The True Power of Now
Oprah calls The Power of Now “the most transformative” book she’s ever read and, since it’s a New York Times #1 best seller, it would seem that Eckhart Tolle has hit on something universally compelling. What is the appeal of this book?
Eckhart Tolle was once so depressed, he nearly committed suicide. But just as he was despairing, “I cannot live with myself any longer,” he suddenly pulled up short. “Who is the I that cannot live with myself?” It seemed as though he were two persons! At that very moment, he realized that his true self was something more than the negative thoughts that had been running through his mind.
Though many Christians find themselves drawn to Tolle’s uplifiting message, we should acknowledge that there is a strong dualistic and Gnostic element that makes it ultimately, unacceptable for Catholic Christians. There are, however, some kernels of truth in what he says.
Descartes also had his moment of doubt. Unlike Tolle, he was not psychologically depressed; his doubt was what contemporary philosophers might call a “thought experiment.” Of course, Descartes’ well-intentioned attempt to prove God’s existence and free us from the trap of materialism eventually unleashed what John Paul II called “the great anthropocentric shift in philosophy”: “By making subjective consciousness absolute, Descartes moves instead toward pure consciousness of the Absolute, which is pure thought.” 
Tolle’s books are a celebration, a reveling in this pure consciousness. Nonetheless, we can learn an important lesson. Tolle urges us to tap into the power of the present moment but also wants us to recognize that we are more than the thoughts that go through our heads.
In a previous article (“Mind Traps”), I wrote about the importance of recognizing that our tendency to fall into certain patterns of thought or to have a certain negative set of beliefs about ourselves can have a stultifying, even depressing, effect. And cognitive behavioral psychologists have found that retraining our way of thinking is a powerfully effective way to combat depression. For example, thoughts like “I’m such a loser; she will never like me once she finds out what I am really like” or “How could I possibly complete a doctorate? I can’t even finish this stupid essay!” or “I am so disorganized; no wonder I’m stuck in this dead-end job!” are all negative thought patterns that seem to run automatically through our heads—thoughts which can ultimately cause us to become ineffectual if not depressed.
In the spiritual life, this is also true. Brother Lawrence, a humble monk who wrote in the 1600s, also drew from the power of the present moment…but he recognized it as the presence of God. Brother Lawrence, like Eckhart Tolle, had been plagued by negative thoughts; he had suffered for several years from the conviction that he would be damned. But Brother Lawrence experienced a moment of revelation in which he recognized that, whether he were ultimately saved or damned, he could do his best to love God right now. “Ever since that time I walk before God simply, in faith, with humility, and with love. I apply myself diligently to do nothing and think nothing which may displease Him. I hope that when I have done what I can, He will do with me what He pleases.”
Though Tolle taps into the Eastern method of meditation, the reminder to focus on the present moment is beneficial for our hectic, driven society. He says, “even the busiest person has time for thirty seconds of space.” And even the busiest Christian has time to put himself in God’s presence. As Brother Lawrence said, “a little lifting of the heart suffices.”
The psychological benefits of focusing on the present moment are that we become more positive (we let go of that complaining track or those negative prognostications we have running through our heads) and less judgmental—of ourselves and others. If we are truly listening to whomever we are speaking with (instead of judging them or looking over their shoulder and thinking of all the other things we might be doing right now), won’t we be a better spouse, friend and co-worker? Won’t we also be more hopeful and more joyful?
A friend of mine called me when she was so angry with her boyfriend she had decided to break up. “He never remembers important dates, like my birthday, and he works such long hours at his job that we hardly have time to go out. Plus, he has no ambition. He is always going to be stuck in that blue-collar job of his.”
I asked why he was working such long hours. “Well,” she admitted, “he is trying to save some money so that we can have a financial base when we do become engaged.” And she also admitted that he always calls (several days later) with apologies and flowers when he has forgotten an important event or date.
Eckhart would probably ask, “So, what is your problem right now?” And the truth is, her anger is based on dredging up past grievances and imagining future scenarios of missed engagements, long hours with low pay, and a houseful of wailing children. But this is not the present moment. The present moment shows that he is a sweet, humble man, who sometimes forgets…but don’t we all have our faults?
We don’t have to go so far as Eckhart Tolle and imagine that there are two people inside, one thinking negative thoughts and the other our true self. But we can recognize that we are not our thoughts. As the Catechism tells us, “our heart is the dwelling place where I am.” 
And it is the heart that prays. More importantly, when we put ourselves in the presence of God, submit ourselves to his will, and allow God to work in us, we find that our hearts, our minds, and our wills are transformed. We begin to see things more from His divine perspective than from our own limited one. And this is the power of prayer.
Monsignor Romano Guardini once wrote that prayer is “the one gateway out of the world.” If we want to be free from the negative, self-defeating thoughts that drag us down, if we want to experience joy and fulfillment in the present moment, if we want to see our lives the way God sees us—full of potential and life-giving love, then we need to get outside ourselves. But not to an Eastern nihilistic nothingness or to Eckhart Tolle’s gnostic “true self”–that would be “the illusion with which the world practices self-deception.” 
Instead, let us put ourselves in His loving presence, the eternal Now, and begin to find ourselves transformed, in spirit and in truth.
 John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope. New York: Knopf, 1994.
 Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God. Translated by John Delany. New York: Doubleday, 1977.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2563.
 Ibid, no. 2562.
 Romano Guardini, The Lord. Washington, D.C.: regnery Publishing, 1954/1982.