Eckhart Tolle the “Feel Good” Existentialist

USA Today is running a story about the “spiritual teacher” Eckhart Tolle, who is categorized by some — usually Christians seeking to denigrate or demonize him — as a “New Age guru.”  Whatever the merits of Tolle’s thought might be, his close association with Oprah certainly raises some well-justified suspicions.  I can hear the John Tesh music now.

In any event, Tolle has some interesting — though hardly novel — ideas:

Are you weighted down by your past? Anxious about tomorrow? Stewing over how to face today? Stop. Drop those thoughts. Breathe. Be still. Just be.

This no-thought thought became the germ of a new philosophy. Tolle even changed his first name to Eckhart to honor Meister Eckhart, a 13th-century German mystic who described similar insights.  Eckhart, a Dominican priest, died while being tried for heresy.

Meister Eckhart wrote: “There exists only the present instant … a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”

Tolle’s 21st-century take is that “every human has a life situation — a personal past, a current health, and work and family and their sense of their future, where they want to go, what they want to do.

“Of course, you need to honor that spectrum. But don’t forget their life at this moment. If you are not living this moment, you are not really living.” Then you would be missing the beauty “that is always accessible to you.”

I am not sure what makes any of these ideas “spiritual” other than that they borrow heavily from some strains of Buddhist thought, which many contend are neither religious nor spiritual.

If these are things you do with your mind, why are they spiritual?  Wouldn’t that make them mental?

Tolle’s ideas have a familiar ring to them.  Similar insights — expressed in much greater detail and with more depth — occurred to the writers and philosophers associated with existentialism, a loosely connected body of thought having its source in the realization that the cosmos is infinite, our understanding is finite, and there is no purpose.  Because these realizations are cognitively demanding and potentially nihilistic, they are deserving of some serious thought work.

Of course, reading Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre is considerably more demanding — and thought provoking — than reading the feel-good Cliffs Notes distillations that Tolle offers in his best sellers, The Power of Now and A New Earth.  To his credit, however, Tolle has made a great deal more money than any of the aforementioned thinkers.  Well done Meister!

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7 thoughts on “Eckhart Tolle the “Feel Good” Existentialist

  1. Richard Loofbourrow

    Eckhart Tolle’s hypnotic audio presentations and popular books borrow heavily from Buddhism and existential themes. Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” delves deeply into the freedom and determinism issue with profound insights into the individual, authentic relationships, and ultimately the power of choice. Jean Paul Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” stresses the individual making himself freed from a governing human nature. Eckhart Tolle distills these well thought out positions into easily digestible morsels. Perhaps he over simplifies life’s big issues but he does provide helpful insights for the less intellectually disciplined individual.

  2. admin Post author

    I can see that. I have tried reading Tolle a few times but find it mostly to be psychobabble. Having a deep interest in existentialism and thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Camus, I do not find they have much in common with Tolle, but perhaps others are better able to see it. Tolle’s insistent use of the word “spiritual” is particularly annoying and cloying.

  3. toni

    I had a look at one of his books. The language is too simple, so the ideas are mainstream and copied from buddhists.

    It’s so sad we call people like this ‘master’ and nobody ever makes an effort to read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Plato or Parmenides. Our age is of pure decadence.

  4. toni

    An absolutely decadent age, of Twitter and shit like that. Shit. A word Nietzsche wouldn’t doubt to use, applied to a lot of things we have to bear and read and hear today. Thanks God – or whatever in his place – that there is only the present moment, and past and future are not so important.

  5. Cris Post author

    There may be some truth to this but all subsequent ages view their predecessors as decadent, without fail. This makes me suspicious about my own judgments of decadence.

  6. Josh

    Tolle’s affiliation with Oprah and Jim Carrey arouse some suspicion in myself as well. Not to mention that he sells his wisdom for money as any true sophist would. In any case, there is no novelty in his teachings. I don’t find this to be a problem, though. Personally, I’ve been studying the close relationship of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche with the Kyoto School and Zen Buddhism for some years now. Tolle’s book actually reminds me of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which also simplifies complex philosophical ideas into practical wisdom for the vulgar. Again, I find no problem here. To be honest, nothing is more simple than the essence of Zen Buddhism. It is more difficult to extract the same wisdom from Christianity considering how convoluted it has become, but it is possible if all presuppositions and literal interpretations are let go of. As for the use of the word “spiritual” I tend to interpret it as one’s personality and/or, well, spirit (e.g. general vibes put out), which does seem to differentiate it from mind insofar as it refers more to a sense of “feeling.”

    Anyway, it’s not my intention to start a debate or anything of the like. I just wanted to let you know that all hope is not lost, yet. I’ve had a long personal struggle with the ideas and teachings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. But I’ve also studied the teachings of Buddha and the Holy Bible. There is definitely common ground to be found, even aside any abstract notions. I must agree with Jaspers’ understanding of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard as “the expression of destinies.” Well, I’ll be off. You can find me on Facebook if you want –

    – Josh

  7. Babis Apostolidis

    To my opinion Tolle’s teachings are meditational the way Jiddhu’s Krisnamourti and Ramana Maharshi’s are! The “problem” with those kind of teachings and those kind of teachers is very simple : the more the teacher talks the less strong the lesson! Definately it works cause its true and honest

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