Eckhart Tolle and the Fallacies of Borrowed Buddhism
Eckhart Tolle is the most prolific public psychotherapist in the English-speaking world. Jordan Peterson is comparably famous, but Peterson is not primarily a psychotherapist; he provides mass-audience, values-driven counseling, especially for young people.
Although the terms "counseling" and "psychotherapy" are often used interchangeably, they are fundamentally different methods of advancing human well-being. Psychological counseling refers to helping people make good choices and improved adjustments to life. Psychotherapy is a process of reconditioning, re-educating, and changing mental response patterns including emotion, cognition, and beliefs in order to relieve mental distress and disorder. The methodology of psychotherapy is inherently morally neutral and independent of and agnostic toward religion or spiritual premise. Psychotherapy can be applied to the aims of a particular religion or belief system, but if that belief system is fallacious in the first place, the psychotherapy will create as much trouble as it solves.
Eckhart Tolle's psychotherapeutic method aims to bring about mental peace and fulfillment through bringing about the end, or at least the suspension, of the "egoic mind." In Tolle's model, the conditioned egoic mind or egoic reaction is the culprit that causes harmful thinking, labeling, and judging, each of which in turn prevents entering a state of "the isness of now," or full engagement with the present moment. When people suspend the egoic mind through awareness-shifting practices such as contemplating nature and heightening perception, they enter a "transcendent dimension" or "essence identity" and find peace that Tolle has called by different words, and now calls "Presence."
Tolle's model is a meditation practice almost identical to the psychotherapeutic movement called mindfulness. However, Tolle doesn't like that word because he is after the Buddhistic emptied mind, not a full one.
Eckhart Tolle offers a useful self-help model of psychotherapy. I play his webinars as ambient music because his childlike monotonal speech is relaxing. And his basic advice, to take your mind off all the chicken poop and contemplate how beautiful what is is, is undeniably practical and true. But two main fallacies limit the good Tolle can bring to the world. One is intellectual, the other spiritual.
Tolle does not know what the ego is. He does not understand the indispensable purpose the ego serves in enabling true valuation and navigating life. More importantly, Tolle does not know that the illusions of egoism cannot be eliminated by shifting awareness, because redirecting awareness from worries to a daffodil is in itself an ego-directed response. The problem of egoism or selfishness is not a problem of misdirected awareness; it is a problem of lack of love. Tolle does not know that the only power that destroys egoism is love, and the only source of that power of love is God.
Tolle almost never uses the word "love." The deculturated Buddhism that is the philosophical matrix of Tolle's model of emptying the mind lost moral and evaluative dimensions as it was imported to the sophisticated, post-Christian West to fill Westerners' spiritual, moral, and values vacuums. The secularized Eastern philosophy that is the basis of Tolle's psychotherapy is an imputation of spirituality that can momentarily comfort the feverish imagination but cannot engender goodness or take a stand against organized evil because it arrived in the West stripped of the power of divine love.
Tolle is an engaging psychotherapist. He possesses the enthusiasm and naturalness that come to therapists who are teaching a simple method from direct personal experience. At the age of 29 in 1977, he received a glimpse "into a state of deep bliss," which released him from the severe depression he had suffered for years.
After receiving this glimpse, Tolle changed his first name and discontinued his formal education. He adopted the lifestyle of the wandering sannyasin of the "isness of now," couch-surfing at friends' homes, entering a Buddhist monastery, and eventually moving to the British New Age Center of Glastonbury. After writing a bestseller popularized by Oprah Winfrey, he became the opposite of a begging bowl jockey — a mega-millionaire who sells webinars, workshops, retreats, and millions of books. Good for Eckie! But he is mistakenly recognized as a world-leading spiritual teacher rather than what he is: a psychotherapist.
The most comprehensive explanation of the necessity of the ego for the journey of the soul is found in Discourses by Meher Baba, in the sections on The Nature of the Ego and Its Termination: "The ego emerges as an explicit and unfailing accompaniment to all the happenings of mental life in order to fulfill a certain need. The part played by the ego in human life may be compared to the function of ballast in a ship. The ballast in a ship keeps it from oscillating too much."
This is why it is necessary to have a strong ego in order to live a productive life, and people of the greatest achievement tend to have very strong egos. The problems that Tolle mistakenly believes are caused by the "egoic mind" are actually caused by egoism, or the tendency of the ego to solve mental conflicts through false valuation.
The ego attempts to solve its inner conflicts through false valuation and wrong choice. It is characteristic of the ego that it takes all that is unimportant as important and all that is important as unimportant. Thus power, fame, worldly attainments and accomplishments are really unimportant, but the ego takes delight in these possessions and clings to them as "mine."
The problem of false valuation by the ego is not solved by distracting awareness from the "egoic mind" as Tolle suggests. The problem of false valuation is solved by practice of intelligent and firm true valuation in all matters of life. In summary, Tolle incorrectly concludes that "[e]go is the unobserved mind." He teaches that all that is necessary to remove ego and access Presence is to alter awareness and observation. But the Presence Tolle chases through management of mental awareness is itself a projection of the mind.
The only experience which makes for the slimming down of the ego is the experience of love, and the only aspiration which makes for the alleviation of separateness is the longing to become one with the Beloved.
Because Eckhart Tolle does not recognize that love alone diminishes egoism and engenders peace and happiness, his work is morally neutral and oblivious to the challenge of true valuation in everyday life. He automatically and unconsciously endorses the left-wing, anti-freedom magisteria obsession with "gender" (sic) and race as pre-eminent categories of human identity. The deadening preoccupation with racial categorization weighs down the content of some of his recent webinars. When he shares Eckhart's favorite things, they are not raindrops on roses or warm woolen mittens; it's Google. Eckhart loves him some Google, which he describes as a "conscious corporation." Nuff said about making the world a better place.
Eckhart Tolle is not a spiritual guide. He does offer a simple method to pause in your day, smell the Mozart, and listen to the blueberry muffin. If that helps you focus on unchanging truth within us all, that's good.
Image: Eckhart Tolle via YouTube.