Eckhart Tolle Criticism
Eckhart Tolle is one of the most popular spiritual gurus of all time. A millionaire and the star of his own self-named website, he urges us to let go of all needs and desires along with any attachment to a mental image of ourselves. Notice any possible contradictions?
Okay, so I admit that I am making fun of him a little here. His message is actually quite a profound one that continues to be a source of inspiration for me. However, his approach is by no means immune to criticisms and so it’s worth exploring these in order to get the most out of what he has to offer.
The overall concept
Eckhart recognises the role of the human ego in creating psychological stress and suffering. Instead of accepting reality as it is, we dwell in thoughts of non-acceptance and unnecessarily identify ourselves with those thoughts, preventing us from living in a peaceful, harmonious and spontaneous way.
Gradually detaching from all thoughts about yourself, your beliefs and your story is part of a process of letting go, moving on and connecting with experience. To achieve this Eckhart endorses the Buddhist practices of alert focus, living in the moment and greater awareness of your breath and body.
There’s nothing wrong with any of that but Eckhart may go too far in his own spiritual radicalism. He insists that we are one with the Universe, that there is no such thing as the past or the future and that we should never identify with any thought that involves any sense of being a particular person.
Common observation alone dictates that there is at least some sense in which a self can be said to exist. For example, you hardly have to be a scientist to know that each of us has a separate physical body with an associated experience of consciousness dating back a whole lifetime.
This is part of what most people refer to when using words like “I”. Any broad definition of self that matches what most people mean when they talk about it confirms that the right reaction to Eckhart may be to echo Mark Twain when he said: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”.
It’s true that only the present can be experienced directly. But that does not mean the past never existed or that the future never will. It’s true that our sense of self contains aspects of illusion. But that does not mean that you are not a separate person or have not been through defining experiences.
Although Eckhart’s overall message is useful, it involves a few metaphysical leaps and exaggerations that will not always help people overcome suffering. Sometimes, thinking differently is going to be easier than imagining that no single thought bears any relation to the truth of who you are as a person.
The missing perspective
Eckhart talks about the limits of thinking and with good reason. But anyone who keeps struggling to be present may discover that his approach also has its limits. Discovering the right thoughts will sometimes be far more helpful than getting one inch closer to some miraculous state of egolessness.
People often rely on their own thinking to find a way of dealing with suffering. The problem there is not thinking itself but rather improvising their own cognitive reactions instead of consulting the logical wisdom of experts who have learnt to draw positive conclusions from similar experiences.
There’s nothing wrong with healthy “non-thinking” but turning your brain into a kind of vegetable is not the only answer out there. Cognitive behavioural therapy is an example of a more down-to-earth approach that sometimes works very effectively by dealing with thoughts in a serenely rational way.
Another example is medication. A person might spend years struggling to implement what Eckhart teaches only to give up on it and finally discover that they have a condition such as bipolar disorder. In cases like that, medical drugs would offer the best hope of getting in control of their emotional states.
Plenty of common sense advice goes against Eckhart’s recommendations. For example: never let go of a thought called hope, the idea that things can actually get better. Or if you are obsessing about some negative thought, why not find a better thought to focus on, such as an exciting plan for next year?
Eckhart rejects such answers because he wants everyone to look beyond all thoughts and needs when dealing with life’s challenges. For most people, a more realistic solution would be to constructively engage with their thoughts and needs rather than trying to disidentify from them altogether.
A lot can be achieved by substituting negative thoughts with those that are positive, hopeful, forgiving or inspiring. And the same argument applies to needs: if you’ve lost anything important then go out and find a substitute rather than imagining that the answer is to detach from all human desire.
Eckhart is good at describing the sense in which some of our needs might be seen as “illusory”. The fact that you can retrain yourself to become less needy proves that some needs are a product of mental habits that can be overcome. However, there’s a danger of getting carried away by his conclusions.
It makes sense to treat many of people’s needs as totally real because there is a genuine state of dependency that exists not only in our choices but in the wiring, signals and chemistry of the human brain. The extent to which people can really scale back habitual needs is often limited by that.
Constantly insisting that all needs are illusions is not helpful to any regular, non-divine human being. For example, if someone has been traumatised by rape then I am certainly not going to tell them that their suffering is self-created, that they should “just” let go of their ego and then it will all be fine.
Telling them that what happened is just a story in their head and that their sense of it being “wrong” is just a “mental construct” is not only terrible advice but factually incorrect. Gradually letting go is possible but what happened really did happen and it was wrong because it caused demonstrable harm.
In fact, it would be vital to address that person’s needs by recognising them as real rather than “illusory”. They absolutely need to be somewhere where they are not only physically safe but where they also feel emotionally safe. These are not “egoical needs” that need to be transcended.
I also have concerns about what is likely to happen when someone tries to follow Eckhart’s advice by regularly labelling whatever they are thinking or needing as just a whole load of ego. In my experience, the result can be highly suppressive and rather like telling yourself to shut up a lot of the time.
This is not what Eckhart intends since having a reaction against your own ego is clearly just more ego. However, I don’t feel that Eckhart prepares people for the true struggle of self-overcoming. Anyone who already has a problem with themselves is probably going to beat themselves up even more.
Part of the issue is the use of that word “ego”. A less judgmental way of dealing with oneself might be to reframe it as a “baby”. Looking after the beautiful child within yourself may be a better way to describe things, to avoid identifying with thoughts and to become more like a loving parent to yourself.
Instead of always trying to overcome yourself, try getting in touch with yourself and doing things for yourself. Your basic needs are not illusions and it’s important to do something about them. Eckhart’s emphasis on “self-dissolution” is likely to encourage a lot of dangerous and unnecessary self-neglect.
The bigger picture
Eckhart’s perspective is fascinating but nevertheless steeped in a wishful idealism that ignores the reality of how most people need to deal with problems. Overcoming the excesses of ego makes sense but getting everyone to blindly follow his advice is unlikely to lead to a desirable “New Earth”.
In fact, many of his fans love “living in the present” mainly because it suits a largely self-serving lifestyle whilst allowing them to entertain a delusion of deep spirituality. Some of the them are quite sociopathic and too wrapped up in the moment to really care about what anyone else is going through.
Deepening empathy tends to be a much more powerful way of dealing with real challenges, especially when it comes to the subject of forgiveness which I explore in this website. The world would surely become a better place if we started by sincerely trying to relate to and understand one another.
Reactions to this article
After publishing the first draft of this post, I got some inevitably sour reactions from Eckhart fanatics. The classic response went along the lines of it being “judgmental” to criticise his ideas because employing any logical or rational thoughts about it could only stem from a place of ego.
There are two problems with this. Firstly, Eckhart himself is very happy to employ thoughts and reasoning in attempts to criticise alternative approaches. Yet as soon as the tables are turned nobody else is allowed to do the same. Reasoning and logic are all “ego” unless he is the one using them.
Secondly, many of Eckhart’s fans seem unable to follow his own advice that one must let go of any rigid attachment to ideas. No philosophy should be seen as so “sacred” as to be immune to criticism. Learning to tolerate a counter-perspective is a good way to avoid cultish extremism.
What concerns me most is this fundamentalist “all or nothing” mentality that leaves no room for any reasonable doubt or balance. I would challenge everyone to question the absolute truth of any apparent wisdom, whether they find it in a spiritual guru, religious text or on a website like this.
I’m certainly not “against” Eckhart Tolle because there is clearly a lot of value in the process of letting go of our often rigid ways of seeing ourselves, our goals and our beliefs. I am merely pointing out some of the gaps, provisos, excesses and occasional “mumbo jumbo” in his otherwise worthwhile approach.
There is a lot of overlap between Eckhart, Thích Nhất Hạnh and much of what you may read on this website. Many therapists have also embraced mindfulness but in conjunction with more rational and cognitive approaches that engage with the inner workings of people’s recognised emotional needs.
Who knows? Maybe Eckhart’s personal story is not exaggerated. Maybe his ego did “collapse”. Maybe the fortune he made is a well-deserved bonus rather than evidence of underlying hypocrisy. His “New Age” version of a few simple Buddhist ideas may not be the complete answer but it has its place.