and 'substratum' and 'consciousness itself' that simply make no sense. I mean, we can pretend or imagine they have some sort of 'metaphysical' (and I use that word advisedly) significance, but when we try to close in on some sort of meaning we can all agree on we become lost in a haze of imprecision. Ask yourself: "assuming I can make some sense of what this quote is saying, what would it mean for it to be false? How could I prove it either right or wrong?" The fact is: you can't.

Let's look a little closer at this last quote. It's an important one in Tolle's scheme of things. He seems to be saying that our true identity is a timeless consciousness. It's a dreamer. Consciousness, by definition, means being conscious of something; being aware of the world around you. Awareness is a function of our senses: I see a thatched hut in the middle of a field of cooled lava, I hear a chorus of voices singing an unfamiliar hymn in an unknown language coming the hut, I catch a faint sweet whiff of corn that has been allowed to rot on the stalk against the background sulfur scent of the sky, I taste the last stale hints of the palm wine I drank (and vomited) last night in the village as it sloshes around in my fetid saliva, and the heat of the noon sun burns the exposed skin on the back of my neck as I cut my bare foot on the sharp, black rocks beneath my feet. I put all that information from my five senses together and that is consciousness. It includes memory and concerns for the future (how am I going to hike up this volcano with a cut foot?). It is a particular experience—one I recall vividly from my trip to Africa. Tolle and I disagree about what consciousness is. As bad as I felt, as hazy and hungover as my brain was, I was still conscious of being in that particular place at that particular time. And I was not dreaming my experience; there was no evil genie tricking each and every one of my senses. Dreaming is, by definition, a state of not being conscious of the world around us, of unconsciousness. Tolle is saying, then, "consciousness is really unconsciousness." Now, that paradox may make sense in some za-Zen sort of way (like the sound of one hand clapping), but I don't believe that's what he's driving at.

Tolle's big point in his book is that humanity needs to be awakened to a new heaven and a new earth. The seat of this awakening lies in the individual—opening the real you to the true essence of reality. It lies in what he calls in an earlier book "The Power of Now." Eschew the past, forego aspiration for the future. Accept what is—a very static vision. [A friend of mine summarized Tolle's "philosophy" quite succinctly thus: "Sit down, shut up, take a 'chill pill', and get over yourself."] In fact, Tolle's is an ethos of disengagement and self-satisfaction (only when you discover who you really are can you be truly happy)—which is all well and good if the world around you is a nice, sweet, comfortable place like Oprah's or her strongly middle- and upper-class congregation. But if the world around you is ugly, nasty, mean, and brutish, no amount of meditation will change it. No mental state (call it awakening, or positive thinking, or complacency, or contentment, or mindlessness, or a happy attitude) is going to get you out of it. One must engage the world, understand its dynamics, work for change—hopefully to make it better. Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle disagree. They advocate passivity, inward-looking; in effect, going to sleep. 'Being' not 'doing'. Don't believe me? Here's Tolle: "Enlightenment means choosing to dwell in the state of presence rather than in time. It means saying yes to what is:" Abu Ghraib, Iraq occupation, Afghanistan, Somalia, environmental crisis, political corruption, financial meltdown, ignorance, delusion, poverty, madness, etc. "Yes. Yes," Tolle says. "Accept those things. Turn off your mind. Don't form opinions about good and bad, right and wrong; simply accept things as they are."

Sorry to say, this is what passes for wisdom in the west these days. And you know what? It pays well!

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