Sam Harris on Eckhart Tolle

Despite some seeming similarities between the spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle and neuroscientist Sam Harris on spiritual experience, Sam nonetheless had some choice words for Eckhart Tolle (and his readers) in an interview with Dan Harris in September of 2014.  Dan Harris, very fond of Eckhart Tolle, kept mentioning the best selling author whom Oprah recommends, yet Harris was having none of it. He immediately repudiated Tolle with the following line: 

It’s interesting that you mention Tolle, because when someone asks me for the two-second summary of my new book, I’m often tempted to say, “It’s Eckhart Tolle for smart people”—that is, people who suspect that something important can be discovered about consciousness through introspection, but who are allergic to the pseudoscience and irrationality that generally creeps into every New Age discussion of this truth. 

Harris did offer some caveats in between his attacks on Tolle pointing to areas of agreement that, at least the lay reader, must be able to appreciate. 

I haven’t read much of Tolle, but I suspect that I largely agree with his view of the subjective insights that come once we recognize the nature of consciousness prior to thought. The self that we all think we have riding around inside our heads is an illusion—and one that can disappear when examined closely. What’s more, we’re much better off psychologically when it does. 

But Harris wasn’t quite finished with the spiritual teacher and, as he does, Harris went after him for the perceived pseudo-science that is leaking into the views that Tolle holds. This is the center of the bullseye for Sam and not one he’s particularly fond of letting go. 

But from the little reading I’ve done of Tolle, I can see that he also makes some embarrassing claims about the nature of the cosmos—claims that are unjustified both scientifically and philosophically. However, in the man’s defense, this lack of usefulness you mention is not unique to him. It’s hard to talk about the illusoriness of the self or the non-dual nature of consciousness in a way that makes sense to people.

Given Eckhart’s resurgence in the public sphere and his current tour around the U.S., it’s not hard for one to believe that the two could be colliding soon, if it is in fact something Sam is open for. However we think, for what it’s worth, that Sam’s statements here provide little to make one think that an engagement between the two would be all that productive. Perhaps we’re mistaken?  

As always, should we become aware that Sam has changed his opinion or should new evidence be submitted that we have either misconstrued his opinion or failed to include important statements from him, we will 1) make the correction, 2) note the correction here, 3) issue a mea culpa that attempts to explain and improve on how we missed this. 

Error History – The following was removed:

**Update 12/6/2019: Sam Harris has once again taken a shot at Eckhart Tolle in his episode #177 of Making Sense (formerly Waking Up). Discussing the impact of Psychedelic Drugs on first person experience, Sam said “Whether you’re Maester Eckhart espousing your heretical unity with God or you’re someone who has taken a Psychedelic, the resulting experience is something the Brain is doing. 

Reason: Sam was talking about Meister Eckhart, the theologian, philosopher and mystic. 

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