Eckhart Tolle: The Future Is Now

  The New Age “spiritual” guru du jour, Eckhart Tolle (http://www.eckharttolle.com), was on PBS the other night. I listened out of curiosity.

     Tolle’s key concept is “the power of now,” or living in the “now.” He mocks people (most of us) fixated on the future, which is profoundly misguided, he says, because the future does not actually even exist. He sees most people as focused on wanting things in the future, and regarding the present only as a stepping stone to that future. This he labels literally “insane.” He describes us as always looking toward the next thing rather than the present, and when the next thing comes, we want the next thing after that, making life a journey with the destination continually receding into the distance, and we never stop to live it. Tolle’s alternative, which he deems more valid and fulfilling, is living instead in the “now.” We are always in the “now;” the “now” is wherever we actually are, and that’s what we must be attentive to.

     This is a seductive idea, but fundamentally nonsense. This is not how the brain works; not how life works.

     We do not experience discrete “now” moments. We experience instead a seamless progression through time. Life is like a film. Each frame corresponds to Tolle’s “now.” But we can’t stop the film! We cannot perceive a single frame, but only the motion which together the frames create. And we cannot really be attentive to the “now” either – because as soon as we attend to a particular “now,” it is already past, and we are already in the future – which Tolle says does not exist.

     But it surely does. It’s possible you will drop dead in the next moment; but otherwise, you will be in the future, and very soon. Not only does it exist, not only is it real, it is inescapable. Accordingly, it is absurd to suggest that our concern with the future is misplaced (or even insane).

     It is actually the present – Tolle’s “now” – that is essentially nonexistent. The past took up a very long span of time. The future will too. But the present occupies no span of time at all; it is merely the point of intersection between past and future. Like the point of intersection between two lines, there’s no “there” there.

     The general idea of attending to the present moment is admittedly not completely meritless. When eating a piece of chocolate, you should mindfully attend to the sensation, the flavor, the pleasure. But you cannot stop the film; it is experienced not as one frame, one moment, but as you move through time; it is experiencing the future as it becomes past.

     In fact, we can live our lives only by attending to the future, and acting in ways that reflect our desires for how we want that future to be. It is only the future that our actions can affect. We obviously can’t affect the past, nor even the present, because it’s gone like quicksilver as soon as we perceive it.

     So, if you want to eat dinner in the future – a few minutes from now – you had better stop attending to that “now,” where there is no dinner, and start cooking. That is what living is. What we experience in the “now” is experienced only because of what we did previous thereto, when it was still in the future. We have desires for how we want our future to be, whether the next decade or the next minute, and those desires shape all our actions. That is living rationally.

     Indeed, therein lies the meaning and purpose of life. Those spiritual sages who tell us to get rid of our wants and desires speak nonsense. It is only because we have wants and desires that anything matters to us. Our emotions, our feelings, our motivations, are all ultimately anchored in our wants and desires. Remove that and we’d be immobilized; life would be empty, pointless. Why even care whether you are alive or not if you have no wants or desires? And when Tolle tells us to attend to the “now,” the only possible reason would be that the “now” embodies some experience that we want or desire – like the experience of that piece of chocolate — one which, a moment ago, as we reached for the chocolate, was a want or desire concerning the future – the very thing Tolle disparages!

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26 Responses to “Eckhart Tolle: The Future Is Now”

  1. Elizabeth Says:

    Frank,
    I am reading a book by another Buddhist.. Robert Thurman’s “Infinite Life.” The reason I mention it to you is that he is considered by many to be the ultimate optimist. But many of the concepts like karma I am sure you would find as silly as Tolle’s Now, but his general sense of how to develop hope and possibility might intrigue you. I actually have thought about you often as I have read his words.

  2. Patrick Says:

    You are confusing clock time with psychological time, of which Tolle makes a distinction. Past and future are necessary in clock time. When discussing events of the past, that is referring to clock time. When making an appointment for a future activity, that is the natural use of clock time.

    It is psychological time that Tolle is addressing. Any psychotherapist would agree that the psychological past exists only as old stories, old movies, and old photographs (all mental images) stored in our minds. But a mental ‘movie’ of an experience is not the actual experience. A mental ‘photograph’ is not the actually event that was originally experienced, it is just a lifeless recorded impression of the event. Tolle’s point, and that of any good therapist, is that many people are so attached to their stored memories that they believe they have life and power over them in their present experience.

    Regarding the future, many people believe that something in the future will bring lasting happiness, or terrible pain. That may or may not be true but it does not contribute to their well being if that is what is occupying their psychological attention in the present. If a non-existent fantasy of the future holds one’s attention then the spaciousness and peace of the present is obscured.

    Recognizing that neither the psychological past, nor the psychological future, are real opens up the possibility of an entirely different experience in the present, in the now.

  3. Elizabeth Says:

    The above response is nicely said. Thurman looks to help us move from self preoccupation to self engagement by loosening similar western rigid concepts of self and experience. What we believe has “life and power over our lives” can change, he thinks. And the change could make us happy.

  4. Gregory Kipp Says:

    If you never plan for the future, what will you’re retirement be like? The capacity of the human brain to visualize the future and to take actions on that basis is what separates us from the animals, who are always living in the “now.” Living in the “now” on occasion might provide some mental benefits, ala meditation or other such practices, but it’s not something to be doing all the time. On the other hand, obsessing about something in the future without taking constructive action isn’t healthy either. I think a healthy mind is nimble enough to take it all in, past, present, and future, with a good deal of rationality, if one gives it a chance.

  5. Miles P. Says:

    This idea that Tolle is disparaging and “telling people to get rid of their wants and desires” is somewhat laughable. Don’t get so locked into the “word” that you fail to see the spirit behind that word. For so many, our wants and desires are the result of programming. Eckhart is simply suggesting that what many of us think we need to be happy versus what we truly need are two very different things. Consider this by Anthony De Mello,

    “If you wish to understand control, think of a little child that is given a taste for drugs. As the drugs penetrate the body of the child, it becomes addicted; its whole being cries out for the drug. To be without the drug is so unbearable a torment that it seems preferable to die. Think of that image – the body has gotten addicted to the drug. Now this is exactly what your society did to you when you were born. You were not allowed to enjoy the solid, nutritious food of life namely, work, play, fun, laughter, the company of people, the pleasures of the senses and the mind. You were given a taste for the drug called approval, appreciation, attention.

    I’m going to quote a great man here, a man named A. S. Neill. He is the author of Summerhill. Neill says that the sign of a sick child is that he is always hovering around his parents; he is interested in persons. The healthy child has no interest in persons, he is interested in things. When a child is sure of his mother’s love, he forgets his mother; he goes out to explore the world; he is curious.

    He looks for a frog to put in his mouth – that kind of thing. When a child is hovering around his mother, it’s a bad sign; he’s insecure. Maybe his mother has been trying to suck love out of him, not give him all the freedom and assurance he wants. His mother’s always been threatening in many subtle ways to abandon him. So we were given a taste of various drug addictions: approval, attention, success, making it to the top, prestige, getting your name in the paper, power, being the boss. We were given a taste of things like being the captain of the team, leading the band, etc. Having a taste for these drugs, we became addicted and began to dread losing them. Recall the lack of control you felt, the terror at the prospect of failure or of making mistakes, at the prospect of criticism by others.
    So you became cravenly dependent on others and you lost your freedom. Others now have the power to make you happy or miserable. You crave your drugs, but as much as you hate the suffering that this involves, you find yourself completely helpless. There is never a minute when, consciously or unconsciously, you are not aware of or attuned to the reactions of others, marching to the beat of their drums.

    A nice definition of an awakened person: a person who no longer marches to the drums of society, a person who dances to the tune of the music that springs up from within. When you are ignored or disapproved of, you experience a loneliness so unbearable that you crawl back to people and beg for the comforting drug called support and encouragement’ reassurance.
    To live with people in this state involves a never-ending tension. “Hell is other people”, said Sartre. How true. When you are in this state of dependency, you always have to be on your best behavior, you can never let your hair down; you’ve got to live up to expectations. To be with people is to live in tension. To be without them brings the agony of loneliness, because you miss them.

    You have lost your capacity to see them exactly as they are and to respond to them accurately, because your perception of them is clouded by the need to get your drugs. You see them insofar as they are a support for getting your drug or a threat to have your drug removed. You’re always looking at people, consciously or unconsciously, through these eyes. Will I get what I want from them, will I not get what I want from them? And if they can neither support nor threaten my drug, I’m not interested in them. That’s a horrible thing to say, but I wonder if there’s anyone here of whom this cannot be said.”

    Eckhart’s and De Mello’s messages are the same and they are of freedom. The message of this blog is one of attachment and servitude to one’s own false beliefs. Don’t take my word for it or, for that matter, Eckhart’s and Fr. De Mello’s word, go to your experience for the answer.

    FSR COMMENT: What Miles says here is not all wrong; but, in a nutshell, he is trying to repeal human nature. We are fundamentally social animals and our social interactions are absolutely integral to our identities. That is not some sort of pathology or “addiction”; on the contrary, study after study has shown that social connectedness is a universal keystone for happiness and living a good life. To say that one should find meaning from within is all well and good, but in fact human beings find meaning primarily in relation to other people. Thus, Sartre’s quote only shows what an ass Sartre could be.

  6. Donny Says:

    Tolle’s idea of being free and to be presence in Now, similar with the teaching of Buddha. Free of desire mean attaining peaceful mind and living in joyous experience. That’s why buddhism monks and nuns stay away frm the unrealistic world of ours. But they (the monks) are like other living beings, they still have the basic needs such as food, shelter, clothes, etc. But they have chosen to detached themselve from the unnecessary stuff. But many of us cannot survive the life like them. That’s why we are all talking about purpose of life, future plan, fullfillment of our desires, getting this and that, complaining, criticizing, etc etc. Why are we doing this? Are we happy? Yes when we achieved something and proud when showing to someone or complimented by others. Is that what we call happy or the real meaning of Life? But what Tolle found is what the sages of old times been experience. The JOY of Life. Peace of mind, joyous smile on their face and high ‘Quality’ action. A joyful person come from a peaceful mind which they have the control of their mind. We need our thought to live in this world, this modernized and materialistic world. But we must have the control of the thoughts. We are the master of our thoughts. That’s what Tolle’s teaching is all about. To attain enlightenment, be a peaceful and joyous being.

  7. Doug Mounce Says:

    Tolle has somethng more profound to say about Sartre. It encouraged me to read Sartre which I was generally inclined not to do, but I found sections of his Being and Nothingness were quite intriguing. In particular, the notion of “projects” fit well with Ernst Becker’s insight about “Denial of Death.” I also understood how Tolle found that Sartre didn’t completely follow-through in examining the implication of not being condemned to be free. Voegelin said he saw this development in Camus’ writing unfortunately cut-short in the span of time. regards, Doug

  8. Counselling Says:

    Counselling…

    Psychotherapy may be performed by practitioners with a number of different qualifications, including psychologists, marriage and family therapists, occupational therapists, licensed clinical social workers, counsellors, psychiatric nurses, psychoanalys…

  9. julio Says:

    you totally misunderstood all of what Eckhart is teaching. completely misunderstood. 100%

  10. Beatrice Says:

    No. The future only exists as a thought-form. When you experience the ‘future’, you will experience it as ‘now’. If you are going to ride a roller-coaster tonight, you can imagine nowin your mind the roller coaster (future), and you are imagining it now. When you are actually on the roller coaster, you will experience that ride in the moment – present. When you remember the past, you experience that now too. The now is the only thing we ever experience, and this is what he refers to.

    When you are taking a shower in the morning, and thinking ahead to work, you are imagining your future at work, but you are doing it in the shower. This is the way in which the future does not exist. Future is thoughts, only. Once you realize this – it is the most mind-blowing realization there is.

    FSR comment: Mind-blowing? I don’t think so. In fact, this “realization” is a very superficial one, nothing more than a cute little word game, and basically false, that even if true in some sense would have zero implications for how we actually live our lives. If you actually did (try to) live as if the future did not exist, it would quickly be a self-fulfilling prophecy; i.e., you’d soon be DEAD. Only by constantly thinking about the future, and about what we must do NOW to make the future come out as we want, can we get through life at all.

  11. Ian Grant Says:

    Saying “this is pure nonsense” is the egoic mind that Eckhart refers to and you kind of underscored his teachings. Well done.

    FSR REPLY: Yes, I am “egoic.” And so are YOU, Ian, as evidenced by your going to the effort of posting your comment!! Nothing in the Universe matters except insofar as there is someone to whom it matters. In everything having to do with my life, that someone is me. Caring about things — being “egoic” — is what life is about. Otherwise, living would be a null condition. There will be plenty of time for me to stop being “egoic” when I’m dead. Until then, I will live. And that includes saying something is nonsense when I find it to be such.

  12. Ian Grant Says:

    Whatever. I am responding out of politeness but have no wish to debate anything really. All that happens is you will think you are right and if I respond further it will appear I think I am right. I don’t want to be right in an egoic way. I wonder if you have even read Power of Now or A New Earth. It doesn’t appear so because of your interpretation of ego and what Eckhart points to, if you don’t mind me saying so. But it is your choice and I don’t go around preaching or trying to brow beat people so I don’t intend to start now.
    Have a good life.
    Cheers
    Ian

  13. Philip Parsons Says:

    If Now is a moment in time, it is always the present moment. A moment is like a point in space, it has a location but no dimension or period. So the Now has a location in that it is always the present as opposed to the past or the future, which are located either side of it in a linear time concept. We as living beings, in order to be ‘alive’ have to always be located in the present otherwise we do not exist, or we are a mere memory trace,(past) or an ideal projection, (future). So the Now implies only one moment as it has no dimension, it is not subject to measurement and therefore it cannot be many of anything because really it is nothing or everything. Being only a location it therefore cannot be manifest in the realm of the physical existence of time and space so it must be of the essential realm of principles or otherness. This also implies that there is only ever one moment, one Now or easier to understand a continuous, eternal Now. So then if we, as the observer are located in the now and the world of form and movement happens around us through that moment, including our own form which subject to space and time. Of course there is a thing called ‘future’ but it exists only in the realm of concepts, when that point that you may have alluded to in a future concept actually comes or arrives can only be manifest only in the now. When that memory trace or thought does manifest as ‘past’ its awareness is only ever in the present moment. So if we as ‘life’ are located only in a non measurable ‘now’ that has no period or dimension associated with it, then the ‘I’ witness or living observing entity must be of that formless, dimensionless, timeless state.
    The mind made sense of self, the ego is rooted in time as it is the product of thought or rather is thought, which is a form manifestation, it is also subject to the limits of time etc. Time implies passage or movement from one point to another, it is bound by the rules or limits of manifested form, in that it has a beginning and an end. It like all other forms moves through and becomes a participant in ones life’s situation, it has a birth and a death. If we as humans in the instrument of the human mind, identify with thought or the thought base sense of self ‘me’ as being the ultimate or only expression or manifestation of who we are, then we cut ourselves off from the vastness of the formless or being in terms of our action in becoming. We can never really deny the formless because it is an indisputable fact, it is there if we realise it or not it is there. However we identify ourselves so much, are attached to, or allow ourselves to be trapped in the realm of form, that we prevent our being from in-forming our daily existence and continue to occupy the darkness of unconsciousness and time based existence.
    The trap is in the intellectualisation of all this, the mind loves to theorise and elevate it’s self with notions of the understanding of how it all works, ironically well beyond its capabilities. We know this digs us deeper into the world of form, as interesting as it may be it is still rooted in the limited conceptual realm of ideas. The only true acknowledgement we can make is that presence is all there is. The ‘now’, the formless dimensionless, moment between the past and the future (this explanation is only a symbolic device) is where all ‘life’ or ‘being’ is. It is the silent, still point where ‘I’ is the witnesses of itself in the manifest. Surrender to presence, not merely just agree it is a good idea and the field of stillness becomes your life.

    Philip

  14. Doug Mounce Says:

    It’s also useful to remember that Tolle is neither a biologist or a theologian. You kinda have to skip what he imagines about evolution and Jesus, for example, but rest-assured that he probably is an excellent therapist. His approach is preceded by the patient-centered therapy that developed in the early 1900’s. There are a number of excellent techniques (pay attention to your breathing, for example) that are quite useful for what Lonergan would call self-appropriation. It’s a difficult concept, and not one I entirely agree-with but worth studying. In your data of consciousness, thinking about thinking (which is the best thinking you can do – Aristotle) there is a sense where the brain is working in the present (the physics are even more complicated.)

  15. Digby Says:

    As for the example of cooking: the point Tolle makes is most of us cook in order to get to eat some food and don’t enjoy the process of cooking itself. In fact by living in the Now and focusing and enjoying what we are doing in the present then the meal we make will be lovingly prepared and therefore more rewarding. Focus on process and outcome will take care of itself. Very Zen!

  16. Rumi Isis Says:

    Now is the future
    you cant have a future without the NOW, the premise Tolle has is truth, since we are All connected to everything through all time and space and are masters of our destiny, there is ever only one thing, the ‘now’
    this is place where you create, vision and have an end result, to live life focused on and orientated from your ‘end result’ creates what truly matters to you, this is freedom, this is truth, this is your heart and soul.
    this is what we came here to do
    create
    live your bliss
    as it says in the bible and other ancient texts
    ‘Ye are Gods’
    I love Eckhart and thanks to him for bringing the ancient truths to us
    alchemy sure does rock!

  17. James Whitebear Says:

    It is a sad kind of humor that I feel. I can’t help still, feeling a bit sad for those that just can’t seem to get beyond their self.
    Tolle speaks of the old way. The way that was before wasichu. I dare say stories of the Pale One and his lessons parallel that of Tolle’s lessons. Lessons of the Heart. I wish you luck Frank on your becoming. May yours be sooner than later. jw

  18. Duns Says:

    Re – read Tolle’s books. The perception of time is broken up into two separate distinctions. One being clock time, like Patrick said, and the other being the mental perception of time that ages us and the world. It takes a great deal of patience and deep thought to understand tolle’s perception of time. Past is real, but only in the perception of clock time, to mark moments in history. Just as future is real, but the future is only real while it is happening and when it is happening it can only be happening in the “now”, the present moment that is, and when that moment is over it is now perceived by the mind as the “past”, a conceptualized image formulated by thoughts. Tolle never says to ignore the idea of time, he simply wants us to understand the separation between, clock time and perceptual time. In ” A New Earth “, Tolle mentions that it is important to keep time, to set dates, appointments and other things of importance. He is simply trying to get people to bring themselves out of control of the Ego, to not carry past in the mind and not to carry future in the mind as an ultimate, tangible part of life. I have learnt to separate images of the past and future, and see them for what they really are, and that is just thoughts. If you truly understand this perception of clock time and minds comprehension of time, then you would see that in the present moment you can sense your awareness, your true being, that is more than images and thought. Tolle is right in saying past and future do not exist, because physically they are impossible to reach, but in the sense of clock time past and future are necessary in order to keep society moving, and to keep track of the mind perceived conception of “life”. Tolle wants you to think, and think hard. Think about more than just the physical world, think about thoughts, and what they are, because thoughts are not physical, but they are still a type of form

  19. ibika Says:

    thank goodness for all the wise people commenting on this blog… thank you all..The blog itself is written unfortunately by someone lost in the thinking mind…with the normal cleverness and sarcasm of the ego.
    the buddha discovered all this 2500 years ago.. eckhart is following in those footsteps and has a wonderful skill for explaining the teachings in a contemporary and easy to understand way.
    utmost respect to him… and of course the the buddha.. sadhu sadhu sadhu..

  20. Anonymous Says:

    If life is a film then – in my mind – Tolle wants you to be more aware of the actual frame instead of focusing your expectations too much on what the next frame will look like.

  21. Jack Says:

    Yes I disagree with the statement you said I do believe the moment is all there is because it’s always the now In an hour it will be the same now . There’s not a lot of nows just one now . Thank you

  22. Jason Says:

    Once you experience, as I have, the silencing of the mind and clarity of thought & vision from the elimination of mental fog, you will understand it is possible to achieve.

    Not to see each frame of the filmstrip, that’s idiotic, but seeing the film play without any skipping ahead or delays.

    Just being with life as it unfolds losing all concept of time.

  23. Pierre Lagacé Says:

    I saw your comment on the other blog.

    I’m an atheist greatly in sympathy with what Harris says here. And there is a superficial evocation of Eckhardt Tolle. But actually Tolle doesn’t make sense, as I’ve explained on my own blog: https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2009/03/17/eckhart-tolle-the-future-is-now/

    I wanted to read more…

    I have to admit I had problems with understanding the “now” thing.
    Now I am more familiar with that “now” notion and I will enjoy more of the past, present, and future from now on. I hope my comment makes sense.

    Thanks for the insight.

    Pierre

  24. rationaloptimist Says:

    Pierre, thanks. Yes, it makes sense. I should have added that Harris is wrong in saying the future never comes. Of course it does, and with a vengeance if we live in disregard of it! Much of what we do in the present is aimed at affecting how our future will be. That’s not crazy. Doing otherwise is crazy.

  25. Pierre Lagacé Says:

    I really enjoyed what you wrote, and I am not commenting on other people’s blogs just to get visitors.

    I have several. It’s better than sitting on a sofa watching television.
    I will read more of what you have written and comment some more.

  26. Kevin Says:

    This essay totally misses the point of Eckhart Tolle. And while he is full of new age BS, that BS is not actually central to his point.

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