A Comparative Summary of Eckhart Tolle, Sam Harris and Alan Watts
Are you considering reading a book by Eckhart Tolle, Sam Harris or Alan Watts? This side-by-side summary might help you recognize the main point they’re all making, which is a rather difficult one to notice and took me quite long to do so.
You might be surprised by the level of similarity of these books and reading the same message in three different ways might make it easier to grasp the meaning of those books.
Our blind spot is that we can easily understand them, but only from the illusory point of view that these books are trying to help us see beyond. Or, in their own words:
Harris: “The feeling that we call “I” is an illusion. … Taking oneself to be the thinker of one’s thought … is a delusion that produces nearly every kind of human conflict and unhappiness.”
Watts: “We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own experience as living organisms.”
Tolle: “It’s not [thinking] but the identification with it that causes suffering.”
As long as this identification is in place, it makes perfect sense to move away from discomfort and move toward pleasant emotions. As we can’t grasp what it means not to be the thinker of our thoughts, our minds create a conceptual answer, which is exactly the trap all three writers bravely attempt to save you from.
Harris: “[It’s] incomprehensible in human terms”
Tolle: “you can never understand it through conceptual thinking”
Watts: “conceptual thinking cannot grasp it”
What you can(not) do
Ramana Maharshi, a spiritual teacher who died in 1950, but whom all three writers mention, explains how thinking can sometimes be used as a thorn to remove a thorn. In this case, the paradoxical advice of these books is to make an effort to realize we can’t make an effort:
Harris: “To seek freedom is to reinforce the chains”
Tolle: “It’s about realizing you can’t actually do something”
Watts: “trying to get rid of the ego-sensation reinforces the false belief it’s real”
The mechanism of suffering
The reason for suffering is no different when you’re uninspired at work or education, when you’re struggling to make important decisions or fail to improve a skill, your health or your relationships, and even when you’re disappointed with life in general. The illusion of being the voice in our head — which feels so real to all of us — is the reason for this suffering. All three books point this out. No matter how many desires you fulfill, they argue, it’s only when you break the identification with this thinker that you start experiencing life as a flow.
Harris: “our habitual identification with thought is the prime reason of our suffering”
Tolle: “without [this insight] … every purpose … will lead to suffering.”
Watts: “[as a result of] this illusion of separateness … the individual — instead of fulfilling his unique function in the world — is exhausted and frustrated from efforts to accomplish self-contradictory goals”
The true meaning of surrender
Through simply looking at this problem and experiencing the frustration of not being able to grasp it, nor to let go of the tendency to identify with thought, a more honest view on things can actually be cultivated. While doing so might not instantly create the more pleasant emotions you desire, it works in the background toward something that — according to these books (and my experience) — is worth more than the pleasure of emotions that are based on an illusion.
Harris: “simply pay close attention to unpleasant feelings”
Tolle: “the key is to sense emotions directly, to feel it in your body and not resist.”
Watts: “the point is to get with it, to let it take over.”
One step at a time
While to surrender would fully contradict our usual response to anything unpleasant, it’s not much different from when we challenge ourselves at the gym, follow a diet or quit smoking, which all require some discomfort in the short run for a future payoff. The only difference here is that you can’t really grasp yet what the future payoff exactly is, because you can’t grasp what remains when the feeling of a self dissipates. This is because what remains is not a concept, so the mind can’t perceive it, like with the concept of infinity. This is also why it only lasts briefly once you break the identification for the first time, usually after a few days of close reading and reaching a point of true desperation that makes you give up searching.
Harris: “[you’re] unlikely to recognize that the [first] glimpse of selflessness is the answer to [your] search”
Tolle: “although the awakening may be short-lived, the awakening process will have become initiated.”
Watts: “it’s a little disconcerting once it happens the first time.”
A road for journeys instead of destinations
So, here you are, only after a few days — you’ve experienced a moment without the habitual thought that creates all suffering. The usual reflex is to try to return to it, but that is the ego again, hoping to fulfill its desires. But this trying is the reinforcement of the very same illusion that keeps you from it. Like the first time, the desperation that follows from all your attempts will have you drop the mind again. And thus a process, or practice, of gaining and losing this new perspective forms itself.
Harris: making this discovery, again and again, is the basis of spiritual life.”
Tolle: “you will quickly learn what the most common triggers are … every time you’re present with the [emotions] some of the negative emotional energy will burn up.”
Watts: “You will feel like an onion: skin after skin … is pulled off to find no kernel at the center.”
While this could be interpreted as a long road of hardship from practice, probably the most difficult thing to imagine actually happens. Just as those first glimpses of selflessness give a feeling of flow, in which everything seems to happen perfectly and completely by itself, so seems the shedding of skins — the layers of illusion coming off. The effort in doing it disappears. Consequently, everything that happens seems just as fine, although that might still get you engaged in all sorts of games in which you perhaps even try to win – not for the winning, but for the experience of sincerely contending with others who try to experience the same thing, like you’d “dance for the sake of dancing and not to get to the other side of the room”, to quote Watts from one of his lectures.
Harris: “a true spiritual practitioner is someone who has discovered that it is possible to be at ease in the world for no reason”
Tolle: “the doing itself becomes the focal point of your attention.”
Watts: “you soon discover that you are able to continue with ordinary activities — to work and make decisions as ever, though somehow this is less of a drag. … In the words of a Chinese Zen master, nothing is left to you at this moment but to have a good laugh”
While these books seem to promote a life of practice, any of the suggestions they make — be it mindful meditation, eye gazing or observing your breath — is only a means to an end. The end is that you you figure out how to ‘be without identification with the voice in your head’ and realize that it implies you don’t have to hold on to that insight — it happens by itself. If any supportive practice is needed at all, it can be dropped sooner than you’d think.
Once you’ve had the taste of seeing without the filter of your essentially untrue identity, you’ll return to it every time you notice again that you recreated that mind filter. True understanding creates a marvel about that mechanism, just like it creates a marvel about anything in life. A practice may help you get started, but your challenge will eventually become letting go of it.
This is why all three writers I’ve been quoting here let it shine through that practices are not for the reason you think they exist; practices may help you hold the true perspective longer, but from the highest perspective, the whole endeavor is actually about in daring to lose the perspective once you've obtained it.
Harris: “All efforts are doomed. … Mindfulness generally proceeds on the basis of an illusion … one could just as well be mindful of selflessness directly. … Selflessness is not a deep feature of consciousness. It is right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it.”
Tolle: “the old emotion may still occasionally trick you into identifying with it again, but not for long … when the [identification] returns, don’t fall into the error that there’s something wrong with you. Making yourself into a problem, the ego loves that. The knowing needs to be followed by accepting. Accepting means you allow yourself to feel whatever it is you are feeling at this moment… You can’t argue with what is. … be what you are, with or without the [identification].”
Watts: “There are innumerable recipes for this project, almost all of which have something to recommend them. There are the practices of yoga, meditation, Zen, prayer, drugs and many other … [but] when practiced in order to get some kind of spiritual illumination or awakening, they strengthen the fallacy that the ego can toss itself away … Concepts are useful as long as they are seen as concepts. … repeated efforts may eventually reveal their futility … all moves are self-defeating … the sense of paralysis from this is the dawning realization that your independent ego had been a fiction. … Yet in this moment when one seems about to become a really total zombie, the whole thing blows up. … There is no stronghold left for an ego … you wonder if you will lose it — as indeed you may if you try forcibly to hold onto it”
If you’re lucky, like many are, this gives a feeling that you’ve been doing things the wrong way until now, as it appears you should do things differently from hereon. And that’s exactly what you need to look at, for that feeling dissolves if you can bear to focus on it until you see the illusion this feeling hinges on! You didn’t do anything wrong, even though you might change your behavior from hereon. You didn’t do it right either. You simply didn’t do anything, as there’s no doer…
Richard van der Linde is a Socratic coach with a specialization in the kind of mental awakening that Harris, Tolle and Watts write about. He is author of the book 'Waking Up Your Mind About Waking Up Your Mind'.
(The books I used for this summary are “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle, “The Book Against Knowing Who You Are” by Alan Watts and “Waking Up” by Sam Harris. Any of the books by those authors would have been equally useful, as would those of, for example, Jed McKenna, Osho or Jan Geurtz have been.)