"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.

Comments (25 comments)

Doris Tracey / October 22nd, 2006, 1:04 pm / #1


I love your beautiful heartfelt message about Briannas tragic death and another wake-up call. Her soul was obviously not very happy here and was trying to find her way back to god in the only way she was taught how. May the Holy Spirit comfort her and her family in this hr of great tribulation!


Paul P / October 23rd, 2006, 3:30 am / #2

Absolutely spot on Sean.
Very sad story. But I can only hope that her Mother might take a bit of solace that someone else might learn from this. We all go through it at some point and at the end of the day its up to us to wake ourselves up…not some book or guru. I’m afraid I don’t agree with the next comment, although I’m sure Doris means well.

But thats the problem with beliefs and philosophies. Everyone of them are going to get twisted and misunderstood whether they appear good or bad. Those that write in the aim of helping or benefiting others, need to be aware of the consequences of what they write. But I suppose thats what makes the human race…

say no to christ / October 23rd, 2006, 10:06 am / #3

What a sad story. My thoughts and best wishes to her family.

And I couldn’t agree more about what you said. There are way too many nut jobs out there pushing nonsense. Even naturalist plan ahead and herbalist use herbs to heal the sick, but this spiritual “enlightenment” to use only the mind to fix all your problems is just plain stupidity! The human mind evolved to use tools and other meterials as a way to adapt to our environment and those stupid “gurus” who claim the mind can conquer nature should be put away in mental hospitals.

say no to christ / October 23rd, 2006, 10:07 am / #4

What a sad story. My thoughts and best wishes to her family.

And I couldn’t agree more about what you said. There are way too many nut jobs out there pushing nonsense. Even naturalist plan ahead and herbalist use herbs to heal the sick, but this spiritual “enlightenment” to use only the mind to fix all your problems is just plain stupidity! The human mind evolved to use tools and other meterials as a way to adapt to our environment and those stupid “gurus” who claim the mind can conquer nature should be put away in mental hospitals.

Aaron Kinney / October 23rd, 2006, 12:22 pm / #5


You said:

“May the Holy Spirit comfort her…”

But you seem to be misunderstanding the facts of the situation. This poor woman is DEAD. Which means that there is no more “her.”

The very phrase “afterlife” is a contradiction.

If this woman still existed, than there would be no tradgedy to lament, would there? The only reason this situation is so sad is because this woman has died, and prematurely so. She no longer exists.

What part of the word “death” dont you understand?

Doris Tracey / October 23rd, 2006, 7:48 pm / #6

Hi Aaron,

Are you dead in Christ or alive? Evil is live spelled backwards.Death has always been an illusion and cannot exhist where life is. Death is a lie and its appearance has no power. Many people are dead in Christ until quickened by the Holy Spirit.The Holy Spirit is pure electrical energy and without that pure energy you are a mechanical robot or the living dead. Some souls will choose to remain dead and will lose their identity, God forbid. Choose life not death. If we ultimately die in the end there would be no reason for us to go on at all.


Aaron Kinney / October 24th, 2006, 10:44 am / #7

Hi Doris,

Thank you for the reply.

You said:

“Are you dead in Christ or alive?”

I’m sorry, but I don’t understand this question. I am not dead or alive in anyone, except for me. I guess you could say that I am “alive in Aaron.” As far as christ goes, there is lots of evidence suggesting that he never existed. But if he did exist, he is most certainly dead now. By the way Doris, how does a person be dead OR alive “in” someone?

“Evil is live spelled backwards.”

It certainly is. And racecar is racecar spelled backwards. But Im not here to play scrabble; Im here to talk about the meaning of life and death. Trying to equate being alive with the concept of evil through spelling games is somewhat silly considering the seriousness of Brianna Wilkins untimely demise.

“Death has always been an illusion and cannot exhist where life is.”

I agree that death and life are mutually exclusive. But you said here that death is an illusion. Are you seriously claiming that Brianna Wilkins is not dead?!?! Care to support that assertion?

“Death is a lie and its appearance has no power.”

Death is a word used to describe the concept of no longer being alive. So in a way it is a negative statement. But death is not a lie as far as I can see. Brianna is most certainly dead. Ive seen people die in front of my eyes. It will take much more than your unsupported assertions for me to discard the evidence of “death” that I have directly witnessed in my life.

Why dont you start with providing evidence that my Brianna, my grandmother, JFK, etc… are not dead and never actually died?

“Many people are dead in Christ until quickened by the Holy Spirit.”

So first you tell me that death is a lie, and now you are telling me that dead people reside within the dead body of Jesus Christ until “quickened”? Im sorry but this statement is nonsensical as far as I can understand it. You might have to dumb it down a shade for me to grasp it. How exactly do living people exist as dead entities within the body of a fictional-or-dead cult fonder from 2000 years ago? And what exactly is this “quickening” process that allegedly removes the dead people from Christs body?

“The Holy Spirit is pure electrical energy and without that pure energy you are a mechanical robot or the living dead.”

If the Holy Spirit is pure electrical energy, can it be detected, perhaps even contained? You know, we do have devices that contain, generate, convert, and otherwise manipulate pure electrical energy. Where does this Holy Spirit electricity reside? Earth? Perhaps the Andromeda Galaxy?

Last time I checked, electrical energy was not a singluar, conscious, personal and acting entity. Since when did electricity get itself a thinking mind and a will and such?

And exactly HOW MUCH electrical energy comprises the Holy Spirit? A few Gigawatts? Maybe Terawatts? Electrical energy, no matter how much, is quantifiable.

And if the Holy Spirit is indeed pure electrical energy, why havent I heard this news from the guy who discovered it, Denjamin Franklin? Or why doesnt the Royal Academy of Engineering have anything on this fact? Why hasnt NASA, or the National Academy of Sciences, or some other group familiar with electricity spoken up on this little fact?

Is there anything at all from any recognized scientific or engineering body that attests to this rather revolutionary claim that the Holy Spirit is pure electrical energy? Where do you get this kind of information anyway?

“Some souls will choose to remain dead and will lose their identity, God forbid. Choose life not death. If we ultimately die in the end there would be no reason for us to go on at all.”

Oh boy, now Im really confused! A minute ago you said death was fake. Now you are implying that it is real. Which is it?

Furthermore, you seem to confuse the actual properties of death. You said that souls choose to remain dead. But I dont think its possible to “choose” anything when you are DEAD! Thats the whole point: death = not existing anymore. If I, for example, am able to make a “choice,” then I have to be alive to do so, don’t I?

Thanks again for your reply, and I truly hope you can give me some clarifying answers, because your statements sent my head spinning and totally contradicted everything that I know regarding God, energy, matter, consciousness, and even existence itself.

Thank you,

Aaron Kinney

Dennis Fisher / October 24th, 2006, 12:08 pm / #8

Sean, I am not curtain that reading Tolle’s book and getting lost and dieing of exposure in the wilderness are connected. From what I read she just got lost. All the rest is just a bit of a stretch.

doris tracey / October 24th, 2006, 6:05 pm / #9

Hi Aaron,

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the conscious
ness of God, but the soul created in the image and likeness of God can. We were all created in the image of God originally and we all had his mind which was bright and luminous and very pure. Briannas soul went into another demention where flesh and blood cannot enter. The flesh is the carnal or animal nature of us and the unredeemed soul is our devine potential or God pot-
ential. The flesh is the devil of our soul and has a mind and will of its own. The only thing that can control the flesh is the spirit, which has to be invoked. “Drink
me while I am drinking thee.” Souls have a
choice to either develope their ID in God or lose it altogether. God desires us to return to him with our original firey ID. He will never force our will to come back to him, but he can break our human will to give us an opportunity to come back to him in loving obedience. There are several places in Bible History where it says God laughs. Psalms 2 says God laughs when people say he is dead. Thank you for your long well thought out message Aaron.


BlackSun / October 24th, 2006, 7:02 pm / #10

@Paul P: Thanks, I agree with you.

@sntc: I wish there was some way to inoculate people against the “buy-in.” Once you “buy-in” to particular belief systems, you tend to be less resistant to other things the proponents claim. Something shuts down the critical thinking, and people become obsessed. I’ve watched it all my life with various new age fads…diets, crystals, angels, you name it. Everyone’s looking for the latest quick solution, rather than looking within and dealing with the loss of control they are feeling on a realistic human level.

@Doris Tracey: I think you are making a fool of yourself here. Aaron Kinney answered you quite nicely, both here and on his blog. I suggest you read his comments. If you are going to continue to repeat yourself, you will only make the situation worse.

@Aaron: Thanks for helping me out here…

@Dennis Fisher: If you claim there is no connection between what a person reads and what they do, then what use is any book to anyone? Why not throw out all books right now if they don’t affect the minds of people who read them? Why do corporations spend billions to get their messages across if they have no effect? Your argument is self defeating. What I actually said in my post was a principle: Obsession is unhealthy. “Buying-in” to any totalistic system of thought often defeats the survival instinct. With cancer patients, the idea that they can “cure” themselves naturally becomes a block to proper treatment. This book became a block to psychotherapy or whatever this young girl needed to set her straight. It was no doubt a contributing factor. I never said it ’caused’ her death, any more than various heavy metal music has ’caused’ the deaths of teens who have committed suicide after listening to it. But clearly, words, music and images have their effect on the psyche. We’ll never know why Brianna got “lost,” but her mother’s report that she was reading this book obsessively before she died provides us with some clue.

Dennis Fisher / October 24th, 2006, 8:05 pm / #11

Sean, thanks for your clarification. I agree with you for the most part. However, You misinterpreted the point I made which is that
17-year-old girl, Brianna Wilkins, more likely just got lost… and her tragic death was just an accident. and probably noway related to Tolle’s Book. Thats seems to me the more likely turn of events. I could be wrong.
Also, the grieving Mother blaming Tolle’s Book is understandable.

BlackSun / October 24th, 2006, 8:52 pm / #12

Dennis, here’s the link I was referencing in the story. Apparently, I’m not the first or the only one to make this association.

Dennis Fisher / October 25th, 2006, 8:59 am / #13

Sean, I know you must see my point.

This association you and others are making about Brianna’s accidental death and Tolle’s Book on The Power of Now is based on a grieving mothers emotional and irrational statement. Sean, you you are looking to make a point about “Buying-in” to any totalistic system is unhealthy. Brianna death and Tolles Book is not a good foundation to base this argument.

I read just the next article down which said..
This girl just broke up with her boyfriend and was very upset. According to Brianna’s Aunt, Christine Wilkins who is James Wilkins’ sister, described Brianna and her mother’s relationship.

“They have a very, very bad relationship. The whole thing is her mother’s responsibility.”

If you add up this information with the your information it kind of discredits the Mothers Statements and the premise of your argument. Furthermore, I think, the Press saw the potential of a Headline story
and played it up of course, to sell their rag.

doris tracey / October 25th, 2006, 4:53 pm / #14

Hi Sean,

I suppose what an individual believes in is completely personal and should be left alone to discover his own reality. We all have to live the life we were called to live,no matter what. Life can show us what we need to learn through trial and error. Faith without works does not exhist.


olly / October 27th, 2006, 12:25 pm / #15


“I suppose what an individual believes in is completely personal and should be left alone to discover his own reality. We all have to live the life we were called to live,no matter what. Life can show us what we need to learn through trial and error. Faith without works does not exhist.”

While what an individual may BELIEVE is personal, the veracity of those beliefs are not. Truth is not relative to the person believing it. We are not ‘called’ to live a life, we are born, we live, we die. Unfortunatly, situations like Brianna happen when someone has an external negative force, in this case apparently religion, pushing them towards an untimely death.

There is no ‘good’ to come out of this. She wasn’t on her own ‘spiritual path’, and that doesn’t justify her death.


a / November 7th, 2006, 9:56 pm / #16

Fascinating read. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more coverage on the national news. Dead blonde white girls usually get a weeks worth of mass media attention.

charity ludwig / July 17th, 2008, 5:01 pm / #17

Brianna was a classmate of mine in the Montana national guard youth challenge program also known as MYCP, located in dillion montana. What happened to her, leaving her family behind, not being properly dressed, hydrated, just does not sound like brianna. She was by far the highest ranking girl in our class, far more superior in body strength, winning many awards, and being the only girl to do so!!
This just blows my mind, that this is the same brianna i once knew and admired.


to you bri, you are missed, and loved. To her family, she was a wonderful person, a good friend, and a great person to admire. she will be greatly missed.

Jani Laaksonen / October 7th, 2008, 8:08 am / #18

Hi Sean,

I was a bit disappointed to see such strawman fallacies on your behalf regarding Tolle’s work and philosophy. None of what he’s written or said (you might check out what youtube has to offer, might be an easier way) implies that “living in the now” leaves out such anticipatory applications of the mind as planning ahead.

Also, he states on many occations that being present in the moment does not exclude action. Rather, his notion is that action isn’t bound to arise out of unhappiness. If your every plan is motivated by an obsession that the circumstances of the present moment are something to be avoided you only end up living in the future, which of course never arrives. Denial and suppression of feelings is exactly what you get if you are not willing to accept the state of your life right now. Whereas, taking a good look at your emotions is a good way of starting to realize where they actually rise from and that in all their potential painfullness they are still just that – feelings caused by thoughts or the other way around. If anything, “living in the now” is all about using your thoughts for you, instead of letting them use you to feed the vicious circle of negative thinking.

Eckhart’s message is nothing new and woo-woo in a sence that it is not only the core teaching of buddhism in more easily understandable laymen’s terms – it also contains some practical tips that are not foreign to western society’s psychology and cognitive psychotherapy either. The irony that many suffering people – whether seeking spiritual guidance or professional mental healthcare – will ultimately face is that the “me” they have grown to identify themselves with is the very same part of themselves that will never become fulfilled and happy.



BlackSun / October 7th, 2008, 8:57 am / #19


Since I wrote this post, which was a couple of years ago, I bought my own copy of Power of Now for the purposes of getting more into the specifics of Tolle–especially since he’s now become a darling of Oprah and gotten even bigger than he was. Previously, I’d only read bits and pieces by picking up the book at friends houses, etc.

But Power of Now has unfortunately sat on my shelf, along with a couple dozen other books I’ve been meaning to read.

I did, however, note in my article that Tolle was a “watered down version of Buddhist teachings,” as you said.

My main objection to Tolle has always been that he omits a careful study of human motivation in a sense that applies the principles of evolutionary psychology and game theory to why we do what we do, and hence why we may find ourselves stuck in mental prisons of our own making.

Without going into careful analysis of the book, it’s hard to make an exact refutation. But here’s my general principle: Most of the information people need to confront their own misconceptions ends up being highly offensive to their sensibilities. The very fact that Tolle has sold so many books and is so popular with “new agers” and now Oprah means prima facie that he’s not getting into the difficult material people need to make real changes. The fact that Deepak Chopra endorses him is further evidence.

But admittedly this is a weak case, and I’ve not done the careful work to point out the specific errors. I’m going to take 5 minutes right now to flip through the book. But it deserves a lot more thorough debunking.

P.36 Discussion of the “pain-body” and the ability to dissociate from it. Most psychologists would term this “denial.” Pain is there for a reason, to keep us from repeating bad behaviors.

P. 64 “All problems are illusions of the mind.” Not true. Most problems have very real and physical origins.

P. 98 “because we live in such a mind-dominated culture, most modern art, architecture, music and literature are devoid of beauty, of inner essence, with very few exceptions.” This statement is nothing short of outrageous. We live in a time of unparalleled expression and creativity. Shame on Tolle.

p.116 “What you perceive as a dense physical structure called the body which is subject to disease, old age, and death, is not ultimately real–is not you.” This is utter bullshit, and prolongs and fosters notions of dualism–or worse yet spirit based monism–the idea that something other than physical conditions govern your state of being.

Jani, this is the most pernicious and destructive nonsense. Literally every page of Power of Now is so riddled with errors and craziness it practically defies the imagination.

If you want to understand yourself and where you came from, read Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Ridley’s The Red Queen, and Minsky’s The Emotion Machine. For starters.

Jani Laaksonen / October 8th, 2008, 11:35 am / #20

Hi there again,

I just wanted to quickly response to show that I wasn’t just making some sort of stab and flee move and that I actually came back to read your post lol. You made some good points that haven’t escaped my attention either, despite of what might’ve just seemed as a Tolle fan’s counter argument (well, I hope not).

Still, I can’t help but sneer when seeing you describe the content of Tolle’s message as “pernicious” and “destructive”. I’ve read in to the Briana Wilkins case and after examining some of the old news articles I find no proof to justify the use of her case to demonize Tolle. So I don’t mean to sound ignorant or dismissive towards what happened to her but rather reject the selective use of such a blurry occurance to strengthen one’s own case.

I try to answer at more detail later, since even short scribblings in english take time and concentration from me. Meanwhile, I thank you for the reading tips and wish the best for you.



BlackSun / October 8th, 2008, 11:55 am / #21

Still, I can’t help but sneer when seeing you describe the content of Tolle’s message as “pernicious” and “destructive”.

Jani, go ahead and sneer. But what kind of philosophy would devalue physical existence, mind and ego to such an extent as he does? To be replaced with what?

I never said Tolle caused her death. But reading his books and listening to his tapes certainly didn’t help her. This distinction is clearly made in the article. I compare him to alternative cancer therapy that hurts the patient by displacing real therapy.

I stand by what I said. His work is vapid claptrap. That he’s popular doesn’t make him philosophically right or healthy, any more than ever-popular junk food. It offers a cheap replacement for true engagement with the mind and physical body and coming to authentic self-knowledge, which often involves confronting pain and darkness.

leah / March 6th, 2013, 4:40 pm / #22

exactly! to be replaced with what?

Happy&Free: .) / October 8th, 2008, 2:22 pm / #23

Sean, hi!
I haven’t read Tolle’s bk or bk’s, don’t need to since I’ve had the fill of this type of teachings already for 31 yrs! Understand & can agree. Though as for the ego, I have, for myself, seperated it in definition too a large degree from one’s dignity & selfrespect. That each of these definitions r in fact connected but not altogether the same. And going bk to what true Buddhism is about, Enlightenment, therefor conclusions r going to be different yet the same at times for every individual. Humans always want to control as to guarentee stability & safety making “religions” w/ rules! True Buddhism IS NOT ABOUT RULES. It’s about Balance, Wisdom, The Enlightenment from imprisoning thinking/behavior. I have had the same taxi driver these 2 wks & he shared w/ me as we got to talking, that Buddha NEVER said there was God, or that Buddha, a Prince by the name of Guatma Siddihartha of Nepal (sp?) was a God to be worshiped & bowed to in the form of a statue! Humans keep doing this!!! This driver is Nepaleas. I’ve heard so many versions of every religion, it’s too many I’ve lost track. This is why I have come to realise that a lot of these bks r written at the ego level as to say this IS, that IS. I can’t recall a writter just saying “I have come to discover the following & would like to share it w/ u, but please remember the content is my beliefs, expeience & is not absolute truth.”
If more individuals in self-help & religion did this, Life it self would be approched very differently, let alone the results after reading such materiial.
So I agree to many referances that the ego needs to BE BALANCED, NOT ANNIHILATED !!!!!Everything in life really just needs to balanced when u think about it . Life is ment to be Happy ! Not confining w/ unrealistic rules & punishments!
Always a pleasure to read ur stuff & be able to write bk. AmenAS

Happy&Free: .) / October 8th, 2008, 3:28 pm / #24

I clicked on the link “crime library”, did a search for Brianna Wilkin(s) & no results. I didn’t want to write anything till I read up on the story, since I never heard about it in 06. So since I couln’t find what u were referring to on this link, I would like to say to the family even after these two yrs, I’m sorry I never knew about thier loss & my heart goes out to the entire family for what they have endured since it happened.
If they don’t subscribe to ur site, plse pass this on to for me. Pain like this stays for a long time.Thk U!

jeannielee / December 1st, 2009, 2:22 am / #25

I have read Tolle's book and after much "practice" in the "now", I'll take reflection any day. I have been diagnoses with PTSD, Depression and Anxiety disorder. Living without honest reflection and then acting to repair relationships that were damaged through your marriage, divorce and estrangement from your children is preposterous. I spent thousands of dollars and years of quack supplement therapies and I vote for the anti-depressant and anxiety supressant therapies. I have been in talk therapy for 35 years and I still struggle every day.I don't have any answers yet to this lack of progress, I still take it one day at a time.The Dr. Amens and Tolle's of the world make millions off the suffering of strangers they claim to love and will heal. ,

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