Limitations of Modern Spiritual Thought

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Limitations of Modern Spiritual Thought

In September of 2009 I was reading 'The Power of Now' by Eckhart Tolle (my friend Ronnie mentioned she was reading it). It seems to have been pretty influential in current Western spiritual thinking, but brought up to me what seems to be the most serious failings of that path (which is a very delicate topic for me).

Use of Terms, Energy

First off I have a particular pet peeve with the way Western spiritual writers tend to borrow heavily from the terms of science. I personally have a great love for and knowledge of physics. It pains me deeply when people who have no real understanding of scientific terms such as energy misuse them, thereby promoting further misunderstanding. It would be OK if people just used the same word with two different meanings, like 'I love pizza' and 'I love my kids'. No one is really confused that those two uses of the word 'love' have anything to do with each other. However, Western spiritual writers seem to intentionally use the parlance of science (perhaps to add credibility to their claims) without understanding the terms and then make claims as if it was a useful analogy. The usage of the term energy in spiritual terms has almost nothing to do with the correct use of the term energy in physics; energy in physics just doesn't act the way poeple refer to energy in terms of spirituality.

A person doesn't give off a negative energy (a very non-physics usage). However, as all people are sublty connected, it is certainly true each person's emotional state is shared to some degree with those around them. Emotional states can be considered to be 'infectious', but a more precise analogy would be that of gravitational pull as it also works both ways. My own compassion can work to pull another person out of their anger while at the same time I am pulled out of my compassion and into their anger. This analogy seems to be more useful as it brings out the subtle dynamics of our connections to those around us.

Another personal peeve is the way that spiritual writers cite quantum physics without any good understanding of the underlying physics and make claims relying on this purported physics to support their case. Sadly, this misunderstanding of quantum physics is somewhat justifiable (no one really understands quantum physics as it is so unnatural to us) and many otherwise competent physicists make absurd claims which contribute to the widespread misunderstanding of quantum physics (e.g. Schroedinger's cat). However, quantum physics does appear to be a most fundamental property of our universe and has great impact on consicousness and its relationship to the physical world, making this misunderstanding all the sadder.

Inconsistent Use of Terms

Tolle in particular makes a really odd choice and usage of terms. In particular, he seems to confuse pain with misery and suffering. To have a really sweet life it is useful to recognize the difference between pain which an intrinsic part of life and misery and suffering which are always self-inflicted. Even grief (the purely physical feeling of loss from separation with close family members) seems to be an intrinsic part of life but does not need to lead to any misery of suffering. As such, I find that the blurring of this distinction is not helpful in promoting true understanding and encouraging people to not create misery and suffering in their own lives.

I also find Tolle's use of 'insanity' and 'unconsciousness' to describe the common delusions of modern Western culture to be needlessly dramatic and does not improve understanding. The terms used by Tolle do have greater emotional impact, but don't really aid in addressing the process of identifying and correcting our individual delusions. It appears that Tolle is intentionally dramatizing the problem, perhaps to motivate the reader to take corrective action, but I question if hysterical justications for action can really help people give up their delusions and live in 'Now'.

Tolle evens defines sin to be 'causing suffering through delusion'1 which is an interesting redefinition of sin, but it is hardly the common usage of the term. Fortunately Tolle doesn't use the word sin much after that so there is little needless confusion by this redefinition. Under these circumstances, improved understanding might have resulted if Tolle had just suggested an alternative view of sin for those who give much thought to sin in the first place.

Needless Drama, Not Written From the Now

As noted above, I was not comfortable with the needless drama Tolle introduced into his otherwise valuable suggestions. In particular, he noted on numerous occassions that in the 20th century over 100 million people were murdered through violence, which is clearly not a view from the 'Now' point of view. It overlooks the fact that most of those large scale murders were before about 1950 and since that time we have been in a miraculous period of increasing peace, truly unheard of in the history of man. Indeed it can be argued that we have the kindest and most gentle society in recorded history. This is not to say that we should not work to be an even kinder, more gentle, and peaceful society, but creating hysteria with comments like 'unimaginable suffering on a vast scale' and 'our only chance of survival as a race' does not promote the calm conviction which is necessary to address our individual delusions. It is hard to imagine how creating new fear and delusions helps eliminate fear and delusion.

It is true that toward the end Tolle warns that a view of others as an enemy (for despoiling the Earth and such) draws you into their world view and can only create more conflict and destruction. However, this does not explain why he developed the view that there was some great danger to humanity which requires urgent attention.

More traditional spiritual teachers have often noted that the first step in improving the world is to improve yourself. Not only is that all that you really have control over, but it allows you to really help those around you. As long as you are creating misery and suffering for yourself, you will only be able to address the physical ailments of those around you, not the real source of their misery and suffering which is their delusions.2, While I have no doubt that many people have benefitted from Tolle's writings, it is sad that his writings have not been fully presented from the perspective of 'Now' but instead needlessly introduce drama, fear, and delusion. I would suggest the more tradtional justification for addressing our individual delusions of simply eliminating misery and suffering from our own lives. That truly is the best way to improve the world.

Difficulties of Delusions

While it is certainly true that if you followed the prescription of always living in the Now and residing fully in Being, then your life would be joyous and blessed, neither experiencing nor creating misery or suffering. The problem is that our delusions are very numerous and many of them are quite subtle. Indeed, my own personal experience is that the more troublesome delusions which I possess are completely invisible to me. After all I am deluded and those self deceptions which are degrading the quality of my life seem completely sound to me (I have deceived myself). The insights of others is a valuable tool for identifying my own delusions.

Tolle describes a series of techniques for each individual for eliminating suffering from their lives and any that are useful to you will, no doubt, improve your life. However, the danger of his sort of self help where the individual attempts to identify and correct their own delusions is that the individual can get stuck. In this case your life could be much sweeter than before you began, but you no longer make further progress and your life is not as sweet as it could be. In that regard, seeking out a spiritual teacher to guide you in the process of identifying and dealing with your delusions can be invaluable.2

The process of identifying and correcting delusions is much like peeling through the layers of an onion. As you learn to see through your previous delusions, underneath that there always seem to another more subtle set of delusions to deal with. However, the process itself can be most joyful as your life gets sweeter with each set of delusions that you deal with. Once you attain a certain level of sweetness in your life, there is no longer the desperation to end your misery and suffering but instead a joy that comes from continually seeking the ultimate truth, completely delusion free.

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1 'The Power of Now' page 90.

2 This conclusion was discussed more fully in another tale about joy.

3 In a previous tale there was a discussion of choosing a teacher.

This page was last updated on September 23, 2009