The earth stands on the edge of "enlightenment" - not simply another "evolutionary progression" but a "leap to an entirely different level of Being and, most important, a lessening of materiality" (3). We experience this enlightenment when the "power of Presence" or "awareness of the power that is concealed in the present moment" is our dominant experience.
The "Source, the unmanifested one Life... the timeless intelligence that manifests as a universe unfolding in time" (276) has one purpose: "the emergence of consciousness into this world" (277). The purpose of all humanity is to awaken from an "old egoic state of conciousness" to "the new emerging consciousness" (6). By doing this "we can be conscious participants in the unfolding of that intelligence, the flowering consciousness" (277).
Only one thing stands in the way - "ego." Our ego overidentifies with "form" and "content" - in other words, with "materiality" (3). Apart from enlightenment, humans remain "unaware of their own essence and identify only with their own physical and psychological form" (4). With enlightenment comes freedom from forms and materiality: "When you are no longer totally identified with forms, consciousness--who you are--becomes freed from its imprisonment in form" (226).
This is the world according to Eckhart Tolle, self-professed possessor of this new consciousness. In his book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, he attempts to teach his readers how to attain enlightenment. He contends that "this book itself is a transformational device that has come out of the arising new consciousness" (6). He continues: "This book's main purpose is not to add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything, but to bring about a shift in consciousness, that is to say, to awaken" (6-7).
Our Problem: The Ego
Every spiritual and religious belief system shares a fundamental structural similarity: they all point out a problem and then offer a solution to the problem that will lead to an ideal (or at least, a better) state.
In Tolle's system, ego is the dysfunction, the original sin, the state of suffering (8-9). Ego prevents people from experiencing pure Presence. Throughout the book, Tolle repeatedly defines and explains this term. According to Tolle, the ego is:
- "the unawakened you, the ego as it thinks, speaks, and acts" (7)
- "the blueprint for dysfunction that every human being carries within" (13)
- "[a]ny conceptual sense of self" (86)
- "What you identify with turns into ego." (181)
The ego is the "I" or "me." It "embodies the primordial error, a misperception of who you are, an illusory sense of identity. This is the ego" (27). Tolle repeatedly emphasizes that the ego is the problem: "the ego itself is pathological" (109); "The ego creates separation, and separation creates suffering. The ego is therefore clearly pathological" (112); "The ego could be defined simply in this way: a dysfunctional relationship with the present moment" (201).
When we overidentify with "form" and "content" through thoughts, actions, emotions, and roles, we find ourselves imprisoned within our ego. "Thought forms" are particularly troublesome to Tolle: "Ego is no more than this: identification with form, which primarily means thought forms" (22). Why are "thought forms" so pathological: "You take the thinker to be who you are. This is the egoic mind. We call it egoic because there is a sense of self, of I (ego), in every thought--every memory, every interpretation, opinion, viewpoint, reaction, emotion" (59). The ego not only overidentifies with thought forms, but also with things (37), the body and its gender (49), emotions, and roles such as parent, spouse, or child.
If ego is our sin, then salvation from the ego is found in "awareness": "Awareness is the greatest agent for change" (99). Our unconscious egoic patterns must be exposed. With awareness, the evil that is ego is exposed and eliminated.
Tolle's Underlying Philosophy of Monism
The reason Tolle maintains that the ego is pathological arises from his philosophical commitment to monism. Tolle's monism - the belief that everything is a manifestation of one essence, namely, God (or what he calls the Presence or intelligence) - forces him to label the ego as sin. Why? The truth that we are all "one" is compromised by our belief that we are distinct from one another. This distinction must therefore be an illusion. The sense of self - the ego - is a threat to oneness. Any claim that we have an identity or individual lives is off-limits, nothing more than a delusion: "there is no such thing as 'my life,' and I don't have a life. I am life" (128). Elsewhere, "nothing you can find out about yourself is you. Nothing you can know about you is you" (192).
Nothing can be known about ourselves - nothing that is, other than that which Tolle tells us we can know - except that we are Presence. All other knowledge is untrue, false, deception, imprisonment. Tolle teaches that we must come to the point where we can say with confidence, "I don't know what it means to be myself": "If you can be absolutely comfortable with not knowing who you are, then what's left is who you are--the Being behind the human" (108-109).
Note that, according to the quote above, we are not even "human" - we are "the Being behind the human" (109). Even our personhood is a deception: "When you are still, you are who you were before you temporarily assumed this physical and mental form called a person" (256).
This is the reason Tolle rejects any identification with "content and structure" (34), that is, any identification with "form" or "materiality." Tolle is a gnostic. For Tolle, salvation is not an act of God external to ourselves and done on our behalf accomplished in the created world, but enlightenment within through an embrace of elite knowledge.
Though Tolle claims to reject any sort of dualism or duality, his gnostic stance contains an implicit dualism between materiality and spirituality. The spiritual - or immaterial - is set over against the spiritual. Death frees the spirit from imprisonment in the body. At death, "your sense of Beingness, of I Am, is freed from its entanglement with form: Spirit is released from its imprisonment in matter" (57). Again, "consciousness (spirit) is freed from its imprisonment in form" (208). Why? "The physical body is no more than a misperception of who you are" (250).
This is in direct conflict to the Christian understanding of creation and redemption. Creation is good, made by God to communicate God's grace and goodness. Though creation suffers the consequences of human sin, God has personally entered into the human situation in Christ in order to redeem humanity and creation. The movement of God is not from form to formlessness, but from formlessness (words) and theophanies (temporary manifestations of God) to the concrete: "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). The incarnation of God in Christ is the embrace of humanity and creation, not its rejection.
You are God
Monism can lead to only one conclusion: you are God! If only one reality exists, and that reality is ultimate, then it is hard to conclude anything otherwise.
Here, Tolle attempts to walk a tight-rope. At times, he seems to speak of union with God; at other times, he speaks as if we are God. The difference is significant: Union is a deep bond between two distinct entities. A husband and wife may know deep union through mutual love and commitment. Oneness implies that the two are the same - not simply one in relationship, but one in nature and essence (to use the preceding illustration, the husband is the wife and the wife is the husband). Following are quotes from his book which at times seem to imply union, but more often than not, speak of complete oneness with God, that is, that essentially, we are God.
- "Underneath the surface appearance, everything is not only connected with everything else, but also with the Source of all life out of which it came." (25-26)
- "Your true nature emerges, which is one with the nature of God." (184)
- "all life-forms [including human beings] are, of course, temporary manifestations of the underlying one Life, one Consciousness." (4)
- "Spirit is released from its imprisonment in matter. You realize your essential identity as formless, as an all-pervasive Presence, of Being prior to all forms, all identifications. ... That's the peace of God. The ultimate truth of who you are is not I am this or I am that, but I Am." (57)
- "can I sense the I Am that I AM at this moment?" (79)
- "This 'little me' is an illusion that obscures your true identity as timeless and formless Presence." (140)
- "God, the scripture is saying, is formless consciousness and the essence of who you are." (219)
These statements greatly concern me. And this, in spite of the fact that I actually believe that the Christian faith would benefit from a recovery of the doctrine of theosis (see Descending into Divinization, Ancient Spirituality in a Postmodern World, or, for that matter, just about any article under my category of Mystics.) The point I am trying to make is that I am sympathetic with a recovery of a deeper sense of union or participation in the life of God, but not at the expense of abandoning theism for monism!
Theism and Monism
Theism and Monism are radically different beliefs. Tolle is undoubtedly a pantheistic monist. Everything is one and that one is God. He repeatedly speaks of "the interconnectedness of everything in existence. At that deeper level, all things are one" (276).
Theism holds to an essential duality. All reality is not of one nature or essence. The most fundamental duality is between God and God's creation. In other words, there is God and everything that is not God, that is, God's creation. God is the one Creator; we are the creatures. We may be one with God, but we may never be God. In the Christian worldview, the claim to be God is the ultimate affront to God. It is the original sin! If this is what Tolle is suggesting, then his book could accurately be retitled, The Old Lie of A New Earth.
Monists often accuse theists of duality or dualism, but they are guilty of the same charge. In order to maintain their monism, they hold to a duality between material and spiritual reality, setting the spiritual over against the material.
In Christian theology, the opposite of spiritual is not material - the opposite of spiritual is to be dead. To be spiritual is to be alive with the life of God. It is to know the power and presence of God's Spirit at work in one's life. It is not to be God, but to be alive in God - to know God in a relationship of mutual love and willing service. It is much more than a new consciousness; it involves the complete renewal of our whole being - mind, will, emotions, and ultimately in the resurrection, body.
The Real Problem: Egocentrism, not the Ego
Don't take my criticisms in the wrong way. I value anyone who attempts to help others be better humans. However, I believe a consistent embrace of Tolle's system leads to human diminishment rather than human flourishing. (Notice I said a "consistent embrace." Most people will incorporate Tolle's material eclectically - in the same way Tolle devised his own system - and this will be to their advantage.)
He himself has stated that personhood is an illusion. He calls us to reject personhood, thought forms, distinct experiences, and emotions. Certainly, we are more than our thoughts, roles, experiences, and emotions, but this truth does not eclipse them. The solution is not the eradication of the self. In other words, the problem is not removed by pretending it is not there, because at the end of the day, one must ask, if the ego is gone, then who is speaking?
Baggini exposes the contradiction in Tolle's argument:
If one genuinely lost one's sense of self, one would not be able to report any feeling of oneness with the universe. Rather, at the end of the meditation, one would report coming back to awareness after having lost any sense of consciousness, a bit like the way one feels after waking up. Any euphoric feelings during such a form of meditation have to be had by oneself or else there can be no feelings at all.
The self is not an illusion. It is not deceptive to believe that the self exists. The illusion is to believe that the self is the center of everything - that the self actually is everything! Placing the self - even the enlightened self - at the center of all things is nothing less than the idolatry of the self.
The human ego has an immense gravitational pull. Left unchecked, it asserts its sovereignty by drawing everything into itself. The world becomes the world of my perception; the things I encounter are grasped in their relationship to me; the world is endowed by me with whatever truth it has; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, who is me. Even God cannot resist the ego's pull. Rather than being created in the image of God, I create God in my image. I make a God who serves me. I, in effect, take the place of God as the one who is the source of goodness, truth, and beauty...
...We are quite simply an inappropriate center for the universe; we cannot bear the burden of endowing the world with its significance. The self does not possess sufficient meaning in itself to provide meaning for the world. A self that puts itself in the place of God finds itself not enriched but impoverished.
This is precisely my problem with Tolle. His teaching impoverishes rather than enriches human flourishing.
We are not God. God is at the center of all things. We are creatures, made for a relationship with our Creator - made to be a dwelling place of the divine. But we are not divine ourselves!
Our sin is to think we are at the center of all things. Egocentrism closes us to others, and most importantly, to the Divine Other. "There is in us great resistance to the eros [God's passionate love] that frees us from our preoccupation with ourselves and opens us to love." The Christian tradition calls us, not to self-annihilation, but to self-denial, that is, to realize that we are not our own. We resist selfish impulses in order to become all that God desires us to be. The fullest expression of self-denial is not self-eradication but self-giving love patterned after the love of Christ - not a stoic acceptance of things the way they are, but a passionate commitment to overcome evil by performing God's will.
Our problem is not that we simply need "awareness of the present moment." Instead, we need to "practice the presence of God" in every moment. We do not necessarily resist the moment, but we do resist God's will. We resist surrendering our life to God. The recovery of our humanity is not the eradication of the self, but is found in our willingness to say to God, "Here am I - your will be done." This takes place in the context of a growing relationship rooted in trust. It is our personal interaction with God - wrestling with doubts, fears, and difficulties - that strengthens and nurtures this relationship. This is more than simply passive acceptance - it is trustful surrender to God's will.
The Illusion of Evil
The ethics of Tolle's philosophy also lead to human impoverishment rather than human flourishing.
In Tolle's system, ego is the only true "sin". Anything else we mistake as sin or evil is a problem of perception - the ego's perception, that is: "thinking without awareness is the main dilemma of human existence" (32). Since everything is ultimately one, "the deeper interconnectedness of all things and events implies that the mental labels of 'good' and 'bad' are ultimately illusory" (196). Good and evil arise only from our faulty perception. In reality, nothing is ultimately or essentially good or evil. Try telling this to a rape or murder victim!
This is one classic problem with monism. If everything is ultimately one thing, then good and evil are merely illusionary mental categories the ego mistakenly attaches to events or people.
In Tolle's world, how should we evaluate events and actions? Tolle offers the example of "a wise man" who approaches all events in the same dispassionate manner. Whether he wins the lottery or is the victim of a drunk driver or his house falls into the sea, he refuses to view events as either fortunate or unfortunate. When asked whether these events are good or bad, the wise man's consistent response is neither a committed "yes" or "no," but instead, "maybe." Tolle's point: "the wise man's 'maybe' signifies a refusal to judge anything that happens" (197).
He underscores his point in celebrating the way a Zen Master responds to good news or bad news? "The Master responds to falsehood and truth, bad news and good news, in exactly the same way: 'Is that so?'" (200). Though Tolle assumes this response communicates spiritually enlightened wisdom, it sounds eerily similarly to Kurt Vonnegut's nihilistic refrain in the book, Slaughterhouse Five: "And so it goes!"
One must ask, however: Is the refusal to evaluate an event as either good or evil an indication of spiritual maturity? And doesn't this fly in the face of Tolle's continued attempt throughout the book to portray Jesus as an advocate of Tolle's system? Jesus continuously distinguished between good and evil. He spoke of righteousness and unrighteousness. He identified injustices - both corporate and personal. He spoke of evil - both without and within. Tolle's cherry-picking of the New Testament overlooks these statements.
Like many other New Age writers, Tolle claims that his teachings are in complete accord with the teachings of Jesus. He must cherry-pick his references to do this, but this seems to be no problem for him. By doing so, he fails to recognize that Jesus of Nazareth was first and foremost a Jew who was raised in the Jewish religion and embraced it as his own. As such, he was a devout monotheist. Jesus would never claim that "everything is one" or that we are all "sparks of the divine" or even worse, God ourselves. No, his creed would be: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4). And because God is one, we, God's creatures, should love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. Tolle is simply dishonest when he claims that his teaching possesses Jesus imprimatur: "The possibility of such a transformation has been the central message of the great wisdom teachings of humankind" - to which he includes Jesus (6).
Tolle is also dishonest in how he presents his teaching. He writes, "This book's main purpose is not to add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything, but to bring about a shift in consciousness, that is to say, to awaken" (6-7). This is fundamentally dishonest. Tolle is offering new information. He does attempt to influence his readers to entertain new beliefs.
By denying that what he teaches encompasses actual beliefs, Tolle places his "teaching" above questioning and criticism. If criticized, he can simply respond that he is not really teaching anything, effectively cutting off all dialogue concerning his system. His built-in response to criticism is simple: If you don't buy his system, then you simply haven't been enlightened. "If you find this book incomprehensible or meaningless, it has not yet happened to you. If something within you responds to it, however, if you somehow recognize the truth in it, it means the process of awakening has begun" (260). Of course, there is no possibility he's wrong! He's enlightened, after all!
Tolle rightly argues that "[m]any 'religious' people ... don't realize the limitations of thought" (17). Unaware of the rich apophatic tradition of the church, many religious people assume that words serve an equivocal rather than an analogical function. God, by nature, is transcendent. Our best words fall short, but that does not mean they are untrue, or worse, not even worth saying. Our words are signs pointing to the truth. The words are not truth themselves, but can serve the truth by allowing us to think, reflect, consider, etc. "Can the Truth be put into words? Yes, but the words are, of course, not it. They only point to it" (71). Tolle argues that "doctrines, ideologies, sets of rules, or stories" have no truth (70).
That is, all doctrines, ideologies, and stories except his own!
This is where Tolle is most frustrating: He is unwilling to admit that what he offers is simply another ideology with its own set of doctrines. By refusing to admit the cognitive content and form of his teaching (after all, the book has structure and form), he sets himself above criticism.
A Reflection of Tolle's Ego
As with most New Agers, Tolle's spirituality is a reflection of his own ego. Though he tries to hide behind his experience of enlightenment, the fact is that his beliefs reflect his own hand-picked truths. Like most New Agers, he claims complete rejection of the ego while being totally self-led. Always keep in mind that there is a reason that certain teachings are labeled "New Age." The reason: they don't fit within any of the great religious traditions - or any other category for that matter. Though influenced by Buddhism with a smattering of Christianity, Tolle's teaching is neither Buddhist nor Christian - or Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim, for that matter.
Put simply, Tolle's system fits his ego, and affirms rather than denies it. The problem is that he lacks the tools to be self-critical, since any criticism is an over-identification with thought - and thought, after all is useless! Baggini exposes the paradox (or in stronger terms, contradiction) in Tolle's way of thinking:
The clear truth is that people who find this path satisfying are living contented lives. In other words, they like their 'spiritual practices' because these make them feel more content, at peace, or whatever, than alternatives they have tried. So despite all the fine words about losing their egos, they are in fact simply engaging in another form of self-gratification.
There are negative consequences to blaming the ego. A consistent survey of Tolle's system reveals a sampling of shortcomings: a pervasive irrationality rather than a healthy transrationality, depersonalization and subsequent dehumanization, the lack of valuing a person as a person or appreciating the uniqueness of the individual, and the lack of any real moral center.
It is not Tolle's desire for an authentic spirituality that I find troubling. Rather, it is the way his system inhibits true human flourishing. The human person cannot flourish when humanity, personality, and all that this encompasses - thinking, acting, feeling, etc. - are brushed aside as irrelevant, and even worse, a deceptive pathological delusion!
I am also not troubled by the wide embrace of this book by the general public. Rather, I am concerned when Christians uncritically embrace this book. It is the perfect example of the kind of gnostic teachings that the early church so quickly rejected because of its incapability with a full-orbed incarnationalism. The incarnation and resurrection of Christ has vast significance in regard to humanity, personality, and spirituality. It is God's "yes" to creation and humanity.
But before I point fingers at others, I grieve first and foremost for the church. People would not so quickly buy into Tolle's system if their hunger for spirituality had been met in the Christian church. The church's treasure-house of spiritual riches - its profound and mystical union with God in Christ through the Spirit, its sacramental way of viewing creation as a means of revealing God's grace, its call to practice God's presence in all things, etc. - has hardly been mined for all its worth.
By failing to make the most of this sacred deposit, people now look elsewhere for spiritual insight. Meanwhile, we in the church have, for the most part, offered little more than a "Jesusy" version of Tolle's system. In my opinion, Christians would not - and could not - so easily embrace Tolle's system if it were not the case that much Christian expression is little more than a form of "enlightened egocentrism" - religion that is about ourselves rather than about God. In order to recover this, we will have to learn to put the ego in its place - not by eradicating it, but by rejecting egocentrism, whether secular or "enlightened," and embracing theocentrism!
 Julian Baggini, What's It All About? Philosophy and the Meaning of Life (New York: Oxford, 2004) 147. He continues: "A further problem with this idea is that it suggests the meaning of a person's life is not to have a life at all. You reach your highest potential by losing your sense of self altogether - in effect, by ceasing to exist... Well, that can be arranged - it's called death."
 Frederick Bauerschmidt, Why the Mystics Matter Now (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2003), 62-63.
 Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 43.
 Baggini, What's It All About?, 148.
Quotes excerpted from A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008