Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Eckhart Tolle and Social Activists: Or What's Love Got to Do With It?

Fellow 21st Century Yoga contributer Be Scofield has a provocative, new essay out on the limitations of Eckhart Tolle's spiritual writings, particularly when it comes to addressing systemic social issues. Some folks just roll their eyes when they see the name Tolle, but I think if you want to understand the modern, American spiritual landscape, you gotta pay a bit of attention to his work. Before we go on to look at a few points in Be's essay, I want to state where I stand on Tolle.

First off, I don't think he's a charlatan. The guy seems to me to have some clear insight into how our minds work, and the ways in which humans get trapped by their thinking and habit patterns. In addition, he has figured out how to bring together elements of different religious traditions in a way that speaks across them and beyond them. I'd say this is a positive, especially in terms of spreading insights to the masses. I also like the guy's general optimism about humanity's potential, and that he sees practices like meditation as being a means towards awakening on a larger, collective scale.

On the flip side, like Be, I disagree with Tolle's sense that "inner work" alone will somehow solve the systemic misery that plagues so many in this world. Having read a fair amount of his writing, and listened to some of his talks, I find his general approach to be far too individualistic in focus for my taste. Not only is social and political action downplayed or dismissed outright, but you rarely hear talk about communities, serving others, or anything else associated with being together in groups. Just as is true of a lot of American convert Buddhism, in Tolle's writing you can't help but notice how heavily individual psychology and psychological theories color what's being said.

Beyond all that, there's the fierce, capitalist machine behind Tolle's work to content with. Nearly everything this guy touches these days is being turned into a product intended for "your awakening," and I don't get the sense that he has any problem with that. In fact, I think the packaging of Tolle as a non-threatening spiritual guru has not only lead to wildly higher sales and spreading of his message, but also wholesale rejection of his work by those like myself actively resisting capitalism, colonialism, and the commodifcation of spiritual practice.

Along those lines, let's take a look at a few paragraphs from Be's essay:

In A New Earth Tolle goes so far as to claim all of the atrocities associated with Communism could have been avoided had their been a shift in their “inner reality, their state of consciousness.” Again, his absolutism in regards to the power of internal transformation is quite extreme. If communists would have only stilled their minds, connected to their bodies and dis-identified with their false egoic self he believes countless lives would have been saved. It’s important to understand that when Tolle is referring to shifting inner consciousness, he is specifically talking about stilling the mind, not shifting inner social or political consciousness. Of course the issues are far more complex than Tolle presents. No simple solution like cultivating presence, stillness or embodiment would have changed a profoundly complicated socio-political experience that spanned vast territory and numerous decades. Furthermore, he falsely believes that spiritual awakening supports his social and political positions.

Tolle is suggesting that what communists needed and what environmental polluters need is internal spiritual transformation – not education, training, relationship building, diversity training, political understanding, environmental awareness or anything else. Why? Because Tolle believes in an all-knowing divine power that once channeled knows exactly what to do. This universal intelligence is unfolding and working through humans. If only environmental polluters and communists were to connect with God the world would be a much better place. For those who successfully do, they are contributing to more joy, peace, creativity and happiness on the planet. Spirit is unfolding in a direction and it supports Tolle’s social and political agenda and reflects his social location as a wealthy, heterosexual, white male with $4 million in the bank and a Jaguar in his driveway.

Social positioning, and specifically a lack of critical consciousness around his position in society, are major players in Tolle's philosophy. It's so much easier for folks from privileged backgrounds to focus on "inner" transformation, and to dismiss addressing systemic social issues. Not only do they benefit from the status quo, but they're are less likely to see how the status quo creates suffering in their own lives, let alone anyone else's. Be's absolutely right to point out this failure in Tolle's work to critically examine social positions, and how they're plugged into systems built on patterns of injustice and deliberate oppression.

However, I have to say that the qualities Tolle focuses on folks cultivating - being present now, joy, stillness, and general awareness - are pretty lacking amongst social activists as a whole. There's decidedly too much ego, reactivity, and unexamined motives driving individuals within political and social movements, and also the collective actions of the groups they belong to or associate with. Instead of figuring out how to place the outrage, sadness, and fears into the furnace, where they might be transformed into wisdom and wise action, too often social movements either explode or sputter into the ground through power grabs, ego battles, and undigested patterns of greed, anger and hatred.

Which leads me to where I disagree with Be. Be writes:

The reason, of course, that environmental experts don’t recommend mind-body practices like meditation or yoga in order to stop worldwide pollution is because they are entirely unrelated.

This is just the opposite extreme to what Tolle's arguing, no more or less dualistic in my opinion. And while I don't think everyone involved in social justice movements needs to suddenly become a yogi or meditator, it sure wouldn't hurt for more folks practicing these things to be a part of such movements. And furthermore, that a general culture of cultivating qualities like compassion and awareness be normalized amongst activists, regardless of the forms taken to bring about those qualities.

The systems developed under colonialism, and patriarchy before it, rendered a myriad of things separate in social consciousness and practice. Foremost amongst these being the creation of the categories "spiritual" and "secular," and then the slow depositing of various activities and ways of thinking into either box. Perhaps that period of separation was helpful at some point in human history, but it's clearly become little more than a driver of oppression and misery. And when I say that, I'm not saying that everyone should be "spiritual" or something. What I'm saying is that the categories have become calcified, to the point where the vast majority of folks fail to see them as expedient means at most.

What am I talking about here, you may be asking? I'll try an offer some concrete examples. Take a person's view of the environment, specifically those who aren't concerned about exploitation, global warming, or human impacts on the planet. Or who have some concern, but whose greed or ignorance override that concern.

Person X

Claims the identity of secular, and rejects religion and all forms of spirituality. Elevates human reason above all other qualities a person might possess. Sees the point of life to fulfill your needs and desires. Might have some concerns about his children's future, for example, but is mostly focused on how to have a "good life now." (One of Tolle's limitations, by the way, is his obsession on "the now" and failure to temper that with something like a seven generations approach to viewing and acting in the world.) Enjoys "nature, but feels humans are "better" or "smarter" somehow.

Person Y

Claims the identity of Christian. Views the planet as a God given resource to be used to fulfill human needs and desires. Believes the afterlife in heaven is where "the good life" truly is, and that life on Earth is mostly about being trials and tests by God. As such, she isn't really concerned about the future of the planet, or even her children/grandchildren because what's important is their salvation, not the preservation of the Earth.

Person Z

Claims the identity of spiritual/not religious. Sees the popularization of meditation, yoga, and other "consciousness" practices as the key to a better life for all. Any concerns about the future of the planet are turned into a messianic approach to spreading the "good news" of yoga, meditation, shamanism, and the like. Pays little attention to politics and systemic social issues, seeing all that as being "lower vibration" stuff.

The main point behind these rough, incomplete sketches is the sense that solidifying around the deepest level separation of spiritual/secular can lead to some disastrous consequences for (in this case) the planet. And it's not just about folks on the extreme messing it up for everyone else. Each of has this dualism playing out in our lives because it's in the cultural water, and pretty much all of us taken a drink to some degree or another. So you may not be an oil tycoon profiting off the tar sands, but odds are your daily actions are still negatively impacting the planet in some manner or another.

Which brings us to love. And our collective struggle to understand and embody it in it's various forms. Be writes:

Love isn’t progressive, socialist or limited to any political position. People of all ideological persuasions fall in love, make love, experience love and act in love. Is global transformation really based on raising the “love” vibration on the planet? After all, Glenn Beck’s latest gathering was called “Restoring Love.” There was lots of “love” amongst Protestant and Catholic Christians in Nazi Germany. Love for spouses, children, families and God. People were kind, caring and compassionate to members of their own kind while turning a blind eye or supporting to the horrific crimes of the state. What frequency did their love vibrate on and how did it matter in the larger scheme of things? Love is not the sole property of either progressives or conservatives. If both a pro-choice and a pro-life activist group based all of their methods, techniques and actions in love who would win?

One of Be's biggest concerns in this piece, and in others I have seen, is the view that cultivating certain qualities and/or doing certain spiritual practices are THE means needed to get to a more progressive, inclusive society for all. I share that concern, and agree that practices like yoga can be used by anyone without having a transformational impact on their politics and social views, and that simply cultivating qualities like presence or basic compassion aren't nearly enough to liberate the world from systems of oppression and injustice.

But love. Love has the capacity to blow through separations of all sorts. To break through and heal the kinds of thinking that create solidified divisions in the first place. It's not limited to, nor even necessarily represented by, the forms Be presents in the statement above. It's easy to get cynical about something like the power of love to liberate folks from systems of oppression, just as it's easy to get suckered by some limited form of love (like love of family or country) as the recipe for a better world.

If anything, the intersection of social justice and love is a koan, one we might take devote ourselves to, even if we never gain any final resolution.


Bob said...

Some very interesting thoughts on a wide-ranging topic that definitely deserves our repeated consideration: the relationship between spiritual practice and social action.
I noticed an extended inquiry on this topic recently at the Buddhist Forum "Dharma Wheel". The second portion of this thread has some provocative comments worth perusal and contemplation: http://www.dharmawheel.net/viewtopic.php?f=66&t=13052&start=60

In a somewhat related vein, I just posted some thoughts on the subject here: http://theconsciousprocess.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/to-do-something/
Thanks for your continued explorations!

David Ashton said...

I have a soft spot for Tolle's writings as they are what nudged me back to Zen when I found myself straying off into nowhere. That said, Zen practice - on the cushion and off - and its fruits wisdom and compassion, is the target I feel most drawn to. Taking the bodhisattva path without taking 'external' action - i.e. activism may be possible, but it's something I don't understand at this moment.

Was Once said...

Great points! Activism in a way lead me to spiritual practice, because I was self identified in the things I wanted to change. I have some direct good results from my past work, but then I found it didn't lead to a happier existence. 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.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, and it certainly would be good to get more posts on this topic. One of the ‘limits’ of the arguments presented here, it seems, is that Tolle is being criticized for the individual focus of his writings, yet, 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. Both politically and socially. The whole is more than the sum of its parts.
I think it a little unfair for us to ask him for social policy reform while he’s on to a good thing.
I think you could argue that Tolle works someway to merging the boxes of the spiritual and the secular, I found his books to be a pleasant sidestep from some of the dogma and theology that you get battered over the head with growing up? Different reads I suppose.
I agree on the branding of his stuff mind, that’s a shame, and definitely a ‘limit’.

Danielle said...

The thing is, I don't really believe we want to be happy. We THINK we want to be happy, but actually our goal is to simply get better at whatever it is we do (or thing that we should be doing). Happiness is a hard-wired mechanism designed to reward us for doing something that helps advance the human species; we can't be simply "happy period," otherwise we'd all just sit on our bottoms all die and gorillas would take over the planet :)

So I believe that the whole pursuit of happiness is fundamentally flawed and it is never ever going to work for anyone, at least not in the way that most of us imagine it.

Feeling happy = reward for achieving something difficult. The process of achieving something difficult = in most cases, tiring and brings about negative feelings.

There simply can't be happiness without prior suffering. It's a cycle, and it's MEANT to be this way - trying to circumvent that is like trying to live without breathing oxygen. It's a part of who we are and what we are here for.

Nathan said...

"There simply can't be happiness without prior suffering. It's a cycle, and it's MEANT to be this way - trying to circumvent that is like trying to live without breathing oxygen. It's a part of who we are and what we are here for."

I, personally, don't see happiness as a great end goal or focus. Awakening or liberation are much greater than happiness. The Buddha didn't teach people a happiness method - any happiness was/is a byproduct.

It's interesting. I think you may be correct that we need some level of suffering - that it's almost built in. Is it hardwired? I don't know. Human's override their biology often, and do plenty of things that bring happiness (at least temporarily) which don't advance humanity.

Also, I don't think it's simply hardwired that we can override our suffering. There's something too deterministic about seeing things solely as products of biology. Something else is going on.