Recently we’ve seen elevated awareness of racism demonstrated by increased media coverage, nation-wide protests against police brutality, and sudden acknowledgment from many corporations including JPMorgan, Apple, and Nike. During this time of realization, reassessing, and rebuilding, we look to political and social leaders to guide us. Incredible activists come to mind, such as Ibram X. Kendi, Stacey Abrams, and AOC. But what about spiritual leaders? They are another subset of leaders who aim to support us spiritually and holistically as we journey through life’s challenges.
My critical eye doesn’t stop from wandering as I venture on my own spiritual journey through reading books and even developing spiritual practices of my own including gratitude, prayer, and several failed attempts at a consistent meditation practice. While these practices are certainly beneficial, I find myself looking for more concrete advice addressing our collective problems, not just my own. I sometimes feel that there isn’t enough acknowledgment of systematic oppression, a push to educate ourselves, or recommendations for taking positive action toward collective change in a society that doesn’t treat everyone the same way.
Where are the spiritual teachers that encourage us to vote, protest, petition, and demand change? I love my self-care routine, but I question whether daily meditation and writing in my gratitude journal are really going to do enough. Maybe there’s a flaw in my interpretations, or rather, in my interpretations of interpretations of ancient spiritual teachings, but I’m still looking for answers on how to live a centered spiritual life while fighting for change to the status quo.
One personal interaction with a friend opened my eyes to a spiritual ignorance that pushed me further down this rabbit hole. John had been embarking on a spiritual transformation of his own. His new routine was to meditate for 2 hours a day, once in the morning and once at night. Certainly nothing harmful about that, and I enjoyed hearing about this practice that meant so much to him. He thought widespread meditation was the solution to the world’s problems. In the middle of a conversation one day, I mentioned a new book I was reading, We Were 8 Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I explained the book’s premise and tried to describe the historical and current oppression of Black people in the United States. Without saying much, he nodded as if acknowledging, but his unfocused attention and fading responsiveness came off as uninterested. Was I poorly explaining the book? Maybe he was tired? Or did he just not really care? My lasting impression was that of disappointment. Surely someone working to better themselves through meditation would offer some kind of response to racial injustice? That interaction left an imprint on my mind, and how I interpreted the role of spirituality and racial justice.
Needless to say I was thrilled to learn that Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual teacher with great impact on my life, published a video focused solely on discussing racism. Finally, maybe I could get some answers! Eckhart Tolle has authored three best selling books (including the Power of Now which has sold over 3 million copies) and has been featured repeatedly on Oprah’s podcast, as well as many other popular media outlets. I watched and took detailed notes, hoping I would find answers to the questions I’ve been wondering for years. How do spiritual teachers fight for racial justice? And is it enough?
I’ve broken down and summarized Eckhart’s teachings from the one-hour video in this article.
*I want to note that Eckhart Tolle is a white man from Germany, and I, Lindsay Brave, am a white woman from the U.S. Both of us are reflecting on race and interpreting issues that haven’t been as harmful to us personally given our skin color and accompanying privileges. I think it’s important to clarify whose voices you’re hearing from as you read this blog post.
How Eckhart Tolle Defines Racism
Eckhart characterizes racism as a “dysfunction of the human ego.”
The “ego” is a term referred to often throughout Eckhart’s teachings. Eckhart refers to it like a separate entity within yourself. It’s the part of us that judges and analyzes everything around us. That negative voice in our head. The conditioned, thinking mind.
Eckhart says the ego seeks superiority and fears inferiority in order to strengthen itself. One basic example of the ego’s appearance in my own life is when I compare my performance to other people’s. When I scored higher than my classmates on my midterm exam, my ego felt validated. When I scroll Instagram and my ego compares my appearance to the influencer models, I suddenly feel insecure.
Being overtaken by the egoic mind explains harmful human behaviors like racism where the ego is strengthened when it perceives itself as better than others. Eckhart describes attaching labels to human beings, how the ego labels different people bad, or good, beautiful, or ugly. Attaching these labels allows the ego to assert its own sense of identity. And our sense of self becomes reliant on judging other people, for what they look like, sound like, act like.
But through the conditioned mental patterns of the ego, we lose our ability to connect with human beings and we can dehumanize them. Once we’ve dehumanized another being, it is easier to inflict violence. Eckhart says that if enough people have these conditioned mental patterns of another race, they can create racist economic and social structures. Many of which are alive and well today and manifest in racist policies such as criminalizing marijuana.
Opposite to the ego is consciousness. Eckhart uses synonymous terms such as awareness, presence, the unconditioned, the formless, and being. Through our own consciousness, we can glimpse the consciousness, or inner being of others. He says that “what you see on the surface is a superficial phenomenon,” but what we truly are is an inner presence. The consciousness that is invisible, but exists in all of us.
Eckhart’s Racial Awareness
I think my expectations were too low, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear Eckhart address specific racial inequities directly. He spoke of mass incarceration and how predominantly Black men are being imprisoned for non-violent crimes, like “simply for possession of the leaves of a dry plant that they carried in their pockets.”
He shared a statistic that 45% of people in prison were from drug offenses which he referred to as “misguided policies.” He spoke of police brutality against Black people and said that policing needs to change. Eckhart advocated for awareness of these problems in order to undo this “effect of human unconsciousness.”
While I was happy to hear him dropping some knowledge about current issues of racial injustice, I hope to hear more, and more frequently. For instance, when addressing causes of racism, he seemed to focus on satisfying the ego’s need to feel superior by judging another based on how they look. But what I would also love for him to touch on is how power and self-interest has led people to enslave and oppress people of color for the sake of profiting off slave and indentured labor. What’s the ego’s role there?
I hope he’s spending time learning about racism and related systems of oppression so he can share historical facts of injustice with his millions of followers (in addition to his wonderful quotes on present awareness). Eckhart, I’m working on educating myself as well, would you like to be study buddies?
Acting Towards Racial Justice
So what does Eckhart say we should do for racial justice? From what I’ve gathered, it seems he wants us to focus more on how we do it.
Eckhart says we need to be careful that any action we take doesn’t become hijacked by the ego in ourselves. He says we “need to have some awareness while we act.” If we’re acting from our egos, or unconsciousness, we may end up undoing racism systems but replacing them with another structure also built from unconsciousness. For example, Eckhart mentions the ineffectiveness of the War On Drugs and how it never really addressed the root cause of the problem, but really created more suffering. Acting beyond the ego means we won’t perpetuate patterns that have caused us problems to begin with.
Eckhart says it’s understandable to feel angry as a result of injustices, acknowledging that many people do. But he says when anger takes possession of us, that’s when we lose consciousness and act in ways that ultimately aren’t helpful. But when we become aware of the anger we feel and we accept these feelings, we can transform our feelings into conscious action. Our action is empowered with awareness of what’s going on inside of us, how we feel and what we think.
But I have a hard enough time staying aware of my emotions during a simple miscommunication with my partner whom I love and adore. How will I be able to accomplish this with a person or policy I consider racist and dangerous to the planet?
And what are empowered actions that help achieve racial justice?
Thankfully, Eckhart advocates for taking immediate action and addresses concerns with inaction, especially in the spiritual movement. “We cannot say I’m not going to do anything about the external things, because I’m only concerned with spiritual awakening. There’s nothing we can do until humans have awakened spiritually. But that’s not quite true. There are many things you can do without having fully awakened. You don’t need to wait for some kind of awakening in order for the world to change.”
One of the mentioned effective actions is raising awareness in other people. Another appears to be donating.
Eckhart shared one concrete action he’s taken himself. As part of the Eckhart Tolle Foundation, himself and board members donated $250,000 to organizations supporting Black people. I tried looking up the receiving organizations on the foundation’s website but was unable to find anything.
After my analysis of his recommendations, I was left with more questions than answers. What are specific awareness-empowered actions we should make? How will we know when we’re acting out of ego or out of awareness? Will we just know? Is it a feeling?
I’m curious too, what does anger look like to Eckhart? Is the act of protesting considered anger? Looting? When is anger productive and not productive? I would like to understand the nuances of how he defines anger, because it can be subjective. Some people may view protests as angry, while others view them as a peaceful method of demanding change.
Compassion Towards Others (Even Racists)
For those of us who are fed up with racist policies and their racist creators, this is going to be a hard section to stomach.
I’ll admit, I’ve mentally labeled racist people in power as “the enemy.” A label that certainly feels justified. But it doesn’t seem like Eckhart would agree.
Eckhart quotes Jesus when he says, “forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Eckhart acknowledges that there are humans in the grip of egoic dysfunction leading to unconscious behaviors and parallels it with a mental illness. However, he says we are not to confuse their unconscious behaviors with who that person really is: their inner being.
Eckhart asks us to reflect on our own regrets and mistakes. He says, “at that time these patterns operated in you, you were not conscious at the time, now you can see that what you did was bad.” Eckhart says not to label ourselves as “bad,” and asks that we do the same of others, even if we really don’t think they’re deserving of it.
But this is hard right? How else are we supposed to react when we witness violent acts of racism? These unfair, heart-wrenching, and infuriating events.
How to Build Awareness In Ourselves
In order to build our awareness, Eckhart says to find little spaces between our thoughts. When we’re aware of our thoughts and internal presence, we can be free of the ego. Eckhart says, “sense this essence within yourself, this aware presence. Then you step beyond ego within yourself. It’s only then when you can look beyond a human being and look beyond their external appearance of that human being and sense also all their innermost presence.”
We can find moments of presence when looking at a tree or flower, when listening to someone speaking. He says our awareness is what liberates us from our ego and its destructive patterns.
I would love to hear anti-racist political activists respond to Eckhart’s thoughts. Do they think his teachings are an answer to anti-racism?
Watch Eckhart’s full video here. If you’re new to Eckhart Tolle, I recommend listening to his series on Oprah’s podcast where they discuss one chapter of Eckhart’s book “A New Earth” one episode at a time. This podcast series is also available on spotify.
What do you think of Eckhart’s thoughts on racism?
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Photo: Eckhart Tolle via Instagram; Clay Banks via Unsplash