Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Book Snap: Eckhart Tolle's "A New Earth"

From the February 2009 E-Block.


I'm having a strange sense, these days, of Deja vu -- that books I read have been reincarnated!

I had no idea what I'd be in for when I read Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth, but what I found is that it is of a piece with that which has gone before -- ranging from the chapters of Wayne Dyer in the past to the teachings of Joel Osteen in the present. Tolle, of course, is closer to the Dyer side of the spiritual weight room; but it remains that all three of these have written works that can be roughly divided into the same three sections.

Good Advice to Be Had

Yes, Tolle gives some good advice. Most of it can be summed up nicely in the turn of phrase, "Make it all like water off a duck's back." With Tolle, this comes by way of Eastern (notably Buddhist) perceptions that you can eliminate a lot of your suffering if you get rid of your desires (especially the more pedantic, materialistic ones). You'll find that in Dyer and Osteen as well, not because it is honed to any particular religious template, but because it's just good sense: We inflict a lot of our own pain with senseless worry, and desire for that which we don't have and don't really need. We also, as Tolle notes, inflict on ourselves a lot of harm because of ego.

That said, Tolle's understanding of "ego" is such that his advice to kill it amounts to identity-euthanasia; his recommendations effect a cure by killing the patient. "Ego" for Tolle is more than just inflated self-image; it is also "identification with form" [22] in the material world (as opposed to the mystical oneness of Consciousness), and all sorts of human behavior considered otherwise normal or acceptable (as well as, of course, certain immoral behaviors) turn out to be guaranteed ego-feeders ready to send you into Tolle's "hell" of non-enlightenment:

  • "The quicker you are in attaching verbal or mental labels to things, people, or situations, the more shallow and lifeless your reality becomes, and the more deadened you become to reality, the miracle of life that continuously unfolds within and around you." [26-7] Indeed? There's no logical connection to be had here; Tolle has merely declared, arbitrarily, that attaching labels is shallow; and has also arbitrarily declared that "reality" lies in not doing so. How does he know or justify this? He does not. Moreover, is not this a sentence filled with labels of what will be -- deadened, shallow, lifeless -- if you do not follow his advice? Tolle's advice to avoid labels presupposes labels as a way to identify the problems that labelling supposedly causes.
  • "In normal, everyday usage, 'I' embodies the primordial error, a misperception of who you are, an illusory sense of identity." [27] I found this statement ironic, given what I had learned before about Rastafarian beliefs:
    Rastafarian everyday language reflects this cosmic perception of oneness with the Creator. Of particular note is what may seem an excessive use of the personal pronoun I, which actually exhibits a deep philosophical significance. Rather that saying "we," a Rastafarian may say, "I-n-I" -- symbolizing "a rejection of subservience in Babylonian culture and an affirmation of self as an active agent in the creation of one's own reality and identity." [35] Rather than say "I went home," the Rastafarian may say "I and I went home" in order "to include the presence and divinity of the Almighty with himself every time he speaks." The two "I"s constitute the individual and the Creator who resides within. [36] Recognizing one's oneness with the divine is what constitutes Rastafarian soteriology: "(P)roblems in human conduct result from inadequacies in consciousness, not from an ontological dichotomy between creature and creator." [37]

    Given Tolle's premise, Rastafarians are under far greater influence of this primordial illusion than anyone else!

  • Even complaining in a restaurant about your soup being cold can be an exercise in ego [63]. Tolle reassures us, though, that as long as you stick to facts ("this soup is cold") and don't involve yourself ("how dare you serve me cold soup") you're not actually indulging the ego. Indeed, be careful, because you have a "me" inside you that "loves to feel personally offended by the cold soup and is going to make the most of it" because it makes someone else wrong. [63-4] In fact, this ego is such a sneaky fellow that it it can even contaminate simple assertions of fact, any time you make a self-reference such as "me" or "I", and even telling someone news of something creates "an imbalance in your favor between you and the other person" that feeds the ego. [82] (Hmm, I had always heard that newscasters had enormous egos; perhaps now we know why?)

Tolle's solution to all of this "ego"? Again, it amounts to a form of epistemological surrender: Don't ask yourself who you are, or what your purpose is; inner peace will be granted only if you simply admit that you don't know the answer to either of these questions. [90] Don't defend yourself when insulted or even when accused of some moral failing. [199-200, 215] Live only in the present moment; what you do in that moment is your purpose. [263] Accept uncertainty as the way things are rather than fighting it [274].

To some extent, there is indeed wisdom in these directives. Humility, and not worrying about the future, are sound courses, and if that were all Tolle were offering, it would be non-controversial. However, Tolle's advice simply swings the pendulum too far. In essence, it is a baby and bathwater solution, little different than Dyer's prescription to define problems out of existence. It is also not likely one that is able to be fully and practically implemented; Tolle of all people certainly enacts a role and a purpose, even if he might deny that he thinks he has one. And one can only be amazed at all these minor things Tolle labels (despite his admonitions against affixing labels) as effects of the ego. Indeed, it seems rather ironic that one who sees such serious offense in even sharing news with others, describes human wars and conflict as the result of "extreme collective paranoia." [120] It seems, rather, more paranoid to see "ego" as so insiduous that one cannot even share the news of one's birthday or graduation without indulging it.

Beyond this, Tolle extends into the realm of metaphysical quackery with much of what he offers. For example, if you empty your mind and focus attention of some part of your body, and this results in a "slight tingling sensation" followed by a "subtle feeling of aliveness," this is you experiencing your "inner body" which is "like energy, the bridge between form and formlessness." [52-3] I am not a physician, but I have a sneaking suspicion that some other, more mundane explanation could be provided for such phenomena by a competent neurologist.

Similarly, all of Tolle's professions concerning ego are apparently rooted in a conception that " a form of psychic energy" [85] upon which the ego feeds. And, "the universe" itself effects a form of karmic justice so that the more you cooperate with others, the better things will go for you, while the more you exclude others, the less happy your life will be. [123] It seems peculiar that at the heart of so much of what Tolle offers, we manage to find a conveniently non-disprovable premise, without which the entire thesis collapses.

Tolle's quackery seems to be confirmed by other odd statements as well, such as this one in service of remedies like homeopathic medicene: "According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, medical treatment is the third-leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer in the United States." [75] Unfortunately, we are given no reference for what issue of JAMA contains this fact; but investigation reveals that the source of this claim is from a study that does some terminological shimmying to reach that conclusion (see here for a discussion of the article). As it is, "medical treatment" is still not taken to be an official category when evaluating causes of death such as cancer and lung disease.

Nor is Tolle particularly well-versed in history, as he manages to attribute between 3-5 million women's deaths to the Inquisition. [156] Tolle is mixing up the Inquisition with the witch hunts, and in either case overstating the number of deaths by a factor of 100.

However, Tolle's most fantastic invention of all is his equivalent to the Christian who thinks that Satan is doing things like stealing car keys [121f]: What Tolle calls the "pain-body." We'll talk about this more in the last section.

Biblical Reimaginings

A writer like Tolle who is not a Christian (just like Dyer) for some reason inevitably finds it useful to fold Jesus into the recipe; they never seem able to just say, "Well, Jesus was actually wrong, so we will not use his teachings." ("Some reason" is perhaps that it will be necessary to borrow from the Bible's moral capital in the Western world in order to persuade readers that his system is viable.) Just as inevitably, using the Bible means severely decontextualizing it; and just as Dyer did, Tolle reimagines Biblical texts in mystical, Eastern terms foreign to the original contexts. (Tolle's own religious outlook is indeed roughly Eastern and pantheistic, as he speaks of all life-forms as "temporary manifestations" of Consciousness [capital C intact] [4] and advocates reincarnation [292].) Thus it extends, even to lingusitic exegesis:

  • The NT Biblical word for sin, hamartia, means "missing the mark." Tolle reads this to mean that we "miss the point of human existence." This is arrived at, we are told, by removing from the term "cultural baggage and misinterpretations." [9] What justification there is for stripping a specific Greek word of its specific contextual meaning is not explained.
  • The "new heaven and earth" means "the emergence of a transformed state of human consciousness" and its resultant physical manifestatios.
  • Jesus' admonition to let one who takes your cloak also have your tunic is turned from a shaming device against a greedy prosecutor, into a lesson on "letting things go."[41]
  • Jesus on the cross is an archaetype of suffering, which is good experience for "burning up the ego." [102]

There are many more such forced interpretations in Tolle's work; for a more complete analysis, please see the work of regular Tekton guest writer Nick Peters here.

The Failsafe System

No book like this is complete without a conveniently non-disprovable system of getting what you want, designed in such a way that it is always your fault if you fail (and you can't prove otherwise). Osteen does it with his misapplication of the principles of Christian prayer; Dyer does it with careful and impossible qualifications, and infinite caveats for patience. For Tolle, there are more than a couple of unmeasurable roadblocks to universal enlightenment that are well beyond our control:

  • The "collective ego" represented by things like old religious institutions will "defend itself and 'fight back.'" (In that case, Tolle has bought himself plenty of time, given the prominence of the monotheistic faiths in the Third World these days.)
  • A big roadblock is one we alluded to briefly earlier: the so-called "pain-body." According to Tolle, we are all inhabited by one of these beastly things, which is essentially a psychic entity that feeds upon our own suffering and that of others. For Tolle, the pain-body explains why some infants cry for no apparent reason: They have a "heavy share of pain" taken either from the collective of humanity, or else they have been "absorbing energy from their parents' pain-bodies." It is also why so many people relate to the figure of Christ on the cross (clearly, Tolle is not aware that this is an image that people of the first century did not relate to, but found repugnant).

    The pain-body explains quite a bit more as well. It "seeks emotional negativity" [145] and lives through you. It looks to provoke other people and feed on their pain [148]. It takes over the body itself when a person is drunk [149], provokes us to watch violent films [153], causes traffic accidents [162] (in which people "unconsciously" want the accidents to happen), and is especially active in women during menstruation [155]. We need only rewrite Romans 7 and put in "pain-body" where Paul wrote in "sin" to get the whole picture.

    What to do about this "pain-body"? Since it can't be located with an MRI and extracted, Tolle recommends, once you recognize that you have one [161], that you shrink it by no longer identifying with it. "The energy that was trapped in the pain-body then changes its vibrational frequency and is transmuted into Presence," [162] and we'll be happier. Tolle also advises us to live in the present moment, and not classify events as good or bad, for those labels are "ultimately illusory." [196]

    Tolle's explanation here sounds a little too much like Joel Osteen's famous "parking space" story: Tolle appeals to a theoretical example of a man who was in an accident that sent him to the hospital, which in turn meant he was not home when a fire broke out at his home that would have killed him. My reply to Osteen on that point serves hauntingly just as well here:

    Second, his system too easily redefines problems out of existence. Thus in YBL (41-2) he gives the example of searching for a parking spot in a crowded lot. Osteen thanks God for a good space when he finds one, but what if you do not find one? Then, he says, " get out and walk, and with every step, you thank God that you are strong and healthy and have the ability to walk." And he explains further of a time when he didn't find a parking space close by (43):

    "...God has my best interests at heart...He is working for my good. A delay may spare me from an accident. Or a delay may cause me to bump into somebody that needs to be encouraged, somebody that needs to see a smile."

    There is good reason for this methodology to disturb us. Atheist Dan Barker, in his original book Losing Faith in Faith...tells much the same story of his quests for parking spaces - even having used the same Scripture that Osteen does, Romans 8:28: "All things work together for good to them that love the Lord." Before long, the logical strain becomes apparent: What of the person whose delay in finding a space caused them to get into an accident? To be sure, we are counseled to always be thankful to God, and we should be. Nevertheless, if we persist in a vision of God as a micromanager to this extent, then inevitably, we are compelled to rationalization as Barker was, ending up as he did, driving in random directions under the prompting of an inner voice, and ending up in the middle of a vacant lot thinking it was a test of our faith.

    The only difference in the system is that whereas Osteen appeals to a God of providence, Tolle appeals to karmic justice. Nevertheless, the results are the same: The system is conveniently non-disprovable, and must be rescued through contuining epicycles of rationalization.

  • Finally, by the time you get to the end of Tolle's book, you're wondering what the ultimate solution is to become enlightened, or receive "awakening," as he calls it. On that Tolle has bad -- but rather convenient -- news: Getting awakening started is not something you can do yourself; it is an "act of grace"! [259] No logical steps. Nothing you can do to get it going. The ego can delay it, though, and if you read Tolle's book and got yourself a burning in the bosom [260], you might already be on the way. Otherwise, to use the parlance, if you're wanting enlightment -- you're out of luck. There's no greater failsafe than a system where you can't even control the start of the program.

With failsafes like these also comes a marked inability to detect internal inconsistency in one's system. Tolle, for all his counsel to kill ego and self and relinquish arrogance, has not actually abandoned it but rather sanitized it -- into an egotism so pure that it is completely unaware of itself. How else to read that Tolle sees his work as being a tool for the transformation of all human consciousness? How else that he sees himself free to reimagine Biblical texts and install his subjective reading apart from informing contexts? How else that is just so happens that Tolle is one of those "rare individuals" [16] who experienced the necessary shift in consciousness that is otherwise so hard to get, if not indeed impossible to get? How can Tolle dismiss words as being unable to "explain who you are, or the ultimate purpose of the universe, or even what a tree or stone is in its depth" [27] after writing a 300 page book full of words?

Tolle's explanation for the latter point, that words are not truth but only "point to it," [71] is merely epistemological gibberish: Simply put, religious theorists of Tolle's variety have contrived explanations like these in order to make "the truth" inaccessible and conveniently non-disprovable. In The New Earth, what we have is the latest in an endless series of works which have promised the moon to humanity. Inevitably, we have to wonder when readers out there will realize that Tolle is indeed offering nothing different than what Osteen, Dyer, and countless others have already offered -- and that if it didn't work before, it won't work in this new package, either.

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