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Sending the Self on Vacation:
How to Naturalize Enlightenment

Review essay on Eckhart Tolle
's books The Power of Now and A New Earth

Like Tolle, naturalists challenge conventional wisdom about the self, but their beliefs about reality are more credible. What naturalism offers in terms of enlightenment construed as becoming less attached to the self's agenda, with the psychological, moral and existential benefits non-attachment entails is therefore more realistic and achievable.

Introduction - Tolle's System - Evaluating Tolle's System - Enlightenment and Acceptance
Moral Conflict and the Limits of Enlightenment - The Power of Questioning Choice


Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a simple, permanent solution to the problem of life, of being a desiring self, caught up in ambition, fear, hope, loss and frustration, and facing the prospect of death? Many suppose that there is such a thing: achieving the personal transformation known as enlightenment. Although construed somewhat differently by the various traditions within what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy, enlightenment usually has both a cognitive and practical component. The cognitive component is to realize one’s true nature: that the ordinary, grasping ego-self masks one’s fundamental identity with ultimate reality, the ground of being. Seeing this metaphysical truth about ourselves then brings the desired practical result: petty personal concerns lose their psychological sway over us. Enlightenment is to achieve non-attachment, a state in which the ego is sent on permanent vacation. What a relief!

The attractions of enlightenment are undeniable for those, perhaps the majority of humanity at some point in their lives, who find existence a matter of greater or lesser frustration and suffering. Who wouldn’t want to be relieved of the apparently Sisyphusian task of protecting the self and its agenda against the inevitable reverses and disappointments handed out by the world?  How much simpler if we could just let it all go, and find a deep, quiet invulnerable place from which to live, unburdened of the desiring self. 

It’s no wonder then that the quest for enlightenment has taken so many forms (e.g., Vedanta, Buddhism, Sufism, contemplative Christianity) that survive into the present era, and that new recipes for self-transcendence are eagerly snapped up. These days, two books by Eckhart Tolle (pronounced Toll–ee) have sold millions by promising a permanent solution to life.[1] He says your true self is Being, the Unmanifest, and if you could directly experience this fact then abiding peace will be yours. You can even face death with equanimity, since in a sense you’ve already died: the false self has been killed off.

Tolle’s understanding of our true nature and its practical consequences partakes of the traditional Eastern conception of enlightenment which recommends that the seeker penetrate the illusion of an abiding, permanent ego by means of various meditative and attentional practices. If all goes well, these practices eventually induce experiences that directly disclose the deeper underlying ground of being, whether we call it Brahman, Cosmic Consciousness, the True Self, Suchness, or Emptiness. The successful seeker, although she of necessity continues to act in this world, is no longer attached to achieving outcomes that reinforce the merely apparent reality and worth of the little self. Instead, she becomes non-defensive, open, compassionate, giving, spontaneous, joyful, light, and always in the moment, acting decisively and appropriately. Letting go of ego has the paradoxical result that we become what the ego in its better moments always wanted: to be a more altruistic, effective agent, unburdened of self-concern and the need to prove its own worth and effectiveness. When this happens, we become more worthy and effective. Who wouldn’t want to be such an agent? The enlightenment project is doubly attractive: not only do we escape the burden of self-concern, we become morally and practically better as well.

For Tolle, achieving enlightenment is to help bring about the apotheosis of universal, pure Consciousness, which he says is the fundamental goal of existence. This adds yet another attraction to the enlightenment project: the prospect of transcending the mundane and transitory concerns of life to discover something cosmic and everlasting. In realizing who we fundamentally are, we participate in the self-realization of existence itself, and what could be more inspiring than that? There could be no higher purpose, no more glorious prospect than what Tolle offers us; hence the title of his latest best seller, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose.

Is there anything to this? Is it possible to send the self on vacation, forever, in service to the very purpose of existence? Is there an invulnerable place – our true, imperishable nature beyond ego – to which we can retreat from disappointment and loss and struggle?  To ask a somewhat deflating but reasonable question, how does Tolle know about the fundamental nature and goals of existence?  How can he and the rest of us be sure he’s got reality right, that there is such a thing as Consciousness struggling to realize itself, and that it needs our help to fulfill its destiny?  Before jumping on the enlightenment bandwagon, riders will want to know that it’s headed in the right direction. Otherwise we may end up in delusion, quite the opposite of enlightenment.

In evaluating Tolle’s system, we must admit that what he’s aiming for, and perhaps has achieved in his own case, are not inconsiderable goods. As we’ll see below, from a naturalistic perspective his conception of our true nature is unrealistic (literally) because it takes uncorroborated subjective experience to reveal truths about the world. But this isn’t to say that some of the goals of enlightenment aren’t worthy of pursuit at least in some measure. We therefore might want to reconceive the enlightenment project so that it becomes naturalistically plausible and even achievable – not the elusive prize gained by just a few special adepts. Perhaps, as sociologist and author Paul Breer has suggested, we can understand enlightenment as a process of self-actualization that’s consistent with a naturalistic understanding of who we most fundamentally are.[2]

Tolle’s System

From moment to moment we all experience the sense of separate personal identity that for Tolle is the primary deception of everyday mind. We strongly feel that we are a discrete physical organism, with a private subjectivity, unique character, personal history, hopes, ambitions, worries and regrets. Moreover, we experience a fairly constant stream of conscious thoughts and feelings about all this. Few would deny the material and psychological salience of this sense of self, whatever else we might believe about our identity. It’s an indisputable experiential fact that we exist (at least) as separate physical bodies, and inhabit the personal psychology of a self-concerned self most of our waking hours. On a naturalistic view, our bodies and psychology are standard operating equipment given to us by evolution – a functional physical form and an adaptive egoism to go with it. We are naturally inclined to work very hard to insure our organismic integrity, which helps to maximize chances for reproductive success (whether or not we’re personally interested in reproduction). This explains why we’re here: less egoistic creatures didn’t reproduce themselves as successfully.

But Tolle says this sense of being a separate ego is a fundamental illusion that distorts our perception of reality:

The word ‘I’ embodies the greatest error and the deepest truth, depending on how it is used…In normal everyday usage, ‘I’ embodies the primordial error, a misperception of who you are, an illusory sense of identity. This is the ego. This is what Albert Einstein…referred to as ‘an optical illusion of consciousness.’ That illusory self then becomes the basis for all further interpretations of reality, all thought processes, interactions, and relationships. Your reality becomes a reflection of the original illusion. (pp. 27-8, A New Earth)

The real you can be found if you can manage to transcend this illusion:

When forms that you had identified with, that gave you your sense of self, collapse or are taken away, it can lead to a collapse of the ego, since ego is identification with form. When there is nothing to identify with anymore, who are you? When forms around you die or death approaches, your sense of Beingness, of I Am, is freed from entanglement with form: Spirit is released from its imprisonment in matter. You realize your essential identity as formless, as an all-pervasive Presence, of Being prior to all forms, all identifications. You realize your true identity as consciousness itself, rather than what consciousness had identified with. That’s the peace of God. The ultimate truth of who you are is not I am this or I am that, but that I Am. (pp. 56-7, A New Earth)

Tolle says that if you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings with alert attention and without judgment you discover, behind the roiling contents of egoic consciousness, pure consciousness itself, a simple presence or awareness without form. In enlightenment, you disidentify with the drama of the little self and identify instead with this awareness, which has no content to cling to. This is “the power of Now”: discovering that in the present moment, if you pay full attention to it, there is a deeper, inner, more basic Being beyond time that’s the real you. This true Self is imperishable, has no worries, no ambitions, no place to get to, and thus finds itself content in the eternal present. Once you realize via direct experience that you are most basically Being, Spirit and the Unmanifest – not ego – then you become invulnerable. The slings and arrows of life pass right through you since their target is no longer running the psychological show:

Having gone beyond mind-made opposites, you become like a deep lake. The outer situation of your life and whatever happens there is the surface of the lake. Sometimes calm, sometimes windy and rough, according the cycles and seasons. Deep down, however, the lake is always undisturbed. You are the whole lake, not just the surface, and you are in touch with your own depth, which remains absolutely still. You don’t resist change by mentally clinging to any situation. Your inner peace does not depend on it. You abide in Being – unchanging, timeless, deathless – and you are no longer dependent for fulfillment or happiness on the outer world of constantly fluctuating forms. You can enjoy them, play with them, create new forms, appreciate the beauty of it all. But there will be no need to attach yourself to any of it.  (p. 195, The Power of Now)

In Tolle’s system, achieving personal non-attachment is to participate in a truly cosmic undertaking: the evolution of consciousness, both on the planet and beyond. Further, this process has important local and practical effects that transcend the individual. Just as personal enlightenment solves the problem of one’s own life, so too will the evolution of collective consciousness heal the fundamental insanity of our destructive consumption-driven planetary culture. The stakes couldn’t be higher:

When consciousness frees itself from its identification with physical and mental forms, it becomes what we may call pure or enlightened consciousness, or presence. This has already happened in a few individuals, and it seems destined to happen soon on a much larger scale, although there is no guarantee that it will happen. Most humans are still in the grip of egoic consciousness: identified with their mind and run by their mind. If they do not free themselves from their mind in time, they will be destroyed by it. They will experience increasing confusion, conflict, violence, illness, despair, madness. Egoic mind has become like a sinking ship. If you don’t get off, you will go down with it. The collective egoic mind is the most dangerously insane and destructive entity ever to inhabit this planet. What do you think will happen if human consciousness remains unchanged? (pp. 101-2, Power of Now, original emphasis)

As Tolle describes it, freedom from the insanity of egoic mind is to escape the world of forms for the Formless, the manifest for the Unmanifest, the time-bound for the Timeless, the transitory for the Eternal, doing for Being, the conditioned for the Unconditioned, and the material for the Spiritual. The root dualisms of surface vs. depth, change vs. permanence, and form vs. essence are what set up the possibility for radical self-transformation. Enlightenment is to trade the superficial changeable particulars of one’s body and personal psychology for that which is imperishable and universal, an identity that’s radically impersonal. But our participation in the enlightenment project is not just for our own sake, it’s to play a role in the evolution of consciousness itself, an evolution that can heal the planet. So on Tolle's view there’s a collective moral motivation for the pursuit of enlightenment. 

Evaluating Tolle’s System

So what should we make of all this? First, we should see that the truth of Tolle’s worldview is established primarily by direct personal experience. The knowledge that we are much more than the little self is non-discursive and non-conceptual; it isn’t a matter of thinking through a set of propositions or gathering evidence. To know the true nature of reality, one has to experience it for oneself, which means that the awakening of enlightenment is its own verification. Once experienced, its truth is not open to question:

…fear and pain will become transmuted into an inner peace and serenity that come from a very deep place – from the Unmanifested itself. It is ‘the peace of God, which passes all understanding.’ Compared to that, happiness is quite a shallow thing. With this radiant peace comes the realization – not on the level of mind but within the depth of your being – that you are indestructible, immortal. This is not a belief. It is absolute certainty that needs no external evidence or proof from some secondary source. (p. 220, The Power of Now)

From a naturalistic standpoint that takes human experience as a necessarily fallible guide to reality, Tolle’s claim of certainty is extraordinary and implausible. There’s no doubt that mystical or meditative states can involve the experience of overwhelming certainty, but whether or not they accurately reflect the world outside the head is another question altogether. This question can only be answered by checking to see whether there’s something in the world that corresponds to our strongly held conviction about it. This involves exactly what Tolle says isn’t necessary for certainty: external evidence or proof. Tolle of course interprets his experience in the light of the Perennial Philosophy handed down by generations of mystics and sages, but this philosophy is just that which claims that properly trained subjective experience is a reliable guide to reality. Each successive generation of mystics, the latest of which Tolle is a member, reiterates the claim, but that doesn’t help to make it plausible.

This basic disagreement about how we reliably know things is perhaps what most distinguishes devotees of Tolle and other enlightenment gurus from scientific naturalists (and more generally anti-naturalists from naturalists, see here). I won’t explore this disagreement here, or attempt to convince readers that they should side with naturalists on this question, except to state the obvious: unverified intuitions about the world, however widely shared and however compelling, can be wrong. Millions upon millions of people can be, and have been, deluded about the nature of reality as delivered to them by religious traditions, mystical and meditative experiences, gurus, and books promising a permanent solution to the problem of life. Beliefs about the world delivered by science are generally far more reliable precisely because they require external validation by means of observable objects and evidence outside subjective experience. That the findings of science often don’t confirm our deepest hopes is prima facie evidence that we’re not being deluded by wishful thinking when conducting scientific investigations, as is all too often the case with intuition, mystical revelation or the wisdom of the sages.

We should therefore be skeptical of Tolle’s claims about reality that stem from his mystical experience, including the nature of the true self, consciousness, and the purpose of existence. When we attend carefully to experience and become witnessing observers of our mental states, do we then encounter something immaterial and essential within us, a pure awareness beyond form that transcends the little self? When our obsessive self-concerned thinking slows down, and perhaps stops altogether, we may have the experience of such a transcendent encounter, but we can account for that experience naturalistically as a certain configuration of brain states, involving perhaps the deactivation of neural networks that normally instantiate the feeling of an embodied self. The purity of our awareness is simply the absence of the brain-based self-representation that normally is with us all our waking hours. Unless we can show using third-person science that something immaterial exists apart from the brain to which the experience refers, then this deflationary naturalistic explanation should win our (provisional) assent.

A science-based naturalism also doubts the root dualism of Tolle’s picture of reality. There is not, in addition to the basic constituents of the cosmos as physical theory describes it, which combine to form everything we discover in nature, including ourselves, a further unmanifest realm of spirit. There is no evidence for an uppercase Being or Essence that escapes change, or that exists outside the space-time continuum. Instead, as far as science can tell, the cosmos is of a piece, of a single nature, not split into the material vs. spiritual or form vs. formless. Persons, fully included in nature, are material constructions without an inner essence. Their identity is completely a function of how their physical, perishable forms manage to create psychological continuity of character and motive over a limited period of time. There is not under naturalism an invulnerable, imperishable place for us, a deeper identity to which we can retreat.

We should also be very skeptical about the possibility of cosmic consciousness. Is there any evidence that consciousness on a larger scale – planetary or cosmic – could exist, or is evolving toward the goal of some universal self-realization? Not so far as science has been able to determine. As far as we reliably know, consciousness is only a property of individual physical organisms or systems, it isn’t planetary or cosmic since planets and the cosmos aren’t the sorts of things that could be conscious. There isn’t any evidence that they possess the information-bearing, representational capacities that the leading scientific theories of consciousness suggest are required support such things as thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations, and intentions. Nor is there a way (thus far) for individual consciousnesses to join together to become a transpersonal conscious entity. This means, therefore, that there is very likely not a cosmic evolutionary purpose to achieve pure consciousness that we can latch onto or promote via our own personal enlightenment, at least as far as science can determine.

Indeed, the very idea of a cosmic purpose of any kind, conscious or not, seems untenable. After all, it takes an intention-bearing entity to assign purposes to things, or to have purposes itself. Since existence as a whole necessarily includes all intention-bearing entities, it can’t be assigned a purpose, and since it doesn’t have any discernable intentions it doesn’t have its own purposes. Existence therefore offers us no obvious reason for being, as much as some might wish it would.

Enlightenment and Acceptance

Such deflationary conclusions seem to doom the enlightenment project as Tolle conceives it. To reiterate: the naturalist’s unified view of the world finds no spiritual essence apart from changeable physical forms that we could count as our true nature. Neither is there any evidence that consciousness is evolving or transforming itself into something transpersonal, planetary or cosmic, or that consciousness has the resources or mechanisms to do so. Nor can we participate in a purpose for existence taken as a whole, since there can be no such purpose. So the naturalist’s view of the metaphysical aspect of Tolle’s system – his understanding of the nature of reality – is decidedly, perhaps terminally, skeptical.

But this leaves some psychological aspects and practical goals of enlightenment more or less intact. We don’t need to buy into Tolle’s supernatural metaphysics of identity, consciousness, and existential purpose to find some value in enlightenment understood as transcending, at least to an extent, the grip of ego-driven conflict and self-concern. We might be morally, practically and existentially better off were we to send the self on at least a temporary vacation.

This can be accomplished, says Tolle, if we can accept the present moment in its entirety, whatever its content. Resistance, protest, and non-acceptance of one’s current situation are all characteristics of ego, so when resistance ends so too does ego. What’s left is a surrender to the moment: we’re free from supposing things could be any other way than they momentarily are. It’s that supposition that gives rise, from the perspective of the enlightened individual, to an unnecessary, painful reactivity which worsens what might already be a bad situation, and which makes it far more difficult to engage each moment skillfully and compassionately, whatever its character. So acceptance, as opposed to resistance and reactivity, is the key.

But what’s the key to acceptance?  In Tolle’s system it’s to become fully present in the now of one’s psychological moment, to pay full attention to it, which means observing carefully and non-judgmentally the contents of the mind – things such as thoughts, feelings, hopes, regrets, and worries. This effectively distances oneself from the contents, so identity shifts from that of a reactively-driven participant in one’s personal drama to that of a dispassionate witness, which in turn ends the cycle of resistance. Regarding this dynamic, Tolle replies to a skeptic who says (quoted in italics):

“The present moment is sometimes unacceptable, unpleasant or awful.”

 It is as it is. Observe how the mind labels it and how this labeling process, this continuous sitting in judgment, creates pain and unhappiness. By watching the mechanics of the mind, you step out of its resistance patterns, and you can then allow the present moment to be. This will give you a taste of the state of inner freedom from external conditions, the state of true inner peace. Then see what happens, and take action if necessary or possible.
       Accept – then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life. (pp. 35-6, The Power of Now)

Whatever its powers, the skeptic will likely doubt the power of now can “miraculously transform” his whole life, or that he can be entirely free from external conditions, or that he is capable of unconditional amor fati – of completely aligning his desires with what happens. Just as Tolle’s metaphysics seems unrealistic, so too does the psychological reach of the enlightenment he offers (and staying constantly in the Now seems a bit too much like work). Of course, those who believe that observing the mind accesses a higher, evolving consciousness might also be disposed to think their lives will be miraculously transformed (and thus stay on task). After all, what could be a more compelling reason to think you’ll completely revolutionize your life than the conviction of participating in a cosmic project of self-actualization? Naturalists don’t buy this idea, so can’t avail themselves of its motivational push when setting their expectations of what the power of now might accomplish.

But naturalists can still avail themselves of the psychological benefits of acceptance even if these fall short of a complete psychic makeover. It might well be possible to gain some distance from the self-agenda, in particular that portion of it which increases mental suffering, by engaging in meditative and attentional practices, and by restructuring one’s beliefs about the self. None of this requires abandoning the cognitive commitment to good science and evidence that underlies naturalism.

Naturalism has its own route to acceptance. On a naturalistic understanding, persons are bio-psycho-social constructions whose thoughts, feelings and actions arise as a complex but likely deterministic function of the interaction of the body, brain and external circumstances. Although we are identifiable agents that have control over our behavior and thus over our environment, we don’t have in addition an indestructible non-physical soul or mental essence that stands apart from these states and circumstances to exert an uncaused control over them. This means that each moment in our mental and behavioral lives arises as the perfect expression of the causal working out of the person-environment interaction. If you were to stop at any given moment to consider why your thoughts, feelings and behavior are the way they are right now, you would see that they are the fully determined culmination of your life trajectory thus far as it’s played out in time and space. Same for the next moment, and the next. There is nothing in you that could have transcended the unfolding causal transaction between you and your environment. Understanding this makes it easier, perhaps, to accept moments not particularly to your liking.[3]  

Now, Tolle supposes that there is something more to us that can causally transcend the moment. In a striking misconstrual of Buddhism, he says that

[We can be] free from the illusion that you are nothing more than your physical body and your mind. This ‘illusion of the self,’ as the Buddha calls it, is the core error. [We can be] free from fear in its countless disguises as the inevitable consequence of that illusion – the fear that is your constant tormentor as long as you derive your sense of self only from this ephemeral and vulnerable form. And free from sin, which is the suffering you unconsciously inflict on yourself and others as long as this illusory sense of self governs what you think, say and do. (108, The Power of Now, original emphasis)

Unfortunately, Tolle has it exactly backwards. The illusion of self the Buddha sought to dispel – the core error – is that there is something permanent and abiding beyond the ephemeral body and mind, something like an immaterial immortal soul with contra-causal freedom. An empirically well-founded acceptance of the moment stems from seeing that there is indeed nothing behind the naturally concatenated form that we consist of, a form fully embedded in its context. There is nothing and no one that exists outside the causal web which could have done otherwise in producing the moment you now experience. It’s this insight, presaged by the Buddha and backed up by science, that might pry you loose from unnecessary reactivity: from protest, anger, regret, and other unproductive emotional responses to your situation. This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t improve on the present moment in ways you might want, so it isn’t an invitation to passivity or hopelessness – determinism isn’t fatalism, it shouldn't demoralize us. But it is to understand the fundamental connectedness of the self to its causal surround, and such understanding is the basis for a profound naturalistic acceptance of what is.  

This of course is a top-down cognitive strategy for achieving acceptance, in which an idea – of our fundamental and complete causal connection to the world – might influence our emotional states. Just as Tolle’s idea that our fundamental nature is Being or Consciousness can inspire acceptance, so too can the naturalistic conception of our fundamental nature, but it has the considerable advantage of being empirically defensible and thus more believable. Really believing something is true has more psychological impact than merely supposing or pretending something is true. Naturalists really believe on good evidential grounds that there is nothing supernatural in themselves that stands outside the causal unfolding of nature in its human form, so they are in an excellent position to reap the psychological benefits of that belief.

But the impact of Tolle’s enlightenment project also derives from having direct experience of what he thinks is our true nature, an experience that can have a profound transformative effect. What can naturalists offer here? Well, for a start we can happily go along with Tolle’s recommendation to see what happens when we pay close, non-judgmental attention to the present moment. We can do this in sitting meditation, for instance, by focusing attention on our breath, or by assiduously watching the contents of consciousness each successive instant without getting sidetracked into a mental digression that distracts us from being fully present (as so easily happens – just try!). We might experience, to a greater or lesser extent, a slowing down of the mental commentary that normally infests our consciousness – a relaxation of the reactive mind. Depending on how deep it goes, this experience can be mildly pleasurable and restorative like a good nap, or it can be a revelation. The revelation isn’t that one encounters one’s true nature as Being or Pure Consciousness, as Tolle supposes, but that it’s possible (according to reliable reports by accomplished meditators) to be fully conscious without feeling like a separate conscious entity. This is a radical refreshment indeed. For the naturalist, this experience of no-self might be explained, for instance, by the deactivation of the neurally instantiated self-model that normally accompanies all waking moments.[4] But such an explanation doesn’t explain away the profound attractions such an experience reportedly holds; there’s a reason monks spend a good percentage of their lives sitting still on round cushions. Nor does it change the fact that in having it we non-cognitively feel what cognition says is the case: that we are fully embedded in the natural world. So the naturalist can avail herself of the same experience as Tolle describes, but interpret it in a way that integrates it seamlessly into her science-based worldview. Although she doesn’t take the experience of no self as a direct knowing of reality, it can be transformative by virtue of emulating the reality of her complete connection to nature as science describes it.[5]

Moral Conflict and the Limits of Enlightenment

The naturalist doesn’t suppose that such an experience can permanently lift us out of the everyday mind of being a self-concerned ego, for that’s an ineliminable psychological characteristic of being a physically separate organism. The self always returns from vacation – refreshed, perhaps wiser, but still more or less the same. You still have the same personality and you still have your hopes and ambitions. You don’t and can’t give up your self interests, nor is it morally incumbent upon you to do so. Were we all to become completely altruistically self-sacrificing we would soon exhaust our own resources, making us victims of our own altruism. So not only is it inevitable to be egoistically self-concerned, it’s morally permissible. But this nevertheless sets up the basic, inescapable moral dilemma: just how selfish are we permitted to be?

Tolle’s account of enlightenment suggests that there is a permanent solution to this problem, which helps make his account so appealing. We can, he says, entirely disidentify with the demands of the little self, so the problem of moral conflict disappears. Our true nature as Being has no agenda that could collide with anyone’s interests, so we can in effect relax once we reach enlightenment, achieving a kind of moral invulnerability.

Once again, the naturalist finds this an impossible dream since the undivestible interests of diverse persons, including ourselves and our peers, often end up clashing. We can’t escape moral conflict. But the more realistic, naturalistic version of enlightenment can nevertheless be of service by mounting its own challenge to conventional wisdom about the self. This challenge is just as profound as Tolle’s, but truer since it refuses the false consolations of Being and an ultimate cosmic purpose.

By understanding persons as natural constructions, whose characteristics are fully caused outcomes of genetic and environmental circumstances, naturalism shows the inherent equality of persons before impersonal causality. There are no intrinsically good persons whose qualities are ultimately self-chosen by a freely willing self, nor are there intrinsically evil persons whose faults can’t be traced to factors ultimately beyond their control. This insight backs up the basic egalitarian moral intuition that I don’t occupy a privileged position among my fellow creatures, so my interests don’t count for more than anyone else’s, even if I’m lucky enough to end up being good.  

The naturalistic conception of personhood also grounds a deep and universal compassion, since we see that but for circumstances of birth any one of us could have ended up as the least fortunate among us. Since there are no supernatural souls that can rise above the causal stream and do otherwise, we can’t assign the sort of deep credit and blame that so easily blocks an empathetic understanding of another’s suffering. That suffering was not ultimately self-chosen: you too would have been similarly situated were it not for the luck of the draw. Like the intuition of equality, compassion is a moral virtue, so a naturalistic enlightenment that challenges the existence of the freely willing self can help make us morally virtuous: less self-centered and more cognizant of the needs of others.

But the naturalistic path to virtue doesn’t extinguish the demands of the self, constructed though it be, so enlightenment can’t solve the basic ethical quandary: how much self-sacrifice is morally necessary?  There isn’t any obvious algorithm to decide how much of our pleasures and comfort we should sacrifice for the good of others (ethicist Peter Singer gives 30% of his income to charity) or for future generations, so we can’t avoid struggling with this question, however deep our enlightenment. But at the very least, naturalism pushes us in a more egalitarian, compassionate, and therefore altruistic direction when it comes to deciding between self and other. If we happen to end up in fortunate circumstances, we can see that we don’t ultimately deserve our good fortune, which can prompt generosity. If we end up in personal disputes, the insight that our opponent is fully caused to act badly helps to keep our temper in check. And should we be in the wrong, it’s easier to admit as much once we see that our foolishness can’t be chalked up to a freely willing self that could have done otherwise.

To Tolle’s credit, he too is intent on drawing out the beneficial moral consequences of his (supernatural) enlightenment. These follow pretty directly since after all, once we stop identifying with the self-centered demands of ego and instead take up residence in Being, we very likely end up more compassionate, forgiving, and receptive to others; less defensive, prideful, guilt-ridden and fearful. Both his books include many plausible instances of this dynamic: as ego diminishes, openness and selflessness increase, both on a personal and social level. Our priorities shift from the pursuit of materialistic success toward an engagement with larger concerns of reducing conflict and achieving global sustainability, which is very much what the world needs now. So the naturalist, and indeed anyone concerned with pressing moral issues, whatever their worldview, will likely sympathize with much of Tolle’s practical agenda even if they doubt his metaphysics.

The Power of Questioning Choice

On the personal level, Tolle sees the positive ethical consequences of challenging the notion of choice: if people don’t freely choose in the contra-causal way we ordinarily suppose, it becomes easier to let go of the contempt and anger that might arise when contemplating their faults. But as we see in the passages below, his good sense about unenlightened choice is compromised by the questionable idea that when enlightened, our choices somehow transcend conditioning circumstances:

I know that the word choose is a favorite New Age term, but it isn’t entirely accurate in this context. It is misleading to say that somebody ‘chose’ a dysfunctional relationship or any other negative situation in his or her life. Choice implies consciousness – a high degree of consciousness. Without it, you have no choice. Choice begins the moment you disidentify from the mind and its conditioned patterns, the moment you become present. Until you reach that point, you are compelled to think, feel, and act in certain ways according to the conditioning of your mind. (p. 226, The Power of Now).

…if you still harbor resentment about something [your parents] did or did not do, then you still believe that they had a choice – that they could have acted differently. It always looks as if people had a choice, but that is an illusion. As long as your mind with its conditioned patterns runs your life, as long as you are your mind, what choice do you have?  None. You are not even there. The mind-identified state is severely dysfunctional. It is a form of insanity. Almost everyone is suffering from this illness in varying degrees. The moment you realize this, there can be no more resentment. How can you resent someone’s illness? The only appropriate response is compassion. (p. 228, The Power of Now, original emphasis)

Yes! The naturalist can only applaud Tolle’s recognition of the transformative power of questioning choice. Tolle sees that compassion arises from understanding that people couldn’t have done otherwise, given their conditioning circumstances. This is among the central consequences of naturalism in the moral domain, and it’s wonderful to see it acknowledged in this supernaturalistic context. But because of his supernaturalism, Tolle goes off the rails to suppose that enlightenment could make us unconditioned choosers, or as Daniel Dennett amusingly puts it “moral levitators.” No, on a science-based view of who we fundamentally are, there is no such thing as an unconditioned choice. After all, on what basis would choices get made if they weren’t determined by needs, wishes, wants, hopes, fears, ambitions and all the rest of our natural motivations? Only a motivated and thus conditioned self has the power to choose. If it were possible to attain the nirvana of pure consciousness, without content, we’d have no reason to do anything.

Since this isn’t possible, at least not for any extended period of time, we don’t have to worry about staying motivated. We’ll always find ourselves with a greater or lesser complement of desires, clamoring for fulfillment. To want enlightenment is yet another desire, so the quest to free ourselves from ego smacks of ego itself, which Tolle nicely recognizes: 

…even my desire to become free or enlightened is just another craving for fulfillment or completion in the future. So don’t seek to become free of desire or ‘achieve’ enlightenment. Become present. Be there as the observer of the mind. Instead of quoting the Buddha, be the Buddha, be ‘the awakened one,’ which is what the word buddha means.” (p. 31, The Power of Now). 

Whether becoming present as the observer of your mind will lead you to Buddhahood, understood as the complete cessation of egoistic concern and judgmental reactivity, is an open question, only answerable by undertaking meditative and attentional practice. By all accounts it’s a difficult path, the goal rarely attained in full measure. But there’s no reason we can’t engage in practices and study philosophies that lead us to question the conventional wisdom about who we are, and in so doing gain at least some freedom from illusion, some peace of mind, and some moral guidance. Seen from a naturalistic standpoint, Tolle’s way, that of the Perennial Philosophy, is unrealistic and misleading in many respects, but its heart is very much in the right place. The naturalist can take from his books the moral wisdom of his tradition, his deep personal and planetary humanism, his meditative techniques, and his many practical recommendations for achieving equanimity, while passing over his worldview. The route to a naturalized enlightenment is still in its early stages, still being worked out, so it’s good to have even supernatural models to study and learn from.

TWC - May 2008


[2] See Breer’s 4 part dialog Enlightenment: Myth and Reality.

[3] If you want to add some randomness or indeterminism to the mix, that’s fine, but don’t suppose it confers on you any coherent contra-causal power to influence events in particular intended direction. So the same acceptance follows whether or not determinism is the case. If you find all this disturbing instead of conducive to acceptance, please see here for some reassurances.

[4] About the neurally instantiated self-model, see for instance Thomas Metzinger’s tour de force on consciousness, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, and a related article here.

[5] For more on a naturalistic understanding of meditation and its benefits, see No hindrance: emulating nature in service to the self.


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