I started Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth about a week ago. I almost bought it back when all the true Oprah fanatics did, but I didn’t want to get that look from the Barnes and Noble cashier. You know the one. Their mouths say, “That’ll be $15.40,” but their eyes say, “Will you be charging this on your husband’s credit card, or has he finally let you have one of your own?” I’m also just too cheap to pay for books—unless you count those coupon books that cost $20 and promise to save your hundreds on fine dining and entertainment. So, I got on the wait list at my local library where the staff already know I do whatever Oprah tells me and I have little dignity left to maintain.
I have no idea how Oprah convinced everyone—from Minnesota soccer moms to Mississippi Baptist grannies—to read this book. It’s a slightly alarming testament to her power that so many of her fans made it past chapter one, “The Flowering of Human Consciousness,” which is full of hackneyed self-help pearls of wisdom like this:
“Once there is a certain degree of Presence, of still and alert attention in human beings’ perceptions, they can sense the divine life essence, the one indwelling consciousness or spirit in every creature, every life-form, recognize it as one with their own essence and so love it as themselves.”
Mr. Tolle wastes no time pushing the very modern notion that the world’s major religions provide the same basic roadmap to enlightenment, and that human beings have screwed everything up by misinterpreting the teachings of Jesus, Buddah, and the like. He even gives Kaballah a plug and praises the mystical sects of major religions for stripping away all the excess baggage that more controlling, exclusionary denominations have added over the years. All this sounded just fine to me, but it’s hardly the sort of mind-blowing epiphany I expect for $14 plus tax.
Once you make it past the intro, with its minefield of new-agey witticisms and mild blasphemy, the book takes a sort of neo-Freudian turn. Tolle presents his theory that most human minds are controlled by the ego, which wants more than anything to be right while making others wrong. As a result, people do horrible things to each other. (If you’re hoping the author might make it through this section of the book without trite references to Hitler or the Holocaust, you’ll be disappointed.) Tolle also spends a lot of time pointing out that the ego has an unhealthy obsession with material possessions. He offers up a revolutionary hypothesis that people use cars, clothes, homes, and so forth as extensions of their own identities, but that this is only a temporary fix for a lack of greater self-awareness.
I keep waiting for Oprah to announce that Tolle has inspired her to stop wearing $500 shoes and stop giving her rich friends $30,000 earrings. Then again, I guess the Legends Ball wouldn’t have been as exciting if the finale included Della Reese and Phylicia Rashad opening $25 Applebee’s gift certificates. (Although I totally would have tuned in to see Maya Angelou accept a practical gift basket composed of FiberCon caplets, control-top pantyhose, and a blouse from K-Mart’s Jaclyn Smith collection.)
I’m far from done with A New Earth and, all joking aside, I’m trying to keep an open mind. I do like Tolle’s notion that I am not my thoughts or the voice inside my head. Tolle claims we are the awareness that is aware of that voice and those thoughts. He also states that Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” philosophy fails to acknowledge that there has to be a higher consciousness inside of all of us—one that is capable of observing and analyzing the ego, which seems to control our thoughts even when we don’t want it to.
It’s comforting to imagine that if I can just become more aware of how my ego operates, I can render it powerless and find myself on an entirely new plane of existence. The big question is, once I get there, will my higher consciousness fantasize about a penthouse with concrete countertops and first-class flights to Europe? Tolle says material success and enlightenment aren’t mutually exclusive, but I have to wonder if that caveat is just a convenient way to sell lots and lots of books without coming off like an anti-consumerist hypocrite.