What’s Wrong with Eckhart Tolle’s Power of Now?

I loved Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It was strange how it seemed to pursue me, popping up in book store windows all over New York City, calling my attention. When I finally bought and read it, it was a difference-maker for me.

by David Stone

for Assorted Ideas, Large & Small

Inside the power of now
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If you have been a seeker on the path, you know the raw desire to understand and realize your potential. You know what it is like to want more out of life.

That made it a little embarrassing when I discovered that his theory was based on a false premise. Eckhart Tolle did not understand what now really is.

This first point shows the problem with writers who claim to be enlightened or awakened as it makes their work more prominent and sometimes even takes on some kind of authority; people can take what they say as gospel.

The second mistake is seeing the now as a mere moment, not understanding how it represents eternity at its core. The past and future are indeed creations of the mind while the present does exist if you choose to be here right now.

This does not mean that the past and future do not exist! They exist as the raw material of the now.


To make sense of this, we need a different view of time and reality where there is no past or future but an eternal now moment that exists outside our earthly linear experience.

To say that all you have to do is live in the present moment without understanding what it is would be like saying that all you have to do to be cool is wearing a leather jacket.

Eckhart Tolle’s Mistake: The Power of Now is Something Else

Humans are capable of amazing things. But experiencing the present in the moment is not one of them. Our brains, as amazing as they are, didn’t evolve to do that.

That’s the core problem in Tolle’s mistake and also, I think, where he got off the track with the more downbeat views of recent years. The world isn’t broken, we’re just never fully aware of it.

At a time when most Americans can’t find Iraq on a map and many daily ask Siri to define “aardvark,” it’s easy to assume that our minds are working just fine.

That is, it’s about time we stopped believing in mythologies like self-help books because true wisdom is within us all. Eckhart Tolle’s book “The Power of Now” is mythological.

1) What is self-help? Is it different than spiritual seeking?

It’s one variety of spiritual seeking, which I refer to as “spiritual bypassing.” It relies on motivation toward personal fulfillment through reading books and listening to recordings. Many of the people who get caught by these mythologies are looking for self-help, but they may not understand what self-help has to offer.

Most are looking for ways of keeping their minds busy all the time—distractions from anxiety and fear, pain and depression. Self-help can be helpful to that end.

Bypassing is a different kind of spiritual quest: it’s about finding liberation by going beyond oneself. Spiritual bypassing is a way of going around yourself to get what you want or to try to feel better.

But there’s another kind of spiritual quest that is more direct—about getting past the self-contraction and its reactive emotions to see the truth about who we are at a deeper level within ourselves. This requires dropping the self-contraction and allowing it to dissolve, as Jonathan Haidt describes in The Happiness Hypothesis.

However, this latter kind of quest requires dropping the whole framework of personal fulfillment and well-being that we assume we need. It requires an individual’s sense of self (or “ego”) and its agenda and motivations to go away so that the mental space clears for insight. This latter kind of quest requires emptying the cup, not filling it further. It requires looking beyond being fulfilled or being happy or being healthy or coming first—all those things that are taken as ultimate needs by self-help gurus and their followers.

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2) Why do people gravitate toward self-help?

They may seek escape from the sense of emptiness, loss, or threat that arises in daily life. They may seek an empowering narrative that makes them feel significant or special. Or they may simply want to believe something rather than having to think it through for themselves—like believing in God. There are many reasons that people may go to a guru or a self-help book for that kind of appeal.

3) How do you define spirituality?

In the deepest sense, it’s about having an open mind, being able to see beyond one’s thoughts and feelings—beyond oneself, in other words. In the Buddhist tradition, this is called “emptiness” or “openness.” This is different than what psychology has to say about the mind.

But there’s another definition of spirituality that is used in self-help circles, wherein it refers to reaching out for something beyond oneself—like involving oneself in an altruistic cause. I refer to this as “spiritual seeking,” because it’s about seeking to be part of something larger than oneself, and in that sense, it’s not the same as spirituality in the deepest sense.

4) Is there a healthy way to use self-help?

Self-help can be useful—it depends on how much value people find in mythologies and why they’re attracted to them. If they’re just looking for a way of keeping their minds busy, then self-help can be a. In that sense, it’s no different from any other kind of distraction

However, if someone is looking at self-help as a means to understanding what spirituality has to offer—or even as a means to realizing the limitations of one’s thought and feelings, the limitations of what a self can do—then it’s simply self-defeating. In that case, it’s better to go straight for the real thing rather than through a series of distractions.

Why The Power of Now Is Not What You Think

Our consciousness, our mind’s eye, is a creation put together from many resources, running like a documentary that won’t end.

Our eyes accept photons and send them up the optic nerve. Receptors in our ears interpret vibrations in airflow. Simultaneously, our skin, our taste buds, our noses are all gathering information and sending it brain-ward.

Our minds assemble a workable reality out of the endless flow of information, millions of items per second, combining it with stored learning, memory, and, perhaps most importantly, expectation.

The process is more complex than even that description allows, but it is a process, a sequence of occurrences that, by definition, can’t happen without an elapse of time.

Processing the Power of Now

Moreover, in that process, the creation of reality from wildly disparate elements is continuous. One slice of reality is so infused with before and after, the idea of a moment grows absurd.

We may pause for sleep but only to change context. What we see as “now” is the product of an incredible capacity for invention and interpretation – of what already happened.

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If the miracle of what your brain, supported by sensory processes, does isn’t impressive enough to… well, make your head spin, consider that all the data it uses for invention is raw. By this, I mean that what we see arrives at our optic nerves without color. Smells and sounds are inventions, mental interpretations of differing chemical and vibrational data.

We put the “bomp in the bop shoo bop shoo bop,” answering Gerry Goffin’s classic pop question, and we keep putting it in.

We put the red in roses and the blue in the sky. Evolution prepared us very well for our work, and it’s the universality of evolution that guarantees we all see, feel and hear the same things in the same way.

Life’s Essential Miracle

All of life is a miracle. To be aware of it means to infuse every moment with the most profound gratitude for being here at all. All of this is real, not just something we see on television or read in books.

Our minds assemble a workable reality out of incoming information, millions of items per second, and what comes together is different for each of us.

What all people can agree on is that our minds allow us to experience life’s miracle. This isn’t just an idea. The process of taking the raw data of the world around us and converting it into something that makes sense happens in each of us, producing what we call “reality.”

Our brains are exquisitely well-developed for this process. What seems to happen is that our minds, in receiving information from the world around us, go through a series of optimizations and inventions before generating a model of reality.

Tools Along the Way

For example, there’s no color in what we see until it arrives at our eyes. We invent it. We also invented language, but what isn’t told to us is that we can use words as tools for understanding rather than just as signals that convey information.

If I say “cat” you know exactly what it means because evolution has trained your brain to interpret this word in a particular way. It’s an amazing, miraculous arrangement. Someone said “cat” to you at some point, and it is now etched into your mind forever.

But what you do with that information is up to you. You can use this word as a dog uses its bark to request something or as an owner uses the word to scold it for making messes on the floor. Or you can use the word differently, engaging it in a conversation about cats from all over the world who have been important in history and mythology.

Manipulating the Data

These are just two very simple examples of how we take raw data and shape it to our own preferences before we add meaning. In understanding what I’m talking about here, a well-known experiment might be useful.

In this experiment, people are shown a video of two teams passing basketballs to each other in succession. Gradually the speed of the pass between players increases to a frantic rate, and the viewers don’t know what they’re watching until afterward when told that they had been looking at two teams playing basketball.

What happens during the video is that the people watching the film fill in the gaps. They supply what they think is happening, and their brains arrange, assemble and stitch together, making a full picture. The brain’s primary objective may be creating a “good enough” reality.

Most people don’t know this happens on the fly because their minds are so convincing at creating the illusion of reality. We believe we see what’s there, never of the complex processes making a real, entirely personal world in our minds.

When Reality Is Not Real

This is powerful because it means we can change how we see things simply by changing our minds. We’ve all heard that if you change the way you look at things, well then, the things you look at change. This is the essence of what I’m talking about.

If you want to change your view of reality, there’s an easy way and a hard way. The easy way is to go into denial and pretend that nothing has changed even though everything has (which seems to be what most people do). The hard way is to look at things in a new way, but with the risk of seeming “crazy” or different than everyone else.

It’s not that either method is right or wrong, just different ways of seeing reality depending on where you’re coming from. I’m advocating the second option, even though it may not be the easiest.

When you change your way of thinking about things, you are changing reality itself. This is because one of the key jobs of the brain is to make sense out of nonsense, to give order and logic to chaos, and create a viewable map based on whatever it selects from its surroundings.

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Going at Reality Creatively

This means that if you can control what your mind selects from your surroundings, you have the power to change the map itself. In other words, if you spend time looking at reality in a variety of ways, then your brain will continuously update its “map” about this new version of events.

This makes any new thoughts and perceptions real in your mind because you are literally changing the wiring of your brain so that it believes in a new reality. It will continue to update its maps based on these new experiences and, in this way, can gradually change how you see things even though they never go away for good.

In other words, when you look at things differently repeatedly, your brain learns to see them that way again. It changes the wiring or connections of your brain, making it work more like “you” want it to rather than the same old version that comes up every time you look at something.

The Power of Now Conclusion

In a world where people are always talking about doing things, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that they’re not worth wasting time on. That is, believing everything is just as good as everything else and you can live your life without making any important choices, never accepting or rejecting anything.

But the truth is that there are some things we do that make us feel great and some things we do that make us feel bad. You can choose which side of this line you want to be on by looking at the evidence and drawing conclusions about what is good for you and what is not.


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