Jennifer Brown's Reviews > The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle
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this may be the worst book i have ever read. here is my response.

The Problem With The Power of Now (besides being Orientalist, essentialist, dualistic, and sexist…)

In The Power Of Now Eckhart Tolle writes: “All problems are illusions of the mind.” The idea of a false self identified with the mind and that “freeing yourself from your mind is the only true liberation” is the premise of his book. It is this identification with the ego and thinking, thinking itself, that is the root of our pain and suffering which is largely unnecessary. “I draw your attention to what is false in you,” he says. Uninterrupted peace, bliss and joy are the reward of living in the present, unthinking moment.

In short, I commented via social media that it’s problematic to say, for instance, that the atrocities that people in Syria are facing in a bloody civil war, and the dehumanizing experiences of the millions of refugees in Jordan and Lebanon are illusions created by their thinking minds. Someone responded that they, however, really like how Eckhart Tolle simplifies Buddhism; and also, didn’t he say that most but not all problems are caused by our thinking?

I have given it some consideration and here is my answer:

Firstly, what makes you think that Eckhart Tolle is talking about Buddhism? (Yes, it’s a loaded question and part of a larger discussion about how the West constructs an “East” for itself). Tolle’s book, rather than teaching Buddhism, presents a selective, self-derived Perennialism. Leading figures in popular Perennialism tend to be white Western male writers, who stand outside of the multitude of religious traditions they judge, making the reductive (and objectionable) claim that the message of all religions is essentially the same. These men (of privilege with academic backgrounds) appoint themselves as expert spokespeople for the “true meaning” of religions that are outside of their culture and cultural heritage; perhaps even beyond the scope of their experience. Perennialists like Tolle tend to dismiss doctrine and what religious practitioners experience as real differences, and to reduce all religious experience to mystical experience, which is unjustified.

Secondly, would you feel comfortable saying that someone had “simplified Christianity” for you, or “simplified Judaism”? Probably not, although it’s possible. The reason that a phrase like that sounds awkward is because we have a sense that Christianity and Judaism, the religious traditions associated with the cultural and intellectual heritage of the West, are not simple. Our general sense is that Christian and Judaic history, philosophy, theology, expression, and influence upon societies is quite complex. On the other hand, it’s common for uninitiated Westerners to assume that Eastern religions are somehow simple, pure, straightforward, accessible, easy to understand, and non-dogmatic. This point of view is considered “colonial” and Orientalist, based upon romanticized notions of the “East” as mystical, spiritual, natural, uncomplicated; intuitive rather than rational, “feeling” rather than “thinking”. Imagine how it would sound for a white person to say, “I really appreciated how that author simplified Black culture for me.” It sounds offensive.

It was pointed out that Tolle didn’t actually say that all problems stem from our illusion driven thinking, only that most of them do. The problem with this is that it implies that these problems—of human rights, war, displacement, poverty, starvation, iniquity, disenfranchisement, genocide, violence against women, despotism, and the effects that all of these have on children—are not the majority of the world’s problems. The implication is that neurotic, ceaseless thinking (in the Western individual) is the major problem and that the problems affecting humanity in mostly non-Western countries, are minor in comparison. This is a dismissive and belittling claim.

I can imagine supporters of Tolle saying that it is the individual thinking problem that causes these egregious crimes against humanity, but in The Power Of Now, that is not a valid assertion. In The Power Of Now there is no past or future, we can’t appeal to cause and effect. If I truly reside in the “Now,” I’m not in a position to make statements about other people’s minds and the consequences of their thoughts. To account for this, Tolle says that we may move between the “Now” and the “not-Now,” in order to attend to the practical demands of daily life. When someone asks how to do this he literally says, just “do it.” But living and taking action in two worlds is precisely the problem that confronts us.

At points throughout The Power Of Now, audience members question Tolle and when the questions happen to challenge the integrity of the point he’s trying to make, he says that they simply don’t understand because they are thinking with their mind. It is akin to saying, “If you were enlightened like me, you would know what I am talking about” or, “The reason you don’t understand what I’m saying, is that you don’t understand what I’m saying.” It’s circular and has no real meaningful content. This type of rhetoric is the kind used in any extremist endeavor—in it we become mired in an absolutist subjectivity that says, “My experience represents a universal truth and everything in our discussion must conform to my idea of it. If you don’t intuitively feel the way I do, I have no responsibility to seek resolution between my ideas and yours. I have no responsibility to seek objectivity within myself.” (The manifestation of this attitude on a national scale is fascism).

Tolle says that in the present moment there is unshakable peace, ease, timelessness, the joy of being, enlightenment, freedom, and “your true nature.” “Being in the Now” is offered as the solution to suffering, fear, separation, pain, anxiety, struggle, and “collective mind patterns.” Very quickly however, he has to admit (as do all people who take a similar stance) that there is a real world that is not the Now, in which we must live and function. This is the world of time, change, memory, other minds, real entities and personalities, anything we encounter that isn’t my “Now.” The Power of Now promises a unity beyond this-and-that; the truth behind the illusory, but instantaneously we are presented with the duality of an absolute truth and a relative truth. All Tolle can do is to admit that we must live in both worlds. The needling problem remains: two “Nows” that divide us. Tolle, in effect, is just saying: Just do what you have to do and try not to think about it.

Commentators on the Buddha’s teachings say that he refused to enter into metaphysical questions about the two worlds that divide man, that his only goal was to end suffering. This was a noble and utterly radical idea at the time, born of an extraordinary compassion. But it doesn’t overcome duality; and the mystery of Being lies in the problem of duality. The sense that there is a subjective and objective, an ultimate and a practical, a mental and a material aspect to man and the world is the cipher that inspires the question of our own Being. How does there exist in man two seeming worlds in his unified experience? Tolle and his form of Buddhism cannot lead us to a resolution that involves our full Being—that is, a being for whom memory, the phenomenal world, sense impressions, ideas, and emotions are real, whole, and unified in human experience. All this teaching can do is to say: “Here are the reasons man suffers. If you don’t want to suffer you can aspire to a blissful transcendent state by ceasing to have human experiences as a human. Beyond this, we have no comment.”

Buddhism (as well as Science), in saying, “Your perceptions are illusory” cannot resolve the fact of human-in-world experience for us. And it is this bare fact of human experience as the communion of interiority and exteriority, of what is at once perceived as empty yet utterly apparent, that we are interested in if we are interested in the mystery of existence and its pain. Eckhart Tolle, it seems, is not.



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April 24, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
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