Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Unbearable Lightness of Paperback Gravitas

Birthdays are great fun and I really enjoy celebrating mine. For two reasons – first, I like celebrations in general (read parties) involving any or all of: good food / fine wine / nice music / interesting conversations with interesting people etc., and second, I like my life and so I like celebrating the day I was given it; I like who and what I am, I like what I have grown to become and am evolving towards. I am truly grateful that there are people out there who wish me well, come over to my home when I throw a party and bring me gifts on my birthday. I got some wonderful gifts this year, and one of them was this book called ‘The Power of Now’ written by a gentle and benign looking gentleman called Eckhart Tolle. And you may treat this blog post as a kind of a book review.

If your life is troubled you should read this book. Let me rephrase that (everybody's life is troubled, to some extent) – if there’s a lot of sturm und drang in your life, you should read this book. You will know if this book is working for you, if you are able to purge all negative thoughts and feelings about the past and the future that might be tormenting you. And post this cathartic deep-pore cleansing, you are able to live in the 'Now' – a state of joy (a.k.a. bliss) that transcends the duality and cyclicality of pleasure and pain that we experience through all the trappings of a worldly life. The Now is the only real thing … all else is just something in your Mind that your Mind has created because it needs to create those things to feed itself on. Badd Mind!

This book is ideal for the new age 'liberati' (a word I’ve just coined as a play on ‘literati’, to describe those who seek liberation by reading books). Maybe they should make a new category called spirit-lit and put this book there. Don’t get me wrong - there’s tons of useful stuff in here: sound advice to people who get all knotted up with regrets about their past and/or bent out of shape with worries about their future. It tells such people in such situations to take a deep breath and let go. To not let their mind get the better of them by running away with self-flagellation for misdeeds or with its own doomsday forecasts, but instead to focus on the moment and recognise the beauty in the present and the joy in just being. And I would fully agree with such advice. Kind of suggestive of the Latin expression 'Carpe Diem', but I didn't actually see that written in so many words anywhere in the book. But then I must confess I haven't actually read the whole book - only browsed through it and that too not sequentially. The Question/Answer format makes it easy to read at random, a few pages at a time. Plus there's a lot of repetition of ideas and themes (by the author's own admission), so if you missed something it will probably pop-up again later. And the language is simple and lucid so it can be speed read too. It may not have the lyrical lilt of a Khalil Gibran or the picturesque imagery of a Richard Bach, but P-of-N is prophetic all the same.

Why then, do I sound disdainful? Well, for one there’s this kind of Nirvana-in-ten-easy-steps feel about this whole thing. Einstein once said “Make things as simple as possible but not simpler”. To people who live in Euclidean space on a Newtonian planet, it's easy to explain gravity using falling apples. It is far more difficult to explain space-time warps caused by intense gravitational forces around super-dense matter, using apples or oranges. This does not discourage laudable efforts by people of science to use simple models involving rubber sheets bending around a heavy marble to illustrate space-time curving around strong gravitational fields or blowing balloons to illustrate the expanding nature of the universe after the Big Bang and such, but unfortunately such explanations spawn more questions than answer existing ones. And what is true about gravity is true for gravitas too. First, spiritual experience (any part of it - from awakening through attainment) cannot be mass distributed. When it does, it turns into either a cult or a religion or an institution or ... a business! Second, there's gotta be room for questioning. You can't shut the reader up by saying sorry, no questions, no thinking, do not apply your mind to what you're reading.

Which brings me to the other thing. This book stops you from questioning (maybe doesn't actually say that in so many words, but the discouragement to question is implicit everywhere). The message is that these thoughts you’re thinking and the questions you are asking are all the work of your feeble brain trying to understand the phenomena of Life using Reason, something that is beyond the grasp of the Mind. Here's where I have a problem agreeing. I saw phrases like "thinking is a disease" which could easily persuade troubled readers (remember our target audience?) to stop thinking about their lives altogether. And to forget the past and the future, as the book suggests. And to immerse themselves fully in the Now. My problem is that this could potentially remove any sense of responsibility the reader might have. Dropping the past and the future directly causes you to drop responsibility for what you did and what you are about to do. OK, maybe some people take on more responsibility than they should, and that screws them up. Agreed. In such cases, the solution lies in their rationalising their portfolio of responsibilities. In fact, more thought - better thought, is to be applied towards doing that, and not lack of it. The key lies in the ability to balance freedom with responsibility. 'Stop thinking' is a slogan for escapists, to my mind. In contrast, 'Stop brooding and get on with life' is good solid practical advice to most anybody, because we all need it at some time or other. So what's the big fuss about, if this is all there is to it?

Last criticism: Nowhere in the entire book (which, again I should remind you, I have not actually read word-by-word sequentially from start to finish), did I find that one most vital element - humour! Benign and gentle looking as he may be, he never smiles in his pictures. In fact his eyes look sad. At no point in my reading (OK, browsing) of the book did I come anywhere close to even chuckling at anything that I read.

So, all in all, this is a strange and rather paradoxical combination of a book - too much gravitas in form and delivery, but not enough weight in the content, which is kept light so that it can go around and reach more people, but is not fun. There are probably more oxymorons in my last sentence than I care to count, but you get my drift. Speaking for myself, I have no place for things (light or heavy) that don't make me smile or chuckle or better still ... laugh! Certainly not for spiritualists who take themselves and their (pre)occupation too seriously!


Anonymous said...

Hi. I always read all of your blog entries, mainly because you go very deep into your subject matter and are able to offer your opinions in a very clear, crisp and precise manner. If I may say so, I have always been a fan of your writing. But if you will permit me, I would like to offer a small criticism this time. This time, your blog seems to be a case of "Unbearable Gravitas of Paperback Review". I have read the book myself, and though I would agree on one or two of your criticisms, you have offered a very strong opinion not only on the subject matter of the book, but also on the Author's writing skills, all this, based on random flippings of the book. It requires a really open mind ( or to quote the author - a state of "mindlessness" ) to be able to appreciate the concept behind this book. And to have an "open mind" so that you may read a book to reach a state of "open mind" - ( another oxymoron to borrow a phrase from your blog ). And yes, your blog does come across very strong, very disdainful. Wonder if you didnt rush into this one just a tad bit too hastily.
My own thoughts and views not withstanding, I still remain an admirer. Keep writing and keep those thoughts flowing.

HyperActiveX said...

Hello, Anon, and thanks for your comment. And for being an admirer. My review was perhaps a bit cavalier, yes. However I stand by what I wrote. And there's no gravitas in my blog post (you should be able to recognise gravitas when you see it) ... it's just a highly subjective opinion, garnished with a flippant piquant sauce, about a book I was presented, which could not hold my interest beyond a point (hence gave up the effort to complete it after a while) and did not offer adequate insights as the encomiums promised (including Oprah Winfrey's quote).

My post is not a condemnation of the book or the subject or the author and I'm sorry if I hurt someone's feelings. Nor is it a formal thesis. I think it's a bit unfair of you to call it a case of unbearable gravitas of paperback review. That sure does hurt my feelings :) just kidding! If you think my 'gravitas' was unbearable, you should see me when I am really serious! LOL! Give me someone who can laugh at themselves, and at the world - my mind opens up automatically. Seriously.

P.S. Have you really read the book? Really? The whole book cover to cover? Aw, c'mon now :)

Willow said...

I think you will really enjoy my daughter's book,"The Power of Slow" which comes out this Fall. One thing Christine Hohlbaum has is a sense of humor! We have a friend who is at the University of Virginia from Mumbai, Eusebio Pires who came to Thanksgiving Dinner here in Virginia only ten days after he arrived in America to do post doctoral work. I love your country. A link from Christine's blog brought me to yours, and I am glad. Haven't read Tolle, but have perused the book in bookstores. One thing I have learned is to look, not think. That keeps me in present time. Willow Drinkwater

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