by OWEN ROBERTS
When I was a kid I had this idea that my dad was a Marxist, before I had any idea what Marxism was. My dad is sort of a self-proclaimed Marxist, though he isn't particularly vocal about it, but it manifests in his general attitude toward religion and politics, which is that he tends to be incredibly cynical and doesn't seem to "believe" in anything, other than economic forces maybe. So there was this unspoken dialectic in my house between my atheist dad (he probably wouldn't admit to that, might describe himself as agnostic) and my mom, who is Irish Catholic, and believes that people have souls and stuff. My mom went to church and unconvincingly tried to make me believe in God and think about religion, and is generally more comfortable with feelings and beliefs than my dad or me. Anyway, this possibly overly revealing introduction is just to set up the fact of my complete shock when I found out my dad was reading The Power of Now. I had heard of it but I didn't know much about it. It's a wildly successful self-help book. You can read a lot of it on Google Books.
The Power of Now actually came out first in 1999, but it started getting really popular in 2008 when Oprah made it a book of the month, which means a ton of people will read it just because she said they should (don't interpret this as disparaging of Oprah, I may not like her taste in books always, but I like her).
I was really weirded out to find my dad reading the book, because, first, he doesn't have time to read a lot (I think he read a lot of things when he was younger but his default response to questions like, "Hey, dad, did you ever read this copy of Sentimental Education I found in the bookshelf?" is "I don't think I really understood it"), and second, he's an incredible cynic with not a spiritual bone in his body. So this led me to pick up the book and start reading a little bit, because, though I'm used to feeling alienated by the popularity of certain books and media, my dad's interest in anything "soft" piqued my own interest.
I find the book impossible to read. But there's clearly something successful about it if has become so meaningful to so many people. I've met people my age with, like, regular interests and normal personalities, who say this book changed their life. I have a tendency to assume shit like this is totally exploitative and soft. But if it helps people who am I to say that it's bullshit?
There isn't even much criticism (not even on the Internet) of the book or its author, Eckhart Tolle, which seems bizarre. It's difficult to back up this claim with research, but this comment on the one blog post I found criticizing Tolle (in like twenty-five pages of Google results) corroborates the claim: "Incidentally, the phrase “i hate eckhart tolle” only gets about half a dozen hits. Likewise, “eckhart tolle sucks” just gets one. It seems to me that the dearth of criticism for something so well read and practically unintelligible is a little concerning. Is there something in the water?" Maybe critics have better things to do.
I think it's fair to say that people often enjoy books who have a character or protagonist with which the reader can identify.
Jk. This is probably more accurate.
Which sort of means is that people like reading about themselves, or at least thinking about themselves while reading, or picturing themselves in a story. That's maybe why there are archetypes, and Peter Parker is like a completely generic looking dude and people talk about whether or not they're Slytherins or Gryffindors or whatever. So it follows that The Power of Now might owe its popularity in part to the fact that each individual can easily imagine themselves as the protagonist.
You don't escape into a cool fantasy world when reading The Power of Now, you escape into a fantasy of self improvement.
A gross simplification of the point of The Power of Now: Thinking is bad. Okay, to be honest, I think there is some merit to Tolle's central concept of being present in your life; it's the kind of thing that is absurdly obvious, but might require someone else telling you not to be constantly freaking out about the past and future for you to realize that you were doing it in the first place. But Tolle seems to take this mantra to its most extreme conclusion. Now, this is clearly reductive, but given the repetitive and generally ambiguous nature of Tolle's prose, I don't feel like a close reading is really needed.
A representative sentence:
Instead of "watching the thinker," you can also create a gap in the mind stream simply by directing the focus of your attention into the Now. Just become intensely conscious of the present moment. This is a deeply satisfying thing to do.
I think that's called telling, not showing. Tolle's read on why people are unhappy seems to be that everyone is just super anxious and thinking too much about things, and the way to combat this compulsive thinking is to not think at all, or to think intensely about things that are relatively meaningless. He doesn't offer much in the way of reasonable alternative other than meditating.
Tolle's own life makes this whole philosophy suspect. Basically he was a bum. He was depressed and suicidal and turned to spirituality. He sort of implies that he was homeless for like two years. When he had the idea to write a book and eventually make a million dollars, he doesn't mention. It doesn't help that he looks like a total creepy weirdo.
Dude is too busy not thinking to shave.
I'm all for relaxing and chilling out and stuff, but I don't think that's what makes people happy. I think not being really bored is what makes people happy, among other things. And, like, success. And probably a lot of other things. Tolle has been accused of trying to be God, which is far fetched, but he's certainly filling the role of some sort of prophet or something. What kind of a prophet is a weird question though. You have to wonder what Eckhart Tolle wants people to do with his book. He wants to help people help themselves, but why?
The back of The Power of Now labels it as Personal Growth/Spirituality, which means self-help. I looked into the history of the self-help industry a bit, to see where the whole thing got kicked off, and where Tolle fits into it. The first bestselling self-help book was How to Make Friends and Influence People, written by Dale Carnegie, which was published in 1936 and has since sold more than fifteen million copies. Coincidentally, Carnegie's life long dream was to be a Chautauqua lecturer (only a coincidence because I wrote about Chautauqua on this blog), a dream which he never realized. According to his Wikipedia page, one of his most successful business moves was changing his name from Carnagey to Carnegie, in order to associate himself with Andrew Carnegie, and even "was able to rent Carnegie Hall itself for a lecture to a packed house," which seems silly. His middle name is Breckenridge, which I think is a great name, and is also a kind of flower.
How to Make Friends and Influence People was only a year old when people started making fun of it, namely, Irving Dart Tressler, who wrote How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (not to confused with Toby Young or a movie that was apparently made based on that book), which Time magazine thought was funny.
I picked this up at The Strand after seeing it in this movie.
How to Win Friends and Influence People is written more like a manual for businessmen, Carnegie's industry, employing anecdotal stories to prove points about human behavior and how to exploit it basically. The self-help precedent for The Power of Now is more likely The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale (not just because they both have "power" in the titles, there are a lot of self-help books that reference "power" both in their titles and otherwise). Like Tolle, Peale emphasizes conquering anxiety and finding peace of mind, with similar language (though Carnegie resembles Tolle in that both were failures in previous efforts before becoming successful as self-help authors). In his time, Peale was controversial for mixing religion and psychology, and was attacked by mental health experts who called him a fraud and a con man.
The thing about the word "power" that bothers me is that it doesn't seem to make much sense in the context of self-help. My conception of power is, loosely, one person's ability to control other people, or other abstractions of this idea. The goal of The Power of Now is to help the reader gain power over themselves, which seems to imply that most people exist in a sort of schizophrenic state. I'm sure you can make an argument for this idea, but I find it bothersome nonetheless. Because there is a market for these books, you have to assume that there are people getting something out of them, but I remain skeptical of the ideas that Tolle and other self-help authors offer. I'm not alone either, there are numerous parodies and critics of self-help (though apparently not of Tolle), including George Carlin.
I think this image sort of sums up my frustration with Tolle. This symbol appears every few pages in The Power of Now, and is intended to signal the reader to pause and think about what they have just read. Ignoring the fact that this is an obvious gimmick to increase the length of the text (only two hundred wide margin pages), it's an incredibly patronizing little symbol to appear every few pages. It only makes me further question the motivation behind the book which is suspect to begin with. But even if I ignore the ambiguous origination of the book, it's still pretty silly.
It's possible that I'm judging The Power of Now from an unfair and overly literary perspective. My dad's interest in the book caused me to wonder about its influence and appeal for people is because it is so alien to me, but dissecting the book is also patronizing to the fans of the book, in the sense that while Tolle is telling people how they should think, I'm telling people that they're stupid for buying it.
Owen Roberts is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find his most recent work here.
"Seduced and Abandoned" - The Magnetic Fields (mp3)
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"I Don't Know What To Say" - The Magnetic Fields (mp3)
You can pre-order the new Magnetic Fields album Realism here.