The Limits of Mysticism - Eckhart Tolle meets Anthroposophy
By Josef Graf
In my experience questing for understanding of spiritual aspects of the human community, I have had occasion to encounter some unusual synchronicities. One such event emerged while perusing a lecture by noted Initiate and spiritual scientist, Rudolf Steiner. Steiner's statement, pertaining to 13th Century mystic, Meister Eckhart, ran as follows: (to paraphrase) "Eckhart mistook the seed of his next life (accrued from wisdom of his then current life) for the "God within," as he was not familiar with the dynamics of reincarnation."
Steiner was referring to both Meister Eckhart, and his principle disciple, John Tauler. Cut, now, to a popular spiritual teacher of our present time, Eckhart Tolle. Eight centuries ago, we had Eckhart/Tauler. Now we have Eckhart Tolle. . . hmmm. . .so I did a metaphysical double take on this resonation, and decided to look deeper. One of the first things I discovered was that Eckhart Tolle's keystone awakening, a life-altering experience at age 29, typified the kind of event found on the path of a mystic. As opposed to a rigorous, day by day, every-step-earned process, Tolle's entry was an overnight leap into the Threshold.
Subsequent to his epiphany experience, the Tolle of today, nee Ulrich Leonard Tolle, changed his name to resonate with one of his key influences, the original Meister Eckhart of the 13th Century.
This led me to undertake a comparative analysis of what Eckhart Tolle is presenting, alongside anthroposophy. In this article, I refer principally to modern anthroposophy, as exemplified by Georg Kuhlewind (who passed on in 2006), a dependable resource on Western meditation and consciousness exploration.
Compared with the wildly popular Eckhart Tolle, the lesser known offerings of Kuhlewind, are (I maintain) more grounded, and deeper-running.
However, from the outset, I want to say that this is not meant to be a put-down of the worldview presented by Eckhart Tolle. In fact, my own feeling is that many of his practices have a lot of merit. Only, in the end, upon in-depth review, a seeker may want to temper these practices with some complementary perspectives. If I had to choose between Tolle and Kuhlewind, I would choose the latter. However, even better, I believe a productive synthesis of the two can be pursued - provided the seeker proceeds mindfully, and engages in a way that honors individual circumstances.
As in all things, caveat emptor - "buyer beware" - especially when the "purchase" is a metaphysical one.
Some of the differences between the two pathways that I have chosen to scrutinize appear to consist largely of a definitional nature. For example, in Tolle's estimation, "thinking" is the key problem, "the mind" is the enemy - unless used with Presence. An Anthroposophical approach agrees with this, as far as everyday conceptual life goes, but contends that Thinking, per se, is a powerfully productive avenue. To clarify, the anthroposophical perspective of "Thinking" refers to thinking imbued with feeling and willing, a Steinerian form of cognition, as opposed to what Eckhart Tolle is getting at, which is the basic conceptual activity of the lower ego.
Georg Kuhlewind asserts that, "Thinking must become so strong and independent that it appears to the subject with the same character of reality as does any outward perception. This is achieved through exercises in concentration, as far as is necessary (and for the majority of people today it is necessary)..."
The key to grappling with the thinking issue is to understand the difference between thought (already performed, now existing in the past) and the process of thinking (alive in the moment). "I think, therefore I am" is the lesser ego's line. However, "I am" is the voice of the source of thinking.
Prior to meditation, the gaps between thoughts are experienced as nothing. Through process of meditation, those gaps become the birth arena, the birth-force, of thought.
New Age demonization of the ego can be problematic. For one thing, the development of ego-consciousness was a necessary phase toward a greater destiny. And beyond the domain of the "lower ego" presides another aspect of self, which can be termed "Ego," an individualized aspect of Spirit - in fact, the modern "jewel in the lotus," or leading edge of evolution for humanity. In Steiner's view, humanity is destined, eventually, to return to the spiritual pool from which it emerged, only we will do so with fully developed consciousness.
While the ancient practice of dissolution of the ego was an effective process for its time, discernment of the new conditions of our current age needs to come about. Related to this consideration, is the concept of "separation" (as an aspect of the "ego's sense of identity"). While separation is largely illusion-based, the new edge of evolution suggests that because individuation is valid, the spiritual evolution of human nature entails a dynamic poise that strives to embrace both Unity and Separation - that we are, or are growing to be, both fully one with All, yet simultaneously individuated. This level of truth can only be comprehended on a clairsentient level, as the mind itself cannot grasp this seeming impossibility - impossible on the mental plain, but feasible on the spiritual plain.
The real issue, then, is not that the ego needs to be dissipated (although on one level, mindful processing of the ego is certainly called for), but that humanity, like a fourteen-year-old teen, is not yet mature enough to engage its Ego-hood. This is why we fall, so often, into such trouble with this facet of our being - into egotism, and related failings. And it explains, also, our association with out-dated social identity forums that lead to strife, division, and violence, such as, nationalism, inside-outside group membership, religions, blood-family ties - all manner of social groupings we need to move on from. We have not yet matured into this newest aspect of our being, an Ego-hood that, paradoxically, transcends division.
A key part of the agenda of an active processing relates to transforming the ego into a higher state. The goal of modern meditation might be summed up as a practice that leads beyond normal thinking, into the process of Thinking.
It is likely that, of the millions who are engaging in the exercises that teachers such as Eckhart Tolle present, most will attain meaningful progress in terms of soul-processing. They will free themselves of some of their incarnation-bound suffering, but will fall short on initiating the other half of the agenda - that of spirit-processing.
Spirit-processing entails activity like consciously evolving one's astral nature, a long-term project. The real deal is about rigorous striving to convert the lower astral nature to a higher form. Clearly an Egoic function. "Presence," in this assessment, is a process that entails the power and engagement of the "I."
Eckhart Tolle's treatment of the "pain body" is intriguing. It lays out a means of bringing mindfulness into darker regions of our emotional realm However, it is when the "pain body" is equated with the "shadow" aspect of our being, that opportunity for ascendancy most effectively presents itself.
Contrary to the initial incentive of many a novice seeker, productive shadow work entails a shift in focus, from becoming free of one's "pain-body," to transmuting it. Experience with the shadow proves that we make real and enduring progress through redeeming the broad multi-dimensionality of its aspects. Carl Jung maintained that 90% of the shadow is "pure gold" - not to be dissipated, but to be incorporated within the overall tableau of the self.
In line with this wholesome (whole-making), Western practice of celebrating individuation, or Ego-hood, resides the idea of honoring the same in others - what could be termed deep tolerance.
In fairness, several aspects of Eckhart Tolle's teachings appear to be especially productive to resonate with:
- The purpose of relationship is not to make one happy, but more conscious.
- In the process of aging, the external form becomes increasingly transparent to the light shining through one's ageless true nature, resulting in a rarefied spiritual beauty.
- Personal/outward happiness is one side of a duality, versus the "joy" ( the quiet joy of Being) that transcends dualism.
- If the outer collapse of society and/or one's life condition proceeds, one may not be happy, but can be at peace.
- One can be accepting in the sense of not resisting, yet still tell someone their behavior is unacceptable.
Kudos, also, to Eckhart Tolle for his perspective on the role of mainstream media and film as reinforcing-agents of materialism, acquisition, and violent resolution; for the centrality of presence and forgiveness; for encouragement around bringing one's consciousness into the body, for feeling body sensations with more awareness; and for the idea of directing one's attention to the "small things" such as an ambiance of nature, or other aspects of life we too often take for granted.
In the end, however, a question arises: As Meister Eckhart of the 13th Century fell short of ascertaining the "God within" - is it not upon every seeker to ask how well 21st Century mysticism can deliver function-ability, given the full array of needs for today's individual?
I will close this article with four segments derived from the lecture material of Rudolf Steiner. The points being addressed in these particular segments coincide with key questions any seeker exploring a spiritual path would be well to entertain:
...This development asks for great patience and perseverance on the part of the pupil. The degree of patience a man gains in the ordinary course of life will not suffice. For it will be a long time - in many instances a very long time indeed - before the organs are so far developed that the pupil can make use of them for perceiving in the higher world...
...Anyone who allows himself to grow impatient because he can still "see nothing" has not yet succeeded in finding his right relation to a higher world. He alone has done so who can look upon the exercises he undertakes in his training as an end in themselves...
...In a training where care is not taken to develop in the pupil certainty and stability in his powers of judgment and discrimination as well as in his emotions and his moral character, it may happen that the higher world presents itself to him before he has the inner faculties with which to face it. The encounter with his Double, will in that event cause him great distress and lead him astray. If on the other hand - as would also be possible - he were completely to elude the meeting with the Double, he would still be just as incapable of coming to any true knowledge of the higher world. For he would then be unable to distinguish between what the things around him really are and what he himself is seeing into them. To be able to do this, he must first have seen the distinct picture of his own being; then he can separate and distinguish from his environment whatever has flowed over into it from his own inner life." —Rudolf Steiner
From Andrew Flaxman, Director, Educate Yourself for Tomorrow (a contemporary approach to holistic self-development), reviewing Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth:
Translated into today's language, soul is more like our feelings while spirit is more closely connected to pure thought. This book extols a new look at feelings and defuses the value of thinking about thinking. With this type of emphasis the book says nothing at all about reincarnation as this information is available only to the spiritual self, not to the soul.
Tolle is very good with his advice and description of attachment to the ego that leads to anger, jealousy, and unhappiness. What he misses is advice on how to transform the ego into a higher self. Instead, he recommends breathing exercises which were appropriate for the pre-Christian mentality, but not for us today. Today it is important for us to become aware of the Indwelling Logos, which is done through a meditative process leading us beyond normal thought to spiritual activity based on freedom and love."
Insight21, in tandem with its sister project, Earth Vision, presents articles that emerge from research into some of the brightest resources available, such as Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy, and the Association for Research and Enlightenment.