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“The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment,” by Eckhart Tolle

book cover Available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

By the age of 29 Ekhart Tolle had been depressed for many years and was in a suicidal state, unable to see the point of living but without enough energy to end it. And then something remarkable happened. He had a powerful experience of spiritual awakening, in which he had no thoughts although he was fully conscious, and in which he lost his fear. After that he found himself with a heightened sense of the miraculousness of everyday life, and with a deep sense of peace that has abided to this day. Tolle is now a spiritual teacher, and this book — his first — is a distillation of his teachings, much of it drawn from transcripts and including questions from students.

Much of what he teaches is very recognizable to a Buddhist practitioner (from study, if not always from experience). Tolle emphasizes the importance of being in the moment, which is familiar to practitioners of mindfulness meditation. He draws a distinction between mind (mental processes including thoughts, ego identification, and reactive emotions), and consciousness (the luminous and aware space in which mind takes place) and encourages us to identify with consciousness rather than mind. This will be familiar to Vipassana practitioners and even more so to those familiar with the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions.

Tolle presents a spiritual path (although he probably wouldn’t use that expression) which is completely secular and accessible to all Westerners. He uses the term “God” but makes it clear that he is not referring to an anthropomorphic deity. He also quotes widely from many religious traditions without identifying himself with any of them. He makes it abundantly clear that he is not teaching a “religion.” This makes his work particularly interesting to Western Buddhists seeking ways to communicate the essence of the Buddhist spiritual path to their fellow Westerners without the baggage of Eastern cultural trappings.

He is largely successful in this endeavor, which makes his book particularly interesting, but tends to lapse into New Age jargon about “energy frequencies,” “activating the pain body,” and the like, and to my mind this pseudoscientific language detracts from the underlying clarity and simplicity of his message and sows doubt as to the depth of his realization. I find it hard to believe that Tolle know from personal experience, for example, that as one spiritually develops the body’s “molecular structure actually becomes less dense.”

But such lapses into what Time called “mumbo jumbo” aside, this book does contain valuable lessons about embracing the present moment, realizing that past and future are merely ideas, and about the fact that we become more peaceful when we cease to identify with the every-changing contents of “mind” and relax back into the luminous space of consciousness. It’s very apt that the title contains the word “Power” since Tolle’s message, in its essence and (ironically) stripped of its New Age ideological baggage is very powerful indeed.

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