I've been reading Eckhart Tolle's books lately, and one thing he wrote has stuck with me. The ego, he says, is clever but it is not intelligent.
With that in mind, I'd like to look at posts by two bloggers that came to my attention. The first is an old post from November of 2005, written by a Brit named Stanley McHale, who is gamely trying to make a career in the fiendishly difficult world of standup comedy. (Anyone who doubts that doing standup is a nightmare should rent the documentary Comedian, perhaps the most depressing movie ever made on the subject of comedy.)
Anyway, McHale tells of his visit to a Liverpool bookstore.
In the current Waterstones, the self-help section is front and centre on the ground floor. It’s as if they didn’t want to put it in a secluded and appropriately unpopular part of the shop so that a) those in desperate need of some emergency self-help didn’t have to negotiate any stairs or start a search of the shop that might up their already chronic stress levels or further erode their fragile self-esteem, and b) so that the staff at the main check-out can have a good gander and giggle at the desperados that think these books can help them.
So we've established that McHale doesn't think much of self-help books or the people who read them. Clearly he is in no need of any self-help! In fact, he is planning to write a spoof of self-help books called The Power of Ten - this despite the fact that, as he admits early in his post, he has not actually read anything in the genre. But this deficit is to be rectified at Waterstones. He scans the shelves and is dismayed to find a prominent book with a title similar to his own. Instead of The Power of Ten, it's The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle.
Remarkably enough, he has never heard of the book - which was, after all, a major international bestseller by this time. In any event, he decides to tell us about its contents.
It’s by a man(?) called Eckhart Tolle and, although I've not read it yet (and God help me I’m going to have to) is about living in the present. Basically, saying that if you’re not concerned with the future, and not the past, but just learn to enjoy the absolute moment you’re currently in, you’ll be really happy and that.
Yes folks, welcome to the highly practical world of the self-help book. THIS is why I’m so keen on writing my spoof. They’re sitting ducks.
Actually there is a great deal more to Tolle's ideas than this account would suggest, but since McHale has not actually, you know, read the book, he is no doubt summarizing it as best he can.
Standing in the bookstore, he does manage to read the introduction to the new edition, in which Tolle remarks in passing that Time magazine had dismissed his book as "mumbo jumbo." Tolle attributes this attitude to the fact that, "In many people, as well as in most of the political and economic structures of the greater part of the media, the old consciousness is still deeply entrenched. Anyone who is still totally identified with the voice in their head – the stream of involuntary and incessant thinking – will inevitably fail to see what The Power Of Now is all about."
Brilliant. So journalists working for arguably the most respected magazine on the planet, not to mention those are ‘still totally identified with the voice in their head’ – i.e. their own unpolluted personality – will find the book be a complete and heavy load of elephant dung, but those fragile enough to be brainwashed by a preacher will think it’s great.
Remember, he still hasn't actually read the book.
He goes on,
I just hope that The Power Of Now isn’t a massive hit all over the world because it’ll make my book look like counter terrorism. I may not even read The Power Of Now just so that I’m not influenced in what I write.
Of course, The Power of Now was already "a massive hit all over the world." McHale just didn't know it, because he knew nothing of the genre he intended to satirize. And apparently he doesn't intend to learn - because by the end of his story, he has more or less talked himself into not reading The Power of Now, after all!
Well, why should he? He already knows it's "a complete and heavy load of elephant dung." "Journalists working for arguably the most respected magazine on the planet" have said so. Only "desperados [sic] that think these books can help them" could feel otherwise.
From here, we go to a blog entry that appeared just today, posted by John Hawkins at Right Wing News. Apparently somebody named Jerome Armstrong used to make stock recommendations on the basis of astrology. Armstrong is a liberal, and some of his fellow liberals are now defending him and saying that it's wrong to ridicule astrology. Hawkins finds this absurd, because he thinks that astrology is patently ridiculous.
I have no opinion about astrology. The only thing I know about it is that professional astrologers disdain the horoscopes published in newspapers or TV Guide. They say that each horoscope has to be prepared individually, with great care. Is there any substance to what they do? It seems doubtful, but I know of one study that supposedly did find a statistically significant correlation between birthdates and success in athletics. The skeptical organization CSICOP attempted to debunk this study, inadvertently ended up confirming it, and then tried to fudge the numbers so the debunking would still come off. When this sleight of hand became public, it caused quite a scandal. (Details on this episode, as recounted by former CSICOP member Dennis Rawlins, are found here.)
Anyway, back to Hawkins, who huffs and puffs:
Astrology is not a religious belief. It's pure, unadulterated, worthless crap drawn up by charlatans and fakers.
That being said, there's a difference between reading a horoscope and writing the horoscope. There's a difference between playing with a Ouija board on a lark and being a professional medium who conducts seances. There's a difference between having your palm read for the fun of it and being a professional palm reader.
The readees in my experience, are usually just curious, want to try something new, or at a minimum, give minimal credence to what their horoscope says.
But, professional psychics, palm readers, astrologers, and witches who actually offer their services to other people and live and die by this stuff? They're either nuts or crooked.
As I said, I don't know much (or care much) about astrology, but I do know and care about mediumship, which I have studied extensively. To say that all "professional psychics" are "either nuts or crooked" is astonishing. It's a statement that disregards more than a century of research into psychic phenomena. And it's backed up by no facts, no sources. I am willing to bet that Hawkins has never read anything substantive about the history of parapsychology. I doubt he knows anything about such famous mediums as Leonora Piper and Gladys Osborn Leonard (both tested for more than twenty years under rigorous conditions by top investigators, many of whom were deeply skeptical). I doubt he has even read about the work of J.B. Rhine at Duke University - or the ganzfeld tests - or, well, anything in this field.
He doesn't have to read it, you see. He already knows that all working psychics are "either nuts or crooked."
So what do we have here? One blogger is sure that Tolle's book is nothing but "dung," though he hasn't read it. In fact, all self-help books are dung, though evidently he hasn't read any of them. Meanwhile, another blogger is sure that all psychics are fakes or crazies, though he offers no evidence for his claim and demonstrates no knowledge of this complex and controversial field.
Tolle is right: the ego is clever, but it is not intelligent. It also will put up strong defenses to keep out unwanted ideas. Those defenses include ridicule, an attitude of superiority, and a refusal to even read any book or consider any idea that challenges the ego's fixed opinions.
But - and here you might want to hold on to your keyboard as I execute a 180-degree turn - I'm not writing all this to single out McHale and Hawkins. I have nothing against them, really. They merely serve as pertinent examples of a larger point.
You see, the truth is, we all do this kind of thing. We all have our blind spots and our "egoic" (Tolle's word) defenses. We all protect ourselves from ideas that might undermine our (always fragile) sense of self.
It's easy to see this in the above two writers, and a lot harder to see it in ourselves. But in ourselves is where we ought to look. McHale and Hawkins are no different from you or me. They're not "bad" guys, burdened with some incomprehensible alien psychology. They're just like us.
Or as somebody famous from long ago (actually, he was kind of a self-help guru and practicing psychic) might have put it: We see the splinter in our friend's blog, but not the log in our own.