Monday, December 22, 2008

Review: A New Earth (Eckhart Tolle)

Full title:
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s PurposeCopyright 2005
ISBN 978-0-452-28996-3

I. Intro
As Dr. Phil got his big break by rubbing elbows with Oprah Winfrey, so has Eckhart Tolle, one of the nation’s superstar spiritual gurus in the latest (re)incarnation of the New Age Movement. A New Earth (ANE) is Tolle’s latest book, first released in 2005 but only receiving enormous attention last January via Oprah’s Book Club. Because of her promotion, it skyrocketed onto the New York Times bestseller list and remained there for double-digit weeks.

Are you looking for happiness in life? Do you want to end suffering both personally and globally? Do you want to start now? Like any self-help and/or pop inspirational manual, ANE claims that anyone can achieve happiness and banish suffering beginning the moment you read and comprehend Tolle’s message.

II. Chapters and Summary
The book contains nine chapters and an excessive number of subchapters all explaining why Tolle’s view of the universe is better than yours and how his propositions are the key to finding happiness.

Tolle lays out his view of the ego, the emotive part of a person responsible for negativity and negative emotions. Specifically, the ego is the drive to preserve a greater opinion of ourselves than we ought to have. He describes the “pain-body” that each person possesses. The pain-body is a kind of glutton for punishment that causes us to repeat cycles of emotional pain in an attempt to seek revenge for personal slights.

Using a generous sprinkling of Zen philosophical terms, he describes how people can divest themselves of personal pain, resentment, and conflict by changing one’s perspective on your involvement and attachment to the material life most people embroil themselves in. He says that you must gain awareness and understanding of your self, remove yourself emotionally from all your life’s situations (to a degree), and take peace from your existence, not your circumstances.

The result of gaining such awareness is that today we can begin living life anew with fresh eyes and a more mature confidence in ourselves, his version of a new heaven and a new earth (hence the title of the book).

So see that this unhealthy behavior is bad for you, the world, the universe. Now you know, 'and knowing is half the battle.' The end?

III. Analysis
To his credit, he is less Shirley MacLaine-ney in articulating Eastern principles and couches them in language more conventional to American ears, which I believe contributes to the popularity of his books.

So why is ANE so popular?  As such, I believe ANE has set a new standard for Eastern philosophy in America. Far from droning on about cosmic eudaemonia and so much self-absorbed navel gazing that has dominated the public’s impression of New Age thinking, ANE taps human psychoanalysis to explain the sources of suffering and the misplaced human drive for fulfillment found in everyday behavior. The use of the terms “ego,” “pain-body,” and “dysfunction” is a step up from many traditional purveyors of Eastern religions who refer to karma, auras, and psychic energies to explain the more metaphysical side of human life.

I can’t really object to the self-help portions of ANE. Western traditions have similarly taught that “consciousness,” “space,” and “inner alignment” are needed to address the difficulties of life, except that we’ve used words such as maturity, objectivity, and patience. If one were to read ANE simply for the insight on how to control negativity and behave more rationally, then this book offers decent advice.

There’s a bit of pretentiousness to the book. On page 6, he states, “This book’s main purpose is not to add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything…” Oh, but it is. Otherwise, why write a book? “…but to bring about a shift in consciousness, that is to say, to awaken….It will change your state of consciousness or it will be meaningless.” See?

The biggest criticism I do have about ANE is not the self-help advice but the undercurrent of anti-Christian platitudes, which serve to keep his views obviously more enlightened-sounding than those of “the religious”. As a Christian, I find nothing more striking about Tolle than his presumption to know Christianity (you know, before it was misunderstood by the church) better than Christians. He redefines sin, salvation, and the very name of God, and frequently misinterprets reinterprets the words and teachings of Jesus to conveniently fit his views that border on blasphemy. Just check out pages 69, 71, 79, 116, 227, and 245 to name several.

A few examples:
“The history of Christianity is, of course, a prime example of how the belief that you are in sole possession of the truth, that is to say, right, can corrupt your actions and behavior to the point of insanity….The Truth was considered more important than human life. And what was the Truth? A story you had to believe in; which means, a bundle of thoughts.” (p. 69) Unless I miss my guess, ANE is full of propositions and moral absolutes/directives, which are, it seems, also a bundle of thoughts.

Next, “When forms around you die or death approaches, your sense of Beingness, of I Am, is freed from its entanglement with form: Spirit is released from its imprisonment in matter. You realize your essential identity as formless, as an all-pervasive Presence, of Being prior to all forms, all identifications. You realize your true identity as consciousness itself, rather than what consciousness has identified with. That’s the peace of God. The Ultimate truth of who you are is not I am this or I am that, but I Am.” (p. 57) Ahem, I believe the problem here is self-evident.

Last, “When you hear of inner space, you may start seeking it, and, because you are seeking it as if you were looking for an object for an experience, you cannot find it. This is the dilemma of all those who are seeking spiritual realization or enlightenment. Hence, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (p. 233-234) “Hence, Jesus?” I’ll tell you what is bliss: blithely mutating the meaning and application of the words of Christ for the sake of the readers’ potential flowering of consciousness. It certainly is a new world, isn’t it?

How magnanimous of Mr. Tolle to tell me my life’s purpose. Like a lot of preachers of Eastern religious thought, everything boils down to a “just so” argument. There is no defense of the One Life to which all of us supposedly belong. For a man who spouts the oft-repeated mantra about how truth is relative, he is adamant about how his teachings are necessarily transformative. The overarching posture of ANE is that Tolle is right and all other beliefs that he contradicts are wrong.

IV. Conclusion
In all, Tolle might not be that far from the truth. He recognizes that humanity’s deep spiritual problem necessitates some internal change in order to resolve. At issue is whether or not his teachings actually address the heart of the problem, which, with his many words about egos and pain-bodies and consciousnesses, seems to fall short. Tolle would say that we need to be like him. I would say that we need Jesus instead.

Addendum: There is something about this book that sounds so familiar...could it be that
Gaius Baltar?

Other reviews:
"A Review of Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose," by Mary Jo Sharp (Confident Christianity)

"A New Earth and The Spiritually Elite," by Marcia Montenegro (Christian Answers For the New Age)

1 comment:

SweetIncense said...

I like this statement from the article that Letitia wrote: "For a man who spouts the oft-repeated mantra about how truth is relative, he is adamant about how his teachings are necessarily transformative. The overarching posture of ANE is that Tolle is right and all other beliefs that he contradicts are wrong." Good insights!