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Do You Believe in Magic? : Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama, and the Future of Psychotherapy

Do you believe in magic?

There can be no denying that former depressive philosophy student Eckhart Tolle is a phenomenon: his books The Power of Now and A New Earth sold millions of copies and are perceived by his readers to be profoundly spiritual. One of Tolle's main points is apparently his emphasis on the present moment, and our subjective experience of our existence in that "spacious" moment.

This focus on the "here and now" sounds very familiar to humanistic or existential psychotherapists, having been employed by pioneering practitioners like Otto Rank, C.G. Jung, Carl Rogers, Rollo May, Fritz Perls, J.F.T. Bugental and many others long before Tolle began writing. Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, and Taoism influenced existential psychotherapy, placing particular importance on conscious awareness and acceptance of what is in the moment. (See my post on meditation as introversion for example.) Tolle takes these perennial, basic Buddhist principles of meditation and popularizes them for the masses. But what does the ravenous hunger for such rehashed, watered-down and repackaged spiritual wisdom say about the times in which we live? And about the present and future of psychotherapy?

One place I disagree with Tolle regards his proclamation that the sort of enlightened consciousness he promotes is the "new consciousness." In fact, it is very old, as old as humanity itself. And, it is not, as Tolle suggests, part of an inevitable evolution of perfected human consciousness moving inexorably toward this transcendental state of being. This is pure New Age gibberish and naivete. Meditation has been practiced around the world for millennia, and this samadhi has always been the purpose of such spiritual practices. The notion of God in religions of every kind is an acknowledgment and surrender to something bigger than and beyond the individual ego. Psychiatrist C.G. Jung called this something the Self. The Self in Jung's psychology can be likened to our solar system's Sun, around which the much smaller Earth (or ego) revolves. In contrast to Freud, the Self, for Jung, not the ego, is (or needs to become) the center of the personality, in the same way that the Sun is the center of the solar system. But I am not at all convinced that this ego-transcending state of mind touted by Tolle is more prevalent today than ever before in history. Indeed, I would argue that precisely the opposite is true: Humanity is becoming more, not less, ego-centered and narcissistic. We are, no doubt, at a critical juncture in the evolution of consciousness. But the responsibility for attaining this consciousness remains with the individual. Each person must work independently toward his or her own salvation and enlightenment. In this case, a rising collective tide does not necessarily float all boats. Still, a widespread increase in consciousness could help stem the swelling tsunami of anger, rage, violence and evil around the world--something psychotherapy still has the potentiality to help accomplish. But not in its current condition.

The field of psychotherapy is in crisis.(See my prior post.) Psychotherapy today is failing to address the psychospiritual needs of the public to whom it professes to minister. As a result, the public is seeking to satisfy their spiritual needs elsewhere. Some turn to New Age "gurus" like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle, looking for magical, esoteric solutions to their problems. Others turn to exorcists, cult leaders or psychics for assistance. But unfortunately, there are no magic solutions to life. The development of consciousness requires commitment, sacrifice, patience and painful struggle. It also necessitates a good deal of disillusionment: a radical acceptance and coming to terms with reality, not as we think it is or as it should be, but rather as it truly is. (See my previous posts on reality.) Psychologically, people project tremendous power onto such public spiritual or religious figures, imbuing them with superhuman qualities and supreme wisdom. In existential psychotherapy, such projection is spoken of as seeking the "ultimate rescuer." Someone who will help us escape the sometimes unpleasant existential facts of life, especially death. But there is no one who can rescue us from reality, much as we wish it were so.

In depth psychology, we call this type of projection onto the person of the therapist or analyst transference. This type of transferential projection is quite common in psychotherapy of all kinds: the patient projects all sorts of healing abilities, arcane knowledge and spiritual powers onto the psychotherapist. Far more than he or she actually possesses. Initially, this unconscious projection of power onto the therapist can, indeed, facilitate the healing process. Faith is powerful medicine. As is the "placebo effect." But eventually the patient must learn that the psychotherapist (or guru) is just a person (however well-educated, insightful or spiritually wise) who struggles with reality, just like the rest of us. Even spiritual teachers, priests, rabbis, gurus and psychotherapists still have flaws, insecurities, neuroses and bad habits. Perfection is a myth. But we so want to believe in magical powers to save us from ordinary reality, and the hard work, courage and humility required to fully accept rather than avoid it. (See my prior post on avoidance and addiction.)

This is something the Dalai Lama, who deliberately refers to himself as a "simple Buddhist monk," seems to understand very well. In a recent televised interview with Larry King, King inquired about "His Holiness' " health. (See my prior post on his 2012 interview with Piers Morgan regarding celibacy.) The Dalai Lama, now 75, recounted that a number of years ago he had become ill, and had to undergo surgery to remove his gall bladder. He happily pointed out that despite his followers' believing he possesses suprahuman healing powers, he was unable to heal himself of this disease. And wryly insisted that this should convince his followers that he certainly does not, in fact, have divine healing powers. (See also his candid 2000 talk with King and Deepak Chopra.) Ultimately, this is what a good guru, spiritual leader or therapist must do: teach the student, disciple, patient or client what one can; help them to rediscover and develop their own power while relinquishing childish projections of supernatural power, parental authority and transcendental perfection; and send them on their way out into the world (hopefully a little bit stronger and wiser) to wrestle with life and reality on his or her own. Just like we all must do. There is, in the final analysis, no magic power, person, practice, potion or pill that can do this for us. The only real "magic" (synchronicity being one manifestation) resides in responsibly, bravely, creatively, consciously and mindfully embracing the transformative power of both inner and outer reality.