Last March I traveled with one of my fellow editors to the sunny beachfront town of La Jolla, California to attend Inner Directions publishing house's annual spiritual conference. La Jolla, which means "the jewel" in Spanish, lives up to its name, a stunningly beautiful resort town where it seems that California's marriage of the spiritual and the material may have found its happiest home—as attested to by the BMWs parked in front of Deepak Chopra's world famous Center for Well Being just a few blocks up from the palm tree-lined beach. As the fog rolled in and out over the three-day weekend like the waves on the southern California sand, we watched, along with 500 others, as a series of spiritual teachers presented each, in turn, their understanding of nonduality—what many believe to be the essential truth that not only lies at the heart of all religious traditions but is at the core of any authentic spiritual path. However, as the events of the weekend made increasingly clear, it is one thing to speak about nonduality, and another thing altogether to truly communicate the depth, power, and significance of that mystery which lies beyond all opposites. When Eckhart Tolle took the stage on the last morning of the conference, his words carried with them the timeless transmission of one who has fallen very deeply into the spiritual dimension of life. In his one and a half hours on stage, he brought to life the subtle and profound nature of enlightenment, earning him the respect, appreciation, and rapt attention of the audience, along with the first and only standing ovation of the entire weekend.
It was immediately after that presentation that I purchased Tolle's new book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,
a former underground hit whose recent success—with over 100,000 copies sold and a place on Oprah Winfrey's list of favorites—has made its author a fast-growing presence on today's spiritual circuit. Aptly titled, the book is a meticulous and detailed deconstruction of everything that inhibits our ability to see beyond the confines of our own minds into the power and beauty of life lived in what Tolle calls "the Now," or "Being," or "Presence." At first glance it might seem like just one more in a growing genre of books full of tips on how to be more mindful and awake in our daily life, but Tolle's clear writing and the obvious depth of his experience and insight set it apart. Enlightenment, according to Tolle, is simply a "natural state of felt
oneness with Being." And being,
in Tolle's teaching,
is defined as "the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death." It is also, as he goes on to explain, "deep within every form as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence. . . . When you are present, when your attention is fully and intensely in the Now, Being can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally. To regain awareness of Being and to abide in that state of 'feeling-realization' is enlightenment."
Using a question and answer format throughout the book, Tolle weaves his words together like a carefully constructed net designed to catch and constrain all the objections of the mind and ego to the freedom of being he is pointing to. His basic message is simple: disconnect from the thinking mind, shift your attention from "mind to Being, from time to Presence." Indeed, time is the enemy in Tolle's teaching, and the mind is the enemy's tool. We must reject them both, abandoning our psychological attachment to the past and future, realizing that a mind-identified condition is "a form of insanity." "Be so utterly, so completely present,
" Tolle tells us, "that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are
in your essence, can survive in you. In the Now, in the absence of time, all your problems dissolve. Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now." While he never strays far from this basic point, Tolle parlays his message into a wide-ranging discussion of such diverse spiritual topics as freedom from thoughts and emotions; the student/ teacher relationship; death and dying; the human ego; our physical body, sexual relationships, and gender issues; and even the design of human evolution. And through it all, the "power of Now" serves as a sort of universal "portal" that can always take us (or bring us back) into a state of presence, providing access to the "unmanifested dimension of life," and freeing us from anything and everything that would interfere.
The more I read of The Power of Now,
the more I was convinced that in Eckhart Tolle's teachings we had stumbled upon a genuine and profound expression of the nondual realization, a rare pearl in the shallow tidepools of new millennium spirituality. Indeed, in a time when the teachings of Advaita Vedanta—the ancient Hindu doctrine of nonduality expressed exquisitely in the last century by Ramana Maharshi and others—are being used by Western seekers as a quick and easy passport to a dubious, if not downright nihilistic, "enlightenment," Tolle's book shines with authenticity, a welcome addition to a spiritual climate grown rife with reductionism. Thankfully, he refuses to use the subtle and profound teachings of nonduality to whitewash the darker sides of human nature or pretend that the human ego is simply an illusion that we need not concern ourselves with. Instead, his call to awakening contains within it an honest appraisal of the reality of the human condition. Referring to the "collective egoic mind" as the most "dangerously insane and destructive entity ever to inhabit this planet," he speaks at great length about the negative and inevitable consequences inflicted on both ourselves and others when we are unable or unwilling to surrender ourselves to the liberating power of "the Now."
Yet, as impressive and refreshing as the book is, Tolle's presentation of the spiritual life is not without its disconcerting moments, and some of his conclusions are worth a second look. Are we really in the middle of a "profound transformation that is taking place in the collective consciousness of the planet and beyond," even as our "social, political, and economic structures . . . enter the final stage of collapse"? Are women really "closer to enlightenment" than men, and is their monthly menstrual cycle poised to become the powerful catalyst for their widespread awakening? Does greater consciousness actually lead to a "significant slowing down of the aging of the physical body"? Whatever the ultimate veracity of these and other unusual declarations, their inclusion in the book only served to raise further questions, rather than illuminating or clarifying the territory of enlightenment.
But perhaps the most important issue to examine with a finer eye is the very nature of the nondual teaching itself, because in the final analysis, Tolle is a nondualist through and through. The essential point, expressed beautifully over and over again in the book, is to always, no matter what the circumstance, return to the Now, return to being, return to that mystery where there never has been and never could be any problem whatsoever. And while Tolle goes to great lengths to acknowledge and address the mental, emotional, and psychological issues that we must confront in doing so, the practices and methods he suggests are, in essence, all derivatives of this one fundamental movement, this one absolute inner shift from doing to being, from time to the Now, from duality to nonduality. "Direct your attention inward," he says, "If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place. Primary reality is within, secondary reality without." Whether in the nondual tradition of Advaita, the Dzog-chen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, various schools of Zen, or even some of Jesus' teachings (which Tolle often quotes in his book), this nondual approach has been a fundamental part of the spiritual landscape for millennia. Yet, it is an approach that has also endured much criticism over the years for its perceived failure to present a truly complete and integral path to awakening. One of history's most ardent and articulate critics of this view was the Chinese Ch'an Buddhist Master Tsung-mi (780-841), who spoke out in his own time against what he saw as the dangers inherent in any teaching that did not place importance on the need for "gradual cultivation." He felt strongly that those spiritual teachings, like The Power of Now,
that emphasize a fundamental, inner shift of awareness,
must be balanced by a cultivation of the dynamic and active aspects of our nature—the positive transformation, in other words, of our motivations, our actions, and our capacity to discriminate between what is wholesome and what is unwholesome in the world of time and space. While he would no doubt have agreed with Tolle
that nondual insight, what he called "sudden awakening," must be the foundation of any genuine path, Tsung-mi calls to mind contemporary critics of the nondual approach when he claims, (as summarized here by Buddhist scholar Robert Buswell) that "for full realization to occur . . . the symbiotic relationship between sudden awakening and gradual cultivation must be recognized" so that "each aspect supports the development of the other. The sudden awakening at the beginning of the student's practice assures a proper attitude toward cultivation," while "gradual cultivation ensures that the awakening is kept dynamic. Through cultivation, awakening is applied in ordinary life, protecting the student from indifference to the sufferings of others and the compulsion to seek quietude and isolation which often characterizes ascetic hermits."
Interestingly enough, the application of awakening in "ordinary life" was one of the most oft-repeated themes at the Inner Directions conference last spring. Speakers and participants alike seemed to be struggling with the question of how to live our deepest realizations of enlightenment, the very issue that prompted Tsung-mi to make such bold criticisms of the "sudden awakening" schools of Chinese Buddhism 1,200 years ago. The Power of Now
injects into this perennial discussion a practical and accessible nondual teaching of enlightenment whose burgeoning popularity will hopefully inspire not only appreciation for the rare wisdom it contains but also deeper thought about these very important issues. Whatever the case, with Eckhart Tolle's growing presence on bestseller shelves usually reserved for much lighter-weight fare, it will be interesting to see what time has in store for this unusual modern mystic.