Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Power of Now (or Obfuscation)

I am insane. I am unconscious. I am mind-identified, and embracing the pain-body. At least, that's how Echart Tolle would describe me. I just finished listening to an audiobook version of his book The Power of Now, and I am NOT on his wavelength. Or should I say, "vibrational frequency"?

Many people revere this book, and Tolle as some sort of Zen master. I just don't see it. To me, the book was like serving after serving of word-spaghetti. He lays out his view of the human psyche, explaining to us that the only real time we have is NOW; the past and the future are just human constructs (OK, but that doesn't make them irrelevant). He goes further to declare that anyone who is not present in the now is "unconscious". Such people are mind-identified... that is, they put too much stake in their own logic and explicit thought processes. Ironically, most people refer to one's logic and explicit thought processes as "consciousness". But Tolle -- knowing better -- decides to reverse the definitions. "Consciousness", according to Tolle, is to turn off your internal voice, power-down your logic, and simply be in the now.

There are many things that I don't like about this book, but I'll try to group them into themes.

I don't like his casual use of poorly-defined words and concepts.

He often uses phrases like "vibrational energy of the frequency field". I'm familiar with a few different definitions for each of those words, but I can't seem to figure out what it all means together. But I needn't worry. Early in the book, Tolle asks us not to get too hung up on the meanings of words. Given that it's a book, I'm not sure where else the meaning can come from. But I guess it's a good thing he starts with that disclaimer, because it takes the wind out of my sails when I want to take him to task on statements like "through becoming vulnerable, can you discover your true and essential invulnerability", or when he describes "a 'no' that is free of all negativity".

And how about this one? "Unless and until you access the consciousness frequency of presence, all relationships -- and particuarly intimate relationships -- are deeply flawed and ultimately dysfunctional." With a properly chosen definition, EVERY relationship could be labeled dysfunctional, regardless of anyone's "consciousness frequency".

I don't like how his convoluted framework prevents anyone from thinking for themselves.

While listening to this book, I felt like I was playing Cups with Chandler Bing; it seemed like every rule was a new rule, completely independent from those preceding. An example, "You cannot be conscious and unhappy, conscious and in negativity. Negativity, unhappiness or suffering in whatever form means that there's resistance, and resistance is always unconscious." He just says things, and people seem to lap it up uncritically.

I don't like his oversimplified solutions.

Question: How can we drop negativity, as you suggest?

Answer: By dropping it. How do you drop a piece of hot coal that you are holding in your hand? How do you drop some heavy and useless baggage that you are carrying? By recognizing that you don't want to suffer the pain or carry the burden anymore, and then letting go of it.

OK, but what if I'm holding the coal so that it doesn't land on my children? Ahhh, I guess I should be in the now, and let my kids deal with the burns. Makes total sense. It seems so simple now.

I feel sorry for Tolle's apparent lack of scientific literacy when he says things like, "Sexual union is the closest you can get to this state [of wholeness] on the physical level. This is why it is the most deeply satisfying experience the physical realm can offer." No evidence or further justification. He just says it as if it's patently obvious. Back here in reality, we have scientific theories explaining why sex is so satisfying; it's called the Theory of Evolution, and it's complete even without an extravagant, mystical pain-body or a "vibrational frequency energy force".

I don't like that he makes claims without evidence.

At times, Tolle takes on a Freudian ideology, attributing human illnesses to mind-identified intelligence. He also says stuff like "Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That's not a judgement; it's a fact." Oh, is it now? Too bad I'm not allowed ask what "insane" means. Here's another one: "All cravings are the mind seeking salvation or fulfillment in external things and in the future as a substitute for the joy of being." Just because he says it doesn't mean it's correct (just like Freud).

I will say one nice thing about the book. The book really seems to be about acceptance. "Being in the now" is about accepting your past instead of dwelling on it, and about letting go of unproductive worry. These ideas make sense to me. What I don't like is that the message is shrouded in a vague, spiritual, convoluted framework, complete with a disclaimer that the words should not be taken at face-value. I would much prefer a scientific explanation. Perhaps Tolle can find a place for his ideas in the right hemisphere of the brain. His "power of now" sounds a lot like the phenomenon that neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor wrote about in My Stroke of Insight; her left-brain was temporarily off-line due to a stroke. She describes her right-brain existence as a deeply satisfying feeling of oneness with the universe.

I suppose Tolle has made a lot of money from this book. If he really is living in the now, I wonder what interest rate his investments earn.


1 comment:

  1. Dear Jeff,

    Eckhart Tolle did mention that the book would not necessarily reach all readers straight away... I think a lot people who were drawn to his teachings experienced dysfunction and suffering in their lives and found some form of transformation in reading his book(s).

    I went through a lot of mental suffering and began to realise it was self-created. As read Eckhart Tolle's books and his explanations for how the egoic mind structure perpetuates dysfunction I realised more clearly why I was suffering. Essentially I lived my life pre-occupied with thought. Apparently this is how most humans live their lives, aside from those who are awake (spiritually) and perhaps forest dwellers and tribal people who have not seen modern society yet.

    The best teaching I found in Mr. Tolle's books is to feel one's inner body, a kind of inner energy. It's very true that I had lost touch with feeling an inner aliveness within me. Discovering and practising this has already had an effect on my concentration, joy and well being.

    As you say, his teachings are simple... drop negativity and be here now. But that's the whole catch, our modern sophisticated minds are always seeking a robust, complex explanation. Could it really be that simple? Well, I think so? And if you drop the egoic mind structure, one can function better in this world as one is present and aware and alive to the present.

    Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's experience is amazing. She had an intuitive experience of the brain's function... if the right hemisphere is associated with feelings of presence and oneness then it would be interesting to explore hemisphere activities in meditators.