I may have once endorsed Eckhart Tolle by pointing out similarities between Tolle and Muho. Muho wrote to me that he does not know why his own meditative practice worked for him. In my eyes, such honesty and awareness about uncertainty are consistent with Zen. Tolle effectively* claims his way as the only true way for everybody.
(* "effectively" means that he does not claim so explicitly, but in effect, "effectively")
Tolle’s similarities with Muho are mainly being German and having spent years meditating in public parks. A few quotes promised that Tolle may perhaps present core messages of wisdom like Zen, stripped from nonsense, perhaps bringing it into a form more acceptable/accessible to a modern individual, much like I try. That Oprah Winfrey endorsed his book “The Power of Now” should have been sufficient warning, but I did not heed that warning.
Enlightening Buddhism: Muho Noelke, German physics and philosophy student turned Japanese Zen Master overseeing Antai-ji, a Buddhist monastery. This guy did not just have a seizure like Tolle had the rare fortune.
The foreword is written by some Dicarlo and is pure mysticism and pseudoscience so silly, it even includes non-locality nonsense of a “physicist” I once kicked out of my comment sections. I was in shock, but I still held on to hope:
“How could Tolle allow such ridiculous pseudoscience in front of his book? Is this the original copy; does Tolle know about it?”
Soon it became clear that the foreword fits to the book, but pseudo-scientific “high frequency energy” woo is not the book’s worst problem.
Actually, some of his religious craziness is at times as good as some of his explanations around Zen. The way he claims to be the second coming of Christ (not Jesus!) is brilliant – not at all the usual nonsense of for example Australia’s AJ Jesus and Mary. But there is this ugly right-wing old-guy-ranting type of religious craziness, off-topic naive conservative nonsense.
There is bad philosophy (what Descartes meant by “cogito ergo sum”), distortions of “The Buddha” and cherry picked bible passages, naïve creationism, anti-intellectual bashing of his own misunderstandings of “communism” or “modern art”, heterosexuality is the cosmic unification of opposite poles, ... .
He regurgitates ‘war on drugs’ misinformation and is thereby hypocritical, because: While Muho got to his insights via years of disciplined exercise, Tolle obtained his awakening accidentally due to seizure, likely involving his temporal lobe, brought on by intense depression when he was 29 years old. It gave him, and in extreme strength and duration as far as he claims to remember, that whoa-all-is-connected feeling and related epiphanies which regular people must use “drugs” for in order to achieve them in the necessary intensity and frequency to trigger lasting positive change.
Tolle understands, and puts into impressively moving prose at times, that mind mechanisms like our inner voice enslave us, and that this is an important component of depression. However, Tolle does not grasp that this is a socially evolved feature and that we are primates with a biological history which must be taken into account in order to properly understand these mechanisms.
Our identity seems unified, but is fractionated, fuzzy. Tolle teaches that there is a “true self” and “true consciousness” and everything else is “false consciousness” and “ego”, by which he means “false self”. Tolle mainly insists on reducing attention and self-identification to the present, by which he basically means the specious present, namely the about 100 to 500 milliseconds over which phenomenal experience seems to be presented in moments. Identities that are meaningful over longer time scales, like "me" listening to what I am talking and not quite liking it, or "me" as the author of this article for example, including revisions over several weeks (2016 update: "years"!), meaning all the socially functional identities, are “false self” according to Tolle. I previously discussed that the distancing from the most troubling aspects of our identity is partially an anti-social act (see also on ‘suicidal philosophy’ and psychopathic/autistic analysis). Tolle is clueless about how his main insight fits into the larger picture.
For Tolle, taking in the beauty of a flower is heaven, but thinking abstract thoughts is “false”. Zen may find beauty in abstract thoughts, say when resolving a Zen koan; there is nothing “false” about them, nothing that makes them less valid as your feelings. Feeling the meaning of my thoughts may not have the illusionary “right there” directness of a patch of yellow on a flower. However, that “directness” is in a sense “false”, which is part of the reason for the term ‘specious present’.
Tolle thinks that our mind being busy simulating future and remembering past gives a distorted view on the present:
“So you see and judge the present through the eyes of the past and get a totally distorted view of it.”
No, such evolved because we are thereby better prepared for the present, or more fundamentally, we get a view of it at all. Present is only available through pattern recognition formed in the past.
He does not know about simple psychology such as body language; he thinks confident people emit some mysterious radiation instead. He over-generalizes, effectively claims that everybody else has his problems, the main one being unable to stop inner dialogue; that everybody is as unable as he was to find the off-switch. Worse, he claims that his way is the only one, for all, everybody with any problem. However, any particular meditative practice can worsen or even trigger problems, like depression or psychosis, or swings in bipolar patients. For many, meditation just does not work! Who is Tolle to claim that they are not meditating correctly or are simply not enough in the present? Are we to meditate in agony until we have a seizure like he did?
Of course he would say “no”, but he effectively claims that there is no alternative. His sort of meditation is a particular, unfocussed one, focusing on breathing only in the beginning, but else mainly focusing on not focusing on past or future. He explains little acceptable about why this should be better than other kinds of meditation. He just writes sentences like “This is the essence of meditation”. Yes, it is at some point, but no, you cannot present it like that to people who do not already know what it means.
Being in the now, so he claims, connects you with true joy, a meta-happiness without the opposite of unhappiness. Since this is all godly and spiritual, a new age of peace and elevated consciousness begins (“This is the end of all arguments and power games, …”). If the now is joy for you, be happy, but it is also the state that a martial arts trained person accesses to become a killing machine like otherwise only psychopaths are able to. There is no pure “joy of being” automatically falling out! If such were the case, monks would be happier, meditation more popular. There is no indication for that the masses are waking up rather than being ever more efficiently numbed and distracted, enslaved by social systems and technology.
Cognitive therapy, mindfulness approaches, positive psychology, ... - these are all important and useful, reasonably well scientifically explored and widely known. These connections could support his few interesting and worthy suggestions, but Tolle never mentions any of that. He instead thinks that “watching the thinker” is his grand idea. It is an old idea picked up by many, including other shady religious characters like Carlos Castaneda or L. Ron Hubbard.
A wise part of me observing, steering me as if hoovering behind me - it is a meaningful picture in several ways, though of course in some sense worse than body-mind dualism. I like the picture myself, because it is then obvious why you need to train such monitoring modules in your brain, why you need to take thoughts away from simulating potential futures (daydreaming) especially as long as the monitoring capabilities are not exercised enough to work unconsciously in parallel, parallelized and automatic like the task of walking (while ruminating about past or future) is for an adult: A learned skill one does not think about when doing. See: everything could be explained without pseudo-Christian divine babble.
“Die before you die”! Every wise man understood that; this has been said so many times, so many ways, even I have written about suicide targeted at certain parts of our modular identities, aiming to kill the very same mind modules that Tolle wants to kill. Why does Tolle turn it into some eternal life promising Christian mysticism - for the mainstream audience?
There is anti-intellectualism; the mind cannot grasp, gotta feel it; modern art is soulless. And there is anti-psychiatry much like with scientology or Osho. This is usual for the medical quacks’ 'large numbers game':
Do/suggest whatever (e.g. eat your poop)! Likely 10% of your customers will due to random variations alone already feel impressive improvements. Many of those will stay and swear by your method because it now works on the conditioned response level for them (dog, bell and saliva kind of stuff). Use those suckers' testimonies to attract more suckers.
Tolle tries hard to trigger the all-is-connected feeling in his audience. Giving MDMA would be more honest and effective than peddling what Zen calls ‘satori’ as an ultimate high. Tolle may be a clever cheat, but I still lean toward him just being a naïve guy with brain problems that are not helping his intellectual capacity. There are many paragraphs that I find important and correct and somewhat better put than anywhere else I have seen. But it cannot be recommended to who does not already know it better than Tolle.
Newly socially evolved structures take over our primate minds so fast that we are no longer well adapted; we can hardly live with our own minds. Tolle thinks that suddenly it will turn into heaven rather than worsen faster via assimilation with technology. The “playful joyous energy” that people with Tolle’s problems feel in his ‘Now’ is partially due to self-acceptance. It is thus based on our need for acceptance. Our childish need for acceptance is that socially co-evolved silly source of suffering that also Tolle wants to switch off. Not care about acceptance or trigger and enjoy acceptance, self-acceptance; which one is “true”, which one “false”?
Scientific sex-talk is taboo if you want to sell books, so Tolle never reaches beyond platitudes. This is not acceptable for the topic at hand. For many, sexual thoughts interfere with attempts of meditation. Masturbation’s serotonin/dopamine high, much like a crack high, leads to a crash, especially with the depressed, and this can worsen depression. A true master can, in down to earth manner, discus how trying to abstain from masturbation during the day can help with depression (abstaining not for any purist reasons, but simply with regard to the serotonin/dopamine household and suchlike, as a mere fun-exercise in trying to enjoy the feeling of hunger as one puts of eating or masturbation for perhaps just a few hours at first). This can be much better than trying to meditate, which so easily leads the beginner only to sexual fantasies or sleep.