Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra have made a lot of money telling people to live in the now, and to attract wealth and influence by having positive thoughts that have higher vibrations. There are an awful lot of people who have spent considerable amounts of money buying courses and books in the hope that they, too, will escape some of the misery and poverty that stops them living the life of their dreams. I would like to debunk three of the myths that I think are cynically damaging, since they imply that people who fail to achieve their dreams after following Tolle’s or Chopra’s advice are somehow to blame. They — we — are not. This is why.
First, the injunction to live in the now implies that you are not the product of your genetic, environmental, and chance conditions. Each condition creates the conditions that your brain then remembers reacting to, and that it, as a consequence reacts to now, as best it can, to assure your survival. This means that your current character and situation is a direct result of all the other situations that you have found yourself in (to say that you are separate from those conditions isn’t true either — you are much more enmeshed than that implies — but let’s leave that aside for now).
You are not at fault for being where you are and who you are. In fact, Sam Harris is right to say that you cannot be held responsible at all for what you do — although I’ll come back to that. You are all that has happened to you — in the past. Therefore you are a process emerging from the past. What you can do — what we can all do — is recognise that and — and this is key — recognise it with a particular attitude. If all that happened did so on the basis of chance and determination, then you are like a tangle of enmeshed threads, and compassion is the natural response to seeing this.
We have the peculiar capacity for self awareness that allows us to become entirely present, but that doesn’t mean denying the past. It means taking a different perspective on it, one that elicits the attitude of compassion, or love, which is a rational response to seeing yourself as you are. We can look at what has happened, is happening, and be fully aware of it, but without rejecting it. In totally embracing what has happened, and being aware of what is happening now, you can align yourself with a kinder perspective. That is all you can do. Be kind to yourself by being aware of yourself. This shifts things — but it’s subtle. It requires effort, and practice.
Secondly, Tolle says that what we perceive as physical matter is energy vibrating at a particular range of frequencies. Thoughts consist of the same energy vibrating at a higher frequency than matter which is why they cannot be seen or touched. Thoughts have their own range of frequencies, with negative thoughts at the lower end of the scale and positive thoughts at the higher.
How do we know this isn’t true? Because you can’t make a claim about vibrations that bears no relationship to what happens in the only technology we currently have to measure thoughts. You might be able to identify on an ECG graph whether or not a person’s thinking is mostly relaxed or mostly excited, but it would be difficult to tell whether they were thinking about Mona Lisa or Quantum Theory. I’d hazard a guess that it’s nearly impossible for now, and even if we could, there would be no relationship between the quality of your thoughts and higher or lower frequencies.
Physics isn’t my area of specialisation. But it’s not Tolle’s either. The idea that higher vibrations and positive thoughts correlate has absolutely no basis in any scientific empirical study. High frequency waves vibrate more quickly, and these, therefore, include X-rays and gamma rays, both of which damage human cells to the point of fatality, in contrast with waves that vibrate at lower frequency like radio waves which enable us to listen to Bach.
The implications of this second debunking, are, as I’ve tried to explain above, that you cannot change the nature of your thoughts through effort, because you are a product of your own personal history and your thoughts emerge as a result of that. But you can reflect, that is, become aware of what is going on right now, and what you are paying attention to changes when you elicit an attitude of compassion. You don’t change frequency. You change perspective. Other options for action arise when you pay attention to what is happening now, not by raising your vibrations, but by becoming more attentive, and listening for a change.
The third idea is that you can attract wealth and influence, and the implication is that if you don’t, you’re to blame. There are two errors here. Firstly, having enough is important but is not the same as having wealth or fame. Having enough is partly a matter of self perception and learning self compassion is the key there. If you absolutely do not have enough, you need access to the material energy that is the ecological context that created and maintains us. For that, we all need to strive for social and environmental justice. Secondly, if you find it hard to practice self compassion, or if you really don’t have enough, then you are not to blame. You are the result of all that has gone to create your own particular circumstances. You need to connect to others, and they — we — need to connect to you. You need to be listened to, believed, and understood, and supported. Being blamed is not helpful.
When I listen to Tolle or Chopra, I am moved to ask, what motivates you? Are you interested in the revolution we need in how we relate to the world, in the hard work it takes to practice-realisation, and in the Bodhisattva’s vow? Or are you interested in feeding the myths that perpetuate suffering to line your own pockets, through dividing the human from the natural world, and creating an elite by blaming the poor for their own situations?