Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Eckhart Tolle and Social Activism II

I received a couple of comments on yesterday's post that I'd like to give extended answers to.

Was Once wrote:

"I have found that almost everything has it's lifespan, and now I have stepped back (some) to let my natural compassionate self to blossom. It will all fall down or not, but I see the end of my life and it felt like wisdom finally pulled in."

There's an ebb and flow of activity from what I have seen and experienced. Sometimes, you really need to turn inward and focus on yourself, where you are at. In the midst of activity and action, it's easy to loose touch with the buddha-nature energy that illuminates our greed, hatred and ignorance. And if you've been practicing for a long time, it's easy to think you've "done enough," forgetting that the path is vast and endless. Or get seduced by the idea that "you," specifically, must "do it all" in order to be worthy.

In general, this is one of the big challenges for the activist community (or folks committed to service in places like homeless shelters, hospices, etc.) Many have put spiritual or religious practice aside, or rejected it outright, including things like secular forms of meditation. And others who are spiritual or religious simply get caught up in the swirl of constant activity. There's always something to do. Developing the awareness necessary to see when you need to step back, or when to move on, isn't emphasized in these groups for a variety of reasons. And as a result, too many end up burning out, becoming highly reactionary, or totally in crisis. It's a pattern I'd like to make a dent in.

Anonymous wrote:

" if you live in a country where people are so ingrained with the politics of their fathers, and the generations before, that they will take up violence on account of a ‘cause’ and with very little consideration, or inner awareness this focus on the individual is a necessary, and essential, building block, for creating change."

It's necessary, but not sufficient. Let's face it, though, his primary audience are folks in post industrial nations. He's not speaking to people living under dictatorships, in war-torn countries, or other highly volatile situations. That doesn't mean that his writings and talks haven't spread to some in these places, but they aren't the people regularly attending his lectures, buying up every last thing with his name on it, and filling his pockets with cash. When I wrote yesterday that he's marketed as a "non-threatening guru," part of what I meant by that is that he doesn't challenge the economic and social status quo. The CEO of Walmart or Exxon can find some inner peace through his writings, and perhaps learn to treat his family and employees a little better, without ever looking at how damaging the business practices of his company are. Or how damaging some of the larger structures and laws that uphold our economy are to both humans and the planet as a whole.

The thing is I'm not suggesting that folks like Tolle need to be as deliberate and descriptive as I am about social and political issues, and their intersection with spiritual practice. But when you have an entire collection of writings where little or no time is given to how we might consider those intersections, and see the public realm as a clear area of practice, something is off. Furthermore, Tolle basically tells folks that if they just take care of their inner lives, it will all be good. And that this is the evolutionary plan, something inevitable that they're just plugging into.

I think Tolle places too much faith in our capacity to overcome a hell of a lot of social conditioning on our own, and that millions and millions of people doing this will somehow break through all the collective conditioning and structures that currently oppress us. He fails to recognize or acknowledge that even our greatest spiritual/social heroes - Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc. - still had issues with social conditioning that impacted their work. Awakening didn't wipe out internalized sexism, for example. It took multiple lobbying efforts to get the Buddha to allow women into the original sangha, and I'm not convinced they ever held truly equal standing under his watch. The original Buddhist sangha was basically doing on a smaller scale what Tolle sees as the key to our evolution as a species and yet women had to beg to gain base level acceptance.

So, while I don't expect someone like Tolle to brilliantly break down capitalism, or advocate for radical action, I do think it's entirely fair to do what I've done in these past few posts. Because this guy has an influence on some of the very people who have the most power and influence in our societies today. And even a little movement from him towards supporting collective social action and directly challenging systems of oppression could go a long way.

*Dragon Float from May Day Festival, Minneapolis 2012.


Mary Tracy said...

I agree. One of the reasons why it took me so long to "join the spiritual path" was because not a single "spiritual guru" talked about the need to change the world.
And I'm a political activist first and foremost. Politics is what I know the most.

Eventually I had to choose between my political engagement and my sanity, so I came up with a way to keep them both "separated".
I don't think one invalidates the other, so long as we use both in the appropriate context.

Thanks for writing this!

Nathan said...

Just took a look at your website. Very interesting. Political activist coach. I hope you're having some luck with this because it seems like a great way to combine the two "paths."

Was Once said...

The reason why I have relaxed activism somewhat(not totally), is because I am focusing more on my path which you say is endless, but inherently demands a natural awareness. My natural compassionate self that is coming out of this will be less involved with the self identifying anger(injustice!).

Anonymous said...

I am not very familiar with Tolle because to be honest... hearing him talk puts me to sleep. But I am familiar with his book the "Power of Now". Maybe we can look at this way...not one person can be all things to all people. I mean he wants us to focus on ourselves to help humanity evolve. Maybe a person will read writings from other authors, like Noam Chomsky, or Howard Zinn who definitely write about social justice. For me, I find practicing Buddhism helps me with my volunteer work, which is spending time with cancer patients...not all of them get well and Buddhism has helped me greatly with that...the impermanence part, and I am an activist when it comes to our food, so once gain meditation helps me from going off the deep end and getting to preachy to those who don't know what is happening. It helps me stay centered and I believe helps me remain healthy by being present and seeing when I am getting stressed out.

Nathan said...

Was Once: "My natural compassionate self that is coming out of this will be less involved with the self identifying anger(injustice!)." And this expression is exactly what is needed in the world of social activism. Not that you have to be that person, but this is exactly what I'm talking about - bringing together spiritual practice and activism.
"Maybe we can look at this way...not one person can be all things to all people."

I agree. It's impossible to do it all, be it all. As I tried to say in my post, I don't expect someone like Tolle to suddenly be breaking down the intricacies of systemic racism or classism. That's not his role per se. However, his overwhelming message to folks is that it's all about "inner work." I'm not even sure I can recall him speaking/writing about service in the community. Or even interacting with others in a group setting. Everything seems to be about individuals, which feels like a very uncritically American take on spirituality and meditation practice.

Anonymous said...

good point. Do you think his attraction is an American thing then? Like someone saying we need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps? If you look at our country...we are divided about almost any issue, with a lot of finger pointing when it comes to our problems. My friend would call it "navel-gazing"...good subject...I plan to think about this some more.

Nathan said...

"Do you think his attraction is an American thing then?"

Well, it's interesting. He was born in Germany, and lives in Canada. The period where he broke free of depression and had what he calls an "inner transformation" happened in London. I don't think he's ever lived in the U.S., although folks in the U.S. are probably his largest audience.

In some ways, I think the individual focus comes from a more mystical attitude. Being influenced by Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart (he changed his name to Eckhart sometime in his 30s, possibly in honor of M.E.). Also, not much focus on ethical teachings, Buddhist or otherwise.

Anyway, it seems more accurate to say that his approach plays into the mainstream American framework of hyper individualism.

Unknown said...

As Tolle had said continuously, and it's clear: The outer world is only a reflection, or expression, of the human mind, the ego.

It is impossible to change the world without changing the collective human consciousness.
Tolle gives merit to social activism, but that alone is only addressing the effect; he simply addresses the cause.

Social activism, wars on drugs and crime, fights for peace and equality have gone on for eternity and while they have gained small victories, little has changed in the big picture and it never will.

Tolle address the root, if you will. For him to tackle any single cause would be futile. His message goes to the core. Change the collective human consciousness and the world will change....otherwise humans will likely eradicate themselves.

As he has said, it is fine and wonderful to address an issue, but without inner transformation, the issues will be endless, as many tired and frustrated activists have found out.

Nathan said...

"Tolle gives merit to social activism, but that alone is only addressing the effect; he simply addresses the cause."

I don't see "inner" and "outer" as separate and distinctive. Nor do I believe that a focus on either solely or mostly will transform the world. Activists who can't be bothered to pay attention to their internal landscape reproduce the very misery they are trying to address. Whereas those who hole themselves away from the relative world and it's discontents are basically deluding themselves into thinking that the practices they are doing alone will transform society somehow.

It's really about both. Seeing "inner" and "outer" as interdependent and thus not neglecting either.

Unknown said...

The basic idea is that the world's problems are a bottomless pit, and unless there is a shift in the collective consciousness nothing will truly change.

I believe ET is focusing on the root cause of what is perceived as evil. A person who truly receives the teaching will become a true agent for change.

He actually does address this at the end of Chapter 9 in The Power of Now:

Someone said: "There shouldn't be any hunger and starvation in the first place. How can we
create a better world without tackling evils such as hunger and violence first?"

All evils are the effect of unconsciousness. You can alleviate the effects of
unconsciousness, but you cannot eliminate them unless you eliminate their cause.
True change happens within, not without.
If you feel called upon to alleviate suffering in the world, that is a very noble thing to
do, but remember not to focus exclusively on the outer; otherwise, you will encounter
frustration and despair. Without a profound change in human consciousness, the
world's suffering is a bottomless pit. So don't let your compassion become one-sided.
Empathy with someone else's pain or lack and a desire to help need to be balanced
with a deeper realization of the eternal nature of all life and the ultimate illusion of all---
pain. Then let your peace flow into whatever you do and you will be working on the
levels of effect and cause simultaneously.
This also applies if you are supporting a movement designed to stop deeply
unconscious humans from destroying themselves, each other, and the planet, or from
continuing to inflict dreadful suffering on other sentient beings. Remember: Just as
you cannot fight the darkness, so you cannot fight unconsciousness. If you try to do
so, the polar opposites will become strengthened and more deeply entrenched. You
will become identified with one of the polarities, you will create an "enemy," and so
be drawn into unconsciousness yourself. Raise awareness by disseminating
information, or at the most, practice passive resistance. But make sure that you carry
no resistance within, no hatred, no negativity. "Love your enemies," said Jesus,
which, of course, means "have no enemies."
Once you get involved in working on the level of effect, it is all too easy to lose
yourself in it. Stay alert and very, very present. The causal level needs to remain your
primary focus, the teaching of enlightenment your main purpose, and peace your
most precious gift to the world.

Nathan said...

I actually agree with the basic message of that quote from Tolle. However, this line doesn't quite work for me.

"True change happens within, not without."

The line itself is fine. It's in the context of speaking of social change that it feels distorted.

As I see it, the location of the changing making isn't totally clear. The effort I make meditating, chanting, focusing inward is there. But there's also all the societal elements that led me there in the past, and lead me there now. Where's "inner" and where's "outer"?

Furthermore, when I think of the enlightenment stories of the Buddhist ancestors, for example, many of then had "awakening" experiences during mundane or non-contemplative activities.

It's easy to get hung up on either end of the pole with all of this. Grasping at form. Thinking you have to be a certain level of awakened before doing anything in the world. Or conversely rejecting the relative world struggles as nothing more than obstacles to transcend.