Book Review: The Power of Now

When you hear a cover version of a once popular song, it is difficult, if not impossible to know if the artist who did it was truly in love with the older song, or if it was just pure commercialism. After all,  if a song was a hit once, it probably will be again, or so the theory would go.

And this is the biggest question I am left with after listening to an audio version of Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now.

In the introduction Tolle claims to have become instantly enlightened while struggling with a deep depression. Upon saying to himself “I feel my life is intolerable,” he says he realized he must have a deeper identity, one behind his conscious mind or what he experienced as his conscious mind. And in that moment, he discovered — or rediscovered — most of the precepts of the Buddha. And perhaps he did.

On the other hand it is also possible that through some research he came across Buddhism and some other ideas and put them together into what he hoped would be a best selling cover version. I will let others be the judge of that, I know nothing of the man personally, so cannot even begin to guess, it is just a feeling I had as the book unfolded. But that does not mean the book itself is without value. Even the most cynical cash infusion cover version can also rock.

So, let us see what is in the book. The basis for his whole spiritual “system” is in fact Buddhism. In fact, if Alan Watts were still alive, he might want to talk to his lawyers about copyright infringement. But again, perhaps they were just on the same wavelength. And again, restated Buddhism is still powerful and Tolle does seem to add some ideas that are useful (and some not so useful).

The “power of now” as Tolle calls it is simply mindfulness by another name. But since Tolle asserts that your mind, or more technically your “egoic mind” is the entire problem, he certainly cannot use the word “mindfulness.” To get at the same concept he states that “you should be the silent watcher” of your egoic mind. Which sets up an interesting internal dualism that he seems to ignore. He seems to say that was have two minds, one deeper and more “real” than the other.

Tolle gets to that point by making the ego into more or less an independent organism. Which is not entirely a bad conceit. If you equate his “egoic mind” with the Buddha’s notion of the “self,” they are actually pretty close. And it is easier of thinking of dispensing of the “eogic mind” than the “self.” Treating the egoic mind as an more or less independent entity, Tolle postulates that it wants to perpetuate itself, it wants to survive. Since it evolved to solve problems, it then finds or creates problems so that its existence can be continued. Is is possible to anthropromorphise one process of the mind? Philosophically there are some deep problems with this approach, but ultimately Tolle is more interested in the psychological (though he insists on always calling it spiritual) side of Buddhism.

The eogic mind is much harsher and more dangerous than the veil of thought that Buddhists see as our normal state of affairs. The ego is a hard shell in Tolle’s theory. A hard shell that wants to solve problems, but also control, manipulate and anything else it needs to do in order to ensure its survival. Again, this has some philosophical problems, but in looking at the problems of modern, western society, also has some value as a point of view. In fact, Tolle pretty much states that all the problems of the modern world come from people making their egoic mind into their identity. And frankly, it is a point well taken. Some 30 years ago in the book I consider to be the Bible for business, Further Up the Organization, Robert Townsend constantly refers to  overdone buildings, over staffed departments and organizational dysfunctions of all kinds as monuments “to a diseased ego.” And the concept works perfectly well in both cases.

For better or worse, Tolle goes even further in creating another mental creature, the “emotional pain body.” In essence this a further corruption of the egoic mind, but this on, obviously, is focused on emotions. He says that in the same was as the ego wants problems to solve and therefore creates them, that there is something inside that wants or needs emotional pain and “feeds” on that. Anyone who has ever suffered from depression can attest to the feeling that there is some creature inside of you that seems to wants to feel worse and worse. Many writers have described depression as essentially an external force (my blue friend, as it were). The trick, Tolle insists, is to keep the pain body separate by not identifying it as “you.” Excellent advice actually. But philosophically speaking it is not necessary to create another entity, no matter how compelling. The “pain body” is a facet of the “egoic mind” which is part and parcel of the illusory self, which the Buddha described. In Tolle’s view, the head seems be getting pretty full of “beings.”

But all in all, Tolles, descriptions and prescriptions are actually pretty good, and updating the language to modern psychological terminology is good too. I think his restatement has quite a bit of value, especially for someone who may already be struggling. But this value has to be approached carefully, for there are serious problems with the system presented, and those problems feel a bit “new-agey” to me.

In my thinking, New Age “stuff” is of degraded value not because it is weird or from different sources, but rather because so much of it reflects the worst sort of “magical thinking.”  Ring a Tibetan singing bowl in just right way and you can “clear your space” of troubles.  Yeah, right.  Or as one author put it: yoga without the mediation and philosophy is just Asian gymnastics.  Not completely valueless, but not the same either.  So how does Tolle get “new agey?”

The first area is in the shortage of methodology.  Bascially he just says over and over to only “experience the present moment.”   Ummm, thanks Eckhart.  Glad to see that all that Zen training I have heard about is just a waste of time.  Maybe you can live every second in the present moment, but I haven’t been able to so far.  Yes, the Buddha could boil his teaching down to one sentence (as could Jesus, actually) but the Buddha also spent some 40 years trying to explain what that sentence meant — and how to accomplish it!

The second area of this kind of concern is the total lack of any ethical or moral dimension to his system.  Essentially Tolle skips over much of the Buddha’s Noble Eight-Fold Path.  Two folds seem plenty enough for Tolle, seven and eight only.  But to some extent, living “rightly” is necesary, if you don’t want your “mind” saying stuff to you all day.  If you have a hidden agenda, your cognitive dissonance will eventually break through your mindfullness.  The Buddha understands this, Tolle never mentions it.  Which in some ways is understandable, if your focus is more psychotherapeutic, which Tolle’s ultimately is, starting with guilt is probably not the way to go.  But as a philosophy, ethics have to be more explicitly mentioned.

Finally there is the issue that gets back to Tolle’s underlying motivation — God.  Tolle wants to call “Buddha-nature” God.  He is not the first to do so, of course.  And this gets back to my original hesitation.  Is he doing this out of a sincere belief or is he labeling it this way to help book sales?  Afterall if you disguise the Buddhist method a bit and sell it as a program to come to know your true nature, which is “God,” you have something that will sell a lot more easily in the West.  Especially in the United States right now.

My reason for cynicism is this.  Throughout the book he correctly disparages some of our misuse of religious and moral terms, feeling that they have been corrupted by incorrect use.  Mostly true.  Usually then he offers another term or phrase for what he “really” means.   When he introduces “God” into the discussion he goes to great lengths to say what God is, or actually is not.  To be fair, he does start out by trying to explain, to paraphrase the Tao Te Ching, that the god that can be described is not the real god.  But then, of course, he goes on to describe God anyway.  There is also some other “new agey” stuff about changing the consciouness of the plane and energy fields and what not, but they are easy to overlook.

Underneath it all, and to perhaps unfairly apply a label, Tolle is a Deist.  God is everywhere, in everthing, but God is “no thing.”  Which is totally fair.  But coming at the end of the book as it does, I had a different impression throughout the book.

Tolle often mentioned a person’s inner essence and such, and liked to label that “God.”  In the West, when we say “God” our mental picture is, for the most part, of the personal, supernatural being of our religions.  It feels a bit like Tolle is greasing the skids a bit by having “God” within us (which is what Christianity preaches to some extent) even if he does come clean at the end.  But ultimately the question must be asked, if you are talking about some ultimate nature of the universe, why call it “God?”  If your “God” is “no thing” then is it not so far from our common conception of “God” as to not be God?  The Buddha was much wiser, and simply refused to discuss such a thing as mere metaphysics.  Perhaps Tolle should have been too.

All in all, though it is not a book I can whole heartedly recommend, there is much value in the Power of Now.   Especially for a person who is currently hurting badly, as it has a very strong therapeutic tone.  But if you find the ideas attractive and helpful, you will almost certainly have to find other sources for method.  For that, I would strongly recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn as the best “non-Buddhist” (but only slightly) source for the introduction and application of Buddhist thought and psychology for Western ears.

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Filed under buddhism, journey into Buddhism, Philosophy & Religion, Religion, Self Improvement, Thoughts on Buddhism

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