Chapter 1: You are not Your Mind
Subhead: The Greatest Obstacle to Enlightenment pp. 11-16
Tolle encourages “finding the gold inside yourself.” It’s good advice, just not in the way that he means. Every deceptive ideology includes grains of truth to get past people’s natural skepticism.
Tolle espouses the “Radiant Joy of Being” but refuses to define it. “Being can be felt, but it can never be understood mentally.” About as specific as he will get is that it is an “open” not a “closed” concept. In other words, it is whatever you experience it to be. So then why does he bother to talk about it? It’s clearly a carrot dangled in front of the seeker, promising a state of otherwise unachievable bliss.
But with this statement, he also sets up a false dichotomy between thinking and feeling. Marvin Minsky explains in his book The Emotion Machine how feelings are shorthand the brain uses to give us awareness of perhaps thousands of pieces of information at a time that may affect our survival or well-being. We cannot have feelings at all without the drive for self-preservation (ego).
“Ego likes to keep it that way.” Tolle is setting up the ego as the enemy. Since the ego is ever-present, this leads to a state of permanent self-denigration, and an internal split. The “good self” vs. “ego.” Problem is, we need both.
Tolle refuses to use the word “God,” and seeks to set himself apart from the theism-atheism debate by declaring himself above it.
Page 14: Tolle begins the assault on reason-the thought-stopping pogrom that lays waste to any remaining critical objections to the reader’s total surrender. No longer enough to “Free your mind” as the Matrix character Morpheus said, to truck with Tolle, you must shut it down. Tolle calls thinking a “dreadful affliction” that “casts a shadow of fear and suffering.”
The peace Tolle advocates seems to come from formlessness or a loss of individual identity. This is similar to the Buddhist concept of oneness, or as Andrew Newberg discussed, the state of “Absolute Unitary Being.”
It may be a desirable state for meditation and “checking out,” a temporary retreat from the chaos of life. It comes from the shutting down by some meditators of what Newberg calls the OAA of the brain, the orientation association area, source of human spatial perception. But this shutdown of the OAA cannot be the ideal human state, or we would have evolved that ability to do it at will. Instead it has to be learned. We evolved to have very active minds. That level of alertness conveyed a survival advantage on our ancestors.
Our minds also help us to spot and avoid memetic pseudo-spiritual traps like The Power of Now. So Tolle rightly needs to convince his readers not to think. Anyone smart enough to understand the implications would never written such a self-contradictory work.
Tolle weakly challenges Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” He doesn’t even attempt a philosophical rebuttal or alternate interpretation, and provides no evidence for his dismissal of the statement other than his unstudied personal opinion. What is existence without thought? That sounds like a very good description of inanimate matter.
Page 15: “You are one with all that is.” What does this mean? It’s an aphorism that sounds good, but what does it mean? Can I cause you to move your hand? Can I cause you to think different thoughts? Can I get you to give me money for the asking? Can I get any random person to want to have sex with me? If we’re all one, why not?
We’re not all one. We may be similar in our concerns and drives, but we are individuals. The cure for the “oneness delusion” is empathy, which comes from the brain’s mirror neurons, not a self-help book. We can unite as human beings and do our best to express compassion, gaining great satisfaction in the process. But we are not by any means one.
Tolle continues the assault: “Thinking has become a disease.” “Just as dogs love to chew bones, the mind loves to get its teeth into problems.” No kidding. Ever heard of the Enlightenment? Scientific method?
This is where things get really mushy. Page 16 he claims “you do not use your mind, it uses you.” This touches on the old favorite idea from Christianity: demonic possession. We are victims of the mind. On the new-age side, we’re also stripped of agency, as people like Elizabeth Gilbert claim (previous article) that we don’t get credit for our creative works, but rather we must credit the daimon. A new-age adaptation of giving God the glory. Notice the common agenda of both religion and spirituality: to cut you off from full identification with your biological brain.
What is Tolle’s definition of the “you” that is possessed? Which you? Is he talking about the ego? If you’re not the ego, and we’re all one, how do each of us maintain an identity at all? This touches on the Buddhist assault on the “self” as an illusion. Who’s controlling the possessing mind? We obviously do. It is self-evident that despite the philosophical problems posed by free will vs. determinism, every human has at least some limited form of agency. We make choices on a daily and moment-to-moment basis. Am I going to get up right now from my desk and go get a snack from the fridge? Or should I wait until I finish writing this article? A clear decision I just made right now, to stay and finish. How does Tolle reconcile my capacity for decision making, after having dismissed both the ego and individuality?
The incoherence and psychological naivete of this book is staggering. Two million copies sold??
Tolle wraps up the section with yet another offensive assault on reason and mental self-awareness: “all the things that truly matter-beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace-arise from beyond the mind.” This is a truly despicable distortion of that beautiful and wondrous organ within our skulls, that fantastic array of a hundred trillion neural connections that is the fount of all that humans have ever wrought and experienced throughout history. Not only has our mind created civilization, but it is also what allows us to appreciate and take pleasure in our creations. Long live the human mind.
What’s the right approach to taming and understanding it?
The Jungian model breaks down the mind into sub-personalities. All that chatter Tolle describes could indeed be confusing for the average person, until we learn to identify who’s talking and why. Instead of trying to deny and suppress the various voices and characters, we can learn to understand what they are trying to tell us.
At the end of the section, Tolle co-opts a quasi-Jungian approach by telling readers to separate themselves into the thinker and the observer.
This is the first worthy piece of advice he gives. It’s important to become acquainted with the sub-personalities. But it doesn’t last. He continues to lead the reader astray as he sets up an adversarial relationship–with the thinker, of course, in the role of spoiler.
In Jungian terms, the thinker archetype covers all the sub-personalities, including the Self or the king, while the observer is the province of the Self alone. Minsky would term the observer to be a metaphor for the brain’s function of reflective and self-reflective thinking.
A computer that’s powered on, but displaying a blank desktop is still processing large amounts of data in the background. In the case of the brain, even in a state of meditation it continues to “think.” It’s just a different kind of thinking. Even being aware of observing our thoughts, or the pauses between thoughts is still a form of thought.