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!