Eckhart Tolle, a Vancouver author of books about seeking inner peace, has become the unchallenged king of paperback self-help. Blessed by Oprah Winfrey and her book club, published in 33 languages, described by The New York Times as the leading spiritual writer of the day, Tolle has persuaded grateful millions that he can lead them toward the life of serenity they desire.
Tolle says a new world is being created, to which he's "privileged to give birth." It will rise above the demands of ego onto a more enlightened plane. There's nothing difficult or intimidating about it. Those who want to participate need only accept a few principles. First, abandon the past. In The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, originally published in 1999, the first line reads: "I have little use for the past and rarely think about it." The past is only a burden to those seeking truth. The same is also true of the future.
"Accept the present moment," he argues. "Only the present moment exists." Tolle implores his readers to surrender peacefully to their circumstances rather than struggle to impose themselves on life. But they should remember that "the ego is cunning so you have to be very alert." If you feel light, clear and deeply at peace, that means the ego is conquered and you have truly surrendered.
Tolle's work leans on many earlier writers. His recipe combines a cup of Christianity, a cup of Buddhism (the one with the label reading Zen), a dash of Sufi, a sprinkle of Taoism, a soupcon of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a pinch of the Bhagavad Gita and a hint of Nietzsche. Sometimes he tells stories about a Zen master and a pupil, each of them demonstrating the you-had-to-be-there pointlessness typical of Zen when it falls into the wrong hands.
Without appropriating the word "religion," Tolle has concocted the ultimate multicultural faith, open-ended and uncritical. There's nothing heavy (except his prose style) and no code of morality. If you achieve stillness and can sit (like Tolle) for two hours without thinking, you're a success.
Tolle doesn't use the phrase, but his work reads like an elaboration of three words now in common use: "Get over yourself."
Still, readers of Tolle will discover that escaping from the grip of ego involves effort. Ideal Tolle readers become curators of their own sensibility. "Their own" is the key. In his work, other people have no particular role. All human existence comes down to a single soul's anxious search for peace. Children and parents rarely appear. Husbands, wives and lovers are allowed to take part in ego-free and undemanding "relationships."
The Power of Now explains how Tolle began developing the ideas that made him rich. He was born Ulrich Tolle in Lunen, Germany, in 1948. His family left Germany when he was 13 and he studied at the University of London and at Cambridge.
His inner life began to change one day in 1977 when, aged 29, he made the rudimentary (but important to him) discovery that one part of his brain could criticize another. He was suffering from suicidal depression, as he had for much of his youth. He loathed the world and himself.
On that day he believed that he could no longer live with himself. That thought struck him as peculiar. "Am I one or two?" he asked himself. "If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the I and the self that I cannot live with."
As he tells it, this discovery stunned him. He slept and when he awakened the world had changed. The sound of a bird's cries struck him as beautiful and the light of day held fresh meaning: "That soft luminosity filtering through the curtains was love itself." With tears in his eyes he marvelled at the beauty and aliveness of every item in his room, then walked the streets, amazed at the miracle of life on Earth, "as if I had just been born into this world."
For almost two years, by his account, he sat on park benches in a state of intense joy. Eventually people told him they wanted what he had and he began helping them. He changed his first name in honour of Johannes Eckhart, the heretical 14th-century German theologian who stressed internal spiritual development as the way to reach God. Tolle abandoned his academic career and what he called "my new incarnation as a spiritual teacher" emerged. He moved to North America and wrote The Power of Now in California and British Columbia. He was living on his sparse savings, which were swiftly running out. Yet, "everything fell into place beautifully. I ran out of money just when I was getting close to finishing writing. I bought a lottery ticket and won $1,000, which kept me going another month."
He finished the book and Namaste Publishing of Vancouver put out an edition of 3,000 copies. Tolle himself made the rounds of bookstores to sell it. A spiritual bookshop in England picked it up, other New Age stores caught on, and soon it was "an underground best-seller." The rest is Oprah.
In the more recent of his two most successful books, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose, published in 2005, Tolle expands the range of his vision. He now acknowledges that what he's described as "a momentous event in the evolution of human consciousness" may be much more than that: "On our planet, and perhaps simultaneously in many parts of our galaxy and beyond, consciousness is awakening... "
Meanwhile, here on Earth, his legion of satisfied readers continues to expand. Tolle's website carries an "Inspiring Story" submitted by one Justin Lewis of Melbourne.
Lewis confesses that he's a self-help junkie, but believes that in The Power of Now he's found something exceptional. "The words hit me with clarity and deep inner knowing ... The Power of Now became a journey and in the most powerful way led me to read less and less and just be more and more. I am most grateful to know that I don't have to search anymore and that everything I need is here now. I love not having to know any more than I do." In my unenlightened view, that's the nastiest thing you could possibly say about a book.