Tolle’s spirituality is for the likes of middle-class housewives struggling with boredom, and his methods work when one’s unhappiness is over a stained carpet, light traffic, or a bad hair day. If and when you are creating your own unhappiness out of thin air, it will go away if you stop doing so. But for the majority of the people living on this Earth, unhappiness is generated from external sources. One need not think for very long to come up with all manner of examples that would make any sane person unhappy. Without going into grisly details, I’ll just throw out some key words: war, torture, rape, illness, genocide, concentration camp, refugee camp, natural disaster, sexual abuse, incest, child labor, sweatshops, imprisonment… Tolle adds insult to injury by insinuating that the soldier who has lost limbs on the battle field, and saw too much horror, is making himself unhappy, whereas Eckhart’s eternal bliss would not have been shaken by the same experience.
But Eckhart says the primary cause of unhappiness is “never the situation”. This means that unhappiness is always the exclusive result of our attitude, and not circumstances, except perhaps secondarily. He’s wrong. Let’s look at his quote in more context.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral, which always is as it is. There is the situation or the fact, and here are my thoughts about it. Instead of making up stories, stay with the facts. For example, “I am ruined” is a story. It limits you and prevents you from taking effective action. “I have 50 cents left in my bank account” is a fact. Facing facts is always empowering.”
According to Eckhart it is the story you imagine yourself in that is the problem. It’s your interpretation of events. Rather than create a drama in which you are the poor victim, you need to look clearly at the “facts” of the situation and work to solve the problem. This is fine when it comes to a messy desk, but not when the “facts” are inherently upsetting. If the “fact” is that you have been captured by enemy troops, and they are going to torture you before killing you – this is happening to people in Syria today – you don’t really need to build a story over that to falsely put a damper on your glee. When there is the possibility of “horror” than mere “unhappiness” is surely possible.
For the graphic I chose a picture of a grieving baby elephant after his or her mother was shot. I don’t think we can blame the baby elephant’s unhappiness on the self-delusion of its ego or intellect. It is not making itself unhappy through self-pity in an elaborate and fantastic tragedy it has spun with itself as the beleaguered protagonist. Its sorrow is a natural expression, and a sign of intelligence and feeling.
If one is familiar with the documentary, The Tears of Sichuan, it’s easy to understand the sadness, unhappiness, and even anger of the Chinese parents who lost their children in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. Many children died because of the faulty construction of their school, which collapsed on them while other nearby buildings remained standing. The school was shoddily built because of corruption and incompetence. Columns were just stacked bricks, painted over, with little or no cement holding them together. And while the parents were still grieving and angry, the government also refused to listen to them or punish those responsible for their children’s deaths. Instead, the government sought to silence the people because they were making the government look bad.
One could put on a sweater, breath loudly through one’s nose, and self-congratulate oneself for being at peace with the universe, feeling above the self-inflicted suffering of the less spiritually evolved or aware people, but one would be at best ignorant, and at worst a fraud and hypocrite.
Eckhart said that “facing facts is always empowering”. I suggest he face the fact that terrible things happen to people regularly, and that their unhappiness in regard to them is not a fault of their self-delusion, but a natural and even healthy response to an awful situation. Rather than blaming people’s attitudes for their unhappiness or dissatisfaction, we should acknowledge that in many instances it’s the inevitable outcome of crime, social injustice, war, accidents, or unforeseeable circumstances.
When the girls working overtime in the sweatshop for peanuts are miserable, the corrupt boss can point to the quote on the wall by Eckhart Tolle, and remind them that their unhappiness is the result of their attitudes, and not being overworked.
Their attitudes don’t need to be changed, the situation does.
And if all of that still hasn’t convinced you, consider the following.
Guest post by J. Sri Bhagovwid.