Having taken to task a blogger critic of Eckhart Tolle in my last post, I now reverse directions and level a critique at Tolle myself. (Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, and all that.)
Many of Tolle's ideas are interesting and useful. His writings should not be underestimated. At the same time, though, I believe I sniff a trace of cultishness in his position, and more than a trace in some (not all) of his followers.
One of the most common attributes of a cult is described by Jeff Walker (following the lead of cult expert Eric Merrill Budd) in his book The Ayn Rand Cult:
[In a cult] the world at large is depicted as evil, violent, decadent, and as nearing a state of collapse. But thankfully a replacement utopia is waiting in the wings in the form of the leader's blueprint for a new order. Part of the convert's initial zeal for conveying the group's message is the presumption that the leader's ideology will be as unassailable and infectious for others as for himself ... The utopian forecasts certain disaster unless he has his way ... Cult leaders claim discovery of new knowledge or reclaimed exclusive access to ancient knowledge, or more often, combine both, by way of justifying a special life mission. Absent a successful completion of that mission, we are all doomed. (pp. 60-65)
Unfortunately, much of this aligns pretty closely with Tolle's message. Tolle says that mankind is in the process of evolving to a higher consciousness, and that his own writings are playing a pivotal part in bringing this about. And not a moment too soon - since if we do not quickly evolve, our "egoic" behavior will destroy the planet within a century. Thus we are in a race with disaster. Either we evolve to Tolle's level of consciousness, or we die!
This is not an ancillary aspect of Tolle's teaching. It is the main theme of his most recent book, A New Earth. Tolle disdains the label of utopian, but it is hard to see how else to characterize his views.
Some of the other distinguishing characteristics of cults listed by Budd and cited by Walker are:
- The claim that the cult leader possesses special knowledge.
- An insistence on developing "self-awareness," which results in noticeable personality changes.
- Elitism - the cult members are the vanguard of a new movement, even a new race. (Tolle, asked in an interview if he is "a mutant," remarkably enough answers in the affirmative!)
- Jargon and buzzwords. ("Egoic," "painbody," "the Now," etc.)
In technical terms, Tolle's movement could be described as an "educational-therapeutic" cult, as opposed to a political or religious cult.
Again, I'm not saying that Tolle's ideas are bad. As I have written earlier, I think his technique of focusing on the immediate moment and silencing the chatter of the mind can be refreshing and powerful. It is a useful relaxation exercise. It can help combat stress. It may even serve to stimulate spiritual growth.
But beware of anyone who tells you that a certain set of ideas (or self-improvement techniques) are all that's standing between the world and Apocalypse. That's a recipe for cultism - no matter how useful the ideas, on their own merit, may be.