Too Smart For Our Own Good

purrr cartoon by patrick mcdonnell

purrr cartoon by patrick mcdonnell

Last month I linked to an excellent CBC video summarizing the life, work and philosophy of uber-celebrity Eckhart Tolle. Tolle doesn’t really say anything new in his books — I think Richard Moss’ Mandala of Being delivers the same “learn to be Present” message more effectively, and the bookstore shelves are crammed with meditation, spirituality and self-help books claiming to be able to teach you how to do this.

I confess that none of these books ‘works’ for me, though I continue to strive, through a variety of daily practices, to learn to be Present.

What intrigued me about Tolle’s horribly-named A New Earth is that in it he hints at how we humans came to be so un-Present and why it seems so hard for most of us to re-learn Presence.

In both his best-sellers, he tells the story of two ducks:

“After two ducks get into a fight, which never lasts long, they will separate and float off in opposite directions. Then each duck will flap its wings vigorously a few times, thus releasing the surplus energy that built up during the fight. After they flap their wings, they float along peacefully, as if nothing had ever happened. If the duck had a human mind, it would keep the fight alive, by thinking, by story-making…[even] years later… [Imagine] how problematic the duck’s life would be if it had a human mind. But this is how most humans live all the time.”

Tolle, unlike most writers on Presence, seems willing to credit most non-human animals with the “intelligence” to live (almost always) in the Present, in the Now, except for brief moments of stress. In the model below, which I have developed to attempt to illustrate Tolle’s thesis, wild creatures and human beings who have re-learned presence live the conscious, integral life shown on the right side. For such creatures, the triggers that cause suffering for most humans just bounce off; they fail to have any enduring impact. The spirit remains integral, unruffled and unpolluted.


By contrast, most humans live in the unhappy, anxious state shown in the left side. For them, triggers produce a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and “stories” (the “egoic mind”) and negative emotions (the “pain-body”). The stories we tell ourselves about the past, the future, ourselves and others are fictions, but our insatiable human egos grab onto them, and these thoughts trigger emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, hatred, self-hatred, shame, and anxiety, which fester in us and cause our egoic minds to invent even more stories to justify and perpetuate the pain-body negative emotions. Both the egoic mind and the pain-body are easily triggered by negative events (real or imagined) — in fact Tolle thinks they are addicted to them. The ego even casts a shadow over our sensory and instinctive lives, which the egoic mind cannot control and therefore does not trust. We therefore become “possessed” by our egos, which are not us. Our egos would have us believe that our thoughts and beliefs and feelings are “us”, when in fact all along we are really the consciousness that lies behind those thoughts, beliefs and feelings. Presence, then, is developing the capacity to push out and free ourselves from our egos and the negative thoughts and emotions that “normally” possess us, that we “normally” identify with.

Implicit in this model is the intriguing idea that, at some point in our evolution (and perhaps also in the evolution of other large-brained creatures like chimps, whales, elephants and ravens), we became too smart for our own good. Our brains, which were evolved by our bodily organs as a feature-detection, non-urgent decision-making and navigation system for their benefit, at some point passed the tipping point at which they developed ego. This is not the same as consciousness — indeed there is a mountain of evidence now that most creatures possess consciousness. Ego would appear to be an unintended and unfortunate consequence of the development of the brain to the point where it began to mistake its processing of thought and feelings for our consciousness, and we have been in a fight with our egos ever since. Whereas most Present creatures handle stress instinctively, and let it go quickly like the ducks in Tolle’s story, we “too smart for our own good” creatures have become consumed by, perhaps even addicted to, stress, and our egos, ever ready to cycle viciously through negative thoughts and stories and feelings whenever stress hits us, absolutely feed on it, to the point they possess us and we become unconscious of what is real, traumatized and trapped in and by our minds and feelings.

In this hellish unconsciousness, we crave attention and appreciation and adrenaline, anything that will give us temporary respite from our egos’ stories and the wrenching emotions that feed them and feed off them. This drives most human behaviours, which is why our species has become, through its inventions of civilization, dysfunctional, disconnected, massively destructive, and unsustainable.

Having explained this, Tolle then takes us through a variety of practices to relearn Presence. Most of them are familiar and, for most of us, I suspect, inaccessible and unhelpful:

  • practice awareness to realize that the egoic mind and pain-body are not “you”
  • don’t “mind” being unhappy, to break the addictive egoic thinking/feeling cycle
  • give: be generous
  • know yourself (i.e. your consciousness, not the “content” of your life — your job, your roles, your possessions, your beliefs etc.)
  • appreciate chaos and complexity (e.g. by spending time in “untidy” nature)
  • accept, don’t “mind” what happens (i.e. don’t label events as “good” or “bad”)
  • don’t “give yourself more time”, but instead “eliminate time”
  • learn to be still, and silent, and appreciate both
  • practice being at once aware (alert) and relaxed
  • become non-resistant, non-judgemental, non-expectant, and non-attached to whatever happens
  • rather than acting or reacting, let “right action happen through you”
  • practice sensing and perceiving without naming, thinking or conceiving
  • be aware of your breathing (and note that this is not the same as thinking about being aware of your breathing; I keep recalling my recent satori experience of waking up at early dawn and seeing nothing but a thick blanket of fog through all my bedroom windows, and then becoming aware of a strange noise and then realizing it was my breathing)
  • practice inner body awareness (sensing/feeling parts and then all of your body “from within”)
  • recognize and resist your attention- and appreciation-seeking (and other ego gratification) behaviours

All easier said than done, and mostly said better by others. I was intrigued that this list resonated quite strongly with my recently published list of Six Principles (be generous; value your time and its passage; live naturally; self-accept; practice being present; let go of stories). I suspect this might have something to do with the fact that Tolle and I have both spent much of our lives oppressed by anxiety and depression.

None of this is particularly new advice, either: The ancient Upanishad wisdom reiterated in Eliot’s Four Quartets put it more succinctly — datta, dayadhvam, damyata — give, empathize, exercise self-control.

Tolle seems to dismiss the human propensity for daydreaming and fantasizing (including, I would presume, activities in virtual worlds like Second Life), and even “falling in love” as forms of unhealthy, “compulsive”, addictive behaviour. He prescribes breathing and other “awareness” exercises as a means to learn to stop such behaviour from “tricking” you into continuing your compulsion, and learning to stop trying to justify it. This seems outrageously dismissive to me: artists, writers, players, lovers, creators, and other imaginers of possibilities may be “addicted” to their (our) recreations, but I see this as no more harmful or “unconscious” than our addiction to eating or sleeping. And a world of Presence without imagination would be, I think, a poorer one.

In the latter parts of A New Earth Tolle becomes, I think, a little carried away with the power of Presence. He appears to claim it can cure depression, anxiety disorders, addictions and lifelong traumas. While I’d acknowledge that stress (which is everywhere in our modern society, and that is no ‘story’) is only the trigger for many of our modern illnesses, not the cause, I think it’s arrogant and even cruel to encourage people to believe that these illnesses can be extinguished by what is in essence a mental trick.

Tolle also believes that millions of people are now re-learning to be Present and potentially ushering in a new era of global consciousness (hence the title of the book); I think this is a hyperbolic delusion, and the type of magical thinking that is the last thing we need as we begin to cope with the collapse of our civilization.

But the idea that we have become, as an accident of evolution, too smart for our own good is an intriguing one. If only the remedy for that — thinking less and being more — did not require more intelligence than most of us may ever hope to possess.

(Cartoon by Patrick McDonnell of ‘Mutts’ fame, from Guardians of Being, co-written with Tolle)

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12 Responses to Too Smart For Our Own Good

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  2. Antonio Dias says:

    Wonderfully clear presentation of what could be an impenetrable subject.

    Does story predate ego? What is memory? Is memory story? If it is, my dog has stories she tells herself. She remembers everything.

    Consciousness is definitely not a human invention, but in our desire to hold onto exclusivity and exceptionalism, are we holding onto distinctions that don’t exist? I’d take it as a working hypothesis that many “advanced” creatures, including squid and octopi, have most if not all the qualities we have held to be distinctly human. The basic theme of this post and Tolle’s ideas as you’ve presented them is the desirability of integration. That shouldn’t require us to eviscerate our “natures.” Integration is finding a place for all aspects within what we’re calling consciousness.

    Ego is a symptom, not an element of our nature. My primitive, prick-eared dog – lacking in excessive submissiveness – has flashes of ego as maddening as anyone’s. In the overall scheme she is better at letting go of these passing spikes of stress-induced self-centerdness than I am.

    It’s not any particular form of expression that shows a lack of integration, it’s dwelling and becoming fixated on any one aspect.

    Thanks for this! Thought provoking.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    I think this was the, or one of, the most interesting posts I have ever read here. I have always sort-of dismissed Tolle as a re-packager of information and perspective that has been delivered elsewhere, for a long time, by many others.

  4. Émilien Poulin-Lachaine says:

    I always thought I was the only one to think that we were too smart. I’m glad to see I’m not :D .

  5. Paul says:

    Rather than too smart, I think we’re too self-conscious. I prefer that choice of words, because the problem isn’t intelligence (as “smart” implies), the problem is how we think about ourselves. You diagrammed it nicely as a vicious cycle of thoughts and feelings–something with which I’m sure we’re all familiar.

    I suspect Antonio is correct, that ego is not an essential part of us. However, it seems to have been a common feature of human thinking for thousands of years, so I believe we can conceptualize it as a “normal” feature of human thought in which self-consciousness becomes defensive, creating a thing (my self) that is constantly in danger, surrounded by hostile others.

    There are some other versions of the idea that we are “too smart” for our own good, that ego is getting in our way. Scott Brown wrote a recent article ( arguing that “our thinking … has created the different crises we face today …. [Our thoughts, including] the most dangerous belief of them all: that we are separate from each other and from nature. The study of the human-nature split is the territory of ecopsychology.” In “The Ascent of Humanity”, Charles Eisenstein also argues that the problem goes as deep as the belief that we are separate, and he characterizes our current dangerous state as the “Age of Separation”. Perhaps Tolle would agree with those authors.

    So it seems we have some “inner work” to do, in addition to Transition, The Work That Reconnects, etc. It sure did seem simpler when I could just blame others (greedy rulers, sheeplike masses, whatever)!

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  7. Ed Straker says:

    By some coincidence I listened to the CD version of this recently and I think this falls under the category of “take what works, and leave the rest”.

    For instance, at one point Tolle talks about the difference between a forest and a manicured park which sounds similar to permaculture ideas. But what Tolle attempts to do here is to say that the way a forest works is unknowable, which an ecologist would not agree with. However, the way humans want to put things into neat order and to hide death away is a valuable observation.

    Also, Tolle sees existentialism as a magic bullet which can solve all the world’s problems. However, to be solely concerned about the present is to, for instance, not even think about limits to growth since these things are an evolving problem which, as Hirsch says, requires a long ramp-up time to mitigate.

    So there is a disconnect between emotional health as far as letting the past go and not stressing too much over the future, and thinking about the cause and effect of our life choices (think 7th generation).

    So Tolle really is not keyed in all the way on the limits to growth issue since he sees things from the standpoint of inner-work only, not our situation of overshoot.

    I suspect that if he really did know about overshoot, he might argue for a “sacred demise” mentality of shrugging your shoulders and seeing collapse as a necessary return to the mean in which we should be content to just let it happen.

    So I see some useful exercises to deal with stress and anxiety but it’s not a panacea for collapse.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    [This is a repost of a comment from Mushin Schilling posted on the Facebook version of this post]

    Mushin wrote:
    “Reconsider the idea of presence as Tolle and many others put it as delusional – now, what happens?

    It seems to me that the ‘spiritual disease’ is made of picking out presence, enlightenment, consciousness or whatever as a cure to whatever bothers mankind or particular human beings. The only cure to being human is death, and even that is not a permanent solution, as I’m convinced after inquiring into reincarnation in many – also quite rational – ways.

    It seems to me that we live in a deep mystery, and the more we ‘alight’ with consciousness the greater the circumference and interface to the mystery becomes. And ignorance doesn’t cure that phenomenon either, because as we all know: ignorance is not bliss at all, it simply allows different joys and pains than being knowledgeable.

    Strange thing is, though, as soon as I see no more escape there often is incomprehensible peace. For a while. And then the not-so-merry-go-round gets going again until no-way-out becomes apparent again.

    Any practice if driven by a motive outside of basically finding joy in the very practice itself over and over again just cements the ‘lack’ that it’s supposed to alleviate, it feeds the disease it’s supposed to cure. I know, I tried tons of them – and taught dozens. It does keep the master-disciple or priest-worshipper market alive and takes care of a lot of jobs, though.

    The practice that gives me most joy since quite some time is being with people, listening and tuning into whatever they express and to feeling the resonance that brings up in me, and than to navigate those resonances in ‘my’ part of conversations or ‘the dance’ – and it becomes a wonderful ecstasy when the other(s) practice this art also, no matter how they call it. But that, alas, is a very, very rare occurrence. Nevertheless it’s easy to keep practicing because there’s joy in the practice, in chance encounters in the supermarket, with friends on Skype or wherever opportunity occurs. It’s sometimes even asynchronously possible…”

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