This is the fourth instalment of my weekly, well almost weekly, blog on Skepticism/Atheism/Science. This week I have the subject of a spiritual guru, although he prefers not to be called that, in the form of Eckhart Tolle. Our buddy Eckhart is one of the leading spiritual authors around and a firm favourite of, if book sales are to be trusted, tens of thousands of people. He preaches, if that’s a suitable description, a kind of “live for the now” philosophy which I find disturbingly similar to a “take no thought for the morrow” approach of a slightly better know Jewish carpenter. Proponents of Tolle’s approach say that he is a guiding light and inspiration to them and that his philosophy of appreciating the now is a true key to happiness. Critics would be more along the lines of saying that his pointless rambling, works only to confuse and disorientate the reading into assuming there is actually more being said than we can hear. Well, maybe that’s just my opinion, but with vacuous statements like “stillness is the only thing in the world that has no form”, I’m just happy that my previous sentence was typed without my bullshit induced, keyboard tourettes kicking in.
Tolle has, to date, at least according to Wikipedia, released seven books, five DVDs and hosted an online seminar. The main message of these works is to convey the idea that the Now is what is important and that dwelling on the past or future only serves to prevent happiness and improperly guide our decisions. This in itself is a fairly noble and possibly partially correct ideal, in principle, that I think should be at least considered by most people at some point. This, however, is not where Tolle stops with this broad analysis. Oh no, no! You don’t fill seven books and five DVDs unless you are a talker and our buddy Eckhart is an expert at speaking at length while managing to say sweet fuck all. Let’s take some examples shall we so we can get a proper appreciation for his message?
I mentioned above, the quote about stillness being the only thing in this world that has no form. This quote has a similar relationship with a meaning, as stillness claims to have with form, and by that I mean it lacks one. This quote is what Daniel Dennett might refer to as a deepity. An example of a deepity would be the phrase “Love is only a word”. On the one hand, this statement is true but lacks any fucking meaning whatsoever. Love is a word and so fucking what. On the other hand, it’s deep while being completely incorrect. Love is much more than a word in this case, it is about dedication and sacrifice and a desire to help make someone else’s life better, occasionally, at your own expense. I’m fairly sure I’m selling love short here but you get my meaning nonetheless. Eckhart’s stillness quote is the same in that it only ventures into the realm of depth when it becomes untrue. Even when depth is granted to it, the statement is dependent on appreciating the sentiment rather than listening to its content. The full quote is –
stillness is the only thing in the world that has no form. But then, it is not really a thing, and it is not of this world.
Way to be specific Ecky (my new nickname for him) and not leave any room for interpretation. The vagueness of the statement and lack of any point whatsoever serves to insulate it from criticism. If you are saying nothing, then what is there to criticise? The only truly revolutionary thing going on here is strangely related to physics. It is, by all conventional wisdom in the physics world, impossible to destroy information, yet Eckhart Tolle seems to be doing the closest approximation to it when he speaks. I can almost feel the anarchy take hold of my mind and the information disappearing, never to be retrieved again.
Watching Tolle’s videos is a similar experience. You get the distinct impression that there are many words missing from each of his sentences and you are left unsure as to whether this is intentionally done to create effect or not. Eckhart utters sentences like –
Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment.
This appears intentionally vague and misleading. His confident leaning and flippant laugh seem to be tailored to provide misdirection and to invoke doubt in the mind of the listener in the event that they choose to dismiss his teachings too quickly. This leads to people like me straining to maintain an objective view on what he is saying and waiting for the message to become clear or even show any signs of existing at all. Remaining open minded is only a virtue up to a certain point; when that point is reached, then you are obliged out of self respect to cry “Bollox”! This is a common topic in alternative philosophies and something skeptics will regularly have thrown back at them when expressing criticism. Cries of an intolerant mind, bound by the overly rigourous constraints of modern thinking and the scientific dismissal of the transcendental, can be heard from the herd if you will excuse the use of homophones so closely placed in a sentence. All this ambiguity has a solution however, because help is at hand. Those missing words, that are so glaringly absent and that could turn what seems like a bunch of circular, nonsensical shit into a meaningful message are all apparently stored in his numerous books. Books on how to “Live in the Now” and become ‘insert vague, non-descript bullshit here’. It has to be pointed out that for a guy who describes his philosophy as being incredibly simple, he sure has a hard fucking time describing it and a constant stream of books would lend credence to the notion that maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t have a fucking clue.
Moving on, I look for another pearl of wisdom and after a quick search about Eckhart on Google, I come across one of his many YouTube videos. From one of these gems of insight, I get this direct quote (grammar might be a little changed due to his liberal association with proper sentence structure):.
Instead of going through life and reacting to the content that arises in your life, continuously new things, thoughts, emotions, external events, people, places, the scenery around you changes continuously, that’s all content. Instead of reacting to content, the content is allowed to be… and then you are aware of and just being aware of identified with what arises in the now you become aware of the now itself, beyond the phenomena that arise in it. That is the miracle of transformation of consciousness.
Well, I think we can all agree that nothing more needs to be said on that point. Fairly self explanatory really! In case you missed it however I will add some key behavioural nuances that might be lost in the transcription from video material to written quote. Here is the actual quote –
Instead of going through life and reacting to the content (pause to allow people to absorb) that arises in your life,(run on sentence so you don’t dwell too long on what is or is not being said) continuously new things, thoughts, emotions, external events, people, places, the scenery around you changes continuously, that’s all content (still said nothing but he’s smiling as though you as an audience member should be nodding in agreement and realisation). Instead of reacting to content, the content is allowed to be (btw, this is not him saying that content is allowed to exist, it’s him not finishing his fucking sentence, honestly check it out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yW6-iD713No&feature=related )… and then you are aware of and just being aware of identified with what arises in the now you become aware of the now itself (smile as though you have actually made a fucking point), beyond the phenomena that arise in it (a sound of popping coming from the exploding heads of anybody with a skeptical tilt who happens to be listening to him). That is the miracle of transformation of consciousness (close eyes for a couple of seconds to add effect).
Excellent, how about one last final gem of wisdom and see if we can gain as much sense from that as we did from the quote above –
Where does your sense of self come from, the conceptual? The concepts in your mind? Or does it come not from any kind of thought, but from that which is deeper than thought. The stillness, the depths, the presence that you are. And that’s the, that’s the liberation, it’s when the sense of who you are comes out of the presence of… of who you are in essence which is the consciousness that you are… It is no longer of absolute importance what your life situation is. (Eckhart then goes on to describe the “now”).
So the question is, does either of these messages deliver a piercing insight into the pitfalls of the human condition? Are the day to day challenges faced by every one of us now put into perspective, leaving them seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Have we reached, dare I say it, Nirvana? No? Ah well, you can’t say that we didn’t try.
If I am to give my honest impression of Mr Tolle it is this – his teachings are hugely open to interpretation, which although useful when reinterpreted into something positive, don’t actually have any worth in themselves. His lecture or talks are littered with hugely ambiguous sentence structures that trigger suspicion on my part that his transformation to a being of complete contentment was somehow linked to a neurological problem. It is almost as though he has fabricated a persona that looks to exploit the patience we have when talking to people with stroke-like symptoms and our need to simplify the more complicated aspects of our day to day lives. His philosophy could be argued as a way of forcing you to discover your own interpretation, and apply it to your self. If this is the case then it is an expensive and highly suspect approach and one that I am not willing to believe in. It’s true to say that any philosophy when interpreted in a certain way can lead to positive changes in somebody’s life, but it says nothing about the truth of that philosophy but instead only points to the fact that it is sufficiently vague. Rather than giving people the tools to focus the drives and ambitions they have, he tells you “to generate negative fields of trying to find the self”. I don‘t see how confused language like this, which incorporates and exploits scientific misconceptions amongst the general public, can be anything other than a scam, even if it is one that is believed by the messenger himself
I know that I can be condemned by proponents of Tolle’s philosophy for having a closed mind or being unable to appreciate the message he is trying to convey. These people may be right but in my opinion they are bleating after a false prophet who has little of nothing to say. This smug rodent-esque little holy-man (and he is a holy-man in the most pejorative sense of the term) has little or no value to people with real problems. He is the placebo to philosophical thought. Somebody whose teachings act as a mental sugar pill aimed at convincing his listeners that they are witness to a privileged understanding of the universe. It’s the age old promise of knowledge that is exclusively yours, at a price, and entitles you to a unique status, at least in your own mind.