Sunday, February 7, 2010

Eckhart Tolle for Christians

Christianity--and probably most religions--can be broken down into two component parts. On the one side you have its mythos. This is the broad story on which it's based.

For Christianity, that's the story of redemption: how Jesus, before the world began was the Son of God, how He was born into the world, how He lead a blameless life and yet He was put to death, and how He rose again and ascended to heaven, and how one day He will return to judge the living and the dead. That's the mythos of Christianity.

Calling this the mythos in no way reflects upon its veracity. We're using the following definition of "mythos" in this context (from Miriam-Webster on-line): "a pattern of beliefs expressing often symbolically the characteristic or prevalent attitudes in a group or culture."

I'm not saying this is a myth, I'm only distinguishing this part of Christianity from its other part, which I call Spirituality, that is, the advice within the Christian religion, quite apart from salvation in the life to come, as to how to live a better life here on earth.

While Eckart Tolle, in his two main books, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenmentand A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose (Oprah's Book Club, Selection 61),expresses some views that would be filed under M for Mythos, the vast majority of his time is spent addressing how we live now. By separating out the mythos portion (and discarding it if you so choose) the Christian reader can find a great deal of spiritual insight that has its analog in Christian teaching, and a great deal more that has no analog but doesn't conflict in anyway with it. I would even go so far as to say that there is nothing on the Spirituality side of Eckhart's house that should cause any qualms of infidelity to Christianity at all.

Indeed, Eckhart draws from a number of religious traditions to explain his teachings. So it more or less necessarily follows that there is a great deal of agreement on spirituality among all the religions; and that their traditions and teachings--if we put aside the inevitable disagreement on the order of mythos--could also be profitably mined on the level spiritual living. Many religious people everywhere are deeply concerned with leading a better, more spiritual life.

The foregoing notwithstanding, the separation of Mythos from Spirituality can be a tricky business. I'll talk about that toward the end.

Why should we bother?
Some might argue that the Bible or the teachings of the church are divinely inspired, that they are perfect, lacking nothing that a believer needs to know to live his or her life, so why should we bother to look elsewhere? Others would even call such wondering interest a sin.

But remember, this belief in the supernatural nature of the Bible and church teachings is part of the mythos of Christianity (for some, I suppose, though not for all). The spiritual teachings of the Bible and of the church are also good solid wisdom. Sometimes it's helpful to hear something said along the same lines in a different way. It helps us to understand, even through the finiteness of language, spiritual truths that generally defy intellectual understanding.

This advantage to studying alternate religious traditions is also true of Eckhart's books, which have the added advantage of conciseness. He has already done the work of a miner in these other religious traditions for us.

But also the Bible itself is a thick, dense book, containing a lot of history in addition to spiritual wisdom. Eckhart has drawn extensively from it and repackaged easily recognizable Christian teachings into two very brief books using unique and modern terminology to give us another angle on them.

Eckhart's books serve (and are intended) to demystify certain universal spiritual principles for non-religious people, thereby bringing an awareness of and the presence of God (which he might also call Universal Intelligence, Life, The Universe) into their lives. And that can only be a good thing. It can only bear miraculous fruit for the people who open themselves to his teaching.

Eckhart himself says in his introduction to The Power of Now: "When I quote from the ancient religions or other teachings, it is to reveal their deeper meaning and thereby restore their transformative power—particularly for those readers who are followers of these religions or teachings. I say to them: there is no need to go elsewhere for the truth. Let me show you how to go more deeply into what you already have."

This article will, in turn, attempt to demystify Eckhart's books for Christians to re-assure them (you) that he is working in generally the same direction they (you) are, and also so that they (you) might gain some understanding of his teachings for beneficial application of them in their (your) lives. That's the intention. Let me know how I do.

The gospel according to Eckhart
Six principles embody the gospel according to Eckhart (don't get excited: that's gospel with a small g, it just means "good news"):

The Now
Philosophers as diverse as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Boethius, Emerson, Thoreaux and Tolle have all understood and expressed very directly the fact that time does not exist except as a mental construct, an idea. It's a planning tool in just the same way that x and y are place holders in an algebra problem. Whenever you are thinking about the past of future, you have chosen to disengage at least momentarily from reality.

Some of us disengage from reality momentarily in order to plan a task (like tonight's dinner menu) or to remember a key event (like what it was we had for dinner last night). Others among us disengage from reality into the past or future for a lifetime, never experiencing life directly, which is always and only happening right now.

What are some things that are happening now? The most obvious are sense impressions, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch. These can be sensed without judgment, but more often the mind begins the processing as soon as the sense impression begins. Another important one would be how our bodies feel on the inside. Is it at peace? Or is it in pain? A third example is spiritual impressions. All of these get drowned out by the noise of the mind (see the Voice in the Head below).

Jesus' teaching was focused steadfastly upon getting people to reconnect with the reality that can only and always be found in the present moment. "Go and sin no more"; forget about the past, let it go. "Consider the lilies of the field," and "Don't worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." (NIV) No interpretation needed on this one.

In The Power of Now,Eckhart interprets one of Jesus' parables this way: "Jesus speaks of the five careless (unconscious) women who do not have enough oil (consciousness) to keep their lamps burning (stay present) and so miss the bridegroom (the Now) and don't get to the wedding feast (enlightenment). These five stand in contrast to the five wise women who have enough oil (stay conscious)."

Eckhart says, "These are parables not about the end of the world but about the end of psychological time. They point to the transcendence of the egoic mind and the possibility of living in an entirely new state of consciousness."

This interpretation seems to make sense. Even so, while parables are open to a number of different interpretations, there should be nothing repugnant about refocussing our attention upon the hear and now.

The Voice in the Head
Almost everyone has an internal monologue running through his or her head. Eckhart says this is the voice of the ego (sin nature; see below) and that the only remedy for it is to shut it down. Once you shut this noise down, it allows you to identify with your spirit nature, which is one with God.

No problem here for the Christian. "Be still and know that I am God," (Psalms 46:10) is an expression of just this sentiment. When we are still in body, mind and spirit, that's when we can sense God the most.

Eckhart's analysis of the internal monologue is spot on and extremely helpful in overcoming unwanted (sinful) behavior patterns. In runs counter to the general current of advice that says we should fill our minds with a stream of positive thoughts.

I have one religious friend who fears the shutting down of his internal monologue because without it, he says, one's mind remains open to other influences coming in and making its home there.

But think about it (no pun intended), brain impulses are electricity. They fly around your head at the speed of light. Anything that comes up in the internal monologue--this inane drip of verbal noise, one word after the other--has already been thought. Shutting down the internal monologue doesn't lead to an unconscious state. It leads to a deeper level of awareness, without the distraction of a useless barrage of silent verbiage.

According to Tolle, the mere discovery of this internal monologue is the beginning of the end of the ego. Become the "watcher of your mind." It won't take you further away from God. It will only bring you closer.

The Ego
The term used in the Bible for the ego is "sin nature."

Paul wrote: "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature." (Romans 7:15-18 NIV)

Complete agreement between Paul and Eckhart. But what's Paul's answer to the problem of the sin nature? The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sins. This is the mythos side of the equation. Moving on into the spiritual living side of it, he says only:

"Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God."

Paul's answer to spiritual living is that "by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body."

Ok . . . How?

For 2000 years, Christianity has not had an adequate answer to this "How?" Just try harder seems to be the conventional wisdom up to this point.

But Eckhart has explained the mechanism as to just how you go about ridding yourself of unwanted (sinful) behavior. In my experience, it's both completely effective and conflicts none whatsoever with mainstream Christian teaching of any variety.

It's done by simple awareness. Not through guilt, not through self-torture, not through avoidance but by simply bringing our awareness to all that arises within us--both that which we perceive as good and that which we perceive as bad--in the present moment. To understand this in context would require the space of a couple of short books.

But the point to be made is, this is what people want and need. They want to overcome sin and unwanted behavior. They want to live good, pure, decent lives, but like Paul, they find themselves doing that which they hate.

The church has not had a cogent response to their request for help and that's why its rolls have been slowly shrinking. Finally, someone has discovered the mechanism by which all this is overcome. The church needs to find a way to embrace his teaching rather than chase him away.

The Pain-Body
The Pain-Body is another aspect of the sin nature. (See The Pain-Body elsewhere on this blog for more details.) Using sometimes metaphorical language, Eckhart describes the Pain-Body variously as "the old but still very-much-alive [negative] emotion that lives in almost every human being"; "an addiction to unhappiness"; and as a "psychic parasite." In an extreme form it could very easily be equated with demon possession.

The way out from under the pain-body (sin nature) is again through awareness. A simple awareness of its functioning--its modus operandi, its triggers, its effects--will weaken it eventually out of existence.

To catch the pain-body at work is a surreal experience. I have watched as something inside me--a "psychic tumor" if you will--comes out of dormancy, making me feel unmistakably bad, causing me to draw others into my world of temporary negativity. (Am I alone? Has this ever happened to you?). I've also watched it happen to other people.

But to discover this happening is, as one might expect, the end of the pain-body's hold. At that point, you disengage from it, allow it to spin itself out and consciously do no more harm to those around you. The next time it comes out to play it will be a much weaker impulse, until finally it's dissolved out of existence.

Now that you know about it, you can watch it in other people and hopefully in yourself. But this is merely the mechanics of another aspect of the sin nature. Christians have nothing to fear from this concept and a great deal to gain from its application.

What is the proper response to egoic behavior (sin)? It's non-reactivity. Don't do anything. Don't allow your ego to get involved. Be vigilant lest your loved one "press your buttons" and your pain-body come out to feed on the negativity he or she is spewing.

Who hasn't heard of Jesus' admonition to turn the other cheek? This is the same principle.

But Tolle advocates applying non-reaction, not only to other people, but also to egoic behavior (sin) and the ignition of the pain-body (sin nature) in ourselves! "What we resist persists," Tolle says.

But this isn't turning a blind eye to sin in our own lives--far from it. It's turning the eye of complete awareness upon it without judgement, without guilt. It is observation from the deck of spirit that will dissolve the behavior pattern like manure in the rain (do you like that one?).

Maybe this is not such a far-fetched idea. Maybe it's already in the Good Book too. Paul says: "I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court. I don't even judge myself." (I Cor. 4:3 NIV) Could he mean the same thing that Eckhart is saying?

My experience with the application of non-reactivity is that it helps others to realize their egoic behavior and that it completely dissolves my own.

This is the idea that ego attempts to expand its sense of self-worth through identification with objects, roles, wealth and a wide variety of other "image enhances." Not all of these talismans are positive; some are clearly negative. It's not just nice cars and big houses with which people identify, some people identify with sickness, for example, viewing themselves as "sufferers" of this or that ailment. The ego is always seeking to make itself appear unique, and just about anything will do for that purpose.

There is no conflict here with Christian teaching, either. The entire book of Ecclesiastes is dedicated to precisely this theme. It's all "meaningless!" discovers the writer, purportedly King Solomon. "A chasing after the wind."

But this is where the separation between mythos and spirituality gets tricky. One of the strongest identifications that people maintain is with groups. As Tolle puts it in A New Earth:

"One of the ways in which the ego attempts to escape the unsatisfactoriness of personal selfhood is to enlarge and strengthen its sense of self by identifying with a group--a nation, political party, corporation, institution, sect, club, gang, football team."

When the ego (or sin nature) identifies with a group, it is saying, "I am a Republican," or I am a Microsoft employee," or "I am a lawyer," rather than saying from a deeper spiritual place, simply, "I am." That is to say, "I am sufficient or whole just as I am."

One of the strongest group affiliations that people maintain is their affiliation with their faith. For the Christian, it's "I am a Christian." And this can become just as much of a stumbling block as any other identity because it gives rise to a practice of religion that is in service to the ego.

Based on certain passages in the Bible, the teachings and dogma of many churches foster this view. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6 NIV)

Orthodox Christianity is in generally agreement here: this means that in order to get to heaven, one must accept Jesus as the Messiah through baptism, joining the church or some other mechanism. But again, this is part of the mythos.

It also appears to be an identification. It says we are not complete and we need this act to complete us. Fair enough. That's the religion. A legitimate approach may well be to accept the need to "dis-identify" from all but this one identity.

But perhaps acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior (or however we prefer to put it) is not an identification as Eckhart has defined it.

"Come on, Todd!" I hear you saying. "You can't have it both ways. Either it is an identification or it isn't."

Oh, but we can. And we do it through another of Jesus' teachings: "Judge not, or you too will be judged." (Matt. 7:1 NIV) That is, if the Holy Spirit has prompted you to take this step, to render this allegience, don't judge it. Don't judge yourself as a particularly good person for having done it, and don't judge others for not having done it. Just do as the Holy Spirit has prompted and let it go at that.

Tell people (or better yet show them) how your life has changed for the better and that's all the witness the Holy Spirit really needs to send the same prompt into their hearts. And if it comes up in conversation, if they say, "Hey Todd, do you think this is the only way to get to heaven?" Tell them, "I choose not to engage in such unprofitable speculation."

(For a detailed philosophical discussion of the insidious nature of judgment, see The Philosophy of Success elsewhere on this blog).

But let's go deeper into this great divide. Let's say it is a straight up identification as Eckhart has described it. What would be the consequences of dis-identifying ourselves as Christians? In our minds, that is, we would no longer say, "I am a Christian." We would only say, "I am."

Funny you should mention this scenario, because it's the same dilemma presented by Jesus in his famous Parable of the Prodigal Son. Go read it at this link, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and then come back . . .

The Prodigal Son
Please note, this parable is about a son. It isn't about one who was never a part of the family. So wouldn't that mean that the prodigal son is not a sinner becoming saved? Isn't he, rather, a member of the family of God who leaves that family to go searching about in the world for a better way of life?

Parables lend themselves to a number of interpretations, many of them equally valid. This one can be viewed as a demonstration of the process of dis-identification from one's religion.

The parable doesn't say why the prodigal son takes this decision. The action begins when the second son has already decided to try something new. Things don't go well, his eyes are open and God gives him a reward, the fattened calf of enlightenment.

The first son gets upset about this. He says, in essence, "I am one of the faithful. I never left the church fold and yet I haven't gained even a little bit of enlightenment." God reassures him, according to this interpretation, "Don't worry, you're still saved, you'll just never be enlightened like your younger brother, that's all."

If I were to offer a guess as to why this parable begins where it does--after the decision is already made--I would say it's because it isn't a decision at all. It's something that simply happens.

In my case, I began to dis-identify from my religious roots a long while ago. I began to discern (based on anecdotal evidence, to be sure) that the same percentages of "good" and "bad" people were to be found inside the church as outside. If the Christian experience were indeed transformational, wouldn't there be even a slight uptick among the faithful?

And what about all those other good folks who were reared under different traditions? Were they really destined for hell? Was I really required to believe that?

And what about my own powerlessness over unwanted behavior (sin)?

I figured there must be something I was missing and something in me set out to discover what it was. This is the journey of discovery that the parable is about. Licentious living need not be a part of it--that part of the parable is symbolic of other philosophies--though it certainly can be.

Such an odyssey can be frightening, but it ends in only one place: a knowing that supersedes the faith of the faithful. Because when you know something, faith becomes superfluous. That's what enlightenment or salvation in its deepest sense is all about.

And one last example of the type of non-judgmentalism I've been talking about, I came upon this knowing through my contact and participation in the Christian mythos. Whether that would be possible by some other route, I would not venture to speculate. I will only speak of my own experience.

Christians, we need not fear the tools that Eckhart Tolle has to offer. They are aids to understanding the deepest reaches of the religion. Let us get in there, get to know and understand them as God gives us the light to understand them, and then let us teach them to others in Sunday schools, Bible studies, from pulpits, in seminars and homilies and through blogs. What a wonderful position the church is in to help people know God in a deeper way!

After all, that's what it's here for . . . isn't it?

See this link for Eckhart Tolle for Catholics (link is to American Pendulum).

Your comments are welcome. I'm not a Bible scholar, so if I've gotten something wrong, let me know. Let the dialogue begin . . .


  1. Really well thought out, Todd. Seems the only thing separating many in the Christian community from taking the good out of Tolle is the 'labeling': is he a Christian or not?; is he 'pantheist', 'new age', etc. May be better to deal with the substance as you have, than the categories. Also for an interesting treatment of Jesus' claim to be 'The Way', I have found Richard Rohr helpful. John's gospel is the 'mystical' one which treats The Christ as a being that existed for all time, not exactly the same thing as Jesus the man. In Jesus the Christ and the Son of Man are blended.

  2. Todd, i have read about your opinion concerning how we should as christians percieve and use as an aid the teachings of tolle to understand in a deeper sense the message of our lord jesus. I agree with you. As a christian i have questions unanswered all this years. In seaching,i have often been unfulfilled but because i have been cultured in christianity that any teaching outside the bible will lead you to hell has like people most dosed my quest for those answers not to mentioned the fact that u cant even discuss such with your christian brothers made it all the more choking.
    I bought tolles book the now, and honestly reading that book has given me a whole new perception about the teaching of christ,knowlege and ultimately answers to questions that have not been answered all this while.
    In conclusion, i think like you said we should use the knowlege from tolles teaching to bolster our belief and gain a deeper understanding of our faith. In my opinion its not the shredding and tearing down of his exprience that will help!

    1. Well said. As Father Justin says in The Self-Improvement Book Club Murder, p. 194, "Wisdom is self-proving. It needs no canon." Thanks for the comment!

  3. Todd you make some great points in this blog. I listened to the Power of Now audio book a few years ago, but wasn't ready for it. I was very trapped in Christian dogma and got caught up in the post Oprah christian attacks. Somebody took his book and listed pages of his nuggets. I too saw it as a how to of what we already know or believe. ET never tells us to abandon our faith or forsake Jesus. By observing the mind it does reveal to us the root of our problems. The observer is the spirit, the mind is the flesh. The Bible is clear we need to walk in the spirit, not the fears of the flesh.

  4. Yes, "in the spirit," so to speak. I think it's important not to get hung up on the right words. This is the dogma you speak of. Orthodoxy is an insistence that certain words be used as opposed to other words. As ET points out, words are just pointers. Even the most wisely chosen words are woefully inaccurate representations of ideas. And ideas are woefully inaccurate representations of underlying feeling. Dwell in those feelings (or the spirt) and you will know all you need to know (or the truth), directly and not through a glass darkly, so to speak. Thanks so much for the comment! I'm so glad you found this article helpful!

  5. Todd, you are not far from the kingdom of heaven (if not already there). What lovely things occur when you experience God after initially only mentally assenting to a mythos. But both are required, one before the other in many cases, so religion has its place in the path towards God.

    I myself only recently came into awareness, and this was through discovering my brand of Ego via the Enneagram and breaking through it via counseling, and then later meditation. None of it came through the practices of Christianity I had believed in since I was four. Not to say Christianity is at all bad - it is the truth. I would say becoming a Christian is simply being put on the pathway towards God, yet this pathway may not lead you towards the center of God until death. This death can be either physical (as told in many NDE accounts) or it can be death of the ego (as Jesus spoke of when he said to deny one's self and take up your cross). This ego death is entering the kingdom here and now.

    For me all has changed. I see the gospels in an entirely different manner and experience God in my body and in my mind, in the present stillness where he speaks. When I am particularly present (as I am writing this) I feel a strange tingling in my hands and feet that Eckart calls the "Inner Body"; it is a constant reminder that I am Spirit and connected to God.

    It may be that one has to leave religion to find God, or at least wander outside of it so as to not identify with it from an ego perspective. It seems that outsiders always find the kingdom first (prostitutes/tax collectors, John the Baptist, the prodigal son, etc.).

    PS - read the Gospel of Thomas if you have not already


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