Spirituality and Social Change: A Response to Be Scofield’s Analysis of Eckhart Tolle

In Buddhism, wisdom and compassion are seen as two wings of the same bird. "Building awareness builds clear-seeing, which fosters wisdom," the author writes. "But it is of little use without compassion, the other wing." Credit: Creative Commons/Kelcey Loomer.

I was grateful to read my friend Be Scofield’s post, “Why Eckhart Tolle’s Evolutionary Activism Won’t Save Us.” As someone who thinks a good deal about the intersection between spiritual practice and work in the world — and as someone with a longtime committed spiritual practice — this felt, to me, like the ocean does when you first step in: bracing, a little painful, ultimately rejuvenating. I noted in myself (good Buddhist practitioner that I am) some real discomfort upon reading, and after recognizing what it was – that some of my feel-good notions about my own spirituality were getting rocked — I welcomed it. Scofield’s piece got me thinking.

For those of us navigating the path between inner work and activist/service work, it’s a little easy, given that both carry such lofty agendas, to get self-righteous. To get comfortable, ideologically. I spent a large chunk of my twenties constantly occupied in some kind of global justice or peace organizing. I then submerged myself in graduate school, and I’ve spent the past couple of years since engaged in some pretty deep (and necessary) inner work. I think it’s normal, and healthy, to move in phases; that there is an intuitive cycling, when we are open to it, between our work for outer transformation and our work for inner transformation. And I believe both are needed. Especially now.

I agree with Scofield that deeply flawed individuals can certainly create positive social change. I also believe – and here is where he raises a crucial point — that we cannot wait until we feel peaceful and joyful to take steps to serve social and environmental justice. We are scared, and we are angry, and yet we move anyway, hopefully with a degree of humility (“Asking, we walk,” one of the mantras of the Zapatistas, leaps to mind). Yet I also believe — and this belief has been justified by ample experience, both personal and interpersonal — that when we do not do the inner work, we run a serious risk of recreating the violence inherent in the systems we claim we want to change. When we don’t look at our own anger and fear, we project it outward. There are countless examples of this in history: revolutions that simply served to instate the next oppressive regime. And if there isn’t a modicum of self-awareness, we won’t see this: that our actions are ultimately self-defeating, and that, in terms of genuine transformation, we are achieving nothing. A serious spirituality that incorporates a dedicated awareness practice is vital to real change. Here is where I agree with Tolle that consciousness, and the evolution of consciousness, is crucial to the planetary change we all want. There will always be anger, and there will always be fear. Simultaneously, there will always be compassion, and joy. We are human: our motives are mixed. The problem arises when the dominant motivation is anger; when we do not have sufficient awareness to recognize the anger, and how it is driving us. When we can see this, we can choose to hold it mindfully, instead of simply reacting to it; we can choose, instead, to act from a place of love. This is the kind of awareness a committed spiritual practice will give us, and it is, I believe, no less than vital to authentic social change.

That said, there’s a middle ground here. Scofield reminds us that we need to keep thinking, we need to ensure that our spiritual practice isn’t simply self-serving (as the worst of the New Age stuff encourages), but instead grows constantly toward what King called the “love that does justice.” What does this love look like? As I see it, the primary difference between a progressive agenda and a conservative agenda is inclusivity: a vision of interconnection. A Tea Partier may be incredibly loving towards his family, but someone on the other side of the world is another matter altogether. So, how do we navigate this rift? How can spiritual practice actually nourish justice? What is the “middle way” here?

My main argument is that consciousness — awareness — is not enough. We can commit murder with perfect awareness. In Buddhism, there is the vision of the “two wings of the dove”: wisdom and compassion. Building awareness builds clear-seeing, which fosters wisdom. But it is of little use without compassion, the other wing. A heart practice is needed, too; a practice that specifically orients the heart toward an inclusive love. In the Theravadan tradition, this is metta practice; in the Tibetan, tonglen. Both are practices that orient the heart towards love, and that include not only ourselves and our families, but all being, all who suffer, in this wish. Prayer is another wonderful means to this end – but again, and crucially: it must be prayer that extends beyond ourselves and our circles.

We will get nowhere without realizing our interconnection. If we truly understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” as King said, then the circle of our compassion does not only extend to ourselves, or our families, or the community of likeminded — but rather to all. Glenn Beck’s religiosity may include tremendous love for those who have been saved, but it effectively excludes those beyond his walls. Indeed, it damns many of them. There may be compassion here, but clearly wisdom is lacking.

In essence, I am arguing that, as Tolle maintains, a shift in consciousness is necessary to genuine social transformation. And I believe this shift in consciousness is greatly aided by, if not dependent upon, a committed spiritual practice. However, our practice must incorporate the intention of fostering both wisdom and compassion, both clarity and love. It must incorporate a vision of interconnection. And it is most certainly not enough simply to read Tolle and trust he speaks the truth. We must find out for ourselves: we must negotiate with our own anger and fear and pain and confusion, and learn how to hold them, to allow them to transform. We must learn how to choose to act from love. We must learn, at the risk of cliché, to be the change we want to see in the world. This inner work is not rewarded in our culture — significantly less so, in my experience, than activist work. Yet our activism will change very little of true substance unless we do this work. It is this work that shows us what we are engaging with in the world, this work that leads us to understand the nature of hatred, and greed, and fear. For we are human, and these are in us. And we cannot work from love unless we have learned to hold these in ourselves.

But finally, and crucially: it’s not enough just to practice. Unless we expose ourselves to the world — to the thorny issues we wish to change, and to the often-challenging interpersonal dynamics that arise as we do engage – spiritual practice risks devolving into navel-gazing, or worse, self-righteous justification for our narrow worldview. In short: we must act. We will not evolve, spiritually or collectively, unless we negotiate with the very tricky, often humbling, issues of our times; unless we expose ourselves, and our beliefs – spiritual, social, and beyond — to the great big world out there, in all its complexity and contradiction. We cannot simply transcend. We must be immanent, too: we must choose, we must engage.

Marisa Handler — writer, activist, speaker, and singer-songwriter — is the author of Loyal to the Sky: Notes from an Activist, which won a 2008 Nautilus Gold Award for world-changing books. Her journalism has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Earth Island Journal, Salon.com, Alternet, and Tikkun, Orion, The Sun, and Bitch magazines. Marisa speaks and sings about visionary social change all over the country. She received her MFA in fiction from theIowa Writers’ Workshop, and was a Fulbright scholar in Creative Writing. She teaches Creative Writing at CIIS, Stanford, and Esalen, as well as her own workshops. More, including music videos and her album, Dark Spoke, at www.marisahandler.com.


7 thoughts on “Spirituality and Social Change: A Response to Be Scofield’s Analysis of Eckhart Tolle

  1. I’m grateful, Marisa, for your warm and lucid response, as I am for Be Scofield’s article. You emphasize the balance of inner and outer work well, without favoring one over the other. In reading Scofield’s essay, what I would like to add to the mix is a recognition of a fundamental error in Tolle’s work as Scofield presents it. (I am not a student of Tolle’s writing myself, so can’t speak about his practice from the inside. I read it from my base in our shared tradition of Theravada Buddhism.)

    The issue that Scofield is right to highlight is a disconnect between Tolle’s story of the material/social result of profound inner transformation. Why indeed should enlightenment of any kind lead inevitably to a progressive social politics or activism? You’re right to emphasize that the difference between progressive and conservative ideology seems to be a focus on interconnection. Progressive policies tend to take more care of others (or say that they want to, anyway). If indeed it is the case that awakening automatically increases compassion (as some traditions claim), then people should become more progressive as they enlighten. But it’s not so simple, and the example of an evangelical missionary is a good one: lots of care and concern for the Other, but perhaps a narrow vision about how to help, and often a conservative moral stance.

    The doctrinal error that Tolle inhabits and that Scofield also doesn’t quite tease out is described by the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of the Two Truths: that reality simultaneously manifests in personal and universal forms, called Relative and Absolute, though even those labels can misleadingly seem like they’re a hierarchy, with one deeper than the other. Confusing the manifestations of one of these (like the deep impersonality that Tolle’s awakening revealed to him) with manifestations of the other (like social positions, beliefs, and activism) is a bit apples and oranges. They’re just two different ways of engaging reality.

    Through the lens of the Absolute, global warming, injustice, racism, homophobia, etc. Really Don’t Matter! The universe is way huger and more subtle than those concerns, and when a practitioner is deep in meditation, untangling the fundamental strands of consciousness and the universe, dissolving the self, relative politics is the furthest thing from important. However – and this is a big however – these experiences must not be taken as solutions for relative social ills. Relative ills – and again, relative doesn’t mean lesser, it just means that they exist in the realm of relationship, where self and other DO exist – require relative solutions. Social ills require social solutions. And the Relative world matters. Deeply.

    It is very tempting, when we’ve had a profound experience, to think that if everyone could just know what we now know, so many problems would be fixed. I remember driving over the GG Bridge after 2 months of retreat, sobbing, recognizing that all the people in all the cars and all through the city were racing around trying to find happiness, and doing all sorts of things that could never bring happiness. I was in touch with the depths of my own suffering and that of others, and that understanding helps to motivate my work in the world. But do I think that long meditation retreat is the best medicine for our whole society? No. (Ok, I sort-of do, but I don’t hold the fantasy that it’s going to happen.) It’s not the medicine that most of our society is available for. Only a few people will ever have experiences like Tolle’s. The question isn’t about how those experiences will change the world, but what millions of us, still imperfect, half-awakened at best, choose to do in Relative reality – in relationship with others – for the good of the whole. The thing Tolle omits is how messy this is. Absolute reality is so clean and… absolute! So it leads too easily into making grand pronouncements about transformation.

    I know a Buddhist monk who, when asked about how to bring spiritual practice into romantic relationship, answered (appropriately) that as a celibate monastic he wasn’t qualified to answer the question because he didn’t have experience doing so. Tolle can teach people how to access the Absolute because that’s where his experience lies. For a teacher of social transformation I would send folks to a guru of the Relative. Maybe a boxed set of “The Power of Now” paired with Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” is good medicine that touches both realms.

    May we all be well. Sí, se puede!

  2. I love Marisa’s response which captures, more eloquently than I could hope to, my feelings about this topic of the relationship between spirituality and activism. I agree with Tolle’s description of “source” and with the project of helping people have more access to it. I also agree with Scofield that he neglects the next step which is to encourage active manifestation of it in the world. To me that isn’t such a sin if he goes more in that direction in future work. There is a big problem with his work, however, which isn’t exclusive to him– many spiritual traditions make the same mistake. This is to vilify the “ego” and encourage his adherents to ignore or transcend it. Here are some quotes from his first book:
    p. 45 When it [ego] takes over all aspects of your life, including your relationships with other human beings and with nature, it becomes a monstrous parasite. . .

    125 This false, mind-made self, the ego, feels vulnerable, inscecure, and is always seeking new things to identify with to give it a feeling that it exists. But nothing is ever enough to give it lasting fulfillment. Its fear remains, its sense of lack and neediness remains.

    150 Some of the ego’s strategies are extremely clever, yet they never truly solve any of its problems, simply because the ego itself is the problem.

    If you view those elements of your psyche that are insecure, angry, materialistic, selfish, grandiose, etc., as monstrous parasites or as the problem, it is natural to strive for the blissful life of connection to the source and to shut them out. If, on the other hand, you see them as subpersonalities who are trying their best to protect you or are suffering and exiled within you, then you will bring the natural compassion of that source, what I call the Self, to them to help them feel loved by you which will result in their healing and transforming, after which they no longer are insecure, angry, selfish and so on. Instead they transform into valuable resources. No longer obstacles to accessing this source, instead they join you in it and, because they identify with suffering different people, help you expand your circle of compassion and impel you to act in the world on that compassion.

    I find that people relate to external people in the same way they relate to these inner entities. If you disdain your inner weakness or hatred or racism, then you will relate to people who resemble those parts of you in the same way. If you can love and welcome all that in you, you will find that those parts of you transform, and then you can open your heart to all sorts of people and find that they also are not what they seemed at first glance.
    Dick Schwartz

  3. read with much interest and of course agree with most of what you say, and you say it very well as always.

    Those who struggle with hatred and enmity and fear are not far away here in South Africa, no matter where you live. Yet another black Lesbian woman was shot at point blank by a young man last week for no other reason than fear and suspicion of who she is and what she represents. The woman who cleans the outside areas in our building is currently struggling with the illness that shack-dwelling and desperate poverty bring. She has a job, which millions do not; but as an economic migrant from another area she has almost no resources and a family to raise. Her husband is unemployed. She gets up every morning at 4am to catch her bus and taxi to a job that is the family’s sole source of income, and not well paid. When she isn’t ill she smiles easily and talks with great pride of her children. The winter rains are here and the shacks leak and are freezing; her children are cold and must get up very early to be taken by her unemployed husband to school. There are millions like her.
    The problem is, no matter how caring or compassionate I may be, no matter the little I do to help, I cannot imagine her life; I cannot imagine myself living her life. And that’s the hard part: I have my life but she has no choice other than to get on with hers.
    I agree it is indeed crucial to work from a place of love and caring within oneself and even more crucial to practise this every day of our lives in some way. In my interactions with those who struggle with so many daily challenges, I am always aware and grateful for how very fortunate I am; as are you and every one who enjoys the luxury of likemindedness on these issues. In our lives the basics are a given, and because of this immense good fortune, and the kind of awareness fostered by education and inclination, we are enabled – and privileged – to serve others in any way we can. When I feel most helpless, I tell myself that iIf we engage in even the smallest way every day, we are surely doing the work this world so sorely needs. I tell myself that if every one of us who are among the fortunate commit to this path, the world can only get better.

  4. I am very grateful for this valuable discussion. I am not a student of Eckhart Tolle’s work. However these articles touch on a phenomenon that I have given tens of thousands of hours observing and analysing. It is common for “social activists” to say one thing and do the opposite. What enables this dissonance and how is this dissonance manifest in their language and their audience? Research of the prime symbols employed by “environmental activists” indicates their use is characterised by a fundamental denial of change and stewardship. Indeed very often our most prominent activists actively deny the change they call for.

    I am not familiar with Eckhart’s notion of the ego. I suspect we would agree that it is an extremely potent structure at the interface of the vast unconscious and the trace conscious elements of our psyche. My understanding of the ego is that included in its abilities is an incredible and ingenious capacity for self denial. With self-awareness comes the realisation of our mortality, a notion that the ego tends to find abhorrent. Thus it tends to deny the universal order, which is continuous change. It also tends to deny our roles as stewards amidst this universal change because stewardship involves an awareness that all forms pass.

    The ego’s capacity for self deceit is incredible because it is beyond thought. This is why we each can easily become our own worst enemy. This can occur at both the individual and the societal level. Analysis of the language of English-speaking environmental activists reveals a grand denial of change/stewardship and there is a very significant possibility that the activism of the Global Green Movement destroys science of scale and may form one of our greatest threats. For instance Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth is possibly the most powerful advertisement for car owning, jet travel and Carbon Trading ever made. Such is the incredible capacity for self-trickery of the ego that resides in all human beings.

    I agree with those who suggest it is helpful to embrace the ego with compassion and kind humour. I also agree with those who suggest that we are sustained by our capacity to transcend the limitations of the ego. Over the millennia great psychologists have created a range of meditation procedures for individuals that have enabled societies sufficient transcendence that they have developed a relatively high degree of harmony with the flows and balances that sustain humanity.

    Be is correct in that these meditative procedures can be used for good and evil. Often they are seen to enable evil activities because they have been used in a selective way.
    Witness the phenomenon of how a person can become a vegetarian out of respect for other sentient beings and yet will continue to drive a car or fly in a jet without reflection of the potentially devastating impacts of this activity on our children. The ego can easily justify this by rationalising, for instance, that “the conversion of the wealth of mineral oil into air pollution while flying to an ashram in India is justified by the improved person I will be when I can better mediate.” Such is the ingenious capacity of the ego for self deceit. Smile.

    The physics of our situation is that our activity is our prime message. All life forms exist because they have the capacity to use symbols. We human beings are no exception and each activity we perform acts as our prime symbol, whether we like it or not. Its sustainability or non-sustainability is manifest in our language in ways we cannot imagine.

    The awareness of this is inconvenient for the ego in that when we embrace the truth of our activities we are better able to transcend the limitations of the ego. It involves transcending a paradox, which is that our use of any symbol simultaneously reflects and generates the state of our being. Fortunately we have a choice in that we have great guides to sustainable language use in the form of the principles of physics -especially the Conservation and Uncertainty Principles of Energy. Their insights have survived the most intense scrutiny of millennia of human beings and never been disproved. Thus if we employ language that is accord with these principles of physics then we have another means of becoming more sustainable.

    This conversation two and a half thousand years ago is illuminating:
    “Tzu Lu said: “The ruler of Wei wants you to become a member of his government. What will you work on first?” Confucius said: “The correction of language use [rectification of names].” Tzu Lu said: “You don’t mean it! Why should that be your first priority?” Confucius said: “If language is not used correctly, then what is said won’t be understood. If what is said is not understood, then the work of the state cannot be carried out successfully…”
    I invite you to read the fuller conversation and to see how we can use language in more sustainable ways at http://www.thesustainabilityprinciple.org/

    There are a couple of clear messages:
    It is helpful to acknowledge and embrace the ego with compassion -we ignore its potent role at our peril.
    We live a paradox in that our activities and our language form each other.
    The great principles of physics form wise guides.
    The transformation of the individual and the society is profoundly and inextricably linked.

    This conversation two and a half thousand years ago is illuminating:
    “Tzu Lu said: “The ruler of Wei wants you to become a member of his government. What will you work on first?” Confucius said: “The correction of language use [rectification of names].” Tzu Lu said: “You don’t mean it! Why should that be your first priority?” Confucius said: “If language is not used correctly, then what is said won’t be understood. If what is said is not understood, then the work of the state cannot be carried out successfully…”
    I invite you to read the fuller conversation and to see how we can use language in more sustainable ways at http://www.thesustainabilityprinciple.org/

    There are a couple of clear messages:
    It is helpful to acknowledge and embrace the ego with compassion -we ignore its potent role at our peril.
    We live a paradox in that our activities and our language form each other.
    The great principles of physics form wise guides.
    The transformation of the individual and the society is profoundly and inextricably linked.

  5. Thanks for this interesting article, Marisa. I’m enjoying thinking about the points you raised and the ensuing discussion. When you say, “Consciousness – awareness- is not enough.” and “A shift in consciousness is necessary…” I’m not sure what you mean exactly by those terms. Can consciousness actually “shift”? My understanding of Tolle is that he experienced “something” that altered the course of his life. This “something” has been variously described as: non-duality, Absolute reality, Mystical Union, enlightenment, etc. Tolle relies on the inherent duality of language to describe something that is beyond dualistic understanding, beyond definitions or concepts. This is easy to understand as a statement of what “it” is not. Consciousness or awareness, as a manifestation of form or phenomenon, is all that we can ever be. I experience perception/ reflection of myself through my senses. There is no way for me to not be engaged in the manifest (or relative) realm. Simultaneously, I, along with all other sentient beings, can only be what I am as source (or Absolute) of perceiving phenomena. In Zen, source is often referred to as “void, emptiness or non-being”. So I will function and act and it will be a subjective experience (as movement) for me as an individual manifestation of source. As a moving (being), I will not be aware of the “position” of source. As non-being, I will not be aware of “movement”. Consider light. Relatively speaking, light travels at a measurable velocity (a function of time and distance). Yet for light, time does not exist so therefore it cannot be said to be “moving”. The point of all this is…well, it depends on which “position” one takes; the relative or absolute. While anyone is pondering that here are some quotes by Huang Po:
    “People neglect the reality of the “illusory” world.”
    “On no account make a distinction between the Absolute and sentient world.”
    “Whatever Mind is, so also are phenomena – both are equally real and partake equally of the Dharma-Nature. He who receives an intuition of this truth has become a Buddha and attained to the Dharma.”

  6. Thanks for all of these wonderful responses. I’m so glad to see others thinking along these lines–and taking this conversation further and deeper. Sean, you raise a good point: the distinction between absolute and relative, and the place of each. And Randall, you continue to explore this point. Of course, in absolute terms, Consciousness doesn’t shift. In relative terms, consciousness can. I’m using capital versus lower-case now, as they really are different things, and my use of language in this piece was less careful than it could have been.

    This might be saying it better: the more we work–with awareness and compassion–with our own personal emotional and mental obstacles, the more we remove them. Thus Consciousness can permeate further, and consciousness “shift.” In the words of Dogen: To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.

    That said, there’s a caveat: we’re discussing the deepest truths here, and their clearest expression is paradoxical. We can try, with language and logic, to describe them, but we will (thankfully!) ultimately fail. The rational mind can only go so far. Quoth Lao Tzu:

    The tao that can be told
    Is not the eternal Tao.
    The name that can be named
    Is not the eternal Name.

  7. Well said. For me, the exploration and discussion is what is valuable. The process of “living” is where we live our lives, not in the conclusions our minds reach about anything which can only ever be a temporary conclusion / interpretation when measured against Infinitude.

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