Paying the Tolle on the road to ‘Now’

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.

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16 thoughts on “Paying the Tolle on the road to ‘Now’”

  1. I’m not terribly familiar with Eckhart Tolle but, from the way you describe him, he sounds like he’s a fountain that spews nebulous fluffy twaddle that, while sounding superficially profound, has all the inherent depth of a small puddle. Maybe he and Deepak Chopra should go for a drink sometime? I’m sure they’ll be able to talk for hours without expressing a single coherent or meaningful thought (although they would be able to sell a shit-load of books for the “Mind, Body, and Spirit” section in Waterstones).

  2. I find both Deepak and Ecky to be equally draining to listen to. What skill Eckhart has in the use of ambiguous and meaningless mantras are matched by Deepaks borderline abusive use of scientific terms to support his retarded form of bollocks. I’d love to write a blog about Shallow-ak but it would need a whole book to cover all the flaws in his logic and bullshit theories and I don’t have the patience to wade through his material. Maybe if I take a year off and get a sufficient supply of sedatives.

  3. Interesting. I read Tolle’s first book and considered is psychobabble.. I’ve been flummoxed by how so many intelligent, educated people have been taken in by his drivel. Yes there is value in living in the present. I think of that as awareness and mindfulness. Would that we could learn from the mistakes don’t repeat them, let go of the past…..and plan for the future without living there. Sometimes we spend our lives in busyness and fail to be grateful for and/or to observe what is around us in the moment. But I certainly don’t get any of that out of Tolle’s epistles on nothingness. I see nothing wrong in reading self help New Thought books. But do so with a healthy dose of common sense. Take what you can and leave the rest behind. I read Neale Walsh’s Conversations with God, and took it in as a metaphor for living a certain way. I’ve read books by the kings and queens of self-help.with the understanding that they have disciples who are making them wealthy beyond their imaginations mostly gullible people seeking “wholeness” through the newest self help philosophy . For me meditating, eating healthy, helping others, being loving, kind, and grateful for what I’ve been blessed with….assist me in not letting my neuroses rule my life.

  4. First of all, there is nothing special or spiritual about the present moment aka now.
    We all experience it directly as the time and place where we truly exist, i.e. the activity of breathing, heart beating, being aware of thoughts about the past or projection of the future are always happening in the present moment. No one is ever apart from the present moment because there is no other moment or time to be alive and think.

    There is no time like the present and there is no rewards in the present.either,people are mislead to falsely believe they have to be in the moment to be happy and that becomes a mind-fuck concept that implies they are not there already and have to strive getting there.. Like the beattles song, “Life is what is happening while people are busy making plans.”

    Thoughts are a natural phenomena of consciousness which itself is an emergent phenomena of the brain cells activity, people that are physiologically disturbed like suffering from depression or bipolar or schizo have some form of chemical imbalance in their brain.

    Many are not diagnosed properly or are afraid of medication so they try a more natural or alternative medicine called new age bullshit. In fact all these self-appointed gurus use the same recipe, they were depressed, unhappy, addicted to alcohol or drugs and one day they ‘awaken’ to some higher power or consciousness.

    Obviously God, soul, spirit are human inventions use to explain misunderstood natural phenomena and death. Gautama Buddha rejected the concept of a Creator or God, as well as a spirit or soul. Hinduism had created a false dualism of the ego-self or finite self and the Infinite Self. Of course both are false also.

    I find it ironic that the more self-appointed ‘spiritual’ gurus have been coming out of the wood work the past decades because they overcame their unhappiness, addiction or childhood depression by turning to Eastern religion, and are now selling spiritual carrots they have hijacked from these religion that were invented by the Aryan people that moved to India from the russian steppes, the more people inside industrial countries like the US are becoming more narcissistic, more selfish and are only concerned about themselves by becoming more self-centered. They call that state of self-indulgence working on themselves. Of course the world is not going toward a higher consciousness or mass spiritual awakening, but has already entered the sixth mass extinction. Pretty sad indeed.

  5. comparing Jesus (unless your speaking of another Jewish carpenter) to Tolle is like comparing apples to Zorro. Jesus is not in any way about the now. Tolle on the other hand is of the belief if you cant convince them utterly confuse them. He is all about the money his inner piece of the big pie.

  6. Nope, you completely missed it…maybe in ten or twenty years you will begin to understand (a huge maybe).

  7. Some of what Tolle says is true-but not new to me personally. I am already aware. I know what Tolle speaks of, however It’s lame he’s decided to capitalize on what he’s learned. Isn’t that rather hypocritical of him?
    He’s a master of semantics, I’ll give him that.

  8. OMG thank you, I thought I was the only one who can’t make any sense of what this man is (or is not) saying. Completely useless

  9. What Tolle says/writes usually falls into one or more of the three categories that follow:

    (1) It is something already said by Buddhism, Daoism, Stoicism, Psychology, etc.
    (2) It is an obvious tautology or truism.
    (3) It involves a spurious claim which there is no direct proof for, nor any effort expended to provide for.

    Examples:

    Pain body = karma
    Be in the “now” = Daoism, Buddhism, psychology
    Letting go of the past = mindfulness, psychology
    Resignation to reality = Stoicism, DBT’s “radical acceptance” (psychology)

    He’s just regurgitating stuff from other pop self-help books, psychology, and Eastern religion. He’s making himself sound all mystical likely because it suits his purpose — other writers/speakers are not nearly as flashy, even when saying exactly the same things. A lot of what he says is true either because it’s part of psychology, Eastern religion, or it’s a tautology/truism — this doesn’t mean one will necessarily get something out of it, it just means that it’s true in some respect. Not all true things are useful for self-development (e.g. “the sky is blue” is a phrase which is unlikely to bring on enlightenment, yet it is true, nonetheless).

    What concerns me the most is how inarticulate he is. People who really understand these concepts can speak about them fluidly and help others understand them without invoking the thought: “this is so difficult that I can’t understand it, so he must know more than I do.” — A lot of people hide behind that notion. Simply because something is difficult, doesn’t mean it’s true or that someone knows more than you, as they could just be spouting nonsense. While not all that he says is nonsense, sometimes, Tolle does spout nonsense that doesn’t go anywhere — and I say this as someone who has studied Eastern religion and philosophy for almost a decade. Think, though: if he were talking about, say, art supplies and not enlightenment, and going around in circles and making up terminology (e.g. “pain body”), would you think of him as brilliant or insane? More often than not, when someone speaks of religion or spirituality and isn’t making sense, people care considerably less than if they’re speaking about something else. Perhaps they think: what if they are further along than we are and this is “the way” and we just don’t know it yet? Because there’s a possibility that they can be helped by him, they give him the benefit of the doubt. This is why people get angry when you tell them that Tolle’s speech and writing sounds like nonsense — to them, he may hold the key to a door they’ve been staring at for years and couldn’t go through on their own. Yet, have they gone through it now? If they need to keep buying more of his books and DVDs and listening to him again and again, how effective could he really be? If he’s really effective, shouldn’t they be done? Shouldn’t they be “free” or “awakened” by now? — And why would someone who is free or awakened need to buy more books or DVDs or see more seminars to remind themselves? Do you think an awakened person needs reminding of how awakened they are? — Rather, when someone puts you in the position of having to buy more of what they’re offering just to get the same feeling you did the first time…what does that sound like to you? Enlightenment? Really? Because, it sounds more like a drug dealer to me.

    1. Love everything you said. Fantastic summary of what annoys me about Tolle. I would add that anybody who releases essentially the same crap in reworked form over and over again, is doing so in the knowledge that he is taking people for their money. I honestly find him to be an opportunist and a snake oil salesman even if he occasionally peppers in nuggets of truth/wisdom from actual great thinkers from the past.

    2. When I read Tolle’s first book, I did find nuggets of truth but mostly it was as you describe. From my perspective we are all on our own paths so what resonates for one person doesn’t necessarily do so for another. Frankly I became so bored with what I termed his “psychobabble” I didn’t finish the book. I personally wouldn’t buy anything by him or pay to see him speak. I do think there is value for me and for others to read or hear particular messages over and over because we “forget.” I recall reading Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements, and finding a great deal of wisdom in what he had to say, even though some of what he had to say I’ve heard in other forums and said in different ways. I think it is human nature to default back to being “asleep” and having reminders – whether they are daily, weekly, monthly or in the form of a variety of communications, is not necessarily a bad thing. I think that is why those who are religiously devout, go to church regularly because they need to be reminded of what they believe. I just think Tolle’s not a particularly effective communicator, although his perceived messages are not bad. The fact that he’s making money is more a testament to the fact most people who are seekers, are seeking answers to their deepest held questions about the meaning of life, outside of themselves for “so-called” wise men. I’ve read more than my fair share of self-help books. I’ve awakened but it’s a process…..and the journey never ends. I’ll continue reading those who inspire me; it’s just Tolle doesn’t inspire me. His messages are too opaque. However, if he makes money off people for synthesizing information gained from other sources, more power to him. Law of supply and demand! :=)

  10. I think there is value in Tolle. It may be enlightenment 101, but a lot of people have just never thought about it, so if it brings someone closer to awareness – all to the good.

    Then there is Krishnamurti — no spirituality, no religion,no bullshit – just an observation of how the human mind works:

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