We should begin with a confession: by most metrics, I’m a New Age nut. I have a life coach. I begin my day with an hour of yoga, then proceed to my morning journal, my meditation, my visualizations and my spoken affirmations. On Sunday mornings, I wake at dawn and walk to my local Zen temple in order to sit motionless, in absolute agony, for three hours with other like-minded nuts. I am currently collaborating on a book of Eastern spirituality cartoons with my own mother (herself a yoga teacher). Yet—and here I place my brittle hand in yours—I am also, like most of you, I imagine, a cynic at heart. I am aware that I am a nut and it shames me. I despise the other nuts. I despise my own nuttiness.
For the moment, that leaves me hovering somewhere around the midpoint of the New Age spectrum, locked in a kind of dynamic equilibrium between scorn and wide-eyed wonder. But as I bear down on thirty, my recent life trajectory (increasingly marked by mental exclamations like “This stuff really works!”) indicates that I am trending ever more surely toward the fringe. It’s impossible for me to deny the efficacy of my spiritual pursuits, to deny that they have made me into a happier and kinder person. As a result, I’m giving over more and more of my time to yoga journals, to lecture halls crammed with other spiritual seekers, to workshops and inward-oriented activities with premises so divorced from conventional rationality that I will not confess to most of them in print. (I’ll go this far: last year I took a six-week improvisational movement class in which our graduating assignment was to portray a rooster scratching in the dirt.) In short, I know that I am not long for the company of cynics like you. Soon—I think, I fear, I hope—I will be a true believer. So perhaps you should consider what follows a final transmission from a fellow traveler who once shared your doubt, a farewell report sent from the brink of the event horizon, just before I disappeared into the bright light of spiritual weirdness.
It was my life coach who first introduced me to Eckhart Tolle. We were in the cafe of the Borders bookstore over Penn Station—which is where, because my life coach has no office, and because my workday is a fiction even I no longer believe in, we meet every other Tuesday afternoon. I remember we had been talking about “accepting the present moment.” All contemporary spiritual teaching boils down to the present moment: the eternal, all-encompassing, energy-releasing space of the Now. The phrase is used so often and in so many permutations—“present moment awareness,” “offer no resistance to the present moment,” “return to the present moment”—that it now takes me a small but appreciable philological effort to recall that it means anything at all. Anyway, in the middle of our session, my life coach, Dion, pulled out his iPod, handed me his headphones and cued up a track from Tolle’s The Power of Now. For the first time, I understood. The present moment took me in immediately.
When I ask people what they like most about Tolle’s work, they all give versions of the same response: that his words have a unique ability to transmit presence. “It’s a book about transformation that transforms you while you’re reading it,” said Ruth, the organizer of a biweekly group of New Yorkers who meet to listen to recordings of Tolle’s books and talks. Presence is a difficult concept to explain if you haven’t spent years obsessing over it, but it’s typically experienced as a combination of the following qualities: a calm, holistic intelligence; a deep sense of peace; and an intuitive appreciation of the grace uniting all things. Imagine your state of mind as an angel and you’ve basically got it.
Explaining how Tolle gets that presence into his writing and then back out to readers is tricky, like trying to explain the bite of pine in Hemingway or the imprint of mud-spattered boots one gets from Faulkner. “I think there is just an energetic element to this book that is almost impossible to articulate,” says Munro Magruder, associate publisher of New World Library, which controls the worldwide rights to The Power of Now. “I don’t know if you’re going to figure it out. I don’t try any more. I just go with the flow and the energy of it.” The dominant feeling among the small circles that discuss this sort of thing is that Tolle himself is in such a profound state of presence that his words are imparted with its vector. Several people I spoke with described him as a carrier of spiritual frequencies—“tuning fork” was a term that came up more than once. The energy, the vibrations, call them what you will, are an extension of his person and they take the place of any devotional dance or mantra chanting or meditation practice. They collect readers and ferry them back to the Now.
Tolle himself emphasizes that most of his teaching takes place in “the silent space between words.” The dominant quality of his many CDs, books and lectures is this enveloping silent awareness, and by his own account as well as those close to him, it’s the source of his particular spiritual genius. Tami Simon, publisher of Sounds True audio books, learned this the first time she encountered Tolle. In the summer of 2001, she came across a tape of his early lectures and decided to fly up to Vancouver to interview him. At the time, little was known about Tolle’s life story—basically, as Simon puts it, “he was depressed and he has this enlightenment experience and he wakes up and he hears the birds chirping.” (We’ll get to all that soon.) The interview was scheduled for a Tuesday in September: Tami woke up to hear that the Twin Towers had just fallen. She assumed the meeting would be postponed, but Tolle thought it was important to continue. When they met later that morning in his Vancouver apartment, Tolle asked that they start the interview by sitting quietly together. This led to 45 minutes of what Simon calls “an incredibly richly textured melting silence.” Finally, she asked him one question: “So this morning, Eckhart, the World Trade Center crumbled before the eyes of the world. What is your reaction to that event?” His response ran a little over an hour and became the core of Even the Sun Will Die, a 2-CD set outlining the coming revolution in human consciousness.
Tolle borrows from nearly every tradition, but does not belong to any of them. (This institutional nimbleness helps him win followings in unexpected communities; I’m told he’s especially popular with the MBA crowd.) His basic belief is that mind-created psychological time causes us to miss our true roots in the Now. The mind either worries over the past or anxiously rushes forward to the future; it does not know how to dwell in the present moment. But this only hints at a more fundamental error: “You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over.” Tolle encourages his readers to study the actual content of their minds, with the expectation that they will discover it to be an independent stream of continuous, repetitive, mostly negative thoughts. By learning to separate oneself from this stream, one returns naturally to the Now, the true ground of identity, a “natural state of felt oneness with Being,” characterized by feelings of joy, ease and lightness.
The Power of Now is a unique text: partly an investigation into the nature of human suffering and its antidote (the Now), but also a catalyst, a touchstone, a pathway leading back to presence. (Tolle even employs a special symbol, º, to indicate a pause where the mind should go quiet, so one can “feel and experience the truth of what has just been said.”) Throughout the book, Tolle avoids deliberate definitions. After introducing the concept of Being, he warns readers, “Don’t seek to grasp it with your mind. Don’t try to understand it. You can know it only when the mind is still. 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.” (This is immediately followed by that reflective pause symbol, º.) The entirety of the book is written in a question and answer format that anticipates and addresses a first time reader’s likely doubts (“Isn’t thinking essential to survive in this world?”) and parlays them into deeper teachings (“The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive…”).
Given his goal—to alert us that we must become free of our thinking minds—Tolle’s writing is surprisingly precise, almost, some disappointed New Agers complain, academic. But his project isn’t philosophical, in the sense that it doesn’t rely on reason, the engine of Western philosophy. If anything, you’d have to say his goal is therapeutic. He aims for truth, but it is a revelatory truth, not the kind reached through careful argument. In fact, he almost always notes that his teachings offer little in the way of new ideas, that they are not designed to be intellectually interesting. Most of his lectures begin with the prediction that a few particularly mind-identified people in the room will find his talk so confoundingly boring that they will get up and leave.
Reading or listening to Tolle doesn’t require much effort. That doesn’t mean it’s manipulative pap—you’d have to be a cynic of the palest hue to think it anything but earnest—but it’s not the kind of writing that requires readers to labor after obscure conclusions. Tolle’s meaning comes up on you unawares, engulfs you, and waits for an after-the-fact gesture of acquiescence. The transformation—the presence—takes hold in a moment of stillness, and, in most people, is followed by an initial shiver of resistance. It can feel too good, too much like trance. Next in those who continue reading, who allow the presence to stay, is a submission to the fact of the change. It is similar to the submission required in order to make love or undergo surgery—that inner narration, “Yes, this is happening to me, here I go…”
My original plan, when I took on this article, was to shadow Tolle in the manner of Tom Wolfe on Ken Kesey. I imagined us driving along highways overlooking Vancouver (in what I always pictured for some reason as an open-top Mazda Miata), quietly marveling at the collective insanity of modern society. We would pull in to rest stops where I would watch Tolle encompass the cashiers in the sphere of his present moment awareness, their eyes filling with an emerging alertness as he mindfully engaged them in small talk. We would purchase and chew our hot dogs in a state of felt oneness with Being. Later we would go down to his meditation room, where he would sit himself in the immensity of the present moment while I crouched in a corner, furiously scribbling notes.
But this is a tough time to get a hold of Tolle. His assistant, Lorine, makes this clear when I call his Vancouver office to follow up on an interview request sent weeks before. Lorine asks if I have read any of Eckhart’s work and I answer that I have read everything: The Power of Now, A New Earth, Stillness Speaks andMilton’s Secret, his children’s book. I confide that I even have bootleg audio files from his private retreats. I compromise whatever journalistic integrity I might possess and tell her straight out that I am a huge fan.
“What are you hoping to talk with him about?” she asks.
I’m never very good at this part. “Well, Eckhart’s a sort of contemporary philosopher who’s not studied in philosophy departments. And he probably never will be. But he’s got millions of readers. And our magazine is focused on how ideas affect everyday life, you know? So I just think that’s a really interesting gap—between his impact and how little people have looked at his ideas.” I want to be honest. “Plus, I want to ask him what it feels like to be a ‘guru’—how he feels about the fact that his ideas enter mainstream culture with this ‘New Age’ stigma slapped on them.”
She waits a couple seconds before responding and I can already sense the Miata pulling off without me. “What’s making me uncomfortable,” she says, “is that you’re saying that you’re an intellectual magazine, but Eckhart’s whole philosophy is all about experience. He’s all about there being no mind.” I should not have said “stigma.” Or “New Age.” I’m told that between his scheduled talks and time allotted for private retreats, he’s booked solid for the next nine months.
So two days later, I buy a last-minute ticket and fly to Toronto, where Tolle is delivering two nights of talks at Roy Thomson Hall. It’s late January, and I arrive a few minutes before his first lecture (“The Power of Presence: Going Beyond the Ego”) is scheduled to start. Only one ticket collector is on duty, and a bottleneck of spiritual aspirants is trying to force itself from the outer to the inner lobby. I am standing at the very back. As the house lights dim and lobby chimes chime, a voice comes over the PA to tell us to take our seats. We collectively attempt to sublimate our tension. We each work at projecting an unflustered calm. A good-looking couple nearby scolds each other sotto voce (“Re-lax, honey, there’s no rush”). These are my people.
I take my seat just before show time. There are about 2,500 other people in the audience, which is full right up to the upper galleries. An announcement: “Just to let everyone know, we’ll be starting five minutes from now.” A flurry of jokes on the theme, “Oh, from now.” Light chuckles. Then the theater goes dark and Tami Simon walks out to the podium to introduce Tolle. She calls Eckhart “a frequency holder.” And what is that frequency, she asks? The frequency of Being. And what is our opportunity? “To join him in that frequency.” None of this sounds spacey to me. I know exactly what she means—it actually strikes me as an incredibly accurate way to describe Eckhart’s appeal. (As a test, though, I play this section of audio for one of my roommates in New York; he gets so agitated he orders me out of the room.)
Five minutes later a panel in the wall opens and Eckhart Tolle—spine kyphotically buckled, eyes cast down at his feet, hands clasped at his navel—crosses the stage in shadow. He moves with a hyper mellow domesticity, like a Trappist Mr. Rogers. He’s wearing a white sweater-vest over a dress shirt, a pair of khaki pants and plain black shoes. (On the advice of a friend, I have been reading Max Weber while researching this article, and it strikes me that Tolle’s sweater-vest—which he is almost always photographed wearing—functions as what Weber would call a “talisman.” It’s something that no normal person would wear, and reaffirms Tolle’s special status as an oracular figure operating outside of social norms).
From the balcony where I sit, Tolle seems unaware that he’s being observed. He’s not hurrying to the microphone, not making little gestures of acknowledgment to the audience, not trying to cue us into his persona. He’s just crossing the stage, but he’s so devoted to just crossing the stage that the action appears sacred. I realize—again, nod to Weber—that Tolle’s charisma, the magnetic quality of his personality, is almost an anti-charisma. He’s made himself so boring, punched so far through the back end of dullness, that we feel his simplicity must represent some incredible inner power.
The room is silent, which is also weird. It certainly fuels the feeling of the anti-charisma charisma. We’re not applauding—because we’ve been asked not to by Simon, who informed us that Tolle preferred to be greeted by “the fullness of our silence.” At first, that made me feel uncomfortable, kind of communey, but I now see that it’s working. We are more present in this silence. I have never given a speaker so much attention. Tolle pads to the front of the stage and takes a seat in a fabric-backed office chair in the middle of a circle of light. Next to him is a table supporting a glass of water, which he will not drink, and a vase with a spray of white lilies. Tolle just sits and stares. He doesn’t even move his eyes. I’m already mentally narrating the experience to my friends, and I get the feeling that everyone else in the theater is as well. What if he just looks at us for the full two hours? Could we handle it? Would people insist on refunds? Is he—“Welcome,” he says, after what my voice recorder indicates (deceptively, I’m sure) has been half-a-minute, “to this moment.” Awesome. I want to applaud so badly. Eckhart Tolle is the true vehicle.
Throughout the talk at Roy Thomson Hall, and in all the lectures I’ve found online, Tolle sits stone still, essentially paraplegic, for hours. He does not cross his legs or bounce his knees or jiggle his feet. Most of the time his arms lie limp in his lap. (By way of comparison, the man seated next to me spends the full two hours of the first night’s talk nervously biting the hair on his forearm and compulsively pinching his nostrils together and sniffing.) Tolle only moves when he wants to illustrate a state of mind, what he calls a “possessing entity,” and he is an astoundingly gifted mime in this respect. When he’s really on fire, he slips back and forth between his standard pedagogic monotone and a whimsical revue of the interior monologues that accompany pride, suspicion, worry, haste, false fellow feeling, etc. It is the only time you could say that he becomes animated. The highlight comes on the second night (“Enlightened Relationships: The Arising of the New Consciousness”) when he mimes young love—showing first the googly-eyed, spellbound couple in a restaurant and then portraying the same couple, one year later, sitting at the same table with long-drawn faces, glowering at each other in silence. We laugh because we’ve all been there. He obviously has too, but the difference is that we will probably have to go back. It doesn’t seem like he will. That’s the heart of his appeal, and why we’re all here: Tolle seems to have escaped from being human.
On the second day, he guides the auditorium through an experience of the present moment. He turns his face up to us like a conductor. He is still; we are still. Then the words begin. “Where is your life now? Here. Your life is here in consciousness … Just this. Just this…” His voice gets smoother—or we soften to his voice, it’s hard to say. “Who you are is not your arising thoughts. Who you are is the space behind your thoughts. You are not your thoughts.” I feel the mantle of my mind pulled back, but I’m okay with it. My life situation dissolves. The distant girl I’m courting, the career I haven’t decided on, the perpetual litany of my discontent—it all drops away and the room starts to come alive. I become at once hypersensitive and transcendentally indifferent to my surroundings, not at all unlike being on an acid trip. The man next to me is breathing like a bear! He cracks his knuckles. Now he strokes his beard! Again the three fat ladies lean into each other to whisper! My seat squeaks! I am the alert witness to my own perceptions—disidentified with them, but at the same time sensing them more fully, enjoying them at a distance as one enjoys music.
“As presence advances, who you are deepens,” says Tolle. “Suddenly there is a depth in that still alert space between thoughts and that is here, now. Very simple. A still, alert space between thoughts.” There is a silent crescendo in the room that lifts all our gazes. We take our eyes from Tolle (and the live feed Jumbotrons over his shoulders), and stare across the expanse of the auditorium at ourselves. We take ourselves in for the first time. This occurs outside time. Everything opens and it hits us: he’s right, there’s nothing wrong with this moment. “In that clear space,” he says, “you’re not defining yourself anymore. In that clear space, you could say, you do not even know who you are anymore.” As he fades back to silence a woman a few seats over makes warm mmm-hmmms of assent as if someone were making love to her in her sleep.
The story of how Tolle became a spiritual vehicle is, like many such stories, impossible to separate from the possible tarnish of its own apocrypha, but if we take him at his word, it is essentially the story of a man who stumbles upon a portal into the true nature of consciousness. Born Ulrich Tolle (he changes his name, post-portal, in honor of the thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart), his life is typical in that he spends most of it in a state of profound unhappiness. His parents fight constantly and from the age of ten he begins thinking of ways to kill himself. These feelings grow more and more urgent with time. In his late twenties, he establishes himself as a research scholar in comparative literature at Cambridge. Externally, he has a successful and promising academic future. But his life is a burden and a misery.
One night not long after his 29th birthday, he bolts awake in the grip of acute despair. He is again close to suicide. He feels a “deep longing for annihilation, for nonexistence.” “I cannot live with myself any longer,” he thinks. Then he stops. Who is this “I” that I cannot live with? He decides there must be two selves: “the mental story of me” which he can no longer tolerate, and “a deeper sense of being, of presence,” which constitutes his true Self. The realization overwhelms him. His mind goes blank, his body begins to quake and he feels himself sucked into a “vortex of energy.” He blacks out.
The next morning he rises to the sound of birdsong and knows at once that an illusory sense of self has been shattered. He walks around his room in a state of wonder, marveling at life’s beauty. He has been enlightened. From now on he knows himself as “the I Am.” For much of the next two years, he sits on a bench in Russell Square, relishing his new state of mind and watching the world unfold in present moment bliss. His friends and family assume he has gone insane.
From time to time, Tolle ventures from his bench to visit the British Library where he leafs through the teachings of the world’s great sages. He is hoping to better understand what has happened to him. At night, when the weather is nice, he sleeps under the stars in Hampstead Heath. But the bench is his true home. He sits there in silence, the knower behind the thinker. Of course his mind still expends some residual energy in worry or regret or judgment, but now he knows these thoughts are inconsequential; he need not identify with this “stream of involuntary and incessant thinking.” He has gained the ability to abide simply in joy, in Being. Members of the Cambridge community whisper about the former student who dropped out of academia after having—what, a breakdown, a breakthrough, a revelation? People in the neighborhood start to notice him; not disheveled, not a drunk, smiling like a holy idiot. A few spiritually inclined individuals decide he must be a mystic. They ask him if he’ll share what he knows. Yes, he says, that is a good idea. He begins leading small workshops in presence. After teaching for ten years, he knows that he has discovered a path to spiritual enlightenment. It occurs to him that he ought to move to Vancouver to begin writing a book about this discovery. Yes, he thinks, that is a good idea. He moves to Vancouver.
I always imagine the next part like this: Tolle sitting in his little Vancouver apartment (a sparse one because he has so little money at the time). He is, as usual, in a deep state of bliss. He arranges a sheet of paper on the desk. He picks up his pen. Doing all this, he is aware that he is not “Eckhart Tolle” but the I Am, Awareness Itself, and so he regards the paper and the pen and the desk and the conventional identity “Eckhart Tolle” from a place of deep and untroubled joy. He breathes in. He breathes out. He waits. Something comes, and he leans over the desk to write the words that will form the core of his teaching: “You are not your mind.”
At this point the identity “Eckhart Tolle” is, again, conventionally speaking, a nobody: a guy living alone in a Vancouver apartment, working on a book that claims people should not believe their own thoughts. He supports himself by continuing to lead presence workshops, but this money never amounts to much. His popularity grows as people in Vancouver’s spiritual community recommend Tolle to their friends. After a few months, a management consultant named Constance Kellough hears about Tolle from a colleague and asks him to lead weekly groups in her office’s conference room. They meet every Wednesday, sometimes in groups as small as five. At the end of one session, Tolle approaches Kellough and asks if she will be the publisher of a book he is writing. Aside from having taught English literature, Kellough has no publishing experience, but she says yes anyway. “There was just a recognition of consciousness,” she says. “We were in the same bandwidth.”
Tolle ekes his way towards completion of the manuscript on the proceeds of a $1,000 lottery ticket. The initial run is 3,000 copies, and at first it seems TPON will not be very successful. Most of the books sit in cardboard boxes in Kellough’s basement. Because they don’t have a distributor, Kellough and Tolle walk to bookstores around Vancouver to try to tempt owners to place a few copies on their shelves. When those sell out, Tolle returns with another armful of books. He meets a lot of his first readers this way; they often linger in the store in order to see him. He’s incredibly happy.
Over the next two years, the book spreads almost entirely by word of mouth: first through Vancouver, then to other large Canadian cities and eventually into the United States and England. In early 2000, a copy ends up in the hands of Steve Ross, a yoga instructor who puts the book on sale in his Los Angeles studio. Meg Ryan attends classes there; she buys the book, loves it, and contacts Tolle for teaching. She’s sure he’s the real thing. Meg Ryan tells Oprah, Oprah tells the world and Eckhart Tolle officially blows up.
Over the next eight years, Oprah promotes Tolle in her magazine, her lecture tours, her book club, her radio show and on TV. She tells viewers that she keeps The Power of Now on her bedside table. She’s even more aggressive when his next book, A New Earth, is published, inviting Tolle to co-host a ten-session web seminar that’s downloaded 38 million times. Despite the success, Tolle still seems grounded in the present moment. He does not appear caught up in what he would call “the world of form.” His U.S. publisher says he never calls about his sales. “He’s the only author of this magnitude that’s never asked me ‘How many copies have you sold and what have you done to market my book’?” says Magruder of New World Library. “It doesn’t matter to him.” Deepak Chopra apparently calls all the time.
Tolle’s teaching is so successful because it’s so carefully fitted to our contemporary world and its unique forms of pain. He takes as his primary subject not the general question of suffering, nor even its most widely recognized global brands (poverty, disease, injustice), but rather the daily distress of post-industrialized life. One of his standard routines, which he reprises during the lecture in Roy Thomson Hall, is about the uselessness of getting angry at traffic lights. “What can you add to that moment by thinking about it?” he asks. “Nothing. Only problems.” His writing is filled with scenarios like these: long waits, deadbeat roommates, dysfunctional marriages, irritatingly slow elevators. It’s the minor battles that he coaches us through—how, for example, to keep calm when there is only one ticket collector and the bells are already dinging and the house lights dimming and the $80 talk is about to get started and who the fuck really has time to be present? We are drawn to him because he is (or was) one of us, and knows our particular forms of anguish.
This should make him acceptable, but it doesn’t. In fact, I think this familiarity is precisely what makes him so suspect. Among my inner circle of miserable postcollegiate New York friends—the frontline victims of post-industrialized distress—the near unanimous opinion is that he’s a charlatan. Part of what makes him especially distrusted, above and beyond the cynicism these people reserve for religious traditions generally, is precisely the fact that he is part of no established tradition. His movement was born in the here and now—a media phenomenon untethered to any previously unmediated institution. It has no roots in distant history, ancient civilization, or myth, but emerged out from under the aegis of our modern media apparatus. It exists for its followers as much as for its critics entirely in the unpleasantly familiar channels of mediated distribution, as a constellation of books, CDs, TV appearances, speaking tours and web groups. Because it addresses our (petty) problems directly, it doesn’t seem grand enough—not even grand enough to seriously disagree with or argue against.
In other words, the fact that Tolle’s story begins not in ancient Mesopotamia or a Nepalese village, but in our world, in the production offices of Harpo Studios, in a West Hollywood yoga class, under the fluorescent glare of our very own commercial distribution networks, is disappointing. Disappointing, I’d maintain, even to the hardened cynics; in them too, there’s at least an adversary’s nostalgia for the old traditions—the holidays rooted in the harvest, the idiosyncratic prohibitions, the creation myths and so on. Since the Enlightenment, we tacitly tolerate those belief-based institutions—the Church, the soul, fated love—that predate our turn to Reason. But we expect any new institutions to be able to explain themselves in rational terms. This is why Tolle’s movement of personal revelation—like any modern appeal to mystical experience—feels so dissonant. An underlying tenet of modernity is that you can do what you like, so long as you can give reasons why you’re doing it. Tolle, and the millions of people who join him in presence, refuse this stipulation. Their forays into Being are unapologetically incomprehensible. They offer not “reasons,” but the example of their experience—and above all, of Tolle’s experience. Their evidence is their present moment awareness.
But presence is a necessarily private affair. In the public realm, all we have is its external manifestation, an unlikely and seemingly unflappable calm. Perhaps this calmness is the modern world’s version of miracle, the last thing capable of inspiring awe and dread. Awe, because it signifies an escape from the world of neurosis and anxiety. Dread, for the same reason. Tolle’s composure—his ability to distance himself from the content of his thoughts, to regard them impassively as “just” thoughts—is an astounding and threatening achievement. He says that when you are enlightened, “thinking no longer gives you your sense of identity.” To intellectuals, of course, nothing could be more terrifying. We revere thought as the encircling bulwark that keeps individuals whole. We think people ought to suffer, be deluded, yearn, regret and obsess. Since what we call our Enlightenment, these qualities have been taken as the quintessential, ennobling marks of humanity, the fundamental stuff of the self. To worry is our destiny and our function. Our anxious minds make us unique in the universe.
To all this—nothing less than the reigning model of the human being—Tolle says, let go. Our deep attachment to the notion of a regally troubled humanity is, he says, just the ego’s strategy for staying alive. “The false, unhappy self, based on mind identification … knows that the present moment is its own death and so feels very threatened by it. It will do all it can to take you out of it.” Tolle’s most recent book, A New Earth, is built around the theme that we are preparing to leave this old, mind-dominated state behind, that we are already witnessing the civilization-wide flowering of a new consciousness. He believes this to be the next stage in human development. (For what it’s worth, I do too.) But he won’t defend it as an argument. He can’t: the gulf between my experience of presence and your estimation of its worth only exposes the tautology at the heart of our respective definitions of value. Escaping thought and returning to Being is my life’s purpose if I believe it is. It’s a blank-faced bovine god if you believe it’s not.
Tolle has created a movement that appears to have made a great number of people happier, and he seems to have done so—thus far—without bankrupting them, seducing their women or falling into any of the other classic depravities of the spiritual demagogue. But can we say whether his movement is “good”? His teachings produce in me a state of grace and ease, and it’s hard to envision a more self-sufficient guarantor of their value. At the same time, it’s hard to envision one that could be any less effective in persuading a skeptic. The action of presence is mystical, its truth experiential, and its doctrine arational. Of course, this may be said of any religion, but at least the old ones offer us enshrined institutions like the papacy or the state of Israel to quibble over and evaluate. Ultimately, the adherents or detractors of presence, as evidence for either position, must return to Tolle, the inscrutable cipher. We have him, and his enigmatic example alone, to settle the question not only of what it would be like to live entirely in the moment, but whether to do so is to fulfill our potential as human beings or to forsake it.
On the last night of talks in Vancouver, after about two hours of speaking, Tolle suddenly stops and exhales. There was no penultimate buildup, no anticipation of an ending. Instead of taking another breath to speak, he just sits and stares out at us. His arms are limp, his face frozen but alert. There is a collective leaning-forward; the expectation is even greater than when he first crossed the stage the night before. I am sure that someone from the upper balcony is going to tumble forward into the silence. “Thank you,” Tolle says. He stands up, gives a little bow and walks back into the darkness of stage left.