Thursday, February 07, 2008

Tolle calls. Part 2.

I should've mentioned in Part 1 that, like so many devotees of the New Age, Eckhart Tolle exhibits that maddening tendency to overintellectualize (or over-pseudointellectualize) life. In the world according to Tolle, even the most commonplace thoughts and events sound as if some special, proprietary wisdom is required to understand them. Here, for example, is our hero, from that same interview quoted earlier, responding to his interviewer's confession that he found Tolle instantly engaging and almost "burst out laughing" upon meeting him:

"The reason for that is that in the act of meeting you, there were no thoughts about who you are or who I am. There was the openness of consciousness recognizing itself in another human being. And that is extremely joyful. And it's also joyful for someone who experiences that with someone else, because they feel more themselves in that moment."*

Now I don't know about you, but I tend to smile when I meet lots of people for the first time. Especially if they're smiling (which I suspect Tolle was). And I definitely burst out laughing when, say, a small puppy runs into the room. So what? If the "openness of consciousness" can "recognize itself" equally in people and puppies, then what, if anything, does it signify? That all God's creatures share the unity of being giggly little puddles of joy at the core, except that some are maybe, well, furrier than others? Spare me, please. Accept such moments for what they are without overthinking them.

Overblown gibberish is central to the New (W)age movement; when fully developed into a "high concept" theme, it can be a key ingredient of success in this quadrant of the SHAMsphere. One is reminded of John Gray's early struggles to find his voice and niche. Few people are aware that most of what eventually became the blockbuster relationships manifesto of all time was present in an earlier John Gray work, the prosaically titled Men, Women and Relationships. And much of the contents of that was, of course, little more than a reformulation of insights about the battle of the sexes that were convincingly (and far more shrewdly) enunciated by Shakespeare, among others. But Gray's original relationships writing had the blahs and didn't connect. Not until he hit on that Mars-Venus thing.

Now, picking up where we left off in my thoughts on Tolle.

2. There's only The Now? Says who? Certainly not this guy.
Even leaving aside axioms about forgetting the past and being condemned to repeat it, it's absurd for Tolle to claim that we can detach ourselves from our personal histories (and then, no less, tap into some kind of overarching "shared state of being" that discards the uniqueness and diversity of what each of us brings to the table) and live solely in his beloved Now. Tolle hasn't done that himself, and the proof is that by his own admission, he came to these insights only after living a troubled early life that left him on the verge of suicide. By his own admission, he couldn't stand living in the life that then existed for him. He therefore needed to find a new way of conceptualizing life in order to go on; either that or kill himself. In a very literal sense, then, Tolle's past shaped the man he is today, as well as the (escapist? Dadaist?) belief system he espouses. Tolle has no way of knowing for sure when or even whether he would've reached his Now-plane of consciousness, had he not lived through what he lived through up to age 29. Therefore, his Now is quite literally a straight-line function of his aggregated Yesterdays. To argue that you can live a Now that has no link to the past is to argue that the tree in the forest makes no sound when it falls.

3. Humans are good, by their nature, and meant to live in peace.
Tolle appears to argue that when you strip away the mind and ego that make us who we think we are, only then does one find the inner core of calm and goodness that exists in (and supposedly unifies) all of mankind. Others, however—notably including most anthropologists, psychologists, social scientists and all those who have actually studied homo sapiens as a species—would argue that it is only the added layer of intellect (and the other equipment that comes along with wider awareness) that enables man to transcend the instinctive survivalist brutality that seems present at mankind's reptilian core.

For the record, Tolle describes his private epiphany as follows:

"Something suddenly was there that actually had always been there but had been obscured continuously by identification with the heavy mind structure." [NOTE: Your host will pause briefly to vomit at Tolle's use of such terminology as "heavy mind structure." OK, that's better. And now we'll move on:] "As I came to work with other people, I realized every human being already has that dimension. No matter how anxious, depressed, disturbed and fearful they may be. That dimension is already in there, in every human being."
First of all, one is struck by the no-limits similarities between Tolle's line that begins "No matter how anxious...," and something Rhonda Byrne said** in promoting The Secret (though Tolle said it first). But if what Tolle found by abandoning his heavy mind structure is always there—and always has been, as he suggests elsewhere—obviously that implies that it was there at birth. In other words, this "dimension" is not something that requires socializing; in fact, Tolle strongly implies that socializing damages it. Then why is there so much evidence that children are quite the little sociopaths when born? They're all ego, all the time; all they know is "I want!" The conventional wisdom among psychologists is that children are born without consciences, that conscience must be nurtured and reinforced. If any of this is true, then what the hell is Tolle blathering about?

Finally, I don't intend the following as a perfect rebuttal to Tolle's reasoning, but it's surely food for thought: If he's right about the corrupting influence of intellect and ego, then in theory it should also be true that the closer you get to primitive life, the closer you come to peace of mind and perfect social harmony. Is this true in the world as we know it? Is it true in Kenya, where marauding tribal factions are running around lopping off each other's heads with machetes? Was it true in the Middle Ages? Caveman society? (No offense to any characters depicted in the GEICO ads.) No one can be sure whether Freud was right in postulating the existence of an angry Id, but I feel confident in saying that the abandonment of intellect is not a surefire prelude to harmonious living. Tolle claims that we all have that peaceful dimension within us as standard equipment...but where's the proof that his Now is my Now? Or bin Laden's Now?

I've tried to conjure a mental image of a society full of people whose minds are not engaged, and who function entirely based on the more formless imperatives that arise from within. Call me crazy or cynical, but what I see is not Utopia. It's more Lord of the Flies. (I know, I know. I'm thinking too conventionally about this. I'm not being "spiritually open" enough. Must be that damn heavy mind structure again.)

A few closing thoughts on Eckhart Tolle next time.


Incidentally, I should also mention that the arguable father of the postmodern New Age—the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi—died this week. The Maharishi is probably best known, at least in this country, as spiritual adviser to the Beatles. It was largely through that function that postmodern spirituality got injected into mainstream American life (i.e. secondarily via the popularity of the Beatles). And just to show the interconnectedness of all things, John Gray served as his personal secretary for most of a decade. His celibate personal secretary. Not quite the background you'd expect in an expert on intimate affairs, eh?

* I hate to harp on something that one of our commenters took me to task for last time, but let's face it: Tolle is a funny-looking dude. He looks elfin, troll-like. I'm no follower of the New Age, and I'm reasonably sure I'd start laughing if I walked into a room and saw him standing there.
** The link will take you to my very first post on The Secret. We don't even identify Rhonda Byrne by name, and you can see how naive we were, in certain respects, in assessing this phenomenon-to-come. But overall, I think we were admirably ahead of the curve.


mikecane2008 said...

>>>Here, for example, is our hero, from that same interview quoted the other day, responding to his interviewer's confession that he found Tolle instantly engaging and almost "burst out laughing" upon meeting him:

Hmmmm... when Baudelaire was walking along the Seine (I think it might have been) and his eyes met those of Balzac's (who he did not know, nor vice versa), they simultaneously burst out laughing because, as Baudelaire (or was it Balzac? maybe both) described it, they had recognized one another as kindred spirits.

But then that was France. And before TV. And probably before Rousseau (but don't hold me to that last bit).

For some of other things you have written of Tolle, Sherwood Anderson's story, "Seeds" comes to mind:

All I know of Tolle is what you're writing about him. (And that today I saw his was the #1 book at Amazon's ebook store for the Kindle.) I have no intention of reading him.

Anonymous said...

Well, on first seeing Tolle, I too was struck by how troll-like he looked, and I too burst into amazed and delighted laughter, since trolls were among my favorite childhood toys and here was one come to life! I'd always wondered where their creators had come up with those droll features. I suppose that must be typical of some part of the population of wherever in Germany Tolle is from. And speaking of that, it's too bad of you to mock his heavy-handed use of language, since it's clearly Germanized English. I wouldn't care to think how I'd come across in German! But to speak to the Now, the eternal moment: I know Tolle advocates acting and living in the present, not sitting and staring at one's navel. But there's a long line of spirituality--stretching back thousands, if not tens of thousands of years--that says that one's goal should be to merge with the eternal Now, with That Which Is, Was, and Ever Shall Be. Those who had achieved this state were said to be enlightened, and thus capable of transcending time, space, physical limitations, and many another thing. Of course, this sounds wonderful, but I have always wondered if at its core merging with the Now didn't mean, well, stopping. (I'd say dying, but enlightened spiritual masters have supposedly always been with us.) Ceasing to be human and merging back with the atomic All. I suppose if omniscience was the reward for this, it would be too fascinating to pass up, but it appears to me that what's promised is instead peace of mind for troubled souls. No doubt this is very beneficial. But it also reminds me of those images of Heaven where people sit around on clouds wearing long white robes and playing harps of gold. Can you say boring--boring for all eternity?! If that's heaven, I'd rather just hang out here on Earth, thanks anyway...

Gladys said...

Its better not to dismiss something out of hand, without giving it a good look. As Rhonda Byrne herself admits, there's nothing new to the Secret, people have known it and followed it for centuries. An interesting study has been done at the Human Science Wiki that compares the 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice with The Secret. The old English story of love and marriage seems to be filled with instances of The Secret principles. Read a short essay that draws parallels between the message of The Secret and the Jane Austen novel here

Anonymous said...

Point being, The Secret is fiction?

Steve Salerno said...

Good one, anon. I don't normally "root" for commenters, but this is just too good a zinger. There should almost be a cosmic rim-shot now. ta-dum!

Look, Gladys: I guess we're all entitled to believe what we believe. It's just that, to say people have "known" the secret behind The Secret, and followed it for centuries--almost as if you're bracketing it as a proven truism... Come on, now. I don't care what people have "known" for centuries; they once "knew" that the Earth was flat.

The Secret was a colossal marketing boondoggle from the first. It was genius, the way they went about it; I'll give 'em that. But a boondoggle nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Certainly poor Jane Austen didn't know "the secret." An impoverished spinster, she lived her short life heartsore and unmarried, on the charity of and in the homes of various relatives. History has vindicated her marvelous eye (and ear) for social comedy and commentary, but her enduring fame was posthumous.

mikecane2008 said...

Gladys: Byrne was inspired by a book by Wallace D. Wattles. Why didn't she promote *that* book instead?

Steve Salerno said...

Rhonda Byrne would say that clearly poor Jane "attracted" her poverty (in fact and spirit) through her innate cynicism, which stood in stark contrast to the more romanticized (which is to say, "positive") writing of her time.

Steven Sashen said...


Rhonda didn't promote Wattles' book because after a few pages of "visualize it clearly because nothing was ever created that wasn't imagined first," it gets into his REAL teachings, which are, "WORK YOUR ASS OFF! Show up earlier than everyone else at your job. Stay later. Become indispensable. And, oh, did I mention you need to WORK YOUR ASS OFF?"

Oddly, that doesn't sell as well as, "ask, believe, receive."

Steve Salerno said...

And incidentally, I dispute that premise itself: "visualize it clearly because nothing was ever created that wasn't imagined first." It ignores the reality that some of life's most important discoveries and innovations--penicillin comes to mind, as well as Viagra--were glorious accidents. (The back-story behind the discovery and eventual marketing of Viagra is hilarious. Succinctly put, researchers noted that the blood-pressure pill they were trying on a group of guys had a most intriguing side effect.) And we already know that visualizing something will not, in and of itself, lead to creation (or perhaps we should say, successful creation), no matter how clearly one visualizes. How many "brilliant inventions" live a solitary and forgotten existence in the files of the U.S. Patent Office?

sassy sasha said...

this is unrelated but does anyone know what happened to acd? her blog is down and tho it was depressing i felt she spoke for alot of us and i enjoyed it! go figure...

The Crack Emcee said...


I don't mean to interrupt the party, but I found some *very interesting* Maharishi-related videos that I think you guys ought to check out.

And a note to Steven Sashen:

I cribbed a couple of your posts, recently, too. I hope you don't mind but I thought it was good stuff,....

Steven Sashen said...

Argh, you beat me to it, SS... I was going to add that to my post. The "all things start in the mind" concept is utter hogwash.

In fact, I think even hogwash didn't start in the mind.

mikecane2008 said...

Ah, this is what it is like to live in the "now." Forever.

YouTube vid:

Steven Sashen said...


Clive Wearing's case highlights how phrases used by Tolle and others, like "Living in the present," "Being in the Now," "having no thoughts," "being free from ego," etc. are, at best, bad descriptions of some experience.

More typically, they're poetic sales pitches. That is, when someone uses a meaningless phrase like "Living in the present", the people hearing it will often think, "Well, I'm definitely not experiencing THAT, and I believe that it would be better if I WERE..." and then they'll buy the books and tapes or sign up for the workshops that (falsely) promise the attainment of that undefined goal.

Steve Salerno said...

Well put, Steven. What we see here, stripped to its essence, is the marketing of a sort of rhetorical narcotic, wherein unsuspecting (and, really, unthinking) buyers are presented with the description of a "level of experience" that has no true legitimacy or even any inherent meaning, but allows them to read into it whatever (pleasant) imagery they want. If we want to get silly about this, you and I could sit here and brainstorm catch-phrases--"Live in your most ethereal state of mind-being-ness!"--that are laughably vacuous, but also are seductive-sounding and sufficiently open-ended that the buyer sees whatever s/he wants to see: "Wow! An ethereal state of mind-being-ness! I gotta get me some of that!"

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, to address Sasha's question: To the best of my knowledge, which isn't very extensive, acd has simply taken her blog private. You'd have to ask her for her reasoning.

Akhetnu said...

Anonymous / Steve -

There is a quote by a Zen master that, paraphrased, is: "Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood; after I was enlightened, I chopped wood."

The 'eternal now' of the Eastern mystic is not the 'now' of Tolle, and in fact I suspect that Tolle is presenting us with a dysfunctional version of Zen or Taoism. Neither of the latter abandons the mind for the ordinary tasks of living, but rather transcends the mind in apprehending a metaphysical insight into the true nature of things. This insight is about the nature of things like the mind and body, but it does not replace them. the flowering of Zen arts show a world informed by mystical experience, but not abandoned.

If any thought is abandoned, it is the over-rationalization or meddling that occurs when people try to hard. The Taoist analogy about over-cooking a small fish is particularly apt, and Tolle actually falls prey to this with his over-intellectualizing of high concepts.

For classifying the phenomenal world practically and scientifically, reason and the senses suffice on their own. To apprehend the noumena (Kant's 'thing-in-itself') is to step outside the mind, and any mystic will tell you that this experience cannot be put in words or thoughts, for reasons that Steve already highlighted in Part I of this post. Alan Watts compares it to the impossibility of having a finger point to itself. Of course, he was writing in the 1950s and manages to convey a Zen philosophy that had not acquired the baggage of self-help movements. Refreshingly, he even criticizes the use of Zen to justify paintings of blank canvas or symphonies of silence, calling them interesting 'therapy', but not art.

mikecane2008 said...

>>>rhetorical narcotic

Brilliant turn of phrase. I might steal that at some point.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Akhetnu! I appreciate the insight/clarification.

The Crack Emcee said...

The term I liked (which, I think, I first saw in a New York Times analysis of Timothy Leary's "contributions" to the culture) was "thought-stopping language", though, I agree, "rhetorical narcotic" is *snappy*.

I might use it for a Rap song, actually. Being The Crack Emcee and all,...

Elizabeth said...

To add to your cogent analysis of Tolle's now-ism, Steve, I'd like to point out that individuals with dementia and those who underwent a lobotomy live in a state of perpetual now, unable to recall the past or imagine the future (to think of it, my dog also appears to live this way). Is that what we want to aspire to? (Wait, we should not aspire to anything, right, since aspiration presupposes expectation and want -- and those are bad in Tolle's ideal universe.)

Our ability to remember and recollect our past, as well as the ability to envision the future, are among the few skills that make us uniquely human. I do not see how we can dispense with it without diminishing the quality of our lives. At least I do not want to, as long as I can have some say in it.

Tolle's views on emotions are also peculiar. He sees emotions as the result of and response to our thoughts -- and as such, largely negative and a hindrance to that blissful state of whatever it is that he promotes (enlightened spaciousness or some such). But that is not exactly true. Our emotions exist in their own right, often independently of our thoughts (though they inter-relate). And thank god, or more accurately evolution, for that, because without them we would not be able to survive, to bond with others, and to develop our conscience, intelligence and ability to create.

Yet for Tolle, emotions appear to be an enemy -- or at least an obstacle to enlightenment. And he is inconsistent in that, saying that love, for example, is "good," because it tells us we are close (or one) with "the source" or whatever lofty term he uses there; but those inconvenient emotions like anger, sadness and guilt are some illusory byproduct of our faulty thinking.

Well, he cannot have it both ways and pick and choose here.

But it appears to me that Tolle has constructed this wobbly and semi-incoherent thought system of his as a way to cope with and dig himself from the weight of his psychotic break at 29 (and the miserable years that preceded it).

I imagine he was a weird kid (and remained so, let's face it), with serious emotional and cognitive problems, who, because of his weirdness, was rejected by others and had no ability to forge any meaningful relationships with people other than his family (if at all). He admits as much, saying that for most of his childhood he was depressed and suicidal, mostly because, according to him, his parents argued all the time.

Even in this brief admission, there are numerous red flags for those curious about Tolle's character and formative years. He was a highly sensitive and overwhelmed and chronically suicidal child, who instead of receiving appropriate attention and help, was (as it appears) ignored by his parents and pulled out of school (where likely he could not cope with both emotional and academic pressures).

He was "homeschooled," as he says, but it seems that the quality of that homeschooling was poor -- if it took place at all. He learned then, as he says, mostly languages. That tells me that this "homeschooling" was really his parents giving up on educating him and letting him do whatever he wanted to (= whatever he liked and was good at). He was -- and is -- very good at verbal skills, but apparently not at much else, as far as school requirements go (a profile typical in some serious developmental disorders).

I suspect serious developmental problems in Tolle-the child. They made it impossible for him to be "normal" and to fit with his peers (I'm thinking autistic spectrum disorders plus learning disabilities). It is also likely why his parents argued "all the time" -- in some part at least due to the stress inherent in raising such a difficult child. But instead of seeking help, they appeared to have taken him out of school and moved a lot. So he drifted aimlessly, desperately trying to find a place (group) to belong to, to make some sense of his inscrutable existence and endless suffering.

He made some, it appears unsuccessful, attempts at finding employment and continuing his education, but obviously did not possess enough emotional resilience (and likely intellectual ability) to maintain either. There is no mention of any significant relationships from his formative years (other than his parents), which would not be surprising given his emerging profile of someone with autistic-like character features. Relationships were in the entirely different universe from his own -- he could access them intellectually (and very imperfectly at that), but emotionally he was unable to relate to others (and this aspect of his character certainly shows in his ideas on emotions now).

All this was a disaster waiting to happen. That depression at 29 appears to be more of a psychotic break, as you, Steve, have already pointed out, with strong dissociation and depersonalization features. It had to come to it -- either psychosis or suicide, given the reality of his existence. He continued to drift afterwards as well, but without the acute pain, which dissolved (permanently?), during his dissociative episode. (A lucky SOB, if I may say so myself and only half-jokingly.)

He was homeless and aimless, sitting in parks, observing people, who gradually started to ask this odd man questions -- and I guess the word spread that he holds strange and intriguing opinions. (I'm reminded of the 1979 movie "Being There," where an autistic gardener's odd utterances are mistaken for profundity. Tolle's movie, if ever made, should be titled "Being Here.")

The details of his way from homelessness to working as a counselor, and now a guru, are sketchy, as are really all the details about his life. This is no accident, I'd say. The man has tried to erase his past as it was too painful to contemplate. He dissociated from it (and from his scary, puzzling and unmanageable emotions), and turned his experience into a whole ideological system of so-called "spirituality." So we hear from him these semi-nonsensical musings on the virtue of living here and now (because he cannot do otherwise) and ignoring (or suppressing, intellectualizing and denying) emotions (because he does not understand and cannot deal with them himself).

Now, there are noted cases where a psychotic break precipitates accelerated personality development culminating at re-integration on a higher level (Clifford Beers, John Stuart Mill, Brother Albert and others), and Tolle's seems to be such case as well -- with some peculiar aftershocks.

By this I mean those weird and incoherent statements about human nature he makes, statements that reflect his own inner defenses rather than reality of our lives. (I will not even go into the esoterics in his thinking; I mean just the cognitive and emotional distortions he seems to have elevated to the level of philosophy -- or spirituality -- to create some meaning and significance for himself out of an otherwise dismal and hopeless life.

These distortions (for example, his ideas about emotions) tell more about him than about human condition as such. But they are being uncritically embraced as the holy gospel of the enlightened savior by Tolle's followers -- and this I see as a troublesome development.

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth, I feel somewhat out of my depth here, given your technical and professional background in the mental arts (which you hint at but don't really elaborate upon here; I know only because of our dialogue off-blog). But I want to thank you, of course, for giving us this comprehensive analysis of the historical and psychological factors that may have conspired to produce Tolle's own very personal Now. (And when I say "comprehensive," I'm not kidding; I'm fairly sure this is the longest comment I've yet to receive on SHAMblog.) It's also quite lyrical and well-put. Thanks again for weighing in. By all means visit us again.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Tolle mentions his father and mother rather humorously at this point--apparently he keeps in close contact with both, though it sounds like they've been divorced for quite a while. And he himself has been living with a female partner for many years now. The fact that he does indeed have a sense of humor and has been able to maintain a relationship--difficult enough for those of us who don't fall on the autistic spectrum--makes me wonder if Elizabeth's analysis, informed as it is, perhaps takes Tolle's dysfunction too far.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, I didn't realize I rambled for so long. Thanks for your patience -- and kind words. I have one more post on Tolle -- the last one, I promise.

He is an interesting man as a case study. People perceive him as odd, because he is odd and it's no accident. That oddness of his has its correlates in his neuropsychological make-up. (His wimpy hands, strangely hanging without much purpose, for example, suggest a low muscle tone -- possibly a result of developmental delays and/or pathology, often seen in autistic-spectrum disorders.)

His childhood must have been hell -- he never had a chance to develop a healthy (or any) ego, so he made a brilliant move (unconsciously, it seems): he turned his greatest weakness into the ultimate virtue by shifting his perception and interpretation of his pathology without changing his behavior. (Yes, the power of thinking mind, eh? The same thinking mind he purports to eradicate for the sake of spiritual development.)

Note that he is the same person he was at 9, 19 and 29 -- his habits and needs apparently have not changed (and I suspect neither has his appearance, not much); but he is no longer depressed and suicidal since he re-framed his pathology as a sign of spiritual virtue (that egolessness he advocates).

My question here is: How is this -- his purported egolessness -- a virtue (or a sign of advanced spiritual development) if he never had an ego to speak of?

He did not really have to give up or change or transcend anything other than his perception of himself -- from a loser to one who is "enlightened" (just because he is a messed up enough to lack a coherent ego).

In other words, he succumbed to a delusional and self-protective trick of his own mind, without even realizing what happened to him. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, if you do not assume that your pathology is some universal road to spiritual peace and do not advocate the same strategy for others, whose developmental paths and needs may be -- and certainly are -- very different from yours.

Nobody will ask Tolle these questions, of course, as long as he is on Oprah's payroll, so to speak. But it is fascinating to watch, this peculiar type of pathological distortion in action.

The man preaches egoless existence, but himself indulges in obvious ego-building behaviors. He certainly is not ego-free, even if he thinks so. And the more he believes so, the stronger his fragmented and bruised ego demands its satisfactions -- without his conscious acknowledgment. And the more persistent his delusions designed to cover up the reality of those demands. And so it goes.

Let's face it, an egoless person would not come up with a desire to move from Germany to North America to advance his career (yes). An egoless, spiritually advanced person would have enough to do wherever he lived, thank you very much.

An egoless person, who eschews attachments and all the trappings of superficial identity would not bother to change his name (from prosaic Ulrich to high-falutin' Eckhart). Why do that, if your ego and identity no longer matter?

An egoless person would not bother to write a book, much less multiple books, and would bother even less to publish them. And much, much, much less hook up with Oprah to promote his book(s). Let's not be afraid to say it out loud: to be Oprah's choice is the ultimate ego-trip for a writer (whether they are willing to admit it or not, Mr. Franzen).

An egoless person would have nothing to do with Oprah, period.

An egoless person would not call his writings the most important spiritual works ever written or other such overblown nonsense.

An egoless person would not plaster pictures of his face all over his website. This is not only narcissistic, but just plain weird. Very weird.

An egoless person would not charge obscene amounts of money to allow others hear him speak.

An egoless person would not dream of telling others how they should live and offer to help them find their lives' purpose.

An egoless person would discourage signs of adulation and overblown praise instead of rationalizing them as something that "the universe" ("consciousness," God, etc.) wants for them.

Etc., etc., etc.

Tolle's ego, however battered it is, painfully shows. Too bad (though understandable, in a way) that he is unable to notice it.

Blair Warren said...

Thank you Elizabeth for your fascinating - and I mean *fascinating* - insights into Tolle's psyche.

I think the one thing that stood out most for me was this paragraph:

"In other words, he succumbed to a delusional and self-protective trick of his own mind, without even realizing what happened to him. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, if you do not assume that your pathology is some universal road to spiritual peace and do not advocate the same strategy for others, whose developmental paths and needs may be -- and certainly are -- very different from yours."

Absolutely brilliant!

Do you have a blog or website of your own? Based on what you've posted here, I'd love to read more material from you.

Steve Salerno said...

And my blog is being stolen from me, right before my eyes.... ;)

Akhetnu said...


I think you're misunderstanding the idea of 'living in the now' as traditionally understood in various mystical traditions (although I think Tolle is too). I'm not trying to be an apologist for him, but I think the idea itself is sound in its original form, not the anti-intellectual spin he gives it.

Living in the now is not a call to completely abandon the ability to remember or plan, but rather a psychological attitude to take. It has been compared to dancing or listening to a symphony: we appreciate each step or note as it is played, rather than dwelling on the steps and notes previously played (perhaps in error?), or being bored while waiting only for the finale. But it does not mean we forget the next step entirely or forget where the car is parked after the symphony lets out.

Living in the present is hence more of an emotional thing, not an intellectual snuffing. True, our very intellect that allows us to remember and plan also makes us prone to suffering through dwelling on the past or fearing the future. But that is where living in the present emotionally can help us intellectually, by not allowing our thought to be paralyzed by fear or grief. It is a balancing act, not one of shutting down. Tolle's call to suppress thoughts and emotions altogether, as opposed to experiencing both and letting them pass into the next one, is typical of the extremes to which traditional western stoic or eastern thought has been taken.

As an aside, if people can lose the ability to plan or remember through a lobotomy as you mentioned, I hardly find this to be 'what makes us human', since it can be lost so easily. Plus, even if we are the only creature that possesses it, to assume that that hence makes it our essential attribute commits the fallacy of difference. Personally, I think the only thing that makes us uniquely human is how our DNA happens to tend to be arranged.

Steve Salerno said...

Akhetnu, this is well-reasoned and lyrically put, but I still say, all such arguments overlook the profound difference between the experience of something that is external to the Self, and something that intimately involves the Self itself, if you will. To live in the Now when listening to a symphony is one thing; the symphony exists apart from you. But to live in the Now when "listening to yourself"? I still maintain that it is impossible to experience the Now without dragging in the various elements of experience that have--quite literally--put you in your moment of Now. For any given human being, each successive moment of Now is merely a child of the union between all the prior moments of Now...regardless of how you "think" you're experiencing it.

This is not about the dichotomy between the respective intellectual and spiritual views of Now. This is about... Well, we all know what we feel when we look at a painting. But what would the painting feel when it looked at itself?

Akhetnu said...


The point of the now (at least in my readings of pre-SHAM authors) is not to abandon the experiences, knowledge and memories that have contributed one's current state, merely to recognize said events have made their impact, and passed for good. These are all part of a personal "symphony" if you will, and we can certainly recognize their effects and learn from them without obsessing or dwelling on them.

I'm glad you brought up the "self", because in a similar fashion, 'letting go of your ego' is not supposed to be the elimination of your personality or will to survive. It's more of a perspective gained from a monistic philosophy wherein everything is interconnected and temporary; at that point, there is no self/not-self in the first place; any idea of a fully separate self comes from the firing of our neurons which are made only of particles that once might have been part of a rock, planet, or frog leg. In fact, in deep meditation (in both eastern and western religions), the part of the brain that differentiates between self/not-self shuts down.

I'm going to preempt any objection to this by saying that I personally have no problem with this notion or its implications: empirically, the main side effects seem to be humility and compassion rather than suicide.

Note that I am not trying to be all self-help New Age about this. This is all classic eastern thought, which has been hijacked and turned on its head since the 60s for profit by Tolle, et al.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am enjoying reading up on Eckhart Tolle, as a close friend seems to be obsessed with him to a ridiculous level.

I came across another thread that is exploring some of the issues about Eckhart Tolle at a website on cults, that actually linked me to this blog.
So maybe All IS ONE? ;-)

The Power of Now - Eckhart Tolle - Cognitive Suicide,7166

Anonymous said...

Reading that site, with Tolle's own writings, it seems to me as if his version of 'being in the now' is ALOT different than the Buddhist idea of 'mindfulness' I have been describing. Some posters were even so kind as to point out the differences.

Any Buddhist practitioner doesn't cease thinking in the way Tolle did, especially for two years. Consciousness is considered one of the five 'aggregates' of a mortal self, and while it is prone to death, it is never shut off fully.

It seems as if Tolle really did have a psychotic episode as a result of breaking emotionally and mentally, as opposed to a controlled state gained from meditation. Mindfulness also isn't marketed aggressively.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, I am compelled to add a couple of thoughts to the Tolle's thread.

The fact that someone--anyone--has suffered from mental illness (including a brief psychotic episode, or a psychotic depression, or whatever clinical diagnosis would apply in Tolle's case) does not mean that their achievements (observations, judgment, products of their thought and creativity) are of any lesser value or should be discounted. If that were so, we would have to get rid of some of the most valuable works of art, literature, philosophy and even science, not to mention exemplars of the highest level moral and religious development that human race has produced.

In my speculative views on Tolle's life I do not render a negative judgment on his mental condition, his possible illness (if it were so) and subsequent recovery. Quite the contrary, I think it is admirable that he was able to overcome such great odds and emerge from his ordeal apparently in a better shape. It is a testimony to his resilience, if nothing else.

His ideas should be evaluated based on their truthfulness and usefulness, regardless of our views on their origins. I agree with a lot of what he has to say, actually (on the power of mindful attention, for example, or the need to understand and lessen influences of our primitive desires--ego--on our actions, etc.). My strongest objections relate to his views on emotions--and his emerging guru status, with the obscene promotion and marketing involved, which invalidates his calls for cultivating ego-less existence. The genuine exemplars of egoless existence (or advanced moral/spiritual development, if you will) walk the talk--and we know them by their deeds.

It occurs to me, however, that if I am right in my speculation on Tolle's character, he may not be quite in touch with everything that is being done in his name. So what we see, read and hear about him and his activities may be manufactured without his explicit knowledge or agreement (or even full understanding -- think the absent-minded professor type, squared).

On the other hand, it just may be a reflection of his rapacious ego.

Elizabeth said...

Anon, it does not appear to me that Tolle shut down his thinking after the transformative (psychotic) break, unless I misunderstand his history or your point here.

It appears that his thinking has *changed radically* as a result of the sudden insight he had that night at 29. The mechanism of this change is really a mystery, from a psychological point of view, regardless of what clinical labels we would like to apply to the experience. Clinically, we would talk about dissociation and depersonalization for certain, but both led to a positive outcome, i.e. lessening of his pain and creating a new outlook on life, one that has enabled him to function effectively--and happily--ever since. (No small feat for anyone, I'd add.)

What happened, it seems to me, is that night at 29 he was brought to the very brink of mental and physical disintegration by the years of accumulated suffering and stress, and as a result dissociated his thoughts from his emotions (which could explain his now curious--and incorrect, imo--views on the latter). In psychology we know this phenomenon as positive disintegration (positive, because of its outcome)--it's been documented and described relatively well in psych literature.

It is interesting to me that he himself does not have (or have not sought?) better understanding of what happened to him, but it does not diminish his transformation's significance. (It tells me, though, that his insight into both his transformation and his current "enlightenment" may indeed be limited--so far, at least.)

The dissociation freed him from pain and allowed him to gain control over those pesky feelings that made his life so miserable for so long. (Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on similar principles, for example--only it takes a long time, usually, while Tolle got the main principles in one flash of insight that transformed his life. )

His thinking did not stop, I'd say (unless I don't know the whole story--but it just seems really impossible to do without major brain damage); it changed, however--and in turn it changed him, at least his view of himself and life as he knows it.

Elizabeth said...

It is true that mindfulness isn't marketed intensively, as Anon noticed.

And it's a pity.

If there is anything worth widespread promotion and marketing, it is mindfulness indeed. Say what you want about Oprah (and I have said plenty), but at least her hooking up with Tolle (and Zukav, previously) may have the positive effect of introducing the concept, if not the practice itself, to minds of people who otherwise would never hear about it.

Anonymous said...


I actually have no problem with pre-marital sex at all. My concern has always been whether the two participants are doing it responsibly and actually have feelings for each other, versus simply out for cheap, meaningless promiscuity. The latter is, I think, more indicative of personal issues that the person is trying to solve, using sex an an outlet.

Still, I think this has always been going on in some form, for some segment of the younger population. Rebels without a cause, the sexual revolution etc. Before then, people were more or less considered adults anyway by high school age. In fact, I treat any high schooler as capable of being an adult. I suppose the Eagle Scout in me keeps insisting that virtue and responsibility can be acquired at that age, but that we have simply stopped expecting it until after college, at the peril of all.

So I think our solution is for parents and educators to have frank discussions with their children about sex, relationships and responsibility. Teach virtue and knowledge, and expect it to be shown for once. That's not 'taking away their innocence'...that's preventing them from being ignorant; after all when puberty hits, any 'innocence' parents are trying to preserve has been lost.


Akhetnu said...

I agree, Elizabeth...mindfulness has been used alot in Buddhist and other traditions, to great effect. I think more people should know about it, and it is helping me in its own ways. Of course, mystics don't market it extensively nor charge for it (at leas the better places don't).

Ultimately, it is up to all of us to seek out truth, rather than have it spoon fed to us by Oprah or Dr. Laura or MTV. Especially with the internet, the stuff we can really use is open source if you just poke around.

Of course, as you mentioned, we ourselves can be examples of insight and virtue in our own ways. I don't think you need mass ad campaigns to make an impact in meaningful ways.

NOTE: the previous comment was accidentally posted here instead of in the more recent post. My mistake.

Cosmic Connie said...

I'm coming in really late on this one but just wanted to make a few comments. I'm glad Elizabeth joined in because I think she really helped to elevate the discussion about Tolle. I was getting a little put off by what I viewed as mostly gratuitous remarks about the man's looks (especially on Part 1 of "Tolle Calls"). Elizabeth suggested a correlation between his odd appearance and possible medical conditions and other factors that may have shaped Tolle's thinking.

Secondly, as I think Elizabeth and others may have implied here -- however full of crap one may think Tolle to be, he arguably represents a step up from "The Secret" and other products, people and ideas Oprah has taken under her wing. Yes, Tolle may be just another example of the over-simplification and commercialization of life's deepest questions, but at least he's (possibly) getting some of the Oprah-oids thinking and talking about something besides manifesting a new car, or asking the Universe Genie to give them a new soul mate.

And third, I seem to recall that "mindfulness" was a minor commodity in the New-Wage field in the early 1990s. There was a book about the topic by Ellen Langer. (In later years, Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn did some stuff on this topic as well.) But mindfulness has, for the most part, been overshadowed by "bliss" and "passion." Oh, yeah, and quantum physics.

Okay, I gotta get back to packing for the big move... just thought I'd stop in and share some of my profoundly shallow wisdom. :-)

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you posted the picture of Troll, because it makes me feel really good about the way I look. I think it is inspiring that someone who looks like him got this far. We may bitch and moan about how mean it is to dwell on Troll's looks, but we rarely buy products from ugly people. There have been tons of studies done on this. Blair Warren touched on something about emotions, they are more of the body than the mind. Neuroscience is doing a lot of research into why we "feel" emotions at certain times. One example is how our sense of smell is very much connected to our memories. For example, say your mother always wore Chanel 5 so whenever you smell that scent you think of your mother and all she entailed. Maybe you loved her, maybe you hated her, but that scent will trigger those memories and emotions. You see how that works? Emotions may not be as easily controlled as we would like to believe. The problem with Troll's theory for me is the fact it does not work on close inspection. Humans live in a continuum. We use the past and future to live in the "now." To me, living in the "now" as Troll describes it, is living in denial.

Cosmic Connie said...

While the latest Anon makes some good points about the power of emotion on our decisions, my only point was that dwelling on Tolle's odd looks seemed unnecessary to the larger points being discussed. Someone on Part 1 of this discussion even attempted to use the point about Tolle's looks to validate Steve (and himself), essentially saying that Steve shouldn't be concerned about the Tolle craze because, "look at the guy; he's a troll."

Though studies and experience do seem to indicate that conventionally attractive people generally fare better than their plainer fellows in most areas of life, Tolle seems to be doing just fine. (And several other best-selling selfish-help gurus these days aren't exactly paragons of beauty either.) Tolle already had quite a following among the conspicuously enlightened crowd, but after Oprah adopted him he's doing even better.

There comes a point where the looks of the gurus are as irrelevant as the merits of their ideas or products. Frankly, I think people would buy hammered goat poop from a real troll if the troll and the crap had Oprah's endorsement. And, given her track record, it doesn't seem that it would be all difficult for the troll to convince Oprah that the goat poop held the secrets to ancient universal truths about health, wealth, and happiness.

That said, I quite agree that perpetual attachment to "the now" or the present moment, denying the influence of the "past" or the "present," is generally a recipe for disaster. Or in some cases it could simply be the result of smoking something really powerful...

Anonymous said...

I actually find a correlation between Troll and Jolly Green Giant Robbins. Giant Robbins has to explain his gigantism to his audience, because it is the first thing they notice about him and that sets up his "I beat the odds story." This is to his advantage, because he is "different" physically than other gurus and probably gives him a bit of an edge next to his rivals in sales. He is not saying anything really different, but his looks make you remember him. We remember him, because he is "physically" different than the average person. I see the same thing happening with Troll. These "physical" differences are actually quite advantagous in the end for Troll and Giant. Upon seeing these two the "normal" looking person will think, "if that Troll/Giant can be that successful, heck I got a chance!" That was the point I was trying to make about "physical" looks and sales.

Cosmic Connie said...

That is a good point, Anon, and I'll admit that you have made me take a new look at the ways that some of these jokers capitalize on their "unique" appearance.

Another angle many of them seem to like to exploit is the "rags to riches" story. We've all heard about how Tony Robbins was once a fat, poor, unhappy bachelor living in a 400-square-foot apartment and washing his dishes in the bathtub. Or sleeping in the bathtub. Or something like that.

To really make a dramatic impact, though, it's not enough to have once been poor and struggling; you're nobody unless you're formerly homeless. John Gray claims that he was homeless for about six months (this was after he got back from the US following his Maharishi stint). Joe Vitale claims he was homeless too some time in the late 1970s; his "from homeless to millionaire" story has been repeated endlessly. And, of course, Tolle also says he was once homeless. At least in Vitale's case, the reason for pushing the homeless theme seems obvious, and has everything to do with the wish to convey the message that "if I could make it, so can you!"

Anonymous said...

This is a recurring motif. The American down and out deal seems equivalent to claims by Indian gurus to once have been homeless wandering sadhus.

Here are addtional examples:

Neale Donald Walsch author of 'Conversations With God' claimed to have once been homeless.

In this interview Byron Katie said she'd ended up in a halfway house, assigned to the attic and in a room that had cockroaches

What is interesting is that the moment these seemingly ordinary and fragile people become enlightened, one of the siddhis immediately conferred is the equivalent of an MBA with an honors thesis in marketing and mass communication.

The real test is how well these leaders behave towards their caregivers/entourages today.

Anonymous said...

If being "homeless" is a requirement, than anyone can be a guru. Connie, you're "technically" homeless. You are moving and "between" homes. I think the "homeless" angle is a marketing catch to compare themselves to Jesus and Buddha. People fear homelessness and to say you've overcome that is a good gimick. I wonder how homeless they really were.

Anonymous said...

I used to work at a women's shelter that also ran a community drop in center. Later I was a volunteer outreach worker.

If you are homeless and have a bit of money to live in a van, its semi bearable.

But the reality is, you're constantly having to change routines. You are vulnerable to attack from thieves or random violence from people who are crazy angry.

In shelters you get sick a lot of the time--both the guests and those who work at the shelters. Belongings are constantly stolen. Its hard to get a good nights sleep and over time, chronic sleep deprivation contributes to becoming both chronically ill and psychologically fragile--and that is if you are NOT already burdened with a predisposition towards crippling depression, bipolar or schizophrenia.

Many on the street are there because of earlier, unhealed trauma in their lives. Once you are on the street and unprotected, you risk incurring additional trauma that adds yet more layers of PTSD to what you may already have.

I did meet a young woman who found herself homeless because a friend who promised her a place to stay had flaked out on her. She had a suitcase and no place to go.

She was no longer homeless and had been through the shelter where I had once worked.

I asked her how she bettered herself.

She said, 'I was not mentally ill. And I did two things. I told the truth the case managers at your agency and did what they told me to do--and they gave me good advice. I knew I had to crawl before I could walk.'

She also knew that our skidrow neighborhood was full of bad social influences. If you stay on skid row, you are surrounded by people who use drugs, drink, and guilt trip you into giving them money--and pressure you to drink and drug along with them. Single homeless women are at very high risk of being exploited by pimps or loser 'boyfriends.'

This young person knew the hazards. So between keeping appointments with her case managers, she stayed out of the skidrow part of town just as much as she could, and once she found a place to live indoors, took whatever jobs she could find and slowly worked her way back.

This was 15 years ago when more money and services were available then there are today.

You dont get out of homelessness unless someone is there to help you--and you have to also be very careful about the company you keep while working your way up and out.

And the ability to market oneself, ones products, advertise and orchestrate public events doesnt come by magic. Its a skill set and you have to learn it from other people.

Anonymous said...

Another thing that makes it difficult to fact check whether a celebrity has been homeless and what enabled him or her to leave that state is that the very persons and agencies that usually provide such assistance (public health clinics, case managers, etc) are legally required to keep their transactions confidential.

So the full details can never be known.

mikecane2008 said...

I needed to come back and add to this. If you really want to know The Now, watch this YouTube vid.

Here is Dennis Potter, the greatest writer for TV that ever lived, giving a final interview on TV. He is dying of pancreatic cancer that has metastasized to his liver. He is holding a flask of liquid morphine for pain.

He explicates The Now.

Without Walls - Dennis Potter

Anonymous said...


I was just recently introduced to your blog, and just wanted to say thanks before you wrap it up.

What you've written about Eckhart Tolle is excellent, and can be applied effectively to Byron Katie, as well.

Thanks for getting some good ol' common sense out there in the New Age sea of insanty.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Anon. Doesn't look like I'm wrapping it up just yet, however. I'd like to say I'm "back by popular demand," but the truth is that I just seem to keep writing things....

Anonymous said...

I'd completely forgotten about that Dennid Potter interview since it first aired. Thanks.

Quentin S. Crisp said...


This post interests me for a number of reasons. When I first read Tolle's work I pretty much hated it. Then I felt he was probably right about pretty much everything, and now I tend to feel, "Well, so what?"

I was interested to read what your particular disillusionment would be. I have to say that I don't find myself agreeing with what you've written. Tolle doesn't talk about escaping the mind through using the mind. It's quite clear he's not doing that. I suppose it might sound at times like he does, just because he's written a book, and books are written by the mind. But the important thing, possibly, is not to annihilate the mind, but not to be identified with it.

I think you might have something in what you write about the invalidity of the idea that there is 'only now'. That's something I've - oh dear - thought about a lot too. There is a sense in which Tolle is right (and maybe he's right in ways I don't even comprehend), because wherever we are it is now, so we cannot escape that, but to jettison the past and future... well, that seems either impossible or unhealthy or something. Once again, maybe that's not what he's really proposing, but it tends to sound like that.

I think that one of the biggest objections to Eckhart Tolle as a spiritual teacher or whatever, is simply that he seems to be making so much money out of the whole thing. Further than that, I think any 'spiritual teaching' can create in people the feeling that they are spiritually inferior and therefore have to rely on someone like Tolle, which is not good. We don't need Tolle, and it doesn't matter if we don't match up to the implied spiritual standards of his work. If we are sinners or unelightened then what made us this way? God, if you believe the first, or the universe with which we are one and indistinguishable if you believe the second. So, the feeling of blaming yourself for these things, and needing to rely on someone else is... something that it's okay to let go. Or so I try to tell myself.

Anyway, thanks for writing this. All the best,