Maurice Nicoll, Charles T. Tart, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle compared on the present moment or "now"
Before Eckhart Tolle popularised the “Power of Now,” other Western authors wrote about the present moment. Here are some comparisons with some of his precursors, which show clear similarities.

I’ve been tracing how esoteric currents from last century have shaped certain popular spiritual ideas today, looking at Eckhart Tolle’s work to examine these trends.

Tolle, perhaps the most famous independent spiritual teacher, is known for advocating being more conscious, aware or “present” in “the Now.”[1] While not the first westerner to contemporise such ideas, he has brought them to unparalleled popularity, reaching millions of people with “spiritual but not religious” outlooks.[2]

A basis for much of what he teaches can arguably be found in older traditions, but Tolle’s message finds most in common, I believe, with 20th century western sources, sharing distinctive features with them. My in-depth comparison of Eckhart Tolle’s work with Fourth Way teacher Dr Maurice Nicoll highlights many examples of this.

Below I’ve gathered the similarities about the spiritual importance of “the present moment” or “now” I’ve discussed previously, and arranged these in tables to bring them into focus. As well as some Nicoll-Tolle comparisons, included are comparisons of Tolle with Charles T. Tart and Jon Kabat Zinn. These commonalities, while raised before, were somewhat buried in longer articles on broader topics, and probably didn’t get the attention they deserved. Please note this collection is not exhaustive: it’s just some notable similarities I’ve personally uncovered in my research so far. There are other authors, not included here, who discuss this theme too it must be said.

Similar passages or phrases are presented side-by-side, so the authors’ words can be easily compared. Quoted text has been bolded or underlined in places to emphasise key commonalities; all italics are original to the source material.

Charles Tart and Eckhart Tolle

Charles T. Tart Eckhart Tolle
‘One response to the deadness of everyday life . . . is to seek out danger. . . .  In certain dangerous sports, for example, like skiing to the limit or auto racing, you must be present to the physical world. . . . You are forced to be present.’[3] ‘The reason why some people love to engage in dangerous activities, such as mountain climbing, car racing, and so on, although they may not be aware of it, is that it forces them into the Now.’[4]
‘If your attention lapses for two-tenths of a second, you may maim or kill yourself.’[5] ‘Slipping away from the present moment even for a second may mean death.’[6]
Danger can force us to ‘feel more vital and alive.’[7] This can force someone into ‘that intensely alive state.’[8]
You can become more alive without having to put yourself . . . in mortal danger.’[9] ‘But you don’t need to climb the north face of the Eiger. You can enter that state now.’[10]

Read background

Charles Tart is a transpersonal psychologist noted for his work on altered states of consciousness. However, he once said his most important contribution was his book on the psychological methods of the Fourth Way, Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential (1986).[11] The above passages come from his next book on this topic: Living the Mindful Life: A Handbook for Living in the Present Moment (1994). It is based on transcripts from workshops he presented in the early 90s. Tolle’s passage comes from his breakout book The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment (1997).

Unlike Tolle, Tart has never presented himself, or his books, as a guide to “enlightenment” it should be said.[12] “I am not someone who has the truth or is awake in any absolute sense,” he writes in the above-mentioned book’s introduction. “But I have learned some useful things about being . . . at least a little more awake.”[13]

Jon Kabat-Zin and Eckhart Tolle

Jon Kabat-Zin Eckhart Tolle
Advocates ‘present-moment awareness[14] Advocates ‘present-moment awareness[15]
You are not your thoughts[16] [17] You are not your mind[18]
Allow this moment to be exactly as it is’[19] Allow the present moment to be[20]
Have ‘acceptance of the present moment’ but not ‘resignation in the face of what is happening.’[21] Have ‘acceptance of the Now’ but not ‘resignation’ in the face of ‘an undesirable or unpleasant life situation.’[22]
Suggests ‘bringing awareness to our breathing’ and ‘using the breath to bring us back to the present moment.’[23] ‘Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment. . . . Be aware of your breathing.’ [24]

Read background

Long before Tolle was “catapulted to ‘bestseller-dom’ by . . . Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiastic endorsement of his work,”[25] Jon Kabbat Zinn, a Professor Emeritus of Medicine, had adapted eastern mindfulness techniques into a format to help patients manage pain and mental health at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center’s Stress Reduction Clinic, which he founded in 1979. His 8-week course, “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction,” was outlined in Full Catastrophe Living (1990). Because of its clinical applications, that book dives heavily into scientific evidence and medical explanations for the practice, but his follow-up book, Wherever You Go There You Are (1994), was a simpler guide for regular people to incorporate mindfulness into daily life. Both were bestsellers. Kabat-Zin’s quotations come from these two books, while Tolle’s come from The Power of Now and its follow-up A New Earth (2005), both of which sold millions of copies.

Interestingly, Kabat Zin’s work has also been featured by Oprah along the way too. In contrast to Tolle, Kabat-Zinn does not present himself as an enlightened teacher, or his work as a guide to enlightenment. While both talk about present-moment awareness in a non-denominational way, and stress its universality, their overall approaches diverge. Kabat-Zinn has secularised mindfulness in an effort to give it mainstream medical acceptance and broaden its applications beyond religious or spiritual contexts. Tolle very much spiritualises it, appealing to those seeking spiritual insight outside of traditional religious frameworks.

I’ve only done a light “first past” analysis of these authors’ works, who are both heavyweights in the present moment space. A closer analysis might prove interesting.

Maurice Nicoll and Eckhart Tolle

Most of my articles explore commonalities in the work of Fourth Way teacher Maurice Nicoll and Eckhart Tolle. These tables compare their views on the spiritual significance of “now.”

The now, time, eternity and the cross

Maurice Nicoll Eckhart Tolle
‘Self-Remembering can give a feeling utterly different from . . . hurrying, anxious Time. Essence, being eternal, has not the feelings of Personality which are of Time only.’[26] ‘In . . . the shift in consciousness from time to presence . . . the personality that has a past and a future momentarily recedes and is replaced by an intense conscious presence.’[27]
‘Eternity is always in now and can be experienced as a different taste from Time. . . . Real ‘I’ is in Eternity—not in Time. Self-Remembering is out of Time and Personality.’[28] ‘In that state, all your attention is in the Now…. The “you” that has a past and a future—the personality if you like—is hardly there anymore. And yet . . . you are more fully yourself.’[29]
‘[Real] I dwells in now, and not in passing-time.’[30] ‘It is only now that you are truly yourself.’[31]
‘The horizontal line represents Time—the 4th dimension. The vertical lines represent the 5th dimension entering every moment. . . . Time and Eternity can be represented as the Cross.’[32] ‘A few people have interpreted the Christian cross . . . as . . . showing the horizontal dimension of life, and suddenly it intersects with the vertical dimension.’[33]
‘The diagram of the Cross as given represents a single moment in a man’s life. In this single moment the vertical line is cut across by the horizontal line of Time. . . . The point of intersection of the vertical with the horizontal line is now.[34] There’s the vertical dimension and the horizontal dimension. One could even say that the cross . . . symbolizes that also. . . . Most people only know the horizontal dimension, unaware of the vertical dimension which is . . . the present moment.[35]
The vertical line is a line representing different levels of being. . . . A horizontal line, drawn at right angles . . . will represent a person’s life in Time.’[36] ‘That spiritualization of who you are is the dimension of depth, the vertical dimension; what happens [in your life] is the horizontal dimension.’[37] [38]
‘It is only this feeling of the existence and meaning of the direction represented by the vertical line that gives a man a sense of now.’[39] ‘And so you enter the vertical dimension by being—becoming present, by bringing your attention into the now.’[40]
‘The present moment is both in Time and in Eternity. It is the meeting-place of Time and Eternity. Eternity enters every present moment.’[41] Time is the horizontal dimension of Life. . . . The vertical dimension of depth [is] accessible to you only through the portal of the present moment.’[42]
‘In a state of Self-Remembering . . . we feel Eternity. . . . At any moment . . . the dimension of Eternity enters and we may happen to become conscious of it.’[43] ‘So . . . you go through life not just living on the surface of the horizontal dimension, but bringing the vertical into the horizontal.’[44]
‘Eternity is vertical to Time—and this is . . . the feeling of oneself now. . . . To remember oneself the feeling of now must enter. . . . Eternity is always in now.’[45] ‘Entering the vertical dimension requires a high degree of Presence. The Now needs to be the main focus of our attention.’[46]

Read background

In my article “The Creation of Now: How Fourth Way Authors Sparked a Revolution of the Present Moment,” I argued the Fourth Way tradition—brought to the West by esotericists Gurdjieff and Ouspensky in the 1920s—paved a way for much of the emphasis on present-moment practice that became popular in the West later, where it’s now largely pursued outside traditional religious settings in everyday life.  I’ve since shown how a little-known teacher from this modern tradition, the Jungian psychiatrist Maurice Nicoll, was quite important in shaping this trend.

I’ve focused my comparative analysis on Nicoll and Tolle because in their work I noticed the most pronounced similarities. These can include not just concepts but at times the ways they describe and express them too. The tables here are just a small sample of my findings.

While I’ve focused on the practical self-knowledge applications of this kind of present-moment practice in my self-observation series, in the table above we find the present moment discussed in a more cosmological way, where the symbol of the cross is used to contrast horizontal time and the human personality with the “vertical” dimension of eternity and essence. The present moment, the intersection point of these dimensions, “only becomes now in its full meaning when a man is conscious” within it, Nicoll has explained.[47] Self-remembering, or “self-awareness” (in a higher sense) is that state which brings a vertical “sense of now,” inwardly taking one beyond the horizontal limits of time and personality so one can “feel eternity.”

It’s interesting how strongly Tolle corresponds in expressing these idiosyncratic ideas, invoking the symbolism of the cross to describe two dimensions and making present-moment practice key to the timeless “vertical” dimension too. Interestingly, he mentions other people using this symbolism this way, but does not name them.

Most of the examples above come from Nicoll’s extensive five volume work, ‘Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky,’ although one comes from Living Time and the Integration of the Life, where he first raised these ideas. About half of Tolle’s examples come from his two major books mentioned previously, while the rest come from public talks or interviews. Their similarities on these concepts are discussed in my article “Essence, Personality and the False Self” in the sections “Essence and eternity experienced now” and “The symbol of the cross.”

Their corresponding views on the spiritual importance of “now” can be seen elsewhere too. In Living Time, Nicoll described the act of being conscious in the present as “The Creation of Now,” while Tolle would later famously call this “The Power of Now.” This site gets its name from Nicoll’s phrase, which he also gives to a chapter title. Interestingly, Nicoll quotes the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart when discussing the “creation of now,” while Tolle changed his name from Ulrich to Eckhart, after the same figure, sometime before publishing The Power of Now.

Concluding comments

Across a series of articles, I’ve already discussed many similarities Tolle’s work shares with Nicoll’s (and some major differences). I made these tables to present just some of these, plus those involving a few other authors I’ve mentioned along the way, in a format easier to digest. As I’ve said before, I think Tolle has popularised, with some changes, ideas which began crystallising in works published before his own. I think these tables help to show a part of that picture.

I’d not focused specifically on explicit references to the present moment or “now” in my previous comparative analysis, although this comes up indirectly on closely-related topics like self-observation (which can only be done in the present moment). So by compiling these tables I hope I’ve highlighted some interesting spiritual trends I’ve touched upon that are worthy of more attention.

However, I’m only summarising here what I’ve already covered, on these particular topics, in my own personal research: I’m not suggesting it encompasses a complete picture. Tolle has other influences too, and one important one I’ve written about previously is Barry Long, in an article on the “pain-body.” Their commonalities go beyond that concept though; Long, whose talks Tolle attended in the 80s, also taught about the now, as have others, such as Ram Dass.

(Since I published this article, Gavin Wilson, who attended Barry Long’s talks for many years, has released an essay discussing Long’s influence on Tolle and comparing aspects of their teachings. Wilson argues that Long’s earlier teachings on the Now, among other things, had an important impact on Tolle, and I’m inclined to agree. You can read his article on The Barry Long Foundation website.)

While I cannot highlight every particular similarity Tolle’s work shares with prior sources, I do hope to present enough to show there is a hidden history behind many of the ideas and expressions he has popularised.

I’ll share more comparison tables on other topics in future posts.


Notes and references

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