Folks, this is gonna be "one of those" posts—actually, it's going to be several of them—so if you have no stomach for philosophizing, especially when that philosophizing takes a self-indulgent turn, you might want to move on to something else. We'll get back to the brass-tacks stuff later.
Fact is, I'm debating whether this will be my final series of posts in the life of SHAMblog. The subject of this series, Eckhart Tolle (shown; and is there an odder-looking person on the planet?), might say I'm having that debate with the entity inside me that is my true self. In any case, the debate has been ongoing for weeks now, and it's coming to a head. More on that in subsequent days as we close out our discussion of Tolle, who, you see, is as good a note as any to end this blog on, if it comes to that. Almost a lock to become 2008's Rhonda Byrne, he embodies all that is the New Age, with its opiate-for-the-masses marketability. I think I have simply grown weary of watching intellect demeaned as the culture goes down in a hail of bullshit.
(Apologies for the language, which, already with that last line, is more raw than what you're used to from me, and may get still more raw as we go. Those who've been here for a while know that I've tried to hold the line on propriety. But we all have our limits. Put it down to "artistic license," redeeming social value and all that.)
I also apologize for the fact that this post assumes some familiarity with Tolle's work on the reader's part. Can't be helped. I can't take the time to explain everything that he believes here, in part because I'm not sure that everything he believes is explicable. But if you're not yet familiar with Tolle and his teachings, don't worry, you soon will be. Oprah has embraced his most recent book, A New Earth, as the latest marquee property for her 700,000-member Book Club; she's making Tolle the beneficiary of the same unstoppable marketing machine that helped transform a quirky little Australian thing called The Secret into a cultural bellwether and the defining self-improvement work of our time worldwide. In the coming months, there's going to be no escaping Eckhart Tolle, even if you try.
Notwithstanding my sarcasm a few graphs ago, we'll begin with an admission that may shock many of you who do know a little something about Tolle. I've been reading the works in Tolle's Power of Now trilogy*, beginning with that book and moving forward through Stillness Speaks and A New Earth—and I find some significant points of agreement between us. Or maybe a more accurate way of putting that would be, I find that I don't disagree with some of his core "givens" as much as I thought I would. Obviously my agreement doesn't make either of us right. It just means that we have some similar ideas about people. I agree, for example, that you are not your thoughts—which is to say, that there is something far deeper that makes us who we are and impels each of us to do the things we do. (That was one reason for my poll question a few weeks back about the tension between intellect and emotion in individual decision-making. Personally, I suspect that the mind spends much of its time trying to make sense of, or rationalize, the things we've already "decided" to do at that deeper level.) However, I vehemently disagree with Tolle that this "under-thing," if you will, can be (a) neatly segregated from the more apparent/overt thing, (b) diagnosed as a new thing unto itself**, (c) calibrated in terms of the degree to which it represents who you really are or what you have in common with others, and/or (d) tamed or trained. I do not think such calculations and modifications can be made—certainly not willfully by each of us as we "work on ourselves."
You may, in fact, be the very last person who can ever attain true self-knowledge, let alone self-control.
But I'm skipping ahead. It's too soon to talk about implementation. For today, my main point is that Tolle's body of work, fascinating and even idealistically uplifting though it may be (and it is), suffers from a number of core-level flaws that are so crippling as to render it almost meaningless as a serious philosophy of life, or even a serious work of spirituality (if such a phrase is not an oxymoron to begin with, that is).
To take things point by point (and we'll have time for Point 1 here):
1. You cannot use the mind to "step outside" the mind. And it's the most extreme form of intellectual dishonesty to even imply that you can—i.e., that you've abandoned or transcended your conscious thought process (and/or your ever-demanding ego) in order to find another, more exalted plane of being. How can you ever know that? Any introspective analysis of the human mind is necessarily weakened and corrupted by the fact that the only tool we have for performing that analysis is the human mind itself. Put another way: No analysis that makes use of the mind can be independent of the mind. (And every analysis uses the mind, even if you don't think that's what you're doing.) That means no such analysis can be truly self-critical, either. In all likelihood, the greater perceptive power that Tolle used in reaching his insights about the deficiencies of ego and conscious thought is just another alcove of his mind or a manifestation of his ego. One is mindful of the old chestnut in philosophy regarding whether a human being can ever reach true objectivity, given that the analysis is being performed by a highly biased human being. (This is also a very practical problem in journalism, of course.) One always must admit the possibility that any so-called objectivity you find is merely a different (and probably more seductive) form of subjectivity.
In other words, to say that one is "stepping outside" one's normal thinking patterns for the purpose of analyzing one's thinking patterns is a paradox (and a hoax). It's as silly as my saying to you, "OK, folks, for the next 10 minutes I'm going to talk to you from an entity that lives inside Steve but is not Steve." By definition, is that even possible? And even if it is, how do you know that's what I'm doing? How do I know it's what I'm doing? You can't know, and neither can I. And neither can Tolle. Or—another example—it's like saying that you're going to look at something, but not use your eye to do it. Not only can you see only what your eye sees, but you must see what your eye sees while it's seeing it. Further, keep in mind that, no matter what you call something, the use to which you put it is what gives it its definition. If I tell you that I've found a totally new way of preparing food that isn't cooking—and then I proceed to perform all of the steps that have heretofore been identified with cooking... Guess what, folks. I'm cooking. Regardless of whatever new label I give it. Ergo, the fact that Tolle may be thinking differently does not mean that he's not thinking, even if what he's thinking differently about is thought itself.
I know I'm belaboring the point, but it's my blog, and I feel that we need to be uber-clear about this before we move on to anything else. It's a contradiction in terms to say that you've found a totally new way of thinking that does not involve thinking; the process of using the mind to reach any given point is, ipso facto, thinking. Even when you're sure you're not thinking, the process of being sure you're not thinking is thinking. This remains true even though there can be a high degree of feeling mixed up in thought, and a high degree of thought mixed up in feeling. In all likelihood, the mind is always engaged.
Interestingly, the circumstances under which Tolle says he stepped outside his mind during a moment of crisis at age 29, when he surrendered his ego and first reached his current "insights," seem to satisfy many of the conditions normally associated with a psychotic break. In an interview that coincided with the publication of Stillness Speaks, Tolle described the incident thusly (I've edited for improved forward motion, but I don't think unfairly):
"I was unhappy, depressed and anxious.... I had been looking for some kind of answer to the dilemma of life, but I had been looking to intellect for the answer.... The more I was looking on that level, the more unhappy I became. I reached a point where the phrase came into my head, 'I can't live with myself any longer.'... Suddenly I stepped back from myself, and it seemed to be two of me—the 'I,' and this 'self' that I cannot live with. Am I one or am I two? And that triggered me like a koan. It happened to me spontaneously. I looked at that sentence—'I can't live with myself.' I had no intellectual answer. Who am I? Who is this self I cannot live with? The answer came on a deeper level...."Wouldn't it be something if Oprah and her legions of fans one day discovered that they're taking all of this sage spiritual advice from someone who is, in essence, if not factually, insane?
* There's a fourth book, Practicing the Power of Now, that's really a workbook derivative of the first.
** at least, that's not something that we can do to/for ourselves.