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The Buddhist Alliance: Eckhart Tolle and David Foster Wallace

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I usually don’t delve into the “Personal Growth / Spirituality” genre. A nice glass of orange juice and amaretto is generally about as spiritual as I get. But what can I say? When a book sells two million copies (at least) a boy gets curious. I mean, even Oprah is a fan. C’mon. Of course, I’m talking about The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, the non-denominational spiritual teacher whom the the New York Times has labeled “the most popular spiritual author in the nation.”

Mentioning both Buddhism and Christianity as influences, Tolle argues that “the greater part of human pain is unnecessary” and “self-created,” a product of the human tendency “to identify with external things” like possessions, belief systems, and social status. For Tolle, human unhappiness stems from this pattern of striving which can never provide more than temporary satisfaction. “None of these,” he says, “is you.”

Fortunately, Tolle has some advice to help you get over the emotional hump of that [Insert terrible thing that you’re dealing with]. Wait. Ready? Stop thinking about it! Thanks, dad. But how? You can start by “watching the thinker”: by becoming consciously aware of the ways in which you think. So doing, you can liberate yourself from your mind’s socially and culturally conditioned desires (I’m paraphrasing here) and commit yourself to the only kind of existence which can make you truly and consistently happy—a life lived solely in the Now:

“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the Now the primary focus of your life. Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation. Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment … Surrender to what is. Say ‘yes’ to life—and see how life starts suddenly to start working for you rather than against you.”

Anyone who has had the chance to read the late great David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech might notice that it shares certain conspicuous (and surprising) similarities with Tolle’s book. Like The Power of Now, Wallace’s memorable speech strenuously encourages us to become conscious of the of the ways in which we think. Like Tolle, he wants you to avoid “getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head,” and to learn how “to exercise some control over how and what you think.” For Wallace, as for Tolle, there is nothing more important than “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

Otherwise, we inevitably become the unthinking slaves of the dominant cultural discourses. We rejoice when we think we’re supposed to rejoice and we suffer when we think we’re supposed to suffer. For both Tolle and Wallace, living in the thrall to social expectations necessarily breeds dissatisfaction—”the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

I don’t mean to suggest that Tolle’s book itself influenced Wallace or his speech. (Although the fact that they both use a fish metaphor at one point to characterize an absence of consciousness is definitely odd.) Buddhism seems a much more likely common influence. I’ve already mentioned Tolle’s interest in Buddhism, but as D.T. Max made clear in his recent biography, Wallace also became enamored with Buddhist philosophy later in life. Future studies of Wallace’s work might find Buddhist philosophy an unlikely source of insight.

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About Ryan Zee

  • Otto Krog

    Deepak Chopra and Eckart Tolle is in the consciousnes business. So is Sir Roger Penrose and Dr. Hameroff, who recently appeared on Science Channel with their five cents on consciousness.

    I have been a fan of Sir Roger Penrose for many years. He was the first scientist to say that consciousness should be found in the quantum field rather than in the brain. I am so much a fan, that I made my own theory out of the idea that consciousness might be explained through a better understanding of antimatter and parallel universes.

    My idea is that antimatter is the mirror of this universe, and that antimatter might be where memory is located.

    I think that the subconscious mind and consciousness are located in parallel universes in the form of antimatter. That makes the spirit and maybe even God all physical, so basically I could be said to be an atheist, even though I consider myself spiritual.

    If you would like to know more, then you can watch a full videopresentation of my theory on my blog: