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The Power of NOW

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“A beggar had been
sitting by the side of the road
for over thirty years…”

One day a stranger walked by. "Spare some change?" mumbled the beggar, "I have nothing to give you," said the stranger. Then he asked: "What's that you're sitting on?" "Nothing, " replied the beggar. "Just an old box. I've been sitting on it for as long as I can remember. "Ever look inside?," asked the stranger. "No," said the beggar. "What's the point, there's nothing in there." "Have a look inside," insisted the stranger. The beggar, reluctantly, managed to pry open the lid. With astonishment, disbelief, and elation, he saw that the box was filled with gold.

I am that stranger who has nothing to give you and who is telling you to look inside. Not inside any box, as in the parable, but somewhere even closer: inside yourself.

Eckhart Tolle, from "The Power of NOW"


"To meet everything and everyone
through stillness instead of mental noise
is the greatest gift you can offer to the universe."

Time is the Enemy
a review of Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now"
by Carter Phipps

Reprinted from: What Is Enlightenment? Magazine (Fall/Winter 2000)

Last March I traveled with one of my fellow editors to the sunny beachfront town of La Jolla, California to attend Inner Directions publishing house's annual spiritual conference. La Jolla, which means "the jewel" in Spanish, lives up to its name, a stunningly beautiful resort town where it seems that California's marriage of the spiritual and the material may have found its happiest home-as attested to by the BMWs parked in front of Deepak Chopra's world famous Center for Well Being just a few blocks up from the palm tree-lined beach. As the fog rolled in and out over the three-day weekend like the waves on the southern California sand, we watched, along with 500 others, as a series of spiritual teachers presented each, in turn, their understanding of nonduality-what many believe to be the essential truth that not only lies at the heart of all religious traditions but is at the core of any authentic spiritual path. However, as the events of the weekend made increasingly clear, it is one thing to speak about nonduality, and another thing altogether to truly communicate the depth, power, and significance of that mystery which lies beyond all opposites. When Eckhart Tolle took the stage on the last morning of the conference, his words carried with them the timeless transmission of one who has fallen very deeply into the spiritual dimension of life. In his one and a half hours on stage, he brought to life the subtle and profound nature of enlightenment, earning him the respect, appreciation, and rapt attention of the audience, along with the first and only standing ovation of the entire weekend.

It was immediately after that presentation that I purchased Tolle's new book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, a former underground hit whose recent success-with over 100,000 copies sold and a place on Oprah Winfrey's list of favorites-has made its author a fast-growing presence on today's spiritual circuit. Aptly titled, the book is a meticulous and detailed deconstruction of everything that inhibits our ability to see beyond the confines of our own minds into the power and beauty of life lived in what Tolle calls "the Now," or "Being," or "Presence." At first glance it might seem like just one more in a growing genre of books full of tips on how to be more mindful and awake in our daily life, but Tolle's clear writing and the obvious depth of his experience and insight set it apart. Enlightenment, according to Tolle, is simply a "natural state of felt oneness with Being." And being, in Tolle's teaching, is defined as "the eternal, ever-present One Life beyond the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death." It is also, as he goes on to explain, "deep within every form as its innermost invisible and indestructible essence. . . . When you are present, when your attention is fully and intensely in the Now, Being can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally. To regain awareness of Being and to abide in that state of 'feeling-realization' is enlightenment." 

Using a question and answer format throughout the book, Tolle weaves his words together like a carefully constructed net designed to catch and constrain all the objections of the mind and ego to the freedom of being he is pointing to. His basic message is simple: disconnect from the thinking mind, shift your attention from "mind to Being, from time to Presence." Indeed, time is the enemy in Tolle's teaching, and the mind is the enemy's tool. We must reject them both, abandoning our psychological attachment to the past and future, realizing that a mind-identified condition is "a form of insanity." "Be so utterly, so completely present," Tolle tells us, "that no problem, no suffering, nothing that is not who you are in your essence, can survive in you. In the Now, in the absence of time, all your problems dissolve. Suffering needs time; it cannot survive in the Now." While he never strays far from this basic point, Tolle parlays his message into a wide-ranging discussion of such diverse spiritual topics as freedom from thoughts and emotions; the student/ teacher relationship; death and dying; the human ego; our physical body, sexual relationships, and gender issues; and even the design of human evolution. And through it all, the "power of Now" serves as a sort of universal "portal" that can always take us (or bring us back) into a state of presence, providing access to the "unmanifested dimension of life," and freeing us from anything and everything that would interfere. 

The more I read of The Power of Now, the more I was convinced that in Eckhart Tolle's teachings we had stumbled upon a genuine and profound expression of the nondual realization, a rare pearl in the shallow tidepools of new millennium spirituality. Indeed, in a time when the teachings of Advaita Vedanta-the ancient Hindu doctrine of nonduality expressed exquisitely in the last century by Ramana Maharshi and others- are being used by Western seekers as a quick and easy passport to a dubious, if not downright nihilistic, "enlightenment," Tolle's book shines with authenticity, a welcome addition to a spiritual climate grown rife with reductionism. Thankfully, he refuses to use the subtle and profound teachings of nonduality to whitewash the darker sides of human nature or pretend that the human ego is simply an illusion that we need not concern ourselves with. Instead, his call to awakening contains within it an honest appraisal of the reality of the human condition. Referring to the "collective egoic mind" as the most "dangerously insane and destructive entity ever to inhabit this planet," he speaks at great length about the negative and inevitable consequences inflicted on both ourselves and others when we are unable or unwilling to surrender ourselves to the liberating power of "the Now." 

Yet, as impressive and refreshing as the book is, Tolle's presentation of the spiritual life is not without its disconcerting moments, and some of his conclusions are worth a second look. Are we really in the middle of a "profound transformation that is taking place in the collective consciousness of the planet and beyond," even as our "social, political, and economic structures . . . enter the final stage of collapse"? Are women really "closer to enlightenment" than men, and is their monthly menstrual cycle poised to become the powerful catalyst for their widespread awakening? Does greater consciousness actually lead to a "significant slowing down of the aging of the physical body"? Whatever the ultimate veracity of these and other unusual declarations, their inclusion in the book only served to raise further questions, rather than illuminating or clarifying the territory of enlightenment. 

But perhaps the most important issue to examine with a finer eye is the very nature of the nondual teaching itself, because in the final analysis, Tolle is a nondualist through and through. The essential point, expressed beautifully over and over again in the book, is to always, no matter what the circumstance, return to the Now, return to being, return to that mystery where there never has been and never could be any problem whatsoever. And while Tolle goes to great lengths to acknowledge and address the mental, emotional, and psychological issues that we must confront in doing so, the practices and methods he suggests are, in essence, all derivatives of this one fundamental movement, this one absolute inner shift from doing to being, from time to the Now, from duality to nonduality. "Direct your attention inward," he says, "If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place. Primary reality is within, secondary reality without." Whether in the nondual tradition of Advaita, the Dzog-chen teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, various schools of Zen, or even some of Jesus' teachings (which Tolle often quotes in his book), this nondual approach has been a fundamental part of the spiritual landscape for millennia. Yet, it is an approach that has also endured much criticism over the years for its perceived failure to present a truly complete and integral path to awakening. One of history's most ardent and articulate critics of this view was the Chinese Ch'an Buddhist Master Tsung-mi (780-841), who spoke out in his own time against what he saw as the dangers inherent in any teaching that did not place importance on the need for "gradual cultivation." He felt strongly that those spiritual teachings, like The Power of Now, that emphasize a fundamental, inner shift of awareness, must be balanced by a cultivation of the dynamic and active aspects of our nature-the positive transformation, in other words, of our motivations, our actions, and our capacity to discriminate between what is wholesome and what is unwholesome in the world of time and space. While he would no doubt have agreed with Tolle that nondual insight, what he called "sudden awakening," must be the foundation of any genuine path, Tsung-mi calls to mind contemporary critics of the nondual approach when he claims, (as summarized here by Buddhist scholar Robert Buswell) that "for full realization to occur . . . the symbiotic relationship between sudden awakening and gradual cultivation must be recognized" so that "each aspect supports the development of the other. The sudden awakening at the beginning of the student's practice assures a proper attitude toward cultivation," while "gradual cultivation ensures that the awakening is kept dynamic. Through cultivation, awakening is applied in ordinary life, protecting the student from indifference to the sufferings of others and the compulsion to seek quietude and isolation which often characterizes ascetic hermits." 

Interestingly enough, the application of awakening in "ordinary life" was one of the most oft-repeated themes at the Inner Directions conference last spring. Speakers and participants alike seemed to be struggling with the question of how to live our deepest realizations of enlightenment, the very issue that prompted Tsung-mi to make such bold criticisms of the "sudden awakening" schools of Chinese Buddhism 1,200 years ago. The Power of Now injects into this perennial discussion a practical and accessible nondual teaching of enlightenment whose burgeoning popularity will hopefully inspire not only appreciation for the rare wisdom it contains but also deeper thought about these very important issues. Whatever the case, with Eckhart Tolle's growing presence on bestseller shelves usually reserved for much lighter-weight fare, it will be interesting to see what time has in store for this unusual modern mystic.

From What Is Enlightenment?, issue 18 - Fall/Winter 2000 Copyright ©2000 Moksha Press


About Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle was born in Germany where he spent the first thirteen years of his life. After graduating the University of London, he was a research scholar and supervisor at Cambridge University. At the age of twenty-nine a profound spiritual transformation virtually dissolved his identity and radically changed the course of his life. The next few years were devoted to understanding, integrating and deepening that transformation, which marked the beginning of an intense inward journey. For the past ten years he has been a counselor and spiritual teacher, working with individuals and small groups in Europe and North America. He has lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada since 1996.

Eckhart's Spiritual Transformation

The story which I describe briefly in the introduction to the book is that for many years I lived in a state of great fear and continuous fluctuation between states of depression and high anxiety. This was to the point of becoming almost unbearable. One night I woke up in the middle of the night, as I had many times before, in a state of even more intense dread and fear. The mind had lots of reasons why I was feeling fearful, and yet that state was continuous no matter what my external situation was. It became so unbearable that suddenly the thought occurred to me, "I cannot live with myself any longer." That thought was the trigger for a transformation. The thought kept repeating itself many times in my head and then suddenly there was a stepping back from the thought and a looking at the thought. I asked, "Who is the 'I' and who is the self that I cannot live with?"

In Zen they have koans and it's almost as if a koan spontaneously appeared in my mind. A koan's purpose is to destroy conceptual thinking because it has no answer on a conceptual level. So, I asked, "Who is the self that I cannot live with? Are there one or two? If I cannot live with my self, who is that self?" And then, beyond thought, there was a recognition of the "unhappy me," as I later called it, as being something completely non-substantial and fictional. Then consciousness withdrew completely from identification with that "unhappy me." At that moment the whole structure of the "unhappy me" and its pain collapsed because the withdrawal of identification was so complete. What was left was simply beingness or presence. There was still a moment of fear. It felt like being drawn into a hole within myself, a vast whirlpool, and a realization arose in my chest, "Resist nothing." That was the key. Then resistance was relinquished and I don't know what happened after that.

All I do know is that the next morning I woke up and even before opening my eyes I heard the sounds of birds and it was so precious; everything was so precious. Then I opened my eyes and everything was alive and new and fresh as if I had never seen it before. And I walked around and picked up things and looked at them. I was amazed at everything. There was no understanding of it. I was not even trying to understand anything. It was just so beautiful. Then I walked around the city in the same state, even in the midst of traffic. I was in a state of amazement and it was all so beautiful.

From The Awakening West - Clear Visions Publications


Read Chapter 1: The Power of NOW - Chapter 1

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