Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Eckhart Tolle and A New Earth: Awakening of Life’s Purpose

The book that I picked up at random for reading this morning was Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose.

I once used Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now as a text in one of the courses I taught [jointly with a friend of mine] at XLRI School of Business, Jamshedpur. It is an impressive book by any standards and one of the clearest to come from the west about spirituality in recent times.

One of my friends has recently published a book that compares the teachings of Tolle and Sri Aurobindo. I am sure that will be an interesting book and plan to read it as soon as I can get a copy. I had a long discussion over the phone with my publisher friend about the book and I wish I had had that discussion after I had read A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose. The book is about a subject that was very close to Aurobindo’s heart and central to his thought: the evolution of consciousness.

Speaking about the evolution of human consciousness, Tolle in A New Earth compares it to the first flower appearing on the earth, rocks being transformed into crystals, carbon turning into diamonds and reptilians being transformed into birds.

“What could be heavier and more impenetrable than a rock, the densest of all forms?” he asks. “And yet some rocks undergo a change in their molecular structure, turn into crystals, and so become transparent to the light. Some carbons, under inconceivable heat and pressure, turn into diamonds, and some heavy minerals into other precious stones.

Most crawling reptilians, the most earthbound of all creatures, have remained unchanged for millions of years. Some, however, grew feathers and wings and turned into birds, thus defying the force of gravity that had held them for so long. They didn’t become better at crawling or walking, but transcended crawling and walking entirely. Since time immemorial, flowers, crystals, precious stones, and birds have held special significance for the human spirit. Like all lifeforms, they are, of course, temporary manifestations of the underlying one Life, one Consciousness. Their special significance and the reason why humans feel such fascination for and affinity with them can be attributed to their ethereal quality.”

What a beautiful way to put it! “They didn’t become better at crawling or walking, but transcended crawling and walking entirely.” I loved that.

Spirituality is not always about becoming better at what you do. Yes, spirituality can help you become better at what you do. In fact it can make you a better performer in whatever you do, as I say in my recent article The Buddha in the Business World, available elsewhere on this blog. But that is not the purpose of spirituality. Spirituality is at its heart about transcendence. Any spirituality that does not involve transcendence is spirituality only in name. And much of spirituality today is about becoming better at what you do. There is no harm in it, but that is the function of spirituality at its lowest level. It is like practicing yoga for health. Yoga can definitely improve your health. But that is not its purpose. Improvement in health is more like a side effect – a positive one unlike in the case of modern medicine, the side effects of which are frequently deadlier than the original disease itself for which you take the medicine. For every real master of yoga, whether it is the most ancient acharya of it, Patanjali, or subsequent masters like Swatmarama, the purpose of yoga has been much, much higher than improvement in health.

What Krishna talks about throughout the Bhagavad Gita is transcendence.

Achieving transcendence is the essence of spirituality – its heart, its life, its soul. Without that, spirituality becomes lifeless, soulless.

“Can human beings lose the density of their conditioned mind structures and become like crystals or precious stones, so to speak, transparent to the light of consciousness?” asks Tolle. “Can they defy the gravitational pull of materialism and materiality and rise above identification with form that keeps the ego in place and condemns them to imprisonment within their own personality?” Tolle answers his question: “The possibility of such a transformation has been the central message of the great wisdom teachings of humankind.”

A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose is about achieving this transformation.

I would disagree with Tolle’s use of one key word, though: transformation. At its heart, Indian spiritual traditions do not accept transformation as the goal of spiritual journeys. Transformation means you have to become something other than what you are now. Indian spirituality says what you have to do is to become what you are – what you really are. And this is done through transcendence, and not through transformation. When you transcend the ego, you become what you really are and what you have always been – your true self.

Indian spirituality even rejects the word becoming, because even that word involves transformation. Instead, it prefers the word awakening: awakening into what you are, what you have always been.

Of course, one could say that too is a transformation. Besides, Tolle is speaking of transformation not only at the individual level, but also at the universal level.


I came across another beautiful thing this morning. Speaking about karma yoga, Sri Ravishankar says: Karma yoga is being in touch with your being and working. It is being in touch with the stillness in you and working. It is being centred and working.

I loved it. Karma yoga is one of the most misunderstood aspects of spirituality and I believe at least in part this happened when the politicians hijacked the word. Karma yoga is not social service, though social service could be done as karma yoga. Karma yoga is not helping the poor and helpless, though helping the poor and helpless could be done as karma yoga. In its true sense, karma yoga is an attitudinal and existential change in the way we work. And that work can be anything. It can be social service, it can be helping the poor, it can be caring for the sick. It can also be fighting a battle and killing, as Krishna asks Arjuna to do in the Gita. It can be running an organization. Even a multinational business, for that matter. Or doing the work of a butcher, or a prostitute, as the ancient stories of Dharmavyadha and Bindumati tell us. What you do is not what counts, it is how you do it. That decides whether it is karma yoga or not. Karma yoga calls for us to look at these two dimensions: the dimension of attitude and the dimension of existence, or being as Ravishankar puts it. At the existential level, you should be in touch with your being, with your centre, with the stillness in you. At the attitudinal level, your aim should be, above all else, spiritual growth. You do it with the attitude of surrender to the Divine, with the attitude that your work is an offering to the Divine. With full and total commitment. Than it is karma yoga.

That is how Krishna puts it in the Gita: svakarmanā tam abhyarchya siddhim vindati manavah. By worshipping Him through his actions, man attains the Supreme. Karma yoga is transforming your work itself into an act of worship. Your work becomes worship when you perform it with the attitude of surrender to the Divine, with the attitude that your work is an offering to the Divine, and you do it with inner stillness, inner centeredness, remaining in touch your being.

There is only one way to get in touch with your being: to transcend your ego.

There is a contradiction here. The aim of spirituality is to get in touch with your being and karma yoga is one of the paths leading to that. But to practice karma yoga, you must already be in touch with your being.

Well, the contradiction is only apparent, not real. Every moment you are still, you are in touch your being. Every moment of inner stillness is a moment when you are in touch with your being. Karma yoga is the path through which you can make that touch with your being lasting. Through karma yoga, and through other spiritual paths, you cultivate stillness. Until that stillness becomes constant, perennial. And when that happens, you are in touch with eternity.

Eternity is stillness. And time is movement, action. When you are able to remain in stillness even when you are in movement, in action, then you are a true master. Then there is action in inaction and inaction in action.

Karmani akarma yah paśyet, akarmani ca karma yah, sa buddhimān manushyeshu, sa yogi kritsnakarmakrt.

Says the Gita: The one who sees inaction in action and action in inaction, he is the intelligent one among men, he is the yogi who has done all he has to do [achieved all he has to achieve].

Yoga is transcending action and reaching inaction even while being active. Yoga is transcending the ego and reaching the Being even when functioning as an individual.

The highest level of transcendence is not when you reach transcendence in meditation. It is when you are in transcendence even while you are actively involved in the world.


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