Eckhart Tolle vs. God

The spiritual leader that evangelicals rail against has a new book—on the divinity of pets

Eckhart Tolle vs. GodEckhart Tolle—one of the greatest spiritual teachers of our age, or perhaps the anti-Christ in a beige sweater vest—has left the door ajar. He greets you in the foyer of his Vancouver condominium with a quick smile and a soft handshake, and leads you inside. He is trim and compact, and—thanks, he says, to near total absence of stress—he looks younger than his 61 years. With his sandy fringe of beard, and aura of inviting calm, he seems, let’s be frank, as threatening as a garden gnome.

But his spiritual teachings are another matter: they are seismic. He has a global audience numbering in the tens of millions. They read his books, absorb his musings via DVDs and the Internet. They flock by the thousands to his lectures. He sits at the right hand of Oprah. He is a heretic. He is God, if only in his sense that the divine rests in all things. “I don’t believe in an outside agent that creates the world, then walks away,” he will later explain. “But I feel very strongly there is an intelligence at work in every flower, in every blade of grass, in every cell of my body. And it is that intelligence that,” he says, “I wouldn’t say created the universe. It is creating the universe. It’s an ongoing process.” As for the world’s established religions, he feels they have all lost their way—the purity of their message long since twisted into rigid ideology and buried under edifice, ritual and ego. All he has really done, he says, is rediscover their essence. “I have great respect for the truth that is, one could almost say, hiding, concealed, in the great religions.”

A refreshing liberation from doctrine, or dangerous stuff? “He gives a certain segment of the population exactly what they want: a sort of supreme religion that purports to draw from all sorts of lesser, that is, established, religions,” says John Stackhouse, a professor of theology and culture at Vancouver’s evangelical Regent College. “In fact [he] so chops, strains and rearranges the bits that it borrows that it ends up as a nicely vague spirituality that one can tailor to one’s own preferences.” James Beverley, a professor of Christian thought and ethics at the evangelical Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, has read Tolle’s books “in gory detail,” and finds Tolle denies “the core” of Christianity by claiming there is no ultimate distinction between humans and God and Jesus. “From a Christian perspective, Tolle misquotes the Bible to assert his strange mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age pop,” he says. “He misrepresents the teaching of Jesus about the self and ignores the clear claims of Jesus as Saviour, Lord and Son of God.”

Evangelicals, Tolle concedes, are among his harshest critics. “Yes, there is a certain interpretation of the Bible that people have where every word is literally true and anybody who doesn’t share that particular interpretation actually becomes an opponent,” he says. He calls it a throwback to the bloody Crusades of medieval times. “Five per cent of his beliefs are different so he’s evil, you must burn him,” Tolle says with a chuckle. “It’s completely insane and so we still have remnants of that, unfortunately.”

Author and Vancouver Sun writer Douglas Todd is one of the few mainstream religion and ethics journalists to seriously look at Tolle’s work. “I think Eckhart is a very smart guy, but whether he deserves the attention he gets is a whole other matter,” he says. “I don’t think he’s the devil incarnate or anything. I just want people, if they’re going to read him, to read 10 more books in the same vein by people who don’t get nearly as much attention and are probably more mature and deep.” That asks a lot in an era of growing spiritual illiteracy and plunging church attendance. (The Anglican Church in Canada, for example, has lost half its membership in the past 50 years.) Tolle and his ilk fill a hunger for a kind of replacement secular spirituality, a subject explored in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, a recent book of essays edited by Todd on the unchurched spirituality of the Pacific Northwest. Civil religion, Todd calls it.

But enough with the theological heavy lifting. Let’s look at the impact of the man himself. Eckhart Tolle is hotter than Hades (the existence of which can be debated another day). The two foundational books of his teachings, The Power of Now, initially published in Vancouver in 1997 with a press run of 3,000, and its follow-up, A New Earth, have North American sales alone of three million and five million copies respectively, and are sold globally in 33 languages. The latter, an Oprah Winfrey book club choice, warranted both coveted appearances on her daytime talk show, and an unprecedented 10-week “webinar” last year in which Tolle and Winfrey explored its teachings, chapter by chapter. Total number of times the series has been accessed from her website: more than 35 million.

“It’s been the most rewarding experience of my career to teach this book online,” Winfrey would later write, prompting American Internet evangelist Bill Keller to dub her “the most dangerous woman on the planet” and Tolle a purveyor of “spiritual crack.” The webinar also inspired Chuck Norris, the bare-knuckle movie action hero and Christian columnist, to lay a verbal beating on the two. “To me, it is more evidence of the paradigm shift in our culture from its moral absolute and Judeo-Christian basis to a relativistic world view in which anything goes and everything is tolerated,” Norris wrote, using more big words in one sentence than he’s uttered in his entire movie canon.

Time magazine has kissed off Tolle’s books as “awash in spiritual mumbo jumbo,” but his influence is not so easily dismissed. Consider the company Tolle kept at the recent Vancouver Peace Summit—an event top-heavy with five Nobel laureates among a stellar cast. Tolle was on stage Sept. 27 for the summit kickoff with the Dalai Lama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, for a discussion on personal peace. Two days later, he was on a panel, Educating the Heart, again with the Dalai Lama, and Murray Gell-Mann, winner of the Nobel in physics, among others—an A-list event that can only enhance his spiritual credentials.

This month, California-based New World Library released Tolle’s thinnest, but perhaps most accessible work: Guardians of Being. It is an unusual collaboration featuring the Zenlike thoughts of Tolle, illustrated by the colour cartoons of Patrick McDonnell, the New Jersey-based creator of the syndicated Mutts cartoon strip. It is a meditation on the divinity of pets and the natural world, and of their ability to draw humans into the “Now,” a central tenet of Tolle’s teaching. “Millions of people who otherwise would be completely lost in their minds and in endless past and future concerns are taken back by their dog or cat into the present moment, again and again, and reminded of the joy of Being,” Tolle writes. Guardians distills Tolle’s teachings into fewer than 1,000 words. “It’s such great thoughts but he’s able to tell it in a way that is simple and direct,” says McDonnell, a long-time devotee. “I guess as a cartoonist I admire that—not to compare what we do.”

But that’s the thing about Tolle: what to make of a sentence like, “We don’t fall below thinking. We rise above it.” Even the thinnest of his insights carries gravitas. But beneath the surface is one diving into the deep end, or the shallows? “Profundity,” replies Tolle, “doesn’t have to be complex.”

People used to regularly sit like this in his living room discussing the big questions of life, but that was before the Power of Now went stratospheric, and definitely pre-Oprah. Meeting with a reporter now, apart from those from a handful of sympathetic New Age journals, is a rarity. “I’m always a little reluctant to agree to an interview, especially with big mainstream publications,” he concedes. He doesn’t like his life’s work reduced to a few clichés: “like self-help guru, promoted by Oprah, such and such number of books sold,” he says. He was burned by Time and has turned down the New York Times, and now he faces a Maclean’s reporter of unknown sympathies. Tolle’s Vancouver office staff has ensured that any recording of the interview “is solely for the purpose of writing your article and no other usage is granted.” The photographer’s undertaking required that further use of the photos “either foreign or domestic, must be agreed to in writing by Eckhart Teachings.” Clearly this is one businesslike guru.

And yet he has invited the reporter to his home. He is warm and unguarded and alone, save for the uplifting presence of Maya, his King Charles spaniel. He is dressed in beige pants and a beige sweater vest. But for a crisp blue shirt, he is at risk of vanishing into his beige couch. His walls are a pale taupe. Later, for a walk in the forest behind his condominium tower, he dons a windbreaker. It is beige. Maybe in such neutral colours is a quest for anonymity, a treasured friend he lost to fame. “I always loved watching people sitting in cafés and just watching the flow of life,” he says. “Now often when I sit in a café, they watch me instead of my watching them.”

On a shelf above the couch is a small framed picture of a beaming Tolle and Kim Eng, his wife and an “associate” in Eckhart Teachings Inc. The Vancouver-born Eng is slim, dark-haired and attractive. They were drawn together after “a transformational spiritual experience” at one of his retreats in 1998. Later, hearing her speak on his website, there is a striking similarity in their speech patterns: soft and soothing and slow. With pauses . . . long pauses, as though drawing someone under hypnosis.

Tolle’s voice carries the soft remnants of his German birth. He was born into the unhappy marriage of a strong-willed mother and an eccentric journalist father. By age 13, after his parents’ divorce, Tolle refused to attend school, and she sent him to live in Spain with his father, who was content to let his son school himself. Formal education did follow. By 1979, he was a Ph.D. student living in London, and a neurotic, near-suicidal mess. And then one morning—shazam!—he wasn’t. Like Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, or Paul on the road to Damascus, he was born anew. “I went through this inner transformation when I was 29 from being depressed and basically insane—normal insane, I mean—to suddenly feeling a sense of underlying peace in any situation,” he says.

Insane is a much-used word in Tolle’s lexicon; it is the natural state of the human condition, he believes. “If the history of humanity were the clinical case history of a single human being,” he writes in A New Earth, “the diagnosis would have to be: chronic paranoid delusions, a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived enemies . . . Criminally insane, with a few brief lucid intervals.” He looked to Buddhism for an explanation for his new bliss. “I could suddenly see the truth in what the Buddha had said. Suffering and the end of suffering, that’s the Buddhist teaching,” he says. “Wow. And then a little later I read the New Testament again and I saw there is a very deep truth there also expressed, of the kingdom of heaven.” In Tolle’s interpretation, though, heaven isn’t God’s milk-and-honey paradise, it is an inner awakening.

That awakening is largely where his teaching leaves off. Don’t look to him for any grand strategy for social change. That will come through the transformation of individual consciousness—one person at a time, he says. In that quest, religion is more of an impediment than a guide, Tolle says. “The important thing, I think, is to differentiate between religion and spirituality.” While the two can coexist, “religion without spirituality, unfortunately, is very common.”

But spirituality’s solitary quest only takes one so far, says Michael Ingham, bishop of the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, encompassing all of the B.C. Lower Mainland. He first read Tolle a decade ago. “I don’t have any criticism of his message,” he says. As far as it goes. “I think the proper attitude to take with new spiritual movements is one of wait and see,” he says. “Christianity at one time was a new spiritual movement. All of the world’s religions began somewhere and were all a fresh expression of something new. There is an inevitability about spiritual movements that endure,” he says. They organize and ritualize into a community of common purpose—a religion. “I think, in the long run, if it is to go anywhere,” Ingham says of Tolle’s spiritual community, “it has to go in the same direction.”

To Tolle, religion presents more danger than opportunity. The Buddha, he says, had similar concerns 2,600 years ago. “The essence of his teaching is emptiness, so the Buddha probably thought, ‘Okay, I’ll give them something that they cannot possibly make into conceptual belief.’ ” For a few hundred years it worked, and then the first Buddha statues appeared. “He did his utmost to prevent people from making him into a god, or his teaching into an ideology,” says Tolle. “And yet, it happened.” He says he keeps his organization as small as possible, and yet his product lines and plans for global reach grow ever more ambitious. He still talks occasionally to Oprah and there is a possibility of another joint project, he says. “It’s necessary for it to get out into the world, but one needs to be careful that the organization doesn’t become self-serving.”

Tolle did not immediately sort out the puzzle of his awakening 30 years ago. He drifted for years: poor, happy, but aimless, sharing with fellow seekers his evolving thoughts, rather like an itinerant monk. In 1995 he washed up in Vancouver—one of the least formally religious and most spiritually restless places in North America, as poll after poll has revealed. He was home. “There is an openness here on the West Coast, anything is possible,” he says. “It could be that the lightness here has something to do with the relatively little past. Obviously there were people here before the Europeans came but they didn’t accumulate past the way Europeans do. They didn’t keep records of the past. They probably lived naturally in the present moment.” Professor Mark Shibley, a specialist in the sociology of religion at Southern Oregon University, puts the attraction in more base terms. “Spiritual entrepreneurs” like Tolle, he says in The Elusive Utopia, “relocated to this region because they perceive an open religious marketplace.”

In fact, reaches everywhere. The site sells an impressive product line of Tolle’s books, with the message recycled into music, cards, calendars, CDs and DVDs, as well as meditations from Eng and her instructional Qi Flow Yoga video. Tolle lives well, though not ostentatiously, on what must be substantial royalities. There is this high-end condo in one of Canada’s most expensive neighbourhoods, and a property on Salt Spring Island. He drives an Infinity, because he loves the name. Now comes Eckhart Tolle TV, an Internet site with streaming video of monthly group meditations, video responses to life’s tough questions (“To Think Or Not To Think?”, “What is Self?”) and perhaps most important, unlimited access to an “online community to chat with members worldwide.” The cost: $14.95 a month; six months, $74.75. “We think we have a winner here,” says Anthony McLaughlin, its executive producer and founder.

ET-TV had a soft launch in the summer and will be more heavily promoted this fall. “You can travel the world and teach 2,000 to 3,000 people at a time, but that’s got limitations,” says McLaughlin. “The idea of the online model is to make it really affordable and be able to go worldwide on demand.” The message board is already abuzz, with a discussion string on “sexual energy in the process of awakening” drawing particularly enthusiastic attention.

The site is at once technically advanced and decidedly unslick. A case in point is Tolle’s meditation, broadcast Sunday, Sept. 20, “a live transmission of stillness,” as he describes it. The camera fixes on a black backdrop, a table with a vase of flowers and an empty chair. Tolle enters the frame. He sits silent, staring into the camera—a concept that would be death on Oprah, or 100 Huntley Street or the emotive theme-park excess of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s old Praise The Lord Club. Finally, he speaks. “I trust that everybody is comfortable with stillness,” he begins, with an uncharacteristic hint of steel. “If you’re not, then get comfortable.”

The camera draws close and for the next 46 minutes he expands on achieving the virtues of stillness and emptiness through “a cessation in the stream of thinking.” He stops speaking at the 41-minute mark. “And that’s it,” he says with a slight smile and a bob of his head. There follows five minutes of unblinking silence, broken just three times as Tolle delicately strikes two Tibetan meditation bells. Then he walks off camera.

No communion. No choir. No saints. No sinners. No benediction. And yet, in the bells, chiming into infinity that Sunday afternoon, in the silent meditation, in the online congregation, there is something akin to liturgy. One is reminded of Bishop Ingham’s musing on the well-travelled arc from spirituality to religion. Tolle may be farther down the path than he cares to admit. “How does one get closer to God?” an admirer would later post on the site. “Listen to Eckhart Tolle.”