Friday, February 18, 2011

Canadian Therapists Worry that Clients Use Eckhart Tolle as a Spiritual Bypass

Douglas Todd, in the Vancouver Sun, writes about something that many people have been concerned about for a long time - the use of spiritual teachers and practices to bypass pain, wounding, and trauma, essentially stuffing it down, smoothing it over, and otherwise ignoring material that must be processed and healed in order to be a psychologically healthy person.

There is a name for this process - it's called Spiritual Bypassing - and by far the best book on the subject was published last year by integral psychotherapist Robert Augustus Masters. [My review is here.]

In this article, Todd looks specifically at the impact of Eckhart Tolle on this phenomenon - with all his "live in the now" teachings (The Power of Now). There is value to these teachings, but most people lack discernment, so they end up engaging in spiritual bypass and thinking they are becoming spiritually enlightened. As a result, it seems they are dropping out of therapy and then eventually suffering a severe rebound in symptoms - in the words of the recovery movement: what we resist persists.

I have had concerns about this with other practices, as well, such as Big Mind, which promises enlightenment experiences in a couple of hours. Even Ken Wilber's 3-2-1 shadow work process can be a way to avoid the real, in-depth, painful shadow work most of us need and used to bypass the serious issues that must be dealt with in a meaningful way.

You can read more of Todd's excellent articles at his The Search column in the Sun.

By Douglas Todd 18 Feb 2011

The Power of Now may be harmful to your psychological health, if you take it too literally.

Canadian psychotherapists say some troubled clients are crashing after reading Eckhart Tolle’s world-famous books, which teach that the secret to ending your suffering is “to live in the now.”

The head of Canada’s Institute of Family Living says her therapists are having clients who have suffered severe sexual abuse stop trying to face their past ordeals after taking the Vancouver spiritual teacher’s online courses, where they’re taught they must “stay in the present.”

Diane Marshall is one of many counsellors reporting that traumatized clients are dropping out of the therapeutic healing process after reading Tolle and concluding they must minimize their pasts, cease planning their futures and “honour and accept the Now.”

When patients treat such doctrines as the unembellished spiritual truth, therapists say they often try to ignore the fear associated with their dreadful upbringings.

As a result, many are thrown into a severe crisis.

Many clients are “using denial and avoidance in the name of ‘living in the now,’” Marshall told me in an interview. Their anxiety and depression then “sneaks up on them and they are slammed into a real setback.”

Instead of trying to ignore their considerable inner pain, Marshall says people who had difficult upbringings need to grieve their losses.

That way “they’re able to claim their life and go forward courageously into the new future.”
Marshall is one of many Canadian therapists who worry that desperate people suffering depression, anxiety and other psychological conditions are vulnerable to being told that spiritual techniques, like “living in the now,” will offer a magic solution.

While generally supporting the value of serious spirituality and membership in religious organizations, most therapists don’t think there are spiritual shortcuts around the hard work of psychological recovery.

In addition, some therapists worry that struggling people are being thrown into intense depression and further self-hatred after failing to live up to the spiritual solutions set forth by Tolle and other guides.

Tolle’s philosophy, influenced by Eastern spirituality, might be more sophisticated than it appears to his followers. And he’s not the only one who has won fame and fortune by offering self-help advice that seems as uncomplicated as child’s play.

Still, tens of millions of people are reading Tolle’s books, such as The Power of Now and A New Earth, and paying for his online courses, which are marketed by Oprah Winfrey. He’s a major global influence.

Many are wholeheartedly adopting Tolle’s teaching that the key to happiness is to get rid of one’s “egoic mind” and stop “creating time,” which the German-born teacher says dangerously places a person in the past or future.

“True salvation is freedom from negativity,” Tolle says, “and above all of past and future as a psychological need.”

Most therapists, however, say that everyone needs to confront their imperfect pasts, and to build a strong, healthy ego.

The latter gives people the self-confidence to deal with challenging situations, face their often-difficult upbringings, recognize their mistakes and make decent choices about their futures.

Rather than dodging the terrible things that may have happened to us by zeroing in exclusively on “the Now,” noted psychologists such as Mark Freeman say “hindsight” is pivotal to insight and healing.

It is not all wrong to try to be “in the now,” to experience what is happening to us as it’s happening, says Freeman, author of Hindsight: The Promises and Perils of Looking Backward.

But hindsight, the psychologist says, is also “a powerful tool for redressing the forgetfulness that so often characterizes the human condition. It’s a vehicle of recollection, where we are called back to ourselves, and it’s a key feature of living the examined life.”

University of B.C. psychologist Marvin Westwood (right) is another who takes seriously the value of understanding our pasts, including through the ancient wisdom of the Sufi poet, Rumi, who said, “The cure for pain is in the pain.”

We shouldn’t deny our pasts; we should grieve what went wrong, Westwood says. He encourages people who have learned to be “numb” about early hurts to face the fact their hearts were once broken.

“Their pain is a blessing,” Westwood says, “because ultimately it helps to bring back feeling, and can lead the way to the restoration of depth and soul.”

Check out more of my pieces about Eckhart Tolle, including a profile cited by The New York Times


Todd Wright said...

This is a thought provoking article, but the main argument is a straw man. Tolle doesn't say you should gloss over the past. He simply urges people to deal with the past as it arises in the present, or "in the now." Negativity in the past, if it was dealt with effectively then (if it wasn't grieved and processed at the time) will inevitably resurface as what Tolle calls a "pain-body" attack. This occurs in the present and can be dissolved through awareness, allowing it to be, while focusing on the uncomfortable sensation that it causes (emotion, Tolle says, is the body's reaction to a thought). Inevitably, too, this process brings to mind the unconscious thoughts that are causing the pain and the sufferer awakens a bit further.
You are right when you point out that Tolle's philosophy is more sophisticated that some of his followers realize. But it is not a sophistication of the head, it is that of the heart. Tolle says we learn from the past but we should not live in it, nor the future.

Unknown said...

I cannot fully disagree that many people "half ass" spirituality, hoping to find release to their past hurts and present suffering.

Its not the fault of these wonderful teachers that these patients are not whole-heartedly applying themselves to sincere self development.

The main reason I had such a hard time dealing with my own past experience's was my consistent attachment to a false identity. I feel that if a person is authentic in their spiritual development that they are not "bypassing" the healing process, but dissolving the identity that developes and sustains meaning to these experiences.

Anonymous said...

Tolle's view on dealing with the past is by bringing awareness to it (the pain body) only as it keeps us from being in the present. Does this not leave room for the use of cognitive therapy? Is not bringing awareness what the whole point of cognitive therapy is?

william harryman said...

Not blaming the teacher here, as I pointed out in the commentary - most people simply lack discernment to differentiate being in the moment from spiritual bypass.

In regard to cognitive therapy, much of it is rubbish, intellectual band-aids on somatic and/or emotional wounds.

CT (or actually CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy) does not seek to work with the pain body, or anything else, other than thoughts and internal scripts. Much of the preverbal wounding most of us carry cannot be touched by it.

Anonymous said...

William, I would say rather the individual gets from the CT whatever they and the therapist put in. Becoming aware of these thoughts and unconcsious scripts intellectually, understanding why we have them, can help bring about emotional resolution. I do not think it is the sole solution, but without being aware of them how can one NOT be bypassing it with Tolle's 'be in the now.' It turns his message in one of denial and evasion.

Joe said...

Hi. Appreciate the distinctions you make in your article. As a person with almost all of the classic childhood tramaus and one who uses Eckhart Tolle's materials, I find your words informative. However, could I please remind you that in The Power of Now, Tolle says that unless we face and heal the pain of our past, we will be forced to live it again and again. He also mentions therapeutic schools in his CD's. So he's not anti therapy. Thank you again for your article

Joe said...

Hi. Appreciate the distinctions you make in your article. As a person with almost all of the classic childhood tramaus and one who uses Eckhart Tolle's materials, I find your words informative. However, could I please remind you that in The Power of Now, Tolle says that unless we face and heal the pain of our past, we will be forced to live it again and again. He also mentions therapeutic schools in his CD's. So he's not anti therapy. Thank you again for your article

Anonymous said...

It's always extraordinary to me when I see people criticism things they have not fully researched or understand. Tolle does not say to run away from your past. He says to confront it and learn to accept what has happened. What is, is.
Obviously I'm paraphrasing and I recommend a thorough study of Tolle. He talks about getting in touch with the part of us that is at our core, which does not know suffering, and confronting and accepting our past is part of the journey. Then it's easier to have access to the now. The now is no simple thing to embrace for anyone caught in chaotic mind noise such as the past or future. It's just a concept that is misunderstood, (especially by it's critics).
And he also doesn't say to forget about the future but not to let it rule your identity.
But it would be hard to imagine a therapist who studies the ego to understand what Tolle is saying, even though an understanding of it and the use of it with patience would be the most successful medicine.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the previous comments. I used to suffer immensely before Tolle (and others) helped me realise I suffered because my ego found itself deeply wounded from traumas and it wouldn't let itself be healed. All my fake identities suddenly became clear to me. I fall back into old patterns all the time but the more aware and conscious I am in the now, the better I can efficiently handle these setbacks as they appear.

Anonymous said...

Are you still alive bro

william harryman said...

who's asking?