I stopped reading Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now before quite reaching the halfway mark. I wanted very much to see what had electrified my son about this bestselling book that seems to have enthralled the elder brethren of his generation (it was first published two years after he was born, in 1997)… and, okay, most of what I thought I knew about that generation stands confirmed. Its members are traumatized by crass materialism, deadend carnality, and much social and economic pressure to dive into the oily soup of career-chase. They crave a truce, a few moments of peace: a bike ride in the park, a joint… a slug of pop-Buddhism.
I admit that the introduction Mr. Tolle appends to my edition did not prejudice me in his favor. His obvious delight at being selected for Oprah’s book club gave me a pain—and not just because his liberating higher consciousness should be impervious to such delights. Oprah is just another of our culture’s tiresome frauds, as her recent efforts at race-baiting on behalf of Stacey Abrams prove. This man is not in good company.
More significantly, the theme of “we must save the world from imminent self-destruction—children should be taught my lessons in grade school,” also appears as early as the intro, if memory serves. Now, I at once acknowledge that Tolle later condemns progressive utopianism for the ravages wrought by Stalin and Mao. He’s not the fool for whom I had originally mistaken him (the fool, for instance, that we have in Oprah). Licking one’s chops in anticipation of Never Never Land’s Golden Omelet merely elicits millions and millions of ruthlessly broken eggshells. So glad you saw that, Mr. Tolle.
Nevertheless, as a fellow anti-utopian, I do not delude myself that the world may be massively redeemed through re-education. Any guru worth his salt should know that enlightenment comes one soul at a time, and often one small ray at a time as spiritual sunrise chases away darkness over a period of years. You can’t teach vast numbers of people to “think right” in a single programmatic undertaking—and you certainly can’t awaken these people while they’re still learning the fine points of toilet training. This vein of messianism clouds the book repeatedly. In someone who would appear to oppose the collectivist and the totalitarian, it looks as odd as a snake with wings.
And the Snake, you know, lies at the heart of the contradiction: original sin. People don’t make others and themselves miserable through greed, envy, lust, scorn, and pride because their intellectual light burns too dim: they do so because of an essential attraction to wickedness insufficiently fought down. The very surrender to the present which Tolle’s book recommends might readily be suborned to serve egotistical ends (an insight which, I’m very happy to report, my son accessed without help from me). A person who refuses to be sucked into the rat race may have committed his life to higher things… or he may simply be displaying laziness, or even cowardice. He may be taking a stand against vulgar, corrosive materialism… or he may be refusing to take a visible, vocal stand against immoral powers that deserve to be resisted. The fox, with his clever capacity for rationalization, had no difficulty persuading himself that the grapes he couldn’t reach were sour.
Yet more than anything, the topos that became unendurable to me was the “no reality but now” claptrap. To claim that the past has dissolved forever in vain memory and that the future is forever waiting to be born in its gilded haze is a truism worthy of a fortune cookie. Is this really the face that sold a million books—a Charlie Chan’s mimicking Confucius with skeletally bare clichés?
From one perspective, the present is in fact the least real of our times. “N” is already a memory before I finish pronouncing the “w” of “now”. Nothing is ever truly present; time, a moving object, cannot be restricted to a single point.
From a more spiritual perspective, however—which should be the more appropriate one here—no act is banished from the present, though its date of arrival nestle far back in calendar time; nor is the future “not yet” to a person of vision and resolution, for he knows that he will stay the rightful course regardless of circumstance. Linear time is indeed the great enemy of spirituality, perhaps the greatest of all. As an athlete, my son knows that certain complex maneuvers cannot be performed if attention is awarded to each micro-motion: the whole sequence of connected movements, rather, must be thought of as one. So for life. The sense of things resides in an awareness that what you did before has meaning, and that what you will do must acquire meaning by conformity to a righteously chosen course. This is the life of principle. The course, naturally, may be adjusted. Given the fallibility of us human beings, it must be so—constantly. The adjustment is made on the basis of lessons learned from the past. The principle, the transcendent goodness, rests eternally and immutably above our scrambles in a perpetual Now… but as an abstraction, it requires us to live in its moment by making an ongoing succession of twists and turns.
I consider God to be the source of that goodness, and my communications with it to be the operation of the spirit within me (or the Holy Spirit, if you prefer a translation into more orthodox terms). I do not consider God or highest reality to be that “now” when I pause over my rake or shovel and study a flight of birds returning north for the spring. Such an instant of spiritual “exhalation” (as in release from particular, very finite concerns) can undoubtedly be uplifting. The intellectual orientation required for tapping into the inspiration of goodness must certainly include recognizing the puniness of specific endeavors. (This can often be identical to a sense of humor.) Living in the spirit does not end with releasing the strains that daily challenges place on our psyche, however. A man might achieve such release after refusing to stand up and protest on behalf of his falsely accused neighbor. In that case, he would not have liberated his spirit from worldly concerns, but enslaved it to worldly anxiety with the narcotic of self-hypnosis.
I applaud Mr. Tolle insofar as he has lured some hundreds or thousands of young people from a despair common in our post-believing society. I should prefer, though, to see them exposed to a belief that valorizes their individual soul and gives direction to each new day rather than sedating them into an omphaloskeptic coma. That the messengers of a profounder faith have generally not put their good news before this generation is, of course, hardly Eckhart Tolle’s fault.