My reading of Eckhart Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, happened to coincide with the birth of my daughter Anya. The timing was propitious. What better time to contemplate life’s meaning and mystery than during the emergence of new life, a moment of indescribable wonder and awe?
I found A New Earth to be a thoughtful synthesis of spiritual, religious, and philosophical teachings from the ages—from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Taoism to transcendentalism and existentialism, even drawing upon psychology and science. The book is one part spiritual manifesto and one part social commentary (though much better at the former), touching on not only God and immortality but also childhood, parenthood, television, the media, the environment, emotion, addiction, and more. Tolle takes us on an expansive journey with the ancients and the moderns, from Lao Tzu, Siddhartha, and the Oracle of Delphi to Milan Kundera, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking.
He explains that the central problem of our existence is the human ego. Of course, this claim is not new. According to Tolle, we fritter away far too much of our lives on superficial matters and concerns (looks, possessions, wealth, status), falling unknowingly into traps set by our ego. Essentially, we lose ourselves in our mind—in the world of things, thoughts, and forms. We play a role in work and life whose drama is all about feeding the insatiable needs of that ego, inflating itself at the detriment of others. He writes, “The ego creates separation, and separation causes suffering,” essentially creating a “background of unhappiness in our lives.” This has become the primary source of individual and collective dysfunction in the world, from individuals to nation-states and civilizations. The essential problem is that the ego takes us away from Being, from being present in the endless moment of life in an enlightened state of consciousness.
For Tolle, spiritual transformation is not some distant abstraction requiring decades of worship or piety. Rather, it is readily accessible to all who are willing to quiet the incessant stream of thinking and worry, who learn to be still and present in the moment—and open to the unfolding of Being. I find in this a deep and abiding humility—the universal yearning to be connected to the universe, surely a calling higher than our wish to feel important or to be viewed as extraordinary.
Part of the wisdom here is the simplicity of intentionality: Am I doing what I am doing now for its own sake, or am I actually feeding my ego? [Tolle writes, “You are present when what you are doing is not primarily a means to an end (money, prestige, wanting) but fulfilling in itself, when there is joy and aliveness in what you do.”]
This book raises a central, vexing dilemma for our time: how to reconcile the modern world we live in with all its complexities and demands with the timeless spiritual realm? Indeed, how to live? Tolle writes that “spiritual truth is diametrically opposed to the values of our contemporary culture and the way it conditions people to behave…. The collective disease of humanity is that people are so engrossed in what happens, so hypnotized by the world of fluctuating forms, so absorbed in the content of their lives, they have forgotten the essence, that which is beyond content, beyond form, beyond thought. They are so consumed by time that they have forgotten eternity, which is their origin, their home, their destiny.”
He goes on: “Make sure your vision or goal is not an inflated image of yourself and therefore a concealed form of ego, such as wanting to become a movie star, a famous writer, or a wealthy entrepreneur. Also make sure your goal is not focused on having this or that, such as a mansion by the sea, your own company, or ten million dollars in the bank…. Instead… see yourself inspiring countless people with your work and enriching their lives. Feel how that activity enriches or deepens not only your life but that of countless others.”
It is evident that we have largely embraced the material realm of time, stress, pressure, ego, worry, and hyper-activity to the profound detriment of our spiritual health. But the spiritual message of “making peace with the present moment,” of “not minding what happens,” and of nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment does elicit moral and practical dilemmas when we consider the problem of injustice, suffering, and evil in this world. Tolle does talk about “right action” aligned with the universe’s deeper truths, but is the approach too passive? Does it ask for too much acceptance? How to account for the fact that great and good deeds have been accomplished through striving, through righteous indignation that takes suffering and injustice head on? Is making peace with the present moment enough, or is there more to our inner transformation?
A New Earth makes the case that joy comes not from what we do but from a state of being. While there is great wisdom in that, I wonder if the truth isn’t closer to a dynamic and mysterious dance between doing and being, where the two harmoniously infuse each other with both joy and meaning.