"Now" You're Dead
As often happens, tragedy turns into a lesson. Although in this case, it’s a profoundly painful one, because I know the victim’s mother. According to Crime Library, 17-year-old Brianna Wilkins’ body was recently found on the banks of the Yellowstone River, after she went missing in January.
In the weeks before her death, Wilkins had become obsessed with the book "The Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle. She had also stopped grooming herself, and had begun taking longer and longer walks into the wilderness. Eventually, she walked to her death (from exposure). There was no foul play.
I don’t even want to speculate what was going on in the young mind of such a beautiful girl that would lead her to take these kinds of risks. I’m really saddened by the news. But it couldn’t have helped at all to have had the advice of a new-age guru telling her that all could be solved by "living in the moment." According to reports:
Whatever her purpose, it’s useful to consider why she might have walked away so ill-prepared. Brianna had reportedly been fixated on a self-help guru, Eckhart Tolle, who wrote The Power of Now, which emphasized living in the moment to find spiritual enlightenment.
A week before she left, she had listened to a tape of Tolle’s ideas, and her mother reported that it had transformed her. While there’s nothing inherently dangerous in such notions, some people can infuse them with a sense of urgency, giving up everything to attempt to achieve spiritual purity. If a girl walks out into the bitter winter cold without appropriate clothing or ID, and keeps going, believing that some divine entity will guide her just because she’s "in the moment," then this advice becomes a factor in her self-destructive behavior.
I read parts of "The Power of Now," and found it insulting. For a book that’s become a virtual industry of seminars and tapes, it’s surprisingly vapid. It’s disheartening to me that people will buy into this kind of claptrap, when they already possess so much deeper wisdom within themselves. Filled with trite platitudes, the basic gist of the book is summed up in the title: you don’t need to worry about the past or the future, the only thing you can control is what you are doing in the present moment. Tolle emphasizes the impermanence of life, and that we should surrender to our ultimate lack of control. (Kind of a watered down version of Buddhist teachings.)
O.K., Eckhart, but common sense tells us a little planning does help. And a little reflection never hurt either. Attempting to live totally in the moment can cause you to repress your feelings, which may lead to conflict avoidance, rather than conflict resolution. Of course any regular reader of this column will know my personal approach to life is to get right to the heart of the matter, painful as that might be.
The problem with books like Tolle’s is a bit like the problem of alternative cancer therapies. They won’t really hurt you in and of themselves, but they don’t help you either, and they may cause you to live in fatal denial of the seriousness of your situation. In this way the wrong medicine can become as deadly as poison. I watched a vivacious young woman named Judith Simon die (of untreated cancer) this way when I was a boy.
Focusing and meditating and being in the "now" won’t make up for lack of a jacket or food when the temperature drops way below freezing–or much of anything else. Tolle would no doubt deny that this is what he teaches. "Of course," he would say–"use common sense." But that’s the danger you create when you sell a totalistic philosophy. You are speaking to vulnerable people. Living entirely in the moment may be something a person would be ready to do after years or decades of focused mental training. Like Tiger Woods’ legendary golf swing, such knowledge can only be acquired through intense devotion–which also requires balanced development in all areas of one’s life. Tolle’s wrapping of advanced spiritual concepts in superficial verbal glitter did not help a sincerely confused, but seeking 17-year-old. "…Just live in the now, all will be well…" Clearly, Brianna didn’t need Tolle’s final shove into the abyss of unreality.
Cheryl, my heart goes out to you. I’m profoundly sorry for your loss.