The Bible and Eckhart Tolle
A few weeks ago a young friend of mine asked if we could talk, so we had lunch together. She knew that there had been a period in my life when I coped with the serious mental illness of one of my family members. She wanted to hear more about how I handled it. That set me off on a long story about that difficult period in my family's life. I got pretty animated about it - telling about it brought up a lot of feelings for me. Finally, I asked her how my story related to her own, and right away she started to cry. She poured out her heart about her boyfriend, who suffers from a couple of different psychiatric problems that were putting a huge strain on her relationship. As she wept, telling her story, my own story suddenly evaporated. Later I realized that while I listened, I had an out-of-ego experience. I was there, but my ego wasn't there. I was there, but only that which was essential about me was present. My ego-self didn't matter to me. Only she mattered. Her story was a sad and hard one, but she did something wonderful for me in sharing it. She snapped me out of my fixation on me, me, me: my fixation on my needs, my urges, grudges , ideas, plans, schemes, etc, etc, which fill up so much of my life but aren't the essence of my life at all. Her tears crucified my ego, and resurrected God, who is the loving, listening presence within me.
One of the more significant books I've read recently about the practice of Christianity was written by a non-Christian. "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose" by Eckhart Tolle got a huge boost in popularity when Oprah Winfrey focused on it. I found Tolle's book to be an exceptionally good introduction to spiritual practice. The message of the book is very simple. The more often we can have what I call "out-of-ego experiences", the happier we'll be and the better life will be for human beings on planet Earth. If we can wake up to the fact that the essence of who we are is divine and one with the whole universe, if we can wake up to the fact that our egos are artificial constructions of our minds, then we can live more in harmony with the here and now, and more in harmony with each other and with the earth.
Tolle describes this awakening beautifully in clear, non-sectarian, non-religious language. But he also salts his prose with quotes from the great world religions, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and, yes, Christianity!
I think it's more than a coincidence that this writer, Eckhart Tolle, would share the name of Meister Eckhart, the 13th century German priest whose mystical sermons are classic works of Christian spirituality. Meister Eckhart understood the idea of "out of ego experiences". My favorite line from one of Meister Eckhart's sermons goes like this: "The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me." We share the essence of divine being with God. That's what it means for us to be created in the image of God, as the book of Genesis says.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I visited with our granddaughter in Hollywood. Rumi is almost two years old. Rumi was playing with Roberta one afternoon and started to play rough. She pulled Roberta's hair very hard and wouldn't stop even when Roberta cried out in pain. Rumi had to be pulled away - she didn't seem to understand what she had done. But the next morning, Rumi woke up and toddled into her parents' bedroom and hopped up on the bed and said, "I'm sorry I hurt Grandma." We start out life thinking that life is all about me. And that's okay. It's developmentally appropriate for a baby to think he or she is the center of the universe. But there comes a time when the child goes through another kind of birth, the birth of conscience, the birth of awareness that other people exist separately from him or her, that other people have their own needs and feelings to which the child is connected. Rumi seemed to have this kind of born-again experience when she woke up that morning.
But the process doesn't end with a two year old having an out of ego moment, realizing that she hurt somebody she loves. Over and over, I keep having to wake up to the fact that the person I think of as myself isn't who I really am. As adults, we still get caught in the spiritual trap of thinking we're the center of the universe. And we have to keep waking up to the awareness that this person I think of as myself is mostly a construction of my mind. A construction that often gets in the way of fully enjoying and appreciating life, and enjoying and appreciating other people. Which was the message of Jesus. Which is the essential message of the Christian religion. Which is what Eckhart Tolle is saying on Oprah's show, and in his book that is sold by the truckload at Costco.
In Matthew 16: 24, Jesus says: "If anyone wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Tolle interprets this as follows (p 79): "When Jesus said 'Deny thyself', what he meant was: Negate (and thus undo) the illusion of self. If the self - the ego - were truly who I am, it would be absurd to 'deny' it. What remains is the light of consciousness in which perceptions, experiences, thoughts, and feelings come and go. That is Being, that is the deeper, true I."
Tolle's interpretation reminds me of St Paul's understanding of the image of the cross in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Paul got it that the whole point of the Christian faith is to turn life into an out-of-ego experience in which we live and love and serve from the divine center of our being, which we share with all other beings. The cross is the symbol of the universal human experience, shared across all religions, of the figurative "death" of the ego that resurrects and awakens us to our true divine nature. This crucifixion of our egos can happen automatically, when we "lose ourselves" in some overwhelming experience of awe or wonder or delight or sympathy. It also can happen with our active intention, when we meditate or pray, when we get ourselves up on Sunday morning to go to church, when we commit ourselves to works of service to others, when we do art or perform music or other kinds of creative expression that wipe away our egos like a sponge wiping up a spill on a table.
Eckhart Tolle offers a down-to-earth way to practice this crucifixion of the ego. (p 215) "A powerful spiritual practice is consciously to allow the diminishment of ego when it happens without attempting to restore it. I recommend that you experiment with this from time to time. For example, when someone critic izes you, blames, you, or calls you names, instead of immediately retaliating or defending yourself - do nothing. Allow the self-image to remain diminished and become alert to what that feels like deep inside you. For a few seconds, it may feel uncomfortable, as if you had shrunk in size. Then you may sense an inner spaciousness that feels intensely alive. You haven't been diminished at all. In fact, you have expanded. You may then come to an amazing realization: When you are seemingly diminished in some way and remain in absolute non-reaction, not just externally but also internally, you realize that nothing real has been diminished, that through becoming "less" you become more. When you no longer defend or attempt to strengthen the form of yourself, you step out of identification with form, with mental self-image. Through becoming less (in the ego's perception), you in fact undergo an expansion and make room for Being to come forward. True power, who you are beyond form, can then shine through the apparently weakened form. This is what Jesus means when he says, "Deny yourself" or "Turn the other cheek.""
Tolle's interpretation of Jesus rang true for me - and his suggestion for how to practice it rings true, too. It seems like terrific marriage counseling, actually. It almost never works, in a spat in an intimate relationship, to react defensively to protect one's ego. That's my own experience, learned the hard way! Defending the ego eats up a lot of life-time in marriages, in parenting, in relationships at work and in our community life. It feeds animosity between nations, it even starts wars. Ever see the bumper sticker, "Don't mess with Texas"? Why is Texas so concerned about being messed with? At one level, that bumpersticker makes me laugh at folks who appear to have chips on their shoulders for some reason. But then I realize that the bumpersticker is about me, too. I have a chip on my shoulder, too. We are all worried that we're going to be messed with. But what would happen if I just let my emotional and spiritual guard down long enough to let my ego get crucified, so that it is no longer my self-centered idea of myself that lives, but the Christ, who is God, who is Love, that lives within me? So that the eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me? So that I can be fully present and aware and delighted by the divinity that is your essence and mine? Indeed, if we could let down our guard over our egos, it would be a "new earth" for us all!
To see Rev. Polly Moore's study guide fo r the biblical passages in Tolle's "A NEW EARTH", have a look at:http://tcpc.org/library/article.cfm?library_id=514
Jim BurkloWebsite: OPEN CHRISTIANITY