Thursday, February 12, 2009


Eckhart Tolle’s core teaching, as I understand it, is that we are trapped in our minds. As such we live predominantly in memories of the past and in projections of the future. By doing so, we live in exile from ourselves, since it is only in the present, in the Now as he calls it, that we can connect with and find that richness and peace which is our true nature.

I believe that Tolle’s particular perspective and approach is significantly novel and that it is particularly well suited to the Western mindset. Neverthess, in general, of course, his overall message is not unique. As I have been told here in Thailand by those with whom I have discussed his ideas, to a great extent his message echoes the teachings of Buddhism and other Eastern perspectives which in their own ways also seek to liberate us from the grasping, desire-fuelled tendencies of our ‘egos’ or lower selves, as it were. These Buddhist teachings hope to lead us to an Enlightened state in which we can rest, in full awareness and mindfulness, freed from suffering, no longer the victims of our internal, automatic reactions to external events and our own emotional states.

Central to this similarity is a shared emphasis that both Tolle and the Buddhists place upon the importance of the inner or esoteric life of the individual, as opposed to his purely external actions and behaviours.

And what I find myself particularly interested in is how this focus on the interior life of the individual contrasts with the very different priority given to man’s external life by the three major, monotheistic religions that might be called ‘Abrahamic’. I speak, of course, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Leaving aside the fact that esoteric, inwardly directed teachings can be found in each of these religions, for example in Kabbalism, in various forms of Christian heresy and in Sufism, it seems fair to say that each of these religions, in their mainstream expressions, are either suspicious of or explicitly hostile towards that kind of an emphasis on the interior, spiritual life of the individual that is the hallmark both of ‘New Ageist’ spirituality, to which Eckhart Tolle gives a contemporary expression and the various spiritualities of the Orient.

Why should this have been? Why are these three monotheistic creeds so predominantly externally focused, so centrally concerned not with the individual’s inner life and his quest for authenticity therein, but rather with what might be called humanity’s macrocosmic quest for meaning, truth and redemption at the level of community? In each of these religions what is most important is obedience to externally originated codes of morality or belief allied to a strong imperative to sacrifice the ‘self’. Far from a journey within, what is counselled is that we be somewhat skeptical and suspicious towards the virtue and value of our inner, personal realities.

I realise that I am simplifying the picture a great deal, that I may be laying myself open to be reminded of exceptions to these generalisations in both spheres – in the Western or Abrahamic and in The Eastern (including the New Age).

Nevertheless, in general terms the distinction seems real enough. Why for example in the West is prayer advocated far more than meditation. Moreover, why in the West is such a premium placed on the need to find ‘forgiveness’? Both these elements belong to an orientation that is externally directed. We are praying to a God who is outside ourselves, not inside, and our need for forgiveness implies that the most important centre of value in our lives, that which we find ourselves so easily offending, is external – be it other people or God.

At this point I feel that I am expected to make a decision and a choice….either for the Eastern or for the Western path. Without doubt liberal fashion and the spirit of the 21st century zeitgeist conspire to make me feel that I should join the chorus of denunciations of all things Abrahamic. That I should plump for the luxuries of the non-judgemental, individually anchored, Eastern glow. For sure, I must grant, I am very sympathetic to its appeal. And yet, and yet I hesitate. In the way I have always found myself hesitating when I have immersed myself in Buddhism and the New Age. The question, put simply, when I consider the East is this: What has happened to God? And after that, another question: What has happened to History?

More of that perhaps later, but sufficient now to recall some of the purported words of Yehoshua Bar Joseph (aka Jesus Christ) from the heretical, but for that far from uninteresting ‘Gospel of Thomas’:

“If those who guide your being say to you:
“Behold the Kingdom is in the heaven,”
then the birds of the sky will precede you;
if they say to you: “ It is in the sea”,
then the fish will precede you.
But the Kingdom is in your center
and is about you.(my italics)

While his overall drift might seem to be uncomplicatedly New Age, the last line gives us cause for thought. It reminds us, or me at least, of balance. That the external matters as well as the internal, the outside of the cup in addition to the inside (despite the reverse, corrective emphasis Jesus makes elsewhere with the Pharisees), and that for all that might be sung in praises to the richnesses of our individual, internal universes, we remain not islands but inescapably bound up in community in an external world that endures despite us; a world that should remind us that inwardness can only go so far before it topples over embarrassingly, if not dangerously, into narcissism and solipsism, twin aliments and afflictions of our times.

NB, I should add here, in the light of a comment on this piece that I am not implying that narcissism and solipsism are inevitable, necessary consequences of the eastern, inwardly directed, meditative path. Indeed, I accept that correctly practised, these disciplines do lead us to take the external world seriously (albeit not in the way understood in the Abrahamic paradigm). My point, rather, is that our Western culture is already narcissistic and solipsistic to varying degrees, sometimes extremely, and that what we require for that is an external corrective; something which I do not see coming from the East. Moreover, I suspect that many are attracted to a version of Eastern teaching that they have watered down and altered through an interpretive filter that allows them to continue to sit a shade too smugly, perhaps, in their self-revolving orientations. That's all. Surely it is not only me, for example, who has looked on, more than a little sceptically, at the ease with which some New Age teachings so often work to soothe, if not entirely eradicate, the societal consciences of rich people who might perhaps want to think a little more critically and imaginatively about their attitude to wealth?


Tom Gray said...

Nice writing. As with you and Buddhism, though, I have some misgivings about your conclusion. Tolle finds connectedness with all others and the universe at the end of his inward quest--one quote is, "whatever you do to others, you do to yourself," which doesn't sound either narcissistic or solipsistic to me. How this works, I don't know--I'm not there yet. I do find his writing very clear and helpful in understanding Zen texts.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the compliment!

Indeed, but individually focused spiritualities have the danger of leading to self-absorption; and to be fruitful, besides, need to be pursued by skilled individuals with the right intelligence and will. No?

Besides, in another sense the East lacks an external focus:in that its understanding of God is very different, less purposive, less objectively Real, indeed. It also is noticeably silent, is it not, regarding offering hope for the human race and the planet as a whole inside our historical trajectory. While it offeres gold and diamonds to individuals if they can grasp its teachings, what can it give those who can't, and the planet as a whole. And does it say that there will one day be no more suffering and conflict for the creatures of this planet?

On the other hand, it is honest about its lack of collective, universal ambition in this regard, so one shouldnt be too critical. The Abrahamic path, on the other hand, which possesses this ambition (well, if we gloss over the hell teachings), can also be criticised...and ironically for underemphasising precisely that inner dimansion in experience which the East is centered around.

Complex themes perchance. Just working though my ideas

Cheers, and enjoy the Zen!