A New Classic
We live in an explosion of spiritual writing. In addition to tons of recent books on Christian inspiration, there are breakthroughs in scholarship, archaeology, and an ocean of writings on meditation, the New Age, and Eastern religions. In the flood of information, it's only natural to wonder—What do I read? What will help me with something I don't already know? What will be forgotten in five years, and what will endure?
Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now is a superb book already being hailed as a classic. Although nothing changes about enlightenment itself, Tolle has a wonderful new gift for teaching it. Dramatic teachers of enlightenment have sometimes described their transformation by the Divine Presence in startling terms, saying “I am God,” and such, which might highlight the profundity of their transformation, but does little to help their disciples to understand the way in. Other teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, say almost nothing about enlightenment per se, and instead concentrate almost exclusively on the way in, mindfulness. Tolle strikes a middle ground; although he places greater emphasis on the means, he does not play down the profundity of his enlightenment. And no wonder! Enlightenment actually saved his life. He was near the point of suicide when suddenly he came to the realization of the false self and the true self, and awoke the next morning to a world of wonder which he's lived in for years now.
Time is Mind
Eckhart's genius as a teacher lies in his insights which may never been as clearly worded as before. The core of Eckhart's understanding of enlightenment is that the “mind” (in the sense of conventional thought, feelings, sense of separateness and ego) is inextricably tied up with time (past and future). The way to get out of the activity of mind—the false self—and into the awareness of true reality is to step out of time, into the Now.
The Now is not part of “time,” but is simply how eternity is experienced by finite beings. The time is now. It is always now; it always has been now, and always will be now. The concept of past and future is a function of the mind, recalling past Nows and anticipating future ones. The past gives a sense of identity, (and thus the sense of being separate from God), as well as resentment, regret, and other emotions. The future gives hope for better things in the future, as well as fear and anxiety. Both sides of time remove us from the present moment, which is the only place where we exist, and where God exists. Salvation can only happen in the Now.
A Brilliant Clarity
Are questions and objections starting to surface in your mind? Great. The entire book is arranged in a Q and A format, answering questions such as yours. And Tolle's answers are always lucid, understanding, and genuine, with the conviction of someone who knows and is not just guessing. Furthermore, Tolle's suggestions are practical. Although like many enlightened teachers before him, (Jesus, the Buddha, St. Francis, Peace Pilgrim) he lived homeless for some time after his transformation, he later returned to the world of work, and gaining insight on how to use the Power of Now in day-to-day life. A particularly insightful chapter is “Enlightened Relationships” which goes beyond all popular surface psychologizing, to the real issue, (almost never discussed), that underneath it all, we want others to do what they cannot: bring us into ultimate happiness, and they can't, only realizing our own connection with the Ultimate directly can bring us into that level of fulfillment. Because of that, relationships need to be worked on from the standpoint of the present and being, but from projecting the other with impossible demands.
Another important aspect of Tolle's contribution to the enlightenment literature is a neutral language. Eckhart occasionally uses phrases from Christian and Buddhist spirituality, but prefers to use neutral words which are as objective and clear as possible. For instance, he says “Being” and “the Unmanifested” instead of “God,” to avoid the problems caused by our conceptions of God interfering with encountering the Ground of Being. Phrases like "realizing your connection with Being" are much less likely to cause confusion than terms such as “becoming God,” from early Christian mysticism. The non-dramatic language helps us accept that enlightenment is obtainable, and its neutrality is equally accessible to people coming from different spiritual traditions, as well as those coming to spirituality for the first time.
Portals into the Unmanifested
Of course, simply reading The Power of Now won't make you enlightened. As Tolle would say, only “intense presence” can do that. However, throughout the book, he gives numerous exercises to touching the Presence. (One of which, feeling the inner energy body, is very like S. K. Goenka's vipassana method and quite similar to the practice in the short 13th-century Christian classic, The Book of Privy Counseling.) Another “portal” is to listen to the silences between sounds. Tolle gives numerous other examples of how to make everyday life, as well as meditation time, into spiritual practice, no matter where one is on their journey. His idea is to cultivate the conscious, awakened state of mind, and gradually make it your dominant state of being. Tolle knows that Awakening isn't to be sought, but experienced. Now.
His insights are sometimes startling in their profundity. He has a succinct definition of enlightenment: “your natural state of felt oneness with Being.” His answer to whether love is a portal to the Unmanifested is, “No, it isn't....Love isn't a portal, it's what comes through the portal into this world.” How true, since God is love.
Do you want to go beyond devotional spirituality? Do you want the Presence of God to transform you into That likeness? Read this book or listen to the audio version again and again, and practice the techniques continually. As of this writing, I think I'm getting a glimpse of the other shore.