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Eckhart Tolle

By Bruce Barbour
Version 1.2 - November 2008

I have read Eckhart Tolle's books "Power of Now" and Stillness Speaks". Tolle writes very well and with a tone of authority, which he would need considering he believes that he has the answers that will save the humanity. I found his material interesting, providing some useful insights into the human condition and his recommendations on how to transcend it. However I was also left with a number of questions and concerns.

Firstly the positive stuff. The concepts of living in the now and to not fuse with thought processes is certainly useful if not taken to the extreme.

However I have two main problems with the Tolle philosophy:

  1. he doesn't seem to articulate a clear ethical system by which to live and relate to other people.
  2. he discounts the value of any thought processes and consequently discounts the importance of all human achievement.

I believe that any set of ideas which purports to be a philosophy by which one can live should contain a set of principles, (perhaps at least partially expressed as a set of rules,) to govern how to relate to other people in a manner which is ethical. This seems to be lacking in the Tolle books that I have read. The only guidance he gives on ethical living is references to compassion - he fails to articulate how this compassion should effect how to treat other people. I imagine that he would believe that this would become apparent to people once followers become "enlightened" however the problem with this is that not everyone who reads his book will become enlightened (myself being an example) so some people will become followers of the Tolle philosophy, treating it as their life philosophy, yet not be enlightened, then their only guidance on how to live an ethical life is a poorly articulated idea on compassion.

Take an example - a believer in the Tolle philosophy was walking down a road and comes across a man lying injured by the side of the road. What does the Tolle philosophy require her to do? Sure she would have compassion for that person but what is she required to actually do for that person. Is it sufficient for her to think "Oh you poor man" and then move on. Is that what compassion means? Or does she have an obligation to provide practical help. Tolle doesn't say. An enlightened being would probably see the full meaning of compassion but as I said not all followers of the Tolle philosophy are going to be enlightened.

One of the paradoxes of the Tolle philosophy is that while he sees the egoic self as worthless he doesn't have this same opinion of the "true self". This is well illustrated in his book the Power of Now where even prior to the contents pages of the book he has the statement "You are here to enable the divine purpose of the Universe to unfold. That is how important you are!". This is a very self centred statement - he may be referring to a different self to the ego but it is still the self. It doesn't say that your neighbour may also here for the same purpose or all humanity is here for to allow the unfolding of the "divine purpose" but specifcally yourself. To an unenlightened follower of the Tolle philosophy perhaps he would see himself as somehow more important than his neighbour. (And, as an aside, I don't actually recall Tolle clearly articulating what the "divine purpose of the universe" is.)

The apparent emphasis on the self of the philosophy is further shown in its emphasis on individual happiness or inner peace as the aim of this philosophy. While individual happiness (or inner peace) is important I would have to ask - is that all there is? Isn't there more important things in life than solely individual happiness and inner peace? Is not other people's happiness at least as important as our own?

As a further extension of this lack of ethical framework Tolle fails to provide guidance on what to actually do in life. It seems that he has little regard to the value (to the community or yourself) of what one does so long as one offers no resistance to your circumstances or be distracted so as not to disturb your inner peace. There is no guidance on which work may be better to pursue while becoming enlightened (after being enlightened it may be clear - who knows).

This brings me to my other problem with the Tolle philosophy - his complete discounting of the importance of all forms of thought. The whole of civilisation has been built as a result of thought processes (although it could be argued that some aspects have been inspired by non thought processes). For example I find the works of Shakespeare, Mozart and Einstein to be of great benefit to society. Fleming in developing penicillin, saved countless lives. The list of great human achievement is endless - all largely the result of thought processes. Sure they are probably not egoic thought processes but thought processes none the less. Tolle doesn't differentiate between different thought processes - to him they are all tarred with the same brush. And then there is the works of other less noted people - the doctors, the nurses, the engineers, the teachers and all other workers who contribute to the well being of society. Their works all involve thought processes and are very important to the well being of the members of society.

I recently saw a short video of Tolle from YouTube where he rails against "content" which seemed to include any thing that was happening or had happened in the world. He saw content as distraction and therefore unimportant. But should you so readily discount the importance of "content". For example In the recent past there has been the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in China. Are these disasters classed as mere content and therefore not important under the Tolle philosophy? And what of the victims? Is the (unenlightened or enlightened) follower of the Tolle philosophy required to do any thing about these events - to assist those effected? Is the birth of a baby mere content or something that should be celebrated?

Conclusion

Tolle has some worthwhile things to say and I would encourage you to read his books and take from it what you find important or useful. However while reading the book also keep in mind the possible deficiencies. It may not be a complete philosophy of life for the unenlightened follower. Do not "throw the baby out with the bathwater".


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