For about 5 years now, a close friend has been advising me to read The Power of Now, a life manual by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. She told me it had changed her life and would change mine. Nevertheless, for 5 years I resisted: the overly assonant title (2 ‘ows’, count them) put me off, and I was suspicious of the aura of salvation surrounding the book. I’ve never liked the idea that ONE book can save your life because it seems too doctrinal; instead I prefer to believe that many shape your life.
Anyway, I knew my friend meant business when The Power of Now arrived as a pdf into my Facebook inbox. Despite my earlier prejudices, I couldn’t help but be touched by this gesture, and so I settled down to read about twenty minutes a day. It was unlike anything I’d ever read; part self-help book, part-mantra, with the same elliptical conclusion at the end of each section: all that matters and even exists, is the present moment. The past and the future are psychological constructs, which take us away from the present by distracting us with anticipation, worry, nostalgia and regret. Tolle advises that you should only look forward or back to deal with the practical aspects of your life; learn from past errors or plan for future goals. Rather liberatingly, he conceives that a past identity will only haunt you if your presence, on the most literal level, isn’t strong enough. Reading this, I can now understand why people devote so much time and energy into meditation and mindfulness – so that they can learn to give each particular moment its due, rather than being enslaved by psychological time.
And yet, artists of all types find psychological time incredibly useful. The past (typically, childhood and formative experiences) is a rich resource for many, while notions of future utopias inform a lot of pioneering design. Family bonds are often formed on the basis of mutual memories and plans for the future. In my family, this temporal telescoping happens too much. Some senior members, see me as the little girl I was, or the ‘complete’ woman I will one day be. The restless, intractable young woman I am in the present disappears through the cracks, because unlike some neat mental construct from the past or future, she’s real, and difficult to pin down. I’m not exceptional in this respect, as these family members view others in exactly the same way. When people relate to one another on this projective, non-present basis, though, any possibility of real intimacy is voided, and you are left with the mere promise of love meant for an alternative version of you.
Tolle’s view of happiness, both in life and love is less based on pleasure, which he is convinced, soon turns to its opposite pain, and more on general contentment and feeling at one with the universe. Relationships are there for consciousness instead of fulfilment. So you go in there to learn, rather than feel impassioned, complete etc.When you meet the right one, they will reflect your soul just a bit more than any other part of creation visible from yonder window. Oddly enough, this isn’t so far removed from how love is described in a book Tolle would almost certainly denounce, Wuthering Heights; there Kathy describes her love for Heathcliff as resembling ‘the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary… He’s always in my mind…as my own being.’ This unexpected, intertextual connection made me smile- as much as someone tries to categorise love, separate it out into good and bad, nourishing and destructive, truth and infatuation, it speaks another language, one that doesn’t care too much for our constructs.
And whether you are coupled up, single or in an ‘it’s complicated’ situation, to be happy, he says, accept what is, however challenging, dull or confusing. Unhappiness is caused by resistance to the present moment. When the present moment is unbearable, you have a choice to leave the situation, take direct action or just accept it as part of life. Many people unnecessarily torture themselves by mulling over their difficulties, and escalating their drama. He calls the accumulation of grievances and hurt in a person’s psyche ‘the pain body’. This parasite attacks who we are in the present by making a persona of Our Wronged Selves. Some people are wedded to their Victim/ Tortured Genius identity because it gives them a dash of spice in a vanilla crowd. Perhaps they are afraid to let go of their past wrongs because they fear that they will become insignificant in the present. Significantly, Tolle’s universalist theory makes no distinction between the Basil Fawltys amongst us (always going on about our War wound, the shrapnel in our knee) and those who have been wronged in a major way, for example, targets of terror, ethnic cleansing or rape. While it’s true that nurturing a Victim identity is disempowering for everyone, Tolle’s one-size-fits-all theory feels too simplistic for the complex world we live in.
In a recent article, Simon Kuper argued that our’s was the age of specialists in small things.* Unlike the big-picture ‘greats’ of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Einstein, Freud, Marx) the scientists, psychologists and political theorists of today, claim to be experts in a choice area of study; they can potentially improve the world in one tiny aspect. Tolle seems distinctly of the previous century, in the sense that he does posit a universal theory. This works fine, for the essential, eponymous premise of his book, but his ideas on gender and sexual orientation in particular seem trite and oversimplified, especially given his position of hegemonic privilege ( Straight White Male). Men are more likely to be divorced from being through mind-dominance (over-thinking), while women are more subject to the pain body, and especially before and during their periods. He regards menstruation as an opportunity to shed not only one’s womb lining, but one’s pain body and thereby one’s resentments. In an unintentionally amusing section, he describes how a ‘supportive male partner’ can remind women that they are suffering from the pain-body during PMT, and bring them back onto the course of acceptance. I can see a cuddle and a whiskey going down better, but what do I know, being a woman and not a spiritual leader?… His view that gays have greater potential to rise above the polarised, acerbic dynamics of the heterosexual world, so long as they don’t make an identity out of their homosexuality, equally reads as naive and dismissive of the long struggle that gay people have had to openly be themselves.
Overall, in spite of its glaring oversimplifications and humourless prose (there’s maybe one intentional joke in there about cats as masters of Zen), I’m glad I read The Power of Now. It’s lessons on living in the present moment, feel especially alive now, in the latest wave of global terrorist attacks. A friend in Paris understandably expressed that she was afraid because she didn’t know when the next attack would be. It’s so easy to feel powerless in this state of uncertainty, especially if you’re not someone who makes policy; but perhaps there’s all the more reason to prioritise what’s important in life, and not take the present for granted. Il faut vivre sa vie!
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, http://www.orgone.ro/doc/The-Power-of-Now.pdf
Simon Kuper, ‘Small Ideas are Better than Big Ones,’ Financial Times Weekend Magazine, October 23, 2015 *