Comments on “New Earth, Big Lie”

Comments

I am he and you are me and we are all together

Wasn't there a bit from Illuminatus, something like: "If all is one, then all violence is masochism". "Yes", ? replied nastily, "and then all sex is masturbation". Also see here.

You actually make Tolle's work sound more worthwhile than my extremely superficial impressions of it led me to believe.

I have trouble considering something like "you are god" an error or lie, exactly. Both "you" and "god" have highly indeterminate meanings and may not refer to anything concrete at all; so equating them represents a certain attitude of mind, but not (in my view) a factual error. It's not necessarily an interesting or productive or enlightening attitude, so it may be a spiritual error, I suppose.

Maybe I'll pose that as a challenge to to you (or a suggestion for a topic/page in your evolving treatise) to address the meta-level issue of how exactly do you evaluate and filter these sorts of spiritual/metaphysical ideas? What standards are there, other than personal taste, or consquentialism (people who believe in monism are more unhappy or start more wars, or something like that) or authority?

Evaluation

Please keep posting this kind of challenge (if you keep reading!). I can't give a very good answer yet, because I'm still in the phase of presenting the background conceptual machinery needed to make sense of the central points.

The issue of evaluation of my critique, in this case, is closely connected to the difficulty, which I sketched, of replying to Tolle. He makes (almost) no factual claims and presents (almost) no arguments. It's just a string of assertions.

Coming from any sort of intellectual background, it would seem that it would be sufficient to say "the burden of proof is on Tolle, so everyone should reject what he has to say out of hand."

But it appears that tens of millions of people have been persuaded by him. If one thinks that matters—which I do—then a burden-of-proof argument is a non-starter.

Instead one has to ask why do those people buy what he is selling, if not due to evidence or reason?

And the answer seems to be that he issues a series of promises that people really, really want to believe, and they accept them because the monist framework has replies to objections that have a convincing logic once you are inside.

So a critique has to be couched within that logic; and it has to present an alternative that is more plausible or more attractive within the world-view.
The critique has to show that monism can't deliver on its promises even in its own terms; but that my brand can (partly).

The first part is the sense of "error" that is relevant.

Let me sketch one example. One of monism's promises is to eliminate the alienation people feel that results from social separation. Its purported method for doing this is to get you to realize that All is One, so in fact there is no separation in the first place. In fact, you are token-identical to everyone else.

Now, we have to set aside the obvious point that you are not token-identical to everyone else; and the implausible claim that you can get yourself into a mind-state in which you "realize" that (short of severe dysfunction). Those are the kinds of specific, reality-based observations that monists blind themselves to.

A better approach may be to ask: Suppose you were token-identical to everyone else, and you "realized" that; would that actually address the social isolation you feel?

My hope is that, with a bit of Socratic dialog, this could lead people around to the answer "No."

Never heard of Tolle

I am ashamed to say I never heard of Tolle until twho weeks ago when a Zen blogger said he loved his writing. I ignored this until today and then I saw your post. Wow, what have I been missing. It shows the limited demographics I run in nowadays. But after reading your article,
I still don't know anything about Tolle except that he offers monistic dribble instead of dualistic dribble. But wait, you thought he lots of stuff right. Oh and you did say it was "system free" (I loved that concept), and you exposed his technique of just saying something over and over without evidence. But are you going to write a follow-up "post" on this, or did you just want to tell us that Tolle is example of the monism which you are going to tell us more about later?

The Wiki article on Tolle helped. You tell us that Tolle's falsity is just obviously false -- but this seemed a bit of a cheap move since it is not "obvious" to millions -- including that Zen blogger. Mind you, having read you, I deeply suspect you are right. But I was hoping for more substance.

You then mention 2 ways to deal with Tolle's monism: (1) show it has bad consequences -- but that sounds like it is a tough strategy. I must say, the major problem I have with many religions is the dualism which results in exclusivism (we live forever, you burn in hell) and thus my Atheist site. But liberal Christians and New Agers and probably Tolle monists strike me as tolerant and not as harmful to society from the exclusivist angle. Yet I have not liked the intellectual habits of these folks though I have had a hard time pinning it down. I wondered if those habits would have long term consequence that could be exposed. But such a venture is far to ambitious, I am afraid.

So that leads to your 2nd option -- present a better alternative to monism and dualism. So I guess we wait. But a few examples of internal inconsistencies would have be nice, since you hinted at that (I think) as a 3rd method. One more post, please.

Also, though Zen would seem a very natural home for me within Buddhism since I am a Japanophile to some degree (speak Japanese, play Go, practiced Japanese martial arts, love some anime [especially the monistic/animistic stuff...), nonetheless, many American Zen authors and practitioners seem to have many of the traits you allude to in criticizing monism. And it is for that exact reason that I find them unfortunately unpalatable for a large part. Do you have any of this experience. How deeply has monism affected American Buddhism? I kind of remember reading about an academic that discusses Buddhism's adaptation to the West -- and thus its evolution away from Asian Buddhism. The evolution probably incorporates pragmatism, German idealism (monism) and scientific flavoring. Do you know the name of that text or one like it that you'd recommend? [or are you writing it?] Smile

I must say that after your teaser-review, I am a bit tempted to read him just to see how this apparent best-seller which escaped my demographics is such a temptation to others. I guess a lists of the strengths of Tolle was something else you did not offer. But it sounds like it is coming. Sounds like the first commentor found nothing of value.

Do you know the demographics of those enthralled with him?

Monism as a tool

As I said in my last blog post, I don't think you can argue with religion, generally speaking. But it isn't just a matter of personal taste either, some stuff does seem to be better than others, and some of it seems downright fraudulent, but I don't really know how to characterize the differences.

I do think it is an error (maybe just a tactical one) to call monism an error or a lie. Because there are senses in which it is true. I prefer Minsky's quip that it is a "mind-destroying idea", except with the non-Minskyean twist that sometimes destroying your mind is exactly what you want to do...in a manner of speaking.

If monism leads to an inability to make any distinctions, or to complacency, or ennui, then it's an error. But if it is instead employed judiciously, as an antidote to taking boundaries too seriously, too fixedly, then it may be useful.

So, monism as a system may be an error, but monism as a tool, maybe not so much.

Intellectual history

@Sabio, thanks for the long, detailed comment. It raises several different points. I think I'll reply to them separately...

Maybe what I've failed to emphasize is that the project in this blog series is one of intellectual history. I started out thus:

I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if tens of millions of people suddenly started spouting nonsense. I fear something terrible has happened.

I could be wrong. I have no statistics. But in the past few years, suddenly I hear seemingly sensible people going about saying “ultimately, it’s all one, isn’t it?” and “when you find your true self, you find the whole universe,” and “all religions teach the same truth.”

If that's right, a huge cultural shift is occurring; one that hardly anyone else seems to have noticed. I view this with alarm (because I think monism is wrong). In order to respond to it, I first want to understand how and why it has happened.

My guess is that a big part of the "how" is Eckhart Tolle's invention of the sleek new system-free version of monism. It's a brilliant invention. Like many brilliant inventions, it is obvious in retrospect; monism tries to slough off specifics anyway, so dropping them is a natural move.

I wasn't trying to write a review of the book here; as of today, you can find 1,555 of those on Amazon.

(I have written a page about Eckhart Tolle and Buddhism elsewhere. But I wrote that before I started to understand the roots of this stuff in German Romantic Idealism, which is key to understanding it.)

Monism: "obviously false"

About "obvious falseness". Eventually I'll write out a detailed critique of monism. (That will be in the "book", not here in the blog.) But for now, in the case of Tolle, it's straightforward. He says, explicitly, that you are (1) God and (2) the entire universe. Then he doesn't really explain further. Are these claims not obviously false?

Being a liberal intellectual gets in the way here. You are tempted to say "well, there might be some sense in which those claims are true—and since they are obviously false if taken literally, and he is a nice and smart guy, he must have in mind some interesting metaphorical meaning for 'you' and 'God' and 'the universe' according to which these are useful claims."

The old German approach was to take this "speaker's benefit" and run with it, trying to pull the wool over your eyes by generating thousands of pages of vague abstract philosophical-sounding prose that elaborated on what was meant by "you are God". That strategy collapsed when the bluff was called; in the end, it turned out that there wasn't an interesting metaphorical sense in which it was useful (= "pragmatically true").

Tolle, recognizing that the obfuscation strategy no longer works, doesn't even try. (Except in the two one-page passages I mentioned, where he just can't resist his lineage.) He simply says "you are God", and either you say "Oh, wow, now I get it! I was blind, but now I can see! Now I am enlightened! I'm God! I'm One with Everything", or you say "Whoa! Something really bad is happening here if people are buying this stuff."

Monism and tolerance

the major problem I have with many religions is the dualism which results in exclusivism (we live forever, you burn in hell) and thus my Atheist site. But... Tolle monists strike me as tolerant and not as harmful to society from the exclusivist angle. Yet I have not liked the intellectual habits of these folks though I have had a hard time pinning it down. I wondered if those habits would have long term consequence that could be exposed. But such a venture is far too ambitious, I am afraid.

I'm the sort of fool that occasionally rushes in where angels fear to tread... So I plan to do this.

Yes, I think that monism's apparent tolerance is a big part of its appeal. Technically, this is called "Perennialism"—the idea that all religions have value and are ultimately One Faith. This is one aspect of the Unity monism promises.

This sounds very nice, and monism attracts nice people—i.e. those who are so frightened of conflict that they avoid it in situations in which it's actually called for.

Monism sees all religions as having some value—but only to the extent that they agree with monism. Monism sees all other religions as distorted versions of monism, which is the One Faith. It is actually an extremely aggressive, hegemonic strategy. (It's interestingly similar to the Microsoft "embrace, extend, extinguish" strategy for destroying competitors.)

Monism is highly intolerant of anyone who says "no, actually, my religion/philosophy is not the same as yours." Because monism presents itself as nice and inclusive, it is impossible to say "no, I disagree"—however politely—without being painted as aggressive and narrow yourself.

I need to find ways to minimize that problem.

Monism in Zen and Buddhism generally

The book you are thinking of is David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism. It is brilliant and I can't recommend it highly enough.

McMahan follows up on another brilliant piece, by Thanissaro Bikkhu, an article called "Romancing the Buddha", which appeared in Tricycle, Winter 2002 issue. Thanissaro raised the first alarm about German Romantic Idealism infecting Buddhism. McMahan traces the history of this in more detail. I've spent much of my time in the past six months following their lead; this metablog series on the intellectual history of current pop monism is an early output from that.

Skipping a lot of fantastically interesting details, the essence of the matter is this:

In the 19th Century, Asian states realized that they were being crushed by the West, and that Western power derived largely from Western ideas. Several states decided to appropriate those ideas to use as weapons in turn. Japan was the clearest example. Japan took Germany as its model, and imported German ideas wholesale. By state decree, Zen was reformed to make it consistent with then-current German philosophy, which meant Romantic Idealism, which is monist through and through.

Buddhism traditionally was explicitly hostile to monism; but under pressure, some sort of synthesis was developed, mainly in Zen and some versions of Theravada. Buddhism also was reconfigured to make it more compatible with the scientific/rational worldview and with Western social/ethical values.

These "modernist" versions of Buddhism were, naturally, the forms that have been most influential in the West. Because they come from Asia, and since much of the work of synthesis was done in the 19th Century, very few Westerners realize that they are not traditional, and are based largely on Western ideas, sold back to Westerners are "timeless Eastern wisdom." Timeless Eastern wisdom that feels very comfortable because it mainly recycles Thoreau and Emerson and Schelling.

On the one hand, I'm really glad to see Buddhism reformed to remove traditional claims which science makes clear are nonsense—for example, the belief that the Buddhist hells are caves beneath the earth that you could physically reach simply by digging. Science is, actually, right.

On the other hand, I'm alarmed to observe that many famous mainstream American Buddhist teachers are promulgating monist ideas, without even realizing that these were considered anti-Buddhist before they were forcibly incorporated into Buddhism just over a century ago. That's because monism is, actually, wrong.

Monism as antidote

But if it is instead employed judiciously, as an antidote to taking boundaries too seriously, too fixedly, then it may be useful.

Yes. That's part of the "resolution" I will offer to the monism-dualism opposition.

Each confused stance is attractive in part because it has an accurate insight. And what you wrote here is the accurate insight in monism: that we are not separate from each other, from the natural world, or from the sacred. Those are the dualistic errors, which monism is right to reject.

The problem is that monism just flips it, and asserts identity. It rejects distinctions and differences and all details and specifics. That's also entirely wrong.

A highly condensed statement of the resolution:

There isn't any objectively correct way to partition the world into objects. However, it is non-uniform, and therefore pragmatic partitioning is often valuable or necessary for action. Different partitionings may be useful on different occasions. It is useful to look for non-obvious connections, but not useful to insist that everything is connected (especially not without specifying what the connection is).

Tolle and monism

Ariel's picture

I think the reason so many people find Tolle's books appealing is that he addresses a problem characterisic of our modern age: that of the incessant stream of patterns of conditioned thinking leading to anxiety and worry. His books help one cope with these types of thinking. Being so popular and commanding a pretty wide range or admirers, I am sure that people find different things in his teachings, but fundamentally, he mainly address these sort of mental overthinking problems that people are prone to and gives concrete advice on how to overcome them.

So I don't think you need to look too far, if you are trying to understand Tolle's appeal.

I don't see much difference

Jason's picture

I don't see much difference between Tolle's teaching and Buddhism at a fundamental level.

As David Loy argues in the article below, if an attempt is made to describe emptiness from an external, objective point of view the conclusion "All is Self" may be arrived at, whereas if it is described from a first-person, phenomenological perspective there is no self.

http://ccbs.ntu.edu.tw/FULLTEXT/JR-AN/26715.htm

David Loy

Hi, Jason,

In a comment thread elsewhere, I and some others discuss this paper by David Loy.

I find the claims that "All is Self" and "there is no self" are both absurd, the claim that they mean the same thing is absurdity squared, and his argument is thoroughly unconvincing. Your mileage may vary, obviously.

David

David Loy

Jason's picture

Hi David

Yes I came across your other comments after I posted. But like your comments above, I did not find much of an actual argument against Loy's reasoning.

I find his analogy with Wittgenstein and the view that if there is only one thing, described from the outside (which of course strictly speaking is impossible) this will be One but from the inside it will be nothing (because there is nothing to contrast it with) makes some sense.

Part of the problem here is the implicit "metaphysics of grammar" and the falsifications and distinctions it creates between nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates and so on- Loy has another article somewhere on Nietzsche, Nagarjuna and the limits of language which I also found interesting.

There are not that many Western trained philosophers who are also conversant with Buddhism. Along with Jay Garfield, I think David Loy is well worth checking out.

David Loy, again!

Hmm. Yes, I haven't explained what is wrong with Loy in any detail. More importantly, I haven't yet explained what is wrong with monism in general. I hope to get back to working on this site in a few months, and that's the next major chunk of it I plan to write.

In the mean time:

if there is only one thing...

If warthogs were rocketships...

described from the outside (which of course strictly speaking is impossible)

In that case, can't we stop right there?

if there is only one thing ... this will be One

That seems profound... Capital letters always add an air of elevated metaphysical grandiosity to a tautology.

Part of the problem here is the implicit "metaphysics of grammar" and the falsifications and distinctions it creates between nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates and so on

Yes, I do think this one is a valid point. It's extremely difficult to use language in a way that doesn't suggest that the world is objectively divided up into independent objects.

This is the correct intuition behind monism—that the world isn't objectively divided into objects.

The error of monism is to suppose that this implies there is only One thing instead.

I'm sorry that I can't write out a proper explanation of what's wrong with Loy (and monism generally) right here right now. It's not all that complicated, but it will take several web pages to develop the philosophical machinery. Part of that is, as you suggest, building up roundabout ways of speaking that avoid implying objective objectness.

Thank you for your patience! We apologize for the inconvenience while this argument is under construction.

David

Stopping right here

Jason's picture

Thanks David

Good luck with the project - I appreciate it will take some time and effort.

I am off on a week's self-retreat and the last thing I want is to get stuck in philosophising mode, so I will stop thinking about this now.

World Revolution

jad's picture

Hi David

Good luck in your project of abolishing the Hindu-Monist abomination. This is important work you are doing.

To seriously address monism from the perspective of Analytical Philosophy, you would need to address the work of Jonathon Schaeffer, the leader in the field (the new age fundies are not on to him yet but they soon will be):
http://www.jonathanschaffer.org/monism.pdf

We will be working with Dalit Buddhists to eliminate the Hindu abomination. Refer below for details of the foundation of the Revolutionary Party:
http://strangetimes.lastsuperpower.net/?p=2239&cpage=1#comment-13680

Mereology and abominations

Hi Justin

Thank you for the pointer to Schaffer's article!

It's from the analytic mereology literature, some of which I have read before, and which is indeed highly relevant here. I didn't know Schaffer's work, though. It's too long to read right now, but a quick scan shows I definitely need to go through it carefully.

The Indian caste system is indeed an abomination. It bothers me that Western lefties were so much into condemning South African apartheid, but mainly appear to be unbothered by essentially the same institution in India. It seems hypocritical.

I'd like to believe that Hinduism has some redeeming features, and that it could be separated from the caste system. I'm not sure whether that's true.

It seems that monism is a different problem, since it is about denying differences, whereas the caste system is about rigidifying them.

David

Schaffer

Justin's picture

If you are willing to attack Schaffer's paper the good on you!

I attempted to have a go at it a while back but found it all so incredibly boring and tedious I just couldn't keep my eyes.

I tried repeatedly. And tried .

And tried

Till I slept

To the point of extinction.

My copy of the Tao Te Ching fell to the floor.

....

And the some shiny, happy dickhead with a sparkling copy of "The Power of Now"
woke me up.

woops

Justin's picture

Lots of typos in that last post.

That's what Lao Tzu does to you.

How strange!

VL's picture

It is really strange to read someone who actually just flat out declares that the concept "You are God" is "wrong."

You think your intrinsically limited and overreaching intellect is superior to the point where you can actually definitively say whether that concept is "right" or "wrong"?

You seem unaware of your hypocrisy, where you attack Tolle for saying his "truth" plainly and without bothering to defend and explain it from some intellectual/historic/sociological/ religious stance. And yet you can state your equally simple truth "he is wrong" and also give absolutely no explanation.

If someone says, "we are all God" and you say "no, we're not" -you are different from them, how?

And if they say "we are all God" because they had the experience of understanding that inside themselves, and you say "no we're not" because you have not had that experience, you attempt to negate and refuse another's experience, and believe everyone else should as well. But from what wisdom are you speaking?

You feel a need to assert your intellect in a place that is explicitly and by definition beyond the intellect, encompassing it, but not limited to it or contained by it or defined by it.

The understanding that "we are all God" is, regardless of how your mind perceives it, something countless human beings have arrived at, and saying it in this way is as simple and elegant as the realization can be expressed in words.

What I like about Tolle's Power of Now (I haven't read his recent book that you are attacking but I feel confident it is based entirely in the same principles) is that he simply discusses Being, without embellishment or unnecessary explanation, and this is definitely the only way to say it, because anyway you can't entirely and satisfyingly and rationally explain why the teaching is true to someone who needs that kind of explanation, and whose ego is positioned to say "it is wrong" anyway -- needs to believe it is wrong.

Also it seems your application of a critique of "monism" - even though you haven't actually provided it yet -- really doesn't make sense as Tolle is not promoting a faith or religious system, but affirming the potential for a conscious experience of Being, which transcends all systems.

You write:
I find the claims that "All is Self" and "there is no self" are both absurd, the claim that they mean the same thing is absurdity squared, and his argument is thoroughly unconvincing.

Again, this isn't an area where intellectual "argument" is useful or meaningful at all, which is why you can't transmit this kind of knowledge through words and books successfully alone, though if someone is engaged in their own spiritual development/practice/awareness, the words can be tremendously powerful and useful at just the right moment, when they can be "heard." You can call it "God" or "Being" or "Self" or something else, or nothing, but it isn't something experienced through the mind and in the realm of time and polarity.

So you seem to be someone who can't "hear" it, because you haven't had any experience of it yourself yet, so you really appear foolish trying to intellectually argue for or against any of these teachings. Because even if you don't believe something is true, what do you know about it? Do you really know? No, you don't actually know, so honestly who cares whether you find it true or not? You are ignorant and in the dark about your true nature, like most people, so it would be better to admit it and seek your own knowledge without expounding blindly as a self-important intellectual. We are talking in realms that transcend the ego and intellect.

How can we know if we are God?

Thank you very much for your comment! It comes at a good time. I wrote this page about Tolle more than two years ago, expecting to continue the topic to a detailed explanation of where his approach goes wrong. Since then I have been distracted by other things. So I have repeatedly apologized for not following up; which is inadequate, as you point out. Just yesterday I started working on this material again. Any promise I make now would also be empty. However, I again hope to give a full explanation within a few months. In the mean time, your comment gives me the opportunity to say something.

We agree that Tolle is brilliant; I hope I said that in my original post. He writes exceptionally simply and clearly, and he side-steps all -isms, whose time has passed.

Absolutely certainty is impossible, about anything. I cannot be absolutely certain that Tolle is wrong. We can be sure enough about some things, though; I am drinking coffee as I write this, for example.

If something is controversial, there are reasons to believe, and reasons not to. So, what are the reasons to believe, and not to believe, you are God?

I did give reasons not to believe you are God in the original post. For example, God is omniscient and omnipotent; you aren’t.

You mention two reasons for believing you are God: countless beings have arrived at that understanding, and an experience. (I hope that’s an accurate summary; did I miss something?)

Countless people have also arrived at the opposite understanding: that God is something utterly greater and utterly different from themselves. This is the mainstream Christian understanding. You think that is wrong, and so do I! But it shows that “millions of people came to this conclusion” does not mean it is true. All it can tell us is that it’s a possibility worth considering seriously. (Unlike most non-monists, I think monism is worth considering seriously. Most Dualists, such as Christians, think it is wicked, and most secular people consider it idiotic.)

Experiences can be good reasons to believe some things. I’m pretty sure I’m drinking coffee, because I can see it and taste it.

On the other hand, many people say they have directly experienced God as utterly different from, and greater than, themselves. I am an atheist, so I think there must be some other explanation for those experiences. I don’t doubt they experienced something—but probably not God.

Some people say they were abducted by UFO aliens who performed medical experiments on them. Some of those people are obviously crazy, or liars. Some seem perfectly sane and honest. I am sure they experienced something—but it was almost certainly not UFO aliens.

Spiritual experiences are tricky, because we mostly can’t talk clearly about them—and probably we can’t think clearly about them, either. It’s pretty clear what coffee is, but it is not at all clear what “God” or “enlightenment” are. People seem to mean quite different things by words like those. If it turned out that by “God” you meant “part of the physical universe,” I would not doubt your claim to be God. (Some people do mean that!)

I wrote recently about enlightenment experiences, and what we can know about them, and know from them. (There’s also a podcast version.) I’ve also written about whether mystical experiences are reliable evidence. You might find these interesting and relevant; they go into much more detail than I can do here. I wrote:

I don’t doubt that there are experiences of Oneness—because I’ve had them. But I don’t think they imply what monist mystics think they imply.

Since All is not One, they don’t imply that. Oneness experiences might simply be meaningless confusion or illusion. Many typical drug experiences are like that. If you take LSD, you will probably directly experience walls breathing. That does not mean that walls breathe.

I think the Oneness experience does contain an important insight. It’s just that mystics misunderstand it. What the experience actually points to is the fact that there is no objective separation between you and your immediate surroundings.

I haven’t had an experience of being God. However, I suspect that one’s interpretation of experiences depends on beliefs. If I had believed in God, when I had a Oneness experience, I might well have interpreted that as being God.

Those who believe we are all God usually explicitly reject all reason and evidence:

Proponents of “All is One” usually explicitly reject rationality. They have to, because the story falls apart instantly if they don’t. Instead, they insist that in a “trans-rational” enlightenment experience, the truth that All is One is revealed. When you’ve had that experience, then you know, and rationality is irrelevant.

The problem is that experiences can be mistaken. Crazy people experience all sorts of things that aren’t true.

I don’t think experiences of being God make you crazy. I do think you should consider the possibility that there are other interpretations of what you feel, which may be more accurate. I wrote about this in the “Should experience remove doubt?” and “Non-ordinary experiences and insight” sections:

I’ve had dramatic, non-ordinary spiritual experiences myself. I can’t doubt that they exist. I do have questions about their meaning and value…

I’ve had intense meditation experiences that included insights that seemed right for months or years after—but that I eventually decided were wrong after all. There’s others that I still think were profound and correct, a decade or two later.

My conclusion from this is that overwhelming meditation experiences can be valuable sources of insight, but they are unreliable. They can convince you of things that aren’t true. You need to test them against other ways of knowing.

Once you admit that experiences are not absolutely reliable, you have to consider other reasons to believe, and disbelieve. There are many. You might start by asking “what do I mean by ‘God’? What sort of thing is that? Am I, in fact, that?” If “God” includes “omnipotent,” then you have a problem—you have to explain why you appear to have limited abilities when really you can do anything at all. Monists do come up with explanations for that, of course. Are they plausible? Are they the best explanation for “being God” experiences? I don’t think so.

If you decide to believe, regardless of reasons not to, and you act on your belief, then you risk making big mistakes. It does matter whether or not you are God. In the discussion of monism, I will explain why that belief is actively harmful, and not just factually wrong. Basically, it forces you to withdraw from physical reality, because so much of everyday experience contradicts your Godhood.

If you are open to questioning, then you have to figure out which reasons for believing and disbelieving are best. This may not be easy. It may be painful. I think it’s worth the effort.

Great Comment

Sabio's picture

David, I am so glad I follow these comment threads. This reply was written superbly -- any atheist would admire this -- and such admiration may help them read further and be challenged.

A positive alternative

Tony Shin's picture

I have been engaged in long and heated discussion with a colleague of mine in which I deride Tolle while he extols him…most recently, in a somewhat conciliatory spirit, I have conceded that perhaps Tolle has found a way of being connected with the present, with other people, etc., but his explanation of the middle part — how he got there, how other people might be able to get there, the principal issues to keep in mind, and the supposition, unassailable according to Tolle's framework of thinking, that unhappiness is the causally determined result of dissatisfaction with the past/future — is fundamentally incorrect. Because the explanation is incorrect, the result seems desirable, but attainable, while the strategies for following what may be called a Tollean way of trying to develop better oneness with the "Now" seem attainable, but not particularly desirable. In any case you mention at the end of your review that there is a need for a positive alternative before launching into a lengthy critique. I agree. For several years I have been very impressed with the works of Karen Horney, M.D. ("Horn-eye," not "horny," 1885–1952) and her disciples who have been influenced by and applied her thinking in American history (David M. Potter, 1910–1971), Sovietology/biography (Robert C. Tucker, 1918–2010), Victorian literary criticism (Bernard J. Paris, b. 1931, founder of the International Karen Horney Society website and one of her biographers); and within psychology, Harold Kelman (1906–1977, editor of Feminine Psychology, compiled from Horney's 1922–1937 works on the subject) and Andrew N. Tershakovec (1921–2007). Are you familiar with any of these authors? It is probably not "fair," in a sense, to counterpose these erudite, academic authors against Eckhart Tolle, but to me they offer the best possibility of a coherent rebuttal to Tolle. Sorry about all the extraneous detail, by the way.

The best argument against

john lyon's picture

The best argument against Ekhart Tolles is ad hominum. So he's a minor league philosopher. But as to Tolles himself? A complete creep. No feelings no life nothing just an empty shell. Listen to him talk. Does anybody want to wind up like that? He's a loner. "Don't hang around people and you wont be disappointed." On the other hand what kind of life is that? Ive known one person who was into Tolles. He went through periods of depression. He also could not feel. He could not cry. So for these types maybe Tolles provides a service. As to his books and lectures, they are valuable BECAUSE they are derivative. Anything coming directly from the heart and soul of Tolles would be very empty.

To me the argument against

Niv's picture

To me the argument against monism is probably the same as yours, David. In the end I think that to question what it means to say "I am God" o "We're all God", we have to question what we mean by all those words. Words have assumptions, we have to examine what is behind those words: "I/We", "God", and especially the verb "to be".

In some way you can argue we're all "the spirit" like hegel said, because like you're trying to argue, boundaries don't have an objective way to be drawn. Exactly because there is no objective way to draw those boundaries is because it's very tempting to draw the boundary that We're all One. Add to that the fact that you can FEEL it, just like you can feel god, and it's very hard to give up that idea (I know because I felt it once. And I felt very warm and fuzzy i.
nside)
So, how can we tear down that idea, or at least, show its limits? Here's what I propose.

  1. Show that "just cause you feel it doesn't mean it's there": People can feel a lot of things that are disconnected to reality.
  2. Connect the theory to reality. I think THE main flaw of most philosophical arguments is disconnection from reality. That's why Wittgenstein said "look don't think", it's not that he didn't want people to think. It's just that when you think and only think, it's very easy to pill down abstractions on abstractions without actually getting anywhere in reality. So we need to pin down how "All is One" vs "All isn't One" breaks down in reality, with actual examples that matter.

The above poster mentioned a very good example. I think you said it earlier too. Just because in some way, we're all part of the same universe and we're all born in the same global system of causes and effects that defined not only us but also all of humanity and nature that we can connect to doesn't change the fact that our minds don't think at the same time, don't feel the same things, don't know the same things, and that we're "disconnected" in very meaningful senses. If someone "gets" this I think it shows that either "All is one" or "all is not one" are just words that don't tell everything about reality when taken as "fact" rather than just a model of what actually happens in reality, i.e. the map is not the territory.

Ok, let's get our hands dirty

Niv's picture

Ok, let's get our hands dirty :)

I think you have hinted about how does "all in one" breaks down in reality here http://meaningness.com/self-schematic-overview . After all, one most basic implications of "all is one" is that it recommends letting go of the self, the ego, one's identity, "the self is only an illusion". An associated idea is about "living in the present", and not paying much attention to the present or the future. So, in practice, what's so wrong about this?

Well, as with many words, the word "illusion" is one that has many assumptions hidden. What's an "illusion"? The word connotes something that seems to be there but it's not actually there. Why does the self seem an illusion? Because when you observe it a long time, it might seems like it's not a real thing, after all, it's always changing, it's influenced by external forces, it's contradictory. So it's tempting to get rid of it, after all, it's the source of all suffering.

But I think that without a real sense of self, without an identity, you run the risk of becoming an empty shell of a human being. Suffering is part of what makes us human, and while wallowing in suffering all the time and being fixiated on past and future can be harmful, I believe the other extreme requires getting rid of your humanity, making bonds with people that is actually around you and not only figuratively in your mind because you're God just like everyone, and suffering and being happy, both of them, because of those very same bonds.

Without thinking of the past, you cannot learn. Without thinking of the future, we cannot create a better future for ourselves and those whom we love (of course "those" can be as big as the whole humanity if you want). Knowing (for some flavor of knowing) who you are (for some sense of the verb "to be", something that implies self and identity) and where you're going (which sort of implies a sense of future) is what enables you to create your own value and meaning in the world, it's what gives you a direction in life.

I think " I believe the other

Niv's picture

I think " I believe the other extreme requires getting rid of your humanity, making bonds" should say something like "I believe the other extreme requires getting rid of your humanity by avoiding making bonds..."

elloT

David,

You keep saying that Monism doesn't work, and what you seem to mean by that isthat an unacted-on belief in Monism doesn't work.

If so, nothing could be further from what Tolle says than "Add an idea called monism to the 1000 ideas you have already, and it will automatically make you happy".

That kind of thing is part of the problem as he diagnoses it. The therapy is practice, not ideology - the practices of increased mindfullness and not getting lost in the past or future.

Insights from a former follower of Tolle

Marko's picture

Hi David,

This page seems to be very popular. It shows up high on google when you search for "critcism of Eckhart Tolle". Looks like it'll be one of the main routes of discovery for people to your website.

I was following Tolle's teaching for the last 2 years and reading this post was a big part of what finally set me free. I guess you're trying to understand what goes through the mind of people following it, so I'll explain my own experience with it.

Firstly, a common problem people have is anxiety, compulsive thought patterns, and emotional discomfort. That's probably the main route of entry for finding Tolle's teachings. He sells himself as a "self-help" author obviously.

However the strategy is in fact pretty unique and original. You learn techniques such as "observing your thoughts" or "observing your pain-body" [emotional discomfort] to calm yourself down.

In fact, a psychotherapist further recommended Tolle to me when I told her that the techniques she told me to use were similar. Otherwise, I would have been able to avoid him altogether. Your link about psychotherapy and some New Agey stuff is spot-on.

What really hooks you, once you're in, is the explanation that "you are not your mind". That is to say, all your thoughts, as well as emotions, are a set of conditioned reactions known as the ego. Furthermore, the ego is dysfunctional because it "thinks compulsively" thus creating problems for itself. If you're calm, you will reach a higher level of existence which is "presence" and can manifest positive experiences in your outer life as well.

In light of this explanation, the obvious reaction is to ignore your thoughts. Ignore your ego, anything it is trying to tell you. It is just trying to create problems. Thus, any new thoughts that you are unable to suppress that arise, that constantly assault you trying to tell you of the stupidity of what you are doing, must be ignored. Basically, the rationale you have underneath it all is that the ego feels threatened and does not want to die. The more you can ignore it, the better you are doing.

It's easy to get caught in this holding pattern for a long time, and very difficult to break out of it. Furthermore, if you do actually have positive experiences, it only reinforces doing this. If you have negative experiences, "that's a good thing because it will demolish your ego".

Finally, it cannot be overemphasized that it is the mental health aspect of it, and especially the fact that there is a marginal benefit on the mental/emotional side, that is the main driving force for so many people following it. Without that, it would just be a hokum set of weird beliefs that no one cares about. There were numerous occasions where I really got caught up in painfully energized thought processes of how this is wrong, and when they passed I "felt better" in happy, languid non-thinking state, and this is how you fall back into it saying "see, it's working".

It should be noted I was skeptical and never believed in this even while I was practicing it. That's another part of the ingenuity. He says, "your mind doesn't have to believe in it for you to practice it." You can "rise above" your thoughts anyway. Even thought it was always too sketchy for me to be able to get committed to it 100%, it's a pattern of thinking that dominated how I think and view of the world for 2 years... and I wish I could get them back now.

Thus, I'm not exactly sure what a great solution for breaking people out of such a holding pattern could be, considering that thinking is equated to poison. Any argument you throw against it can just be taken to be words and thoughts, it's the other person's ego trying to suck you in, so you must be present, alert and rise above it in a non-thinking state.

For me, at first, positive stuff happened so unfortunately that only reinforced it. I got out of it because of the eventual slowly accumulating weight of the negative experiences that happened to me. You become powerless to control your actions or take any proactive action to improve your situation because you're not even supposed to be thinking or complaining about it! Thus, habits and lifestyle can slowly get worse and worse over time. Eventually, it came to a head and I couldn't take it anymore.

Then I found your post, which is very good in that matter. Simply showing it as a "big lie" with no justification whatsoever is an appropriate response for something that does not justify itself. The way you deconstructed it is really good.

As previously mentioned, an ad hominem attack -- the immediacy and strict gut-wrenching shock value of it, can be enough to shock people out of it. I read this and I was absolutely shocked and disgusted. The idea that he could be lying made me very angry, and I even became suicidal for a couple days. It really was a trauma. For the record, I do actually believe now that he is knowingly lying, but of course there is no way to be certain.

Even if thinking his ideas were wrong, I was able to console myself often with the supposition that he at least believes in them himself, that he is sincere and honest. Once you start questioning the integrity of the man himself, it's a whole new ball-game in terms of breaking down that barrier. In particular, the photos of him which appear in magazines, the airs he puts on, the ways he speaks, it's easy to start imagining it as constructed showboating, which was very effective in terms of kicking my reality sensor on.

Anyway, that's my experience. I hope it's not too long and boring.

Feelings

Tony Shin's picture

I have not read Tolle's works, but it seems that what he is arguing for is greater receptivity to emotions and feelings — Kahneman's (2011) "System 1," or "fast" thinking, which corresponds to Tershakovec's (2007) "parallel-distributed processing." We need that, and it seems that our logico-rational abilities are built up from the basic emotions and more complex feelings. But it is going too far to suppose, as Tolle seems to do, that we should now rely only on emotions and feelings, "accept the now" and reject the not-now (how?), and wholly discard the other type of mentation, which is Kahneman's "System 2," or "slow" thinking, which corresponds to Tershakovec's "serial [linear] processing."

As Tershakovec wrote in his extension of the synchronic psychoanalytic theory of Karen Horney — which stands at right angles to its Freudian predecessor:

« We must remember, however, that feelings are not some
unfailing oracle of truth just by virtue of being feelings.
They speak for the unconscious self, and that self may
be wiser and closer to reality than the conscious self, but
it may also be the top of a neurotic self, may reflect a
distorted emotional code, or else it may be just groping
its way in the world. The conscious system may sponsor
neurotic shortcuts, and the recursive procedures designed
to rid us of them and to bring us back to reality are a trial
and error process. As a result, there are “neurotic” dreams.
We should also remember that the parallel system relies
on the conscious system for a sense of time and causality
and that the serial system cannot assimilate input from
the unconscious that is too incongruent with its current
model of the-self-in-the-world. This makes the fusion of
the conscious and unconscious via recursive procedures a
measured, complex, and incremental process. »

  • The Mind: The Power that Changed the Planet, pp. 228–229

Tollianity

Religion is a failure mode of other things, a very widespread one with very consistent patterns. If people are told to avoid useless thinking, but that thinking is perfectly Ok for practical purposes, many of them will simplify and exagerate that into "never think", because simplifying and exagerating is what taking something religiously is. And deifying people who explicitly tell them they don't want to be deified, and relentless forced cheerfulness and all the rest of it...

Comments notification

Marko's picture

Hi, I changed my mind: I would prefer not to receive comments notification, but when I click the link sent in the e-mail to unsubscribe, I reach a page that says "error. please try again later".

Marko — Thank you very much

Marko — Thank you very much for the interesting comment about your experience! I found it really helpful. I am planning to post a reply, but it needs some thought and research, which I haven’t had time for yet.

I am sorry for the trouble you had had unsubscribing. It was due to an error in the web software I am using. I think I have found and fixed the bug. Thank you very much for reporting the problem. I think I have also manually unsubscribed you. However, it is possible that I didn’t understand the software correctly, and you will still get notifications. If that happens, please email me and I will try again.

Thought suppression

Marko — Thank you again for your fascinating comment! I'm sorry it's taken well over a month to reply. I wanted to reference a page on "thought suppression" that I was writing, and expected to post right about then; but it was much delayed.

The "thought suppression page" is now up on the site, although in an unfinished draft form. It seems relevant to what you said about Tolle.

You mentioned:

"observing your thoughts" or "observing your pain-body" [emotional discomfort]... and the explanation that "you are not your mind"

For whatever it's worth, I think these are all valid and important methods. Where he seems to go disastrously wrong is:

In light of this explanation, the obvious reaction is to ignore your thoughts. Ignore your ego, anything it is trying to tell you. It is just trying to create problems. Thus, any new thoughts that you are unable to suppress that arise, that constantly assault you trying to tell you of the stupidity of what you are doing, must be ignored. Basically, the rationale you have underneath it all is that the ego feels threatened and does not want to die. The more you can ignore it, the better you are doing.

Observing your thoughts dispassionately is not the same as ignoring or rejecting them! The value of mindfulness meditation is in seeing what is going on—not in blocking it out. This confusion is quite common among meditators and meditation teachers, unfortunately.

Thank you for the pointer to the hardcore spirituality post. That was also extremely insightful. (Unfortunately, the video seems to have been taken down.)

Again—I found your account moving and helpful. Thank you!

Tolle cannot possible have

Mister Eastern mystic's picture

Tolle cannot possible have become an expert at Eastern mysticism overnight. Anybody who claims to be an Eastern Teacher or who others consider an eastern master or whatever you want to call them, had to have sat at the feet of someone who was a master and learned from them. And to learn anthing of any consequence takes considerable time.
The other thing is that those in India who are considered great teachers do not take money for their teaching. Just that one thing exposes him to be a charletin or a fake. Many serious teachers in India go around teaching small groups and all they receive is just enough to pay for their basic needs.
And nothing he has said in his books is new and has not been said by other teachers who have much more valid credentials than does he.
Those who receive who he says only prove how deprived and ignorant they are.. kind of like the Beatles when they had their fase of trying to follow some Eastern teacher and later they admitted he took them for a ride and they did not continue with that kind of seeking after truth any further... So that is about it...
Do a little study and seeking and you will see this guy is a huge phoney.... Chow for now..... out

I love Eckhart Tolle. I don't

Michael's picture

I love Eckhart Tolle. I don't believe he is selling anything at all... just speaking from a place of truth.

He quotes other spiritual leaders because many of them experienced the same kind of truth, just interpreted through different words. After centuries of being passed down, there has been a lot of misinterpretation, but the same truth still shines through.

The mind is awesome. It's incredible and powerful. But it's not "you". That's why you're getting tripped up in your assessment.

What's a "you" in the first place? The body? No... Because the cells are replaced every 7 years.

Is it the mind? No... Because you don't vanish when you stop thinking. (Although I doubt you spend much time in silence.)

You literally can't perceive something that is "you", because the act of perceiving it would mean it's not you.

Experiencing it depends on how you define "you". There's definitely a person, a life story, a being. The illusion is just that it all implies an actual "you".

I don't expect you to understand it, because it's really hard to explain conceptually. But once you've experienced it, you can't go back. It is incredibly obvious.

You/I

Sasha's picture

In my experience it's completely obvious that there is an I, as self, that persists through all its state changes.

This book came to me when I

Olas's picture

This book came to me when I was 22 and set me on the path to meditation & awareness. I like how Tolle transcends organized religion to unify all people. I like how he speaks confidently and simply explains Presence, Being, the ego, pain-body, etc. It was the first time I was aware of my own negative reaction to specific triggers, at home with my parents, at work, in everyday social interactions. The book helped me become mindful of how my actions & reactions affected other people. I think that is invaluable.

I see a shift in the human consciousness, as Tolle outlines in the beginning of ANE. People are starting to transcend boundaries that have separated humankind since our beginnings: race, religion, gender. On the other side there is the resistance to this kind of change, where there is violence, bigotry, hatred, radicalism, in response to this growth of consciousness. I think humanity is reaching a breaking point. But now I'm starting to trail off lol

I respect all of your opinions. David, your writing is superb, I can tell you're very educated on philosophical rhetoric to say the least. I challenge you to look past all the labels you might have placed on Tolle's words. "Monist eternalism"... I've never heard the term til I read your post, that didn't stop me from taking something valuable from this book, perhaps it did for you. Another poster here said it, but it's hard to describe, consciousness has to be something you're ready for. I can't show that to you. All i can do is be present.

One last thing, I've been entertaining this thought for years, but when i read this book it gave me further confirmation of it. When thinking of the phrase "All is One", think of a human. One human. Then zoom in with a microscope and see all the millions of cells that make up one human, the muscle tissue, veins, bones, hair follicles on the surface. And now zoom out to planet earth. One planet. Made up of billions of humans, plants and animals. Zoom out again. One galaxy. And so on.

This is how I link together the spirituality I feel and science that can be proven. They are one in the same.

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