Friday, June 26, 2009

Eckhart Tolle's New Alliance

I got this video from over at the Zen Mirror blog (see my blog list for the link). Now, I like Eckhart Tolle's work. He's aware, insightful, and clear enough to get into the minds and hearts of many who will probably never step the door of a zendo or other spiritual community. Although he often gets lumped in with other New Age types, like Deepak Chopra, I don't think it's a fair assessment.The one criticism I have had of Tolle's work is that the sangha seems to be missing, as is a deeper reflection on social issues and how our spiritual lives might help address the societal ills of the day. However, unlike many of the New Age superstars, who sell sugar coated positive thinking, Tolle does his best to get us to break down our ego attachments, and to see what is actually present right now in our lives. He's not always soft, and easy to digest, and I appreciate that.

But I have to say I find this new alliance with the Queen of Pop television - Oprah - troubling. Sure, some may say that this is a good way to get his teachings out to an even wider audience, and I suppose that's true. And yet, as you'll see in the video, there's a hell of a lot of consumerism behind this project, which is always the case when Oprah is involved. Oprah's rise from poverty may be inspiring, but her promotion and excessive indulgence in material goods, materialistic viewpoints, and western capitalist solutions to national and world problems has always left a bad taste in my mouth. A great example of this is the elitist girls school she founded in South Africa in 2007. Not only has the school had a pair of sex scandals, but it also is an example of the soft colonialism that continues to occur in Africa. In other words, the school is well meaning, but it really doesn't take into account the cultural and community dynamics at play, nor the impact of taking a small group of girls from their homes and placing them in a very materially rich, closed environment for months or even years at a time.

As for Tolle and Oprah working together, it's difficult for me to believe that the bit of "edge" Tolle has will continue to be present. And will this become just another money making, ego inflating enterprise for both of them, despite their best intentions? Already, Tolle's workshops are out of reach financially for a lot of people. But add to that the selling drive of Team Oprah (i.e. her corporate backers), and you have a recipe for the feel good spiritual product of the century.

I can imagine a fair amount of readers on here already view Tolle as watered down and lacking depth. But regardless of how you view his work, I do think that what he has done up until now, and what he does in the future has some impact on how the dharma sets itself in the West. Why? Partly because I've personally met a fair number of people who have become zen practitioners at some point after reading Tolle's books, and can imagine this is true in other places as well. In addition, although Tolle doesn't claim a spiritual tradition, his emphasis on the present moment, deconstructing our personal stories, and letting go of attachments are easily linked to Buddhism and Buddhist teachings.

Is all this something to loose sleep over? No. But at the same time, I do think it's worth reflecting on, not only in terms of how money and materialism effect spiritual teachings, but also in terms of how celebrity can influence what is being taught and how.


Robyn said...

Hi Nathan, I agree that Tolle has some worthwhile qualities that he brings to people who might otherwise never encounter anything remotely like the dharma. I haven't read his books so I can't really say what his source is but sometimes I hear people talking about things that certainly sound "buddhist-like" and they mention his name in connection to the ideas.

And yet. look at what has happened to yoga. I think it is a similar path. Someone with a real talent for broadening the audience with a genuine insight gets caught in the mire...think of Shiva Rea and some other yogalebrities (as a friend calls them). And next thing you have thousands of group classes that are just exercise classes with a little bit of feel-good mumbo jumbo thrown in so everyone feels like they have had a "yoga" class.

I think Zen or the dharma (and yoga) can survive capitalism (partly because I think capitalism is collapsing in on itself and won't be here as we know it for too much longer) because there will always be people who are seeking for a true understanding with sincerity.

Tolle, Oprah, or whoever, are distractions...maybe good ones at times, but ultimately just distractions.

Nathan said...

Hi Robyn,

The dharma and yoga will probably survive all this - I'm not too worried about that.

And yes, capitalism is falling apart - maybe quickly, maybe a bit slower than some of us would hope for. I think there are a lot of people in power positions around the world doing everything they can to keep the complete collapse from occurring. Might not matter in the end, but it also might mean a longer time dealing with all the issues this system brings.

Love the term "yogalebrities"! Yoga in the "West" has definitely come up against the powers of celebrity, big money, and materialism. To me, it's worth examining all of this because even in places where people want to be authentic with their practice, this stuff can creep in. Greed is one the three Buddhist poisons (Hatred and Delusion the other two), and it's never a good idea to underestimate the power that greed can have upon us.

Algernon said...

Not surprised. I suppose "The Secret" is not selling as many copies anymore, so Oprah is finding a new spiritual product to market. Have never thought much, good or bad, about Tolle.

One nice thing about Zen is that it's hard to sex up zazen the way "power yoga" and "hot yoga" did for yoga.

ZenDotStudio said...

Interesting post. I have such mixed feeling about this. I like Tolle's writing. It is amazingly clear. And from the beginning I've always thought of it as Buddhism without the Buddha. I think of him as a friend's partner described him "a funny little man" yet there's something about him that seems quite genuine.

And I have to say I never liked Oprah until I saw her in the Tolle webcasts and I could sense in her a true spiritual seeker.

And I think it is amazing work bringing these ideas to mainstream America. I can only commend them for that. They are offering some sanity and a glimpse of something greater in places where this is earth shattering news.

I watched that little video you posted and I have to say I didn't like the tone of it. It smelled of cynical dirt digging, media types. It sells well as in "I'm going to show you a side of Eckhardt Tolle you didn't know about." The underlying tone is one of smug superiority and it makes me uncomfortable.

That being said I find $985 for a weekend retreat shocking and abhorrent. And yes Oprah spends a lot of time adding money to her bank account and promoting things like "how to look your best in a swimsuit this summer."

As in so many things it's not black and white as in "four legs good, two legs bad" Thanks for the food for thought. It will be interesting to see where Tolle goes with all this. And I do my best not to be a Zen snob.

Robyn said...

Hi again Nathan,

This morning a very small group (four of us) got together to sit zazen...besides myself the others are people who have little or no experience with zazen. We had a short discussion period afterwards and guess who's name came up from the one person who is totally new to zazen? Yes, Eckhart Tolle!

So....your theory may be correct that Tolle can lead people to something deeper...

I was laughing to myself when she started talking about him and how it brought her to want to join our small group.

Nathan said...

Hi Robyn - The guest zen teacher at our center this morning brought up Tolle as well - he seems to be everywhere.

Hi Carole,

Yes, I too felt the video was a bit snarky and mud-grubbing. Frankly, it would have been easier to discuss issues with Oprah's work, but they chose to focus mostly on Tolle, trying to dig up the "junk" so to speak.

A major problem with Oprah, at least what I've seen in the past, is that she's powerfully driven by ego, wealth, and believing she's got the answers to people's problems. Sure, this is true of many of us to some degree, but few of us have the cross continent influence that Oprah does. I can't recall another public figure who, for example, started a magazine, and then proceeded to put herself on the cover every month! (I know enough people into Oprah to be aware of this, and of some of her projects.)

Now, maybe working with Tolle will awaken her some to these issues, which would be a great thing since she has such an influence on probably millions of people. But beyond that, it still comes back to issues of dharma for sale, spirituality for the wealthy, and the consumeristic underpinning that seems to be always present when it comes not only to Oprah, but to corporate-run TV, radio, and other media as a whole.

There is part of me that actually would like to see this project succeed in terms of bringing some of those core Buddhist teachings into the mainstream, even if they're stripped of religious underpinnings. And Tolle seems centered enough to do it.

Yet, I can also see where the pressure to package things in easy, bite sized containers might be too much to handle. It's so much easier to hear positive affirmations and dreamy sounding spiritual conversation than in it is to dig into the muck of your life and be with that, just that, moment after moment without a lollipop or hand to hold.

Leaf Dharma said...

Tolle's work stands on its own. He writes clear and consciously on Buddhist principles without using the word Buddhist. The fact that he is everywhere now is due to the excellence of his teachings. I picked up the Power of Now shortly after it was printed and rather skeptically read it, thinking it more New Age garbage, however, it is a brilliant addition to the Dharma.

SepticPen ... said...

Hi Nathan,

hmm i don't know what to say ,About Eckhart the person i really dont care, and i don't think why we should upset ourselves if he is making too much money from it or not.... cause if we do , it just shows that we are deep down , very unsatisfied with what hes doing.

I am not a big Tolle zealot.. but..
Why judge the teacher?,,, if the teaching makes sense to us,we should follow it... else forget it.

i like eckhart's teachings ... they are very much needed in these times... for a quick paced frantic west this might be the clear shot thing required...

many here think Eckhart has created a new form of spiritual practice and all...

As for your comparison to his work being similar to zen, i really dont understand why one should think any two practices or religions are different... one some level they are all trying to do the same thing.

i saw an interview of eckhart , and also personally i had deduced..that his teachings are just a continuation of the works of Ramana Maharshi , Nisargadatta , and Krishanmurti.

I often found it hard to believe that the these higher teachings of ramana were almost unknown even in India where i live... if fact many are rediscovering Ramana maharshi and krishanmurti's works thanks to eckhart tolle's infamously growing popularity...

Especially in the west where people are almost brain-washed into believing that there is only "one" true Religion/belief right when they start going to school.

Publicity in what ever form might actually be required to penetrate the hard religious shell the west has created around the minds of its people... and since the youth of the east are looking to emulate the west in everything.. his popularity is also very much needed to help the east as well.

I believe Eckhart is a very good starting point for spiritual practice... as u said even i have many friends who after reading his work have become practicing Buddhists or advaita hindus etc etc..