ECKHART TOLLE'S 'THE POWER OF NOW'
© Ian Lawton 2006
[My sincere thanks to my good friend Stephen Gawtry of Watkins Books for suggesting that this was a book I should read. Note also that there is a new section in chapter 8 of The Big Book of the Soul entitled 'Tolle and Pathwork' - under the section on 'Fully Conscious Creation' - which provides additional analysis of and conclusions about his work.]
This marvellous book from Eckhart Tolle, first published in 1999, has now sold millions of copies around the world. That I should only now have got round to reading and recommending it is a definite case of 'better late than never'. There is no escaping the fact that his words carry true grace and, above all, real spiritual wisdom.
Summary of The Power of Now
There are four key themes in Tolle's book, none of which is particularly revelatory in its own right, and all of which owe much to Buddhist, Zen and Taoist teachings:
* The 'ego self', or 'mind', is not the 'true self'.
* We are all part of the Great Unity, or Ultimate Source, and to recognise this fact and drop the illusion of separateness and self is the key to enlightenment.
* Time is an illusion, and we should learn to live in the present or 'eternal Now'.
* Our attempts to gain primary fulfilment from external pleasures - be they material possessions, political or work-related power, success and recognition, or even the perfect loving relationship - carry with them an equal likelihood of pain and disappointment. By contrast, real fulfilment is an inner 'state of being'.
However, the power of Tolle's message lies in how he combines these traditional themes, and explains their implications without resorting to esoteric jargon or - by contrast to the apparent hypocrisy of many supposed gurus - allowing it to be obscured by the inflation of his own ego.
To summarise, he suggests that our minds are conditioned to think in terms of past, present and future. This means that we are constantly preoccupied with looking both backwards and forwards - in fact anything rather than focus on the present, the here and now. So we focus on the past because this is what gives us our sense of identity, and what has led us to the life circumstances that we currently face. And we focus on the future because this is where all our dreams, hopes and fears will play out.
But we can never actually experience the past or the future. The past is gone, and in reality we only ever experienced it as a whole series of Nows. The same will be true of the future, when it arrives. In fact the only thing that ever has any real, underlying validity, is the present. It is the only thing we truly experience, by contrast to when we replay the past or dream about the future in our minds. Not only this, but the past brings with it a whole series of conditioned responses, which keep us in chains and prevent us from seeing the Now for what it really is. While the future holds out fears or promises, depending on our outlook, which may have no validity other than that with which they are imbued by our dwelling on them.
Arguably it is this dwelling on the future that is the most common destructive trait of all. Most of us are familiar with the mantra that 'it is the journey that counts, not the destination', but Tolle puts this into a genuinely meaningful and practical context. By allowing our 'mind self' to be caught up in dreams of how our life will be better at some time in the future if only we can win the lottery, get that better job or house, move to that other place, or find that special relationship, we yearn for external pleasures that, even if we gain them, will bring only temporary fulfilment - followed by a thirst for more, or an equal potential for emotional pain because things we have gained can just as easily be lost or taken away.
By contrast, he emphasises that real joy comes from within, from just 'being' in the Now, and from recognising the simple beauty of all other forms, and our underlying unity with them. This is, of course, the state of enlightenment and transcendence that many other spiritual seekers have reported down the ages. But these are nearly always mere fleeting glimpses. Tolle emphasises that with practice we can learn to see life like this all the time, and to only switch back into a time-mind-conditioned view when it suits us, rather than it dominating us. And it is not as if he does not practice what he preaches. After his sudden enlightenment, which occurred during a particularly virulent bout of suicidal depression at the age of twenty-nine, he spent several years with no home or possessions, living as a vagrant on a park bench. He describes every moment of this experience as being one of true, unadulterated bliss - indeed, it was the constant stream of people coming up to him and saying 'we want some of what you've got' that convinced him to become active again and share his message. So his advice is not to quote the Buddha, or to hope to achieve Buddha-like enlightenment at some point in the future, but to just be the Buddha, right here, right now.
All of this has several important implications. First, he accepts that there is nothing wrong with planning for the future, or even hoping to build on or improve your life situation. But the trick is not to pin all your hopes on the future, and to obsess about it to the extent that you spend your whole life thinking about it and missing out on the Now, and just being. And you must be prepared for your plans to go wrong, or for the fact that success is nearly always balanced out by failure - although, of course, if you adopt the internalised worldview that Tolle recommends, you will in any case see both success and failure for the imposters they truly are. Moreover, you can concentrate on the Now by being totally engaged in the current activity you are performing as part of your plan for a better future. Give it your full attention, and perform it as something worthwhile in itself, with no thought for the desired outcome. This is the path of inner peace and balance.
Second, he suggests that we need to recognise that all problems are only problems either in the past or in the future. If we let go of the past and concentrate on the Now - learning from our mistakes, yes, but not dwelling on them - then we do not need to repeat conditioned responses to our circumstances and perpetuate them as problems. And if we recognise that all problems that supposedly lie in the future have not happened yet, may never happen, and indeed will only be far more likely to happen if we dwell on them, then we also realise that we should not try to 'cross our bridges before we come to them'. Tolle puts it extremely well:[i]
Ultimately... there are no problems. Only situations - to be dealt with now, or to be left alone and accepted as part of the 'isness' of the present moment until they change or can be dealt with... 'Problem' means that you are dwelling on a situation mentally without there being a true intention or possibility of taking action now... or you are carrying in your mind the insane burden of a hundred things that you will or may have to do in the future instead of focusing your attention on the one thing that you can do now.
By contrast, he points out that when we are facing a real life or death emergency, right here, right now, we actually do not see it as a problem, because we are far too busy dealing with the situation - sometimes with extraordinary resourcefulness, such as when a mother is able to lift a car up to get her child out from underneath. Alternatively, if you really find your life completely intolerable, right here, right now, he suggests that you have three options:[ii]
Remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally. If you want to take responsibility for your life, you must choose one of these three options, and you must choose now. Then accept the consequences. No excuses. No negativity. No psychic pollution. Keep your inner space clear.
Tolle also argues highly convincingly that his message is contained in a great many of the wisest spiritual teachings. For example, he resurrects the original meaning of a number of Jesus' parables and other sayings. He argues that utilising the power of Now is exactly what the Buddha was referring to when he described enlightenment as the 'end of suffering'. And he provides a wonderful take on the Taoist suggestion that if we act in the Now in accordance with the Tao then things in the future should pretty much sort themselves out of their own accord:[iii]
You can always cope with the now, but you can never cope with the future - nor do you have to. The answer, the strength, the right action or the resource will be there when you need it, not before, not after.
How do we go about all this in practical terms? Tolle gives an extensive variety of advice, but one of the best is to simply stand back at any time and ask yourself, 'Am I at ease at this moment?' If the answer is no, use your higher self - although he does not use this expression - as an objective observer of your conscious mind-self, and see what illusory problems or unnecessary expectations it is creating. Then try to put them in their proper Now perspective. Another superb exercise that helps to still the mind is to ask yourself 'I wonder what my next thought will be?' Try it, and see what happens.
Of course no summary like this can do any sort of justice to the full power of Tolle's message, especially the eloquence and strength of his words, and the fact that he writes in such a way that the real underlying message is received more on an intuitive and subliminal level than a conscious one. So it should act as an introduction to encourage others to read The Power of Now in full, rather than as a very poor substitute.
Comparison With a Rational Spiritualist Approach
For Rational Spiritualists it will be crucial to take a moment to consider how well Tolle's message fits into our worldview, and there are several important points of both agreement and disagreement. To deal with the latter first, he says very little about what happens after death. Having said that, his whole emphasis on enlightenment through getting in touch with our true timeless self in the Now seems to essentially follow Buddhist thought, so we might well expect him to believe that our individual souls remerge with the Source after death and do not even retain their individuality, much less reincarnate. But in the one small section of his book in which he considers life after death we find that he talks about the tunnel and light described by near-death experiencers in the following terms:[iv]
This portal opens up only very briefly, and unless you have already encountered the dimension of the Unmanifested in your lifetime, you will likely miss it. Most people carry too much residual resistance, too much fear, too much attachment to sensory experience, too much identification with the manifested world. So they see the portal, turn away in fear, and then lose consciousness. Most of what happens after that is involuntary and automatic. Eventually, there will be another round of birth and death. Their presence wasn't strong enough yet for conscious immortality.
In fact this appears to be a strange mixture of Buddhism and other influences, but in any case it will be clear that Tolle's view is not supported by the modern evidence. Most people who have near-death experiences do enter the tunnel and light, and they come from all walks of life, so this experience does not seem to be confined only to those who have 'encountered the unmanifest'. Meanwhile interlife regression evidence suggests that virtually all souls who enter the light still retain their individuality and reincarnate - unless they have genuinely reached the point of development where they are ready to progress beyond the earthly 'karmic round'. So reincarnation is the norm for all of us, at least for a lengthy period of time, and is not a penance reserved only for those who fail to enter the light realms proper after death because of undue attachment to the physical plane. Indeed the evidence suggests that the latter remain trapped in the intermediate plane and only move on by eventually entering the light. Of course, once again our disagreement with Tolle on this issue stems from what appears to be his failure to appreciate the fundamental duality at the heart of Rational Spirituality - which is that we are both individual souls and all part of the Ultimate Source all at the same time. And it is no coincidence that this is the only time in his book when he is clearly hypothesising, and not speaking directly from his own personal experience.
Second, Rational Spirituality holds that progression beyond the earthly karmic round can only be attained by experience, not sudden enlightenment or gnosis, so we would probably disagree on this point as well. Be that as it may, Tolle is undoubtedly not recommending the non-experience based lifestyle of the ascetic when he talks about tuning into the power of Now. Indeed he emphasises that transformation is achieved through the body, not away from it. So his advice is intended to help people live normal lives in the physical plane, but with a completely different perspective, and to that extent it is extremely valuable.
Third, there is a significant correspondence between some of Tolle's practical advice and that of Rational Spirituality. For example, they key aspect of how the law of cause and effect rules our lives lies in concentrating on how our actions and attitudes in the present influence our future, rather than always looking in the rear view mirror for past explanations for current circumstances. Again this is completely at one with the idea of living in the Now, even if Tolle's message is far deeper and more powerful in this regard. Moreover our approaches are completely at one in the emphasis we place on personal responsibility.
Fourth, although it is not something that Tolle discusses, it might appear that the Rational Spiritual idea of life planning is at odds with his message. However, it seems that if we live with great presence and consciousness in the Now we are more likely than ever to attract and pick up on the synchronicities and other triggers that tend to keep us on our chosen path. And this may well be far more important than endlessly speculating about whether or not we are on course, or what our real plan might be, and so on.
There is a clear difference between the aims of Rational Spirituality and of The Power of Now. The former attempts to provide an all-encompassing spiritual framework that answers all the typical questions about who we are, why we are here, what happens to us after we die, and so on. By contrast the latter is the ultimate spiritual self-help book, and is primarily aimed at providing practical advice about how to live. He is giving us a simple way of looking at ourselves while in physical incarnation that can maximise our inner peace and minimise our suffering. And, most important, his advice is that it can work for anyone, completely irrespective of their life circumstances.
Provided we do not forget the qualification concerning Tolle's broader spiritual framework, his work is a hugely important addition to a spiritual worldview.
All taken from Tolle, The Power of Now (Hodder Mobius, 2005)
[i] Chapter 3, pp. 53-4.
[ii] Chapter 4, p. 68.
[iii] Chapter 4, pp. 70-1.
[iv] Chapter 7, p. 118.