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TPON_Cover_LGFood for the soul or new-age mumbo jumbo?

Spiritual books are ten a penny, always have been, and in our cynical, secular times the pedlars of such material are often viewed with suspicion – and, sadly, frequently, not without good reason. And amid this plethora of colourful and often-times bizarre pathways to enlightenment, some of these works occasionally break the mould and top the best seller list for a while, promising a radically new way of thinking that will turn the reader’s sad life around, attract millions of dollars to their bank account and transform them overnight from abject losers into white toothed entrepreneurial winners.

The power of now is different. Published in 1997, it came out of the author’s personal mental breakdown, and a desire to understand the profound psychological metamorphosis that followed. It had a quiet start, selling modestly by word of mouth on the spiritual circuit, but by 2009 it had reached 3 million copies and been translated into 33 languages. Of the author, Eckhart Tolle, I had heard nothing until I was loaned a copy of the book by a Buddhist friend who was of the opinion that most self styled spiritual teachers were either insane or merely egotistical poseurs. This man, however, he said, was possibly the real thing.

Personally, I fell away from organised religion early on in life, but have had a number of spontaneous mystical experiences that have denied me the easier option of a godless secular materialism. In short, I know there is more to life, but I have paradoxically struggled to find anything in conventional models of spirituality that address the very personal nature of the spiritual experience itself. The Power of Now confounded my initial expectations by doing just that, and by answering many of the existential questions I had been asking for decades.

What impressed me about the language of the book was its simplicity. Many spiritual works convey a “method”, they invent terminology, ritual, prayer, they invent arbitrary self important lists, a set of steps, exercises and vast labyrinths of mystery for the adept to follow. And there is always the suspicion that the method is there only to show how intellectually superior the author is, and how stupid we poor adepts are for not being able to follow in their footsteps. But The Power of Now describes none of these things. Instead it has the audacity to suggest that the answer we’re looking for is something we possess anyway but have merely forgotten, that from birth we have become so overwhelmed by our own thoughts, we can no longer remember who we really are. The power of the Power of Now lies in its ability to reunite us with the very thing we have lost touch with: our real selves.

With the birth of consciousness comes self awareness, and the faculty for thought, but a problem arises when we become so identified with our thoughts we believe that is all we are, this self constructed narrative, this story of our lives: the memories, the aspirations, the self-critical expectations. And most of us alive today do indeed believe we are nothing more than this thought-constructed entity – that anything else is simply inconceivable.

For Tolle, the awakening came one dark night of the soul when, tortured by lifelong depression and anxiety, he decided he could not live with himself any longer. Sadly this happens a lot in modern society and it rarely ends well, but for Tolle it was the catalyst. It was the thought to end all thoughts, when he realised that to even consider the idea of not living with himself implied there were two parts to his consciousness – the thinking part, and the part that was aware of the thinking part. By allowing the thinking part to dissolve, Tolle was then released into a state of primary awareness. What’s this? Well, it’s like viewing yourself in the first and the third person at the same time, and the feeling that accompanies it is one of deep bliss.

Some critics of the book complain that Tolle merely reworks ideas from eastern religions and gives them a new age spin, peppered here and there with quotes from the Bible. In a sense this is true, but only in so far that Tolle gets at the vital essence at the core of all organised religions, east and west, the key message if you like, underneath what is by now millennia of obfuscating cultural over-painting, and presents it in a simple language, entirely void of spiritual affectation, and which is above all accessible.

That we are each of us mostly a self invented fantasy is at first a hard message to swallow, and again one needs perhaps first to be open to the message if one is not to be deeply offended by it. Everything that happens to us in reality takes place in the present moment, obviously, yet we spend an awful lot of time raking over the past and worrying about the future. These are the natural realms of the thinking entity we believe ourselves to be, yet neither past nor future actually exists in real terms outside of memory or anticipation at all. What exists is the present moment, a moment so infinitesimally small it cannot be measured and we might pass our entire lives in ignorance of it, but it can be entered and experienced when the thinking mind is quiet, and when we do enter it, the world looks and feels very different indeed.

Tolle covers a lot of ground here. As a work of comparative religion alone it’s very powerful in illustrating that the spiritual principles underlying all traditions are essentially the same, and that they point to a further level of evolutionary development that is inevitable, and must happen sooner rather than later because if it doesn’t the energies thus far unleashed by the collective egoic mindset, are already well on their way towards destroying us. Powerful and sobering stuff!

But of course, Tolle is not without his detractors. Setting aside his ideas for a moment, Tolle’s publishing success is, in part, of course due to celebrity endorsement. Many familiar famous names now claim to have been helped back from the brink by his book and, since critics like nothing more than to get their teeth into a foolish celebrity baring their souls and possibly also their arses, they are also quick to label anything held dear by said celebrity as being vapid by association. And then some critics point out Tolle’s history of depression and anxiety, as if a history of mental illness disqualifies him from having any valid opinions on anything. Of course it does not, if only because to be content in a world that is plainly mad is no measure of sanity, indeed it is perhaps only those who have suffered such profound disquiet as Tolle himself who have the most valid, clear sighted perspectives to offer on modern living anyway.

Unlike many titles of this genre, the Power of Now was not intended to propel its author onto the international stage – indeed I can easily imagine him wishing by now it had not. But that it has done so, that it has fallen foul of the curse of its own popularity, should not detract from the sincerity of the message and the ideas the book contains. This is real and substantial food for the soul.

The Power of Now – a guide to spiritual enlightenment. Sounds like new age mumbo jumbo, but it isn’t.

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