Debunking The Power of Now: Introduction
Eckhart Tolle is a first-class charlatan. Despite this fact, he has sold, and continues to sell millions of copies of his book The Power of Now.
As the son of famed New-Age guru Elizabeth Clare Prophet, I grew up around a lot of ‘spiritual’ posturing. I’m familiar with all the verbiage and the tricks of the New-Age trade. So I know a charlatan when I see one.
But here’s a snip from Wikipedia:
The charlatan is usually a salesperson. He does not try to create a personal relationship with his marks, or set up an elaborate hoax using role playing. Rather, the person called a charlatan is being accused of resorting to quackery, pseudoscience, or some knowingly employed bogus means of impressing people in order to swindle his victims by selling them worthless nostrums and similar goods or services that will not deliver on the promises made for them. The word calls forth the image of an old-time medicine show operator, who has long left town by the time the people who bought his snake oil tonic realize that it does not perform as advertised.
“Selling them worthless nostrums and similar goods or services that will not deliver on the promises made for them.”
It is in this sense of the word that I am labeling Tolle as a charlatan. His nostrums as laid out in The Power of Now are worthless and do not deliver on the promises made for them. I will demonstrate this conclusively over the course of this series. If people understood the contradictory nature of Tolle’s work, and its reliance on discredited metaphysics and theories of mind, they might not be so eager to play along.
Let’s start with Tolle’s credentials, or rather lack thereof:
He had no formal education between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two, refusing to go to school because of its “hostile environment”; but he pursued his own “particular interests.” Tolle graduated from the University of London and entered, but did not complete, a doctoral program at Cambridge University, having studied literature, languages and philosophy. At the age of twenty-nine, Tolle experienced what he calls an “inner transformation,” after suffering long periods of suicidal depression.
So here we have a “spiritual teacher” who skipped high school (presumably he was teased or had trouble fitting in socially–what else would “hostile environment” refer to?), never studied a lick of psychology, avoided any notable science courses and lived in a state of suicidal depression for several years of his adult life. Yeah, that’s really the kind of damaged person I want to hold forth about how to find joy, and the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
On the first page of the introduction, Tolle describes his literally overnight “awakening.” From out of what sounds like a night sweat, he comes to some kind of awareness of his sub-personalities: the self that is experiencing terror and dread, and the self that is the observer. Rather than getting these two parts of himself to have a conversation so that he can find out where the fear is coming from, he immediately decides one of them is not real. He splits off the “lesser self” and determines to vanquish it. He then describes himself as having lived the next five months in utter bliss and joy, having “found what everyone else is looking for.” He describes his deeply fearful self as a “fiction of the mind.”
This is the gross error and singular point of departure after which every concept which follows becomes meaningless. It’s a regurgitation of religious duality, good and evil within the self, God and the Devil. For millennia, religions have tried to improve human morality by splitting off from “evil” and declaring war on it. You tell me: has this approach worked?
This is not how the human psyche functions. You can repress parts of your personality, but you can never eliminate them. What Tolle has done is to repress what Carl Jung would have called the shadow self. Without even knowing the man, I can be certain of one thing: If he hasn’t had a complete change of attitude or undergone a deep course of Jungian therapy, that suicidal and terrified self he repressed 30 years ago is still lurking deep within him, waiting for some opportunity to emerge and wreak havoc.
The same can be said for every Power of Now disciple who thinks they’ve conquered the “lesser self” or the “ego.” You don’t get something for nothing, and you don’t get rid of your shadow by reading a book. You must fully face and acknowledge it, and come to terms with it through therapy. Having done so, you’ve only dealt with that small part of the shadow of which you’ve become aware. There’s always more lurking beneath the surface, and it can sometimes be glimpsed in dreams. It goes extremely deep. All the way back to our primal origins and down through the ages where we survived through mortal combat with the forces of nature, animals, and each other. Civilization is such a recent development that only the thinnest of psychological veneers separates us from our evolutionary legacy of primal fear and rage.
On page 5, Tolle actually steals the word “I am” from New Thought and masters organizations. He uses “I am” to describe his “true nature” as consciousness divorced from form. So we haven’t even gotten to Chapter 1, and already he’s taking us into mind-body and spirit-matter dualism (not to be confused with the good-evil duality mentioned earlier). These are archaic beliefs. Not a single reputable scientist today would accept that there is any identity absent the neural correlates of consciousness.
Tolle describes how after his awakening he spent nearly two years of his life sitting on a park bench destitute but in a state of “bliss.” (Some people would call that vagrancy). After his two-year stint in the park, he decided he would become a spiritual teacher.
Tolle uses several devices in the introduction to rhetorically inoculate his readers against questioning. The first is a little curly-cue symbol which is sprinkled throughout the book. He says “after certain passages, you may want to stop reading for a moment, become still, and feel and experience the truth of what has just been said.” Well maybe I might want to decide whether what I read made sense to me or not before I meditate on the “truth” of it. But he’s preaching to the converted. People who’ve bought his book have already decided he’s a “wise man” who knows more than they do, so they’re uncritically lapping up his every word. The curly cue-symbol basically says, “pause here to be sure you thoroughly hypnotically induct yourself with this particular piece of spiritual propaganda before moving on.”
Tolle is not used to being questioned. He’s so convinced of his rightness that he simply “deals with” people’s objections with that sickly-sweet patronizing haughtiness we’ve come to expect from guru types:
“questions or objections may occasionally come into your mind as you read. They will probably be answered later in the book, or they may turn out to be irrelevant as you go more deeply into the teaching–and into yourself.”
In other words, “if my hypnotic suggestion’s not working on you right away, give it some time and it will eventually.” Then comes the flattery. Every good con man butters up his mark as he enlists their cooperation. Tolle is no exception as he pretends to the role of humble facilitator:
“I can not tell you any spiritual truth that deep within you don’t know already. All I can do is remind you of what you have forgotten. Living knowledge, ancient and yet ever new, is then activated and released from within every cell of your body.”
Then a defense of the inevitable vagueness:
“I use words such as “mind,” “happiness,” and “consciousness” in ways that do not necessarily correlate with other teachings. Don’t get attached to any words. They are only stepping stones, to be left behind as quickly as possible.”
This guy is practically self-refuting. Don’t get attached to words? That’s right, if you actually read the words, (you know, those groups of letters we use to convey meaning) and process them with your mind, you might figure out that what he’s saying doesn’t make sense. It’s the oldest rhetorical trick in the book. “Oh, don’t listen to my words, they mean something different when I say them than when other people say them.” It’s equivocation, trying to make oneself a priori immune to argument.
FInally, Tolle attaches himself to the coattails of the “timeless wisdom of all religions.” If it’s wisdom, and it’s so timeless, how come theologians can’t manage to keep from eternally bickering with each other? He might as well have said “the timeless nonsense of all religions.” As the Marquis de Sade once remarked, “the religion proves its prophet, the prophet his religion.”
I’m tired of talking about Tolle and hearing people say “I don’t see what’s so bad about him.” Why buy a book because it’s “not so bad.” I’d say you should buy a book that’s demonstrably great. Last time I checked, credibility, accuracy, and evidence were important features in order for something to qualify as knowledge. Tolle’s books are woefully lacking in all three of those departments–they’re lengthy statements of his personal experience and opinions. By working through this debunking, I’ll be able to talk in detail about Tolle’s specific factual errors and shortcomings.
It’s almost a complete waste of time, I agree. Those smart enough to avoid The Power of Now already have, those lost enough to fall for it aren’t really interested in what’s wrong with it. But as with all atheist critiques of religion, I can only hope this will find its way to some receptive minds which have begun to question their former dogmas, and may be open to eventually realizing that Emperor Tolle has no clothes.