Should we turn off the mind, as Eckhart Tolle says?

Question: Eckhart Tolle says that the mind is the greatest obstacle to awakening—that it's good to use my mind to deal with moving through this world, but that to awaken, I need to learn how to stop thinking. I think this is in harmony with the Course, but I'm not sure. What is your position?

Answer: While there are many points of contact between the Course and Eckhart Tolle's teaching, the Course sees the mind and the role of thinking very differently. It agrees with Tolle's assessment of the problem—the problem is that we are caught up in false thinking, even insane thinking. The solution, however, in the Course's view, is not to stop thinking, but to reverse thinking (the Course refers to its goal of reversing our thinking a dozen times). The solution is to replace false thinking with "right thinking," even "Christ thinking." Speaking of our current condition, the Course says, "Your thinking has done this because of its power, but your thinking can also save you from this because its power is not of your making" (T-7.VI.2:5). The Course teaches that right thinking will ultimately lead to our reawakening to the Mind of God, where we will again know our "real thoughts," which are beyond time and space.

The Course, therefore, grants both mind and thinking a much greater role in the larger scheme of things. It teaches that God has a Mind and that God has Thoughts. It says that the Holy Spirit's "logic is…impeccable" (T-5.V.1:4) and even says that God is logical: "God does not contradict Himself" (T-8.VI.7:5). Noncontradiction, of course, is the whole basis of logic. Further, it says that the mind is not a mere earthly mechanism, but is a transcendental reality that was created by God and that is therefore inherently holy (twenty times the Course refers to our minds with the phrase "holy mind" or "holy minds"). It even echoes the much-maligned Descartes and his cogito ("I think therefore I am") by saying, "If I did not think I would not exist, because life is thought" (W-pI.54.2:3).

All of this has major ramifications for how we practice the Course. Most of the practice of the Course lies in simply repeating sentences. You know this if you've gone through the Workbook. Think about that: Repetition of words and ideas is the main practice of A Course in Miracles. Why? Because those words and ideas contain that right thinking that is the goal of the Course. Many of the Course's practices involve even more mentation. The Workbook often asks us to spend our practice periods actively "thinking about" the idea for the day. It frequently instructs us to place the idea in our minds and then, for several minutes, "let related thoughts come."

Finally, there is Lesson 66, in which we spend ten to fifteen minutes actively reflecting on the major premise ("God gives me only happiness") and minor premise ("He has given my function to me") of a logical syllogism, in order to realize the inevitability of its conclusion ("Therefore, my function must be happiness"). The Course thinks that spending fifteen minutes mentally crunching the premises of a logical syllogism is an example of spiritual practice? This tells us a great deal about the nature of this path.

True, the Course contains many meditation exercises that involve turning off thought as we know it. However, even those are not without mental content. In the Course's meditations, we place our attention on formless, nonverbal meaning. We don't actively think about that meaning, but we do hold it in mind. We focus on the Name of God, not as a mantra, but as an invitation to our Father to come and reveal Himself. We focus on the center of our mind, in the faith that it is the abode of all peace and perfection. We wait in confident expectancy for the experience of God to dawn on our mind. All of this involves holding meaning in mind. Yes, the mind is still, but in that stillness its attention is resting on mental meaning. And it is doing that in order to "approach the Source of meaning" (W-pI.rV.In.12:5), in order to become infused with true meaning.

The importance of meaning, in fact, can help us understand why the Course gives such an exalted role to thinking. Yes, the mind is good at juggling forms and assembling them to make cars and toasters and buildings. But what really matters to the mind is meaning. The meanings that we truly believe in determine everything: our behavior, our emotions, our moods, our overall experience of life. If we want a new experience, then, we will need to embrace a new meaning. And that is what the Course is all about. When it talks about changing perception, it's not talking about seeing that the wine goblet is really two people facing each other (a famous exercise in perception). It's talking about seeing a new meaning. It's talking about seeing that that "evil attacker" is really a Son of God asking for my help. And when that new meaning is truly embraced, we enter into a new experience.

Personally, I don't see how one can do both things at once: seek awakening by turning off thinking and seek awakening by training the mind in right thinking. And that's okay. All paths meet at the summit, even if they take different routes up the mountain. If you are following Eckhart Tolle, then, I think you should seek awakening by turning off your thinking. I have to say, though, that even then, some of your greatest leaps forward will probably involve mental realizations. They will probably involve taking in new meanings, such as the meanings expressed in Eckhart's teachings. If, on the other hand, you are following the Course, it really is essential that you give yourself to its practice of right thinking. Don't approach this apologetically, assuming that this is a lower approach than being purely present without thought. For what moves us is embracing and experiencing a new meaning, and there is nothing that harnesses and channels the mind's ability to embrace a new meaning like A Course in Miracles

4 Comments

  1. Don McCauley
    Posted October 16, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Robert,
    Though I am a Tolle reader, I would agree that he is mistaken, in that he confuses the entire mind and thinking process with the ego. On that singular point I totally disagree with him.
    However, after I published my own book, it was immediately reviewed to be much like his. Hmmm.
    I have spent decades with the Course. I used to be a fan of Anthony Robbins. He states that if we can clearly define the state we wish to achieve, we can simply go there immediately, without the perceived necessary struggle-modeling. This I attempted to do with the Course. In other words, what does that perfect state look like? Can we define it clearly and then simply go there?
    Indeed we can, and without struggle. The state of mind the Course leads us to is precisely what we have been calling 'witness consciousness'.
    In this state, we witness our thoughts, ALL of them, without any judgment whatsoever. We do this with not only our thoughts, but all objects we perceive.
    If we resist the ego, we make it real. This is a vicious circle. Resisting the ego causes it to become stronger. However, if we simply observe our thoughts, without judging them as 'good' or 'bad', without any judgment whatsoever, we understand at last that our thoughts mean nothing. If we observe the ego, without judgment, simply allowing it to be what it is, we undo not some, but all the effects immediately. The ego is not gone immediately, but its effects are undone totally and immediately.
    This is quite simple to understand when looked at logically. This took only about 30 years to figure out . . . .
    Don

  2. Karen McWhorter
    Posted September 13, 2014 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I am ACIM student. Keeping egoic thinking from ruling my mind was very hard to do. I would think about the lesson plan but that didn’t always stop the mind chatter. I needed to become aware of ‘the present moment’ and I was only able to do that by practicing ‘moment awareness’ as taught by Tolle. What I do is notice the feeling that indicates egoic thinking. I remind myself that it is egoic thinking and the feeling dissipates, then my mind is freed up to feel The Love that the days lesson brings.
    Tolle teaches ‘present moment awareness’ by noticing the heart feeling. I did not get from his teaching that we should ‘turn off the mind’ but that we can be aware of the feelings and let them release. Perhaps we all get what we need individually.
    Karen

  3. Martin Pettet
    Posted October 22, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Interesting that you erased my comment on this, about two weeks ago. Was wondering why?

  4. Joseph Miller
    Posted October 26, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this very thoughtful analysis. I’ve been involved in a few casual conversations comparing the two, but this post is the most thorough and informed exploration I’ve seen. I think the points about thought reversal and meaning are excellent.

    In my reading of Tolle, however, I do not see him advocating the cessation of thought as some kind of permanent attainment and end-goal. Nor is his writing absent of many pointers on thought-reversal. His main point is that as long as the power of attention is passively enmeshed in the mind stream, then one’s identity, and power of choice, are curtailed. Repeated temporary experiences of separating awareness from habitual thought patterns releases a sense of liberty and objectivity.

    Still, I concur with the main point of the post. I’m reminded that Tolle points to Krishnamurti as an important influence, and the latter especially preached negative liberty over positive liberty. The Course seems to be telling us that freedom from bad thought habits is valuable because we may be taught better thought habits.

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