Prompted by a recent interview with Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now, in the Guardian, here are a few thoughts on the subject of his philosophy – right now.
I haven’t actually read his book (as there just doesn’t seem to be enough “now” to get around to it in), but according to the article a central plank of Tolle’s philosophy seems to be that the part of you that does all of your thinking isn’t your actual self. The interview mentions Tolle stating that in his student days, in 1979, he became very depressed about what to do with his future. He reached a stage where, as he says, “I couldn’t live with myself any longer.”
Reflecting on this phrase Tolle had a revelation: “If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with. Maybe, I thought, only one of them is real.”
As a result, he found that he could stand back from his thoughts, as though he was now distanced from “the voice in my head” and he could see that the real him was the consciousness that was watching these thoughts rather than the thoughts themselves.
Tolle’s assertion is that we spend most of our time “lost in thought” and we’re never purely present in the now. As a result we miss our whole life, which, as he says, “is never not now.”
I’m not too sure about some aspects of this approach myself.
Firstly, his assumption that the fact that you can’t live with yourself must therefore mean that there are two of you – a “true you” and a you whom you don’t like very much – is open to criticism. It’s quite a common philosophical stance to assume that your “self” exists on a number of different levels of being – such as body, mind and soul – and that the “higher” ones of these are separate and superior to the lower ones. The mind (or the part of you that does the thinking) is superior to the body, while the soul is more superior still and is almost uncontaminated by the lower levels.
There are several things that I think are wrong with this way of thinking.
One is that it conveniently allows you to divorce yourself from parts of you that you’re not so keen on, which I find a little suspect. It takes away your ultimate responsibility for the more dubious or irritating parts of your personality or for the more dubious thoughts and urges that emerge in your head. Most people have aspects of themselves that they’d rather disown – so the idea that there are lower levels of yourself that aren’t the True You is a perfect way to do this.
My own position is that inner conflict and general dissatisfaction with yourself (and with just about everything else) are integral parts of being human, and that they are part of what makes us interesting. They are also among the things that motivate us to get up in the morning to try to change things. They are why we mostly live in houses rather than caves, and why we have computers that we can read things like this on. Snuff them out at your peril.
The whole subject of why we as a species are such a load of malcontents, and the positive consequences of this seemingly unfortunate state, are covered at more length in my own book on the subject, as detailed here.
Here’s a cartoon that I drew a few years ago on the subject of finding your ‘True Self’: