Oprah Winfrey may have gone too far in exploiting and distributing the teachings of a questionable New Age writer.
On Monday night, Winfrey conducted her weekly Web "event" seminar with New Age writer Eckhart Tolle. His message: "Life is the dancer and you are the dance."
The seminar was No. 7 in a series of 10. On the first 90-minute Webcast with Tolle, Oprah extolled the author’s virtues, calling his best-selling "New Earth" book "one of the most important books of our time," the seminars one of "the most exciting things I’ve ever done."
Imagine that Winfrey considers her conversations with Tolle, a man with a shady and un-checkable background, more important than her schools in Africa and Mississippi for underprivileged children, more important than her Angel Charity network or her zillion-dollar syndicated TV show. Tolle must be something else!
But it’s not like Winfrey is endorsing Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison, serious, educated artists with portfolios. Tolle is more like Kilgore Trout, Kurt Vonnegut’s science-fiction crackpot alter-ego.
And what’s different about the Tolle connection for Winfrey is that for the first time in her much-applauded Book Club’s history, she’s gone into business with the author. And the author is not one of a novel, memoir or cookbook; he’s the mysterious creator of a philosophy that Winfrey endorses and suggests her readers live their lives by.
But is Eckhart Tolle an appropriate spiritual leader? He told an interviewer that he stopped going to school at age 13 and didn’t resume any education for at least a decade. In the same interview he says he graduated "with the highest mark at the London University."
The press rep at the University of London says there’s simply no way to verify that. "You might as well say you graduated from here," joked the person I spoke to. Clever.
He says in interviews that he had a personal epiphany in 1977 at age 29 after a life of suffering from suicidal depression. For the next 15 years, no one knows much about what happened to him, and he’s not saying. He says he spent time wandering and sitting in London’s parks, with "no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity," but a sense of "intense joy."
In seminar 1, Oprah’s new guru tells her: "I was living in England, and I had this strong impulse one morning … I had to move to the West Coast of North America without knowing why … So I moved to Vancouver and then I took a Greyhound bus to California, knew only one or two people, and I said, 'Why am I here?'"
"Three weeks passed, somebody put me up in a room near San Francisco, and suddenly this came. I bought a notepad and suddenly the strong stream came through and I wrote, 'What Is Enlightenment?' The beginning of 'The Power of Now.' The moment I wrote that, I knew this is the book that wants to be born. So rather than me wanting to write a book, there was a book that wanted to be written."
And so on.
Oprah’s response to this: "It’s like Michelangelo says the angel’s in the marble and he just cuts away the marble."
Well, not quite.
His books, "The Power of Now" and "A New Earth," are the same gobbledygook as most New Age stuff. They’re all about self-empowering and how to find out who we are. "Awakening" is Tolle’s key word. Tolle is very busy enforcing moments of silence and showing his readers how to find their "pain-body."
Nothing new there. And nothing new for Oprah, who’s now so wildly wealthy that she’s exceeded literally any famous person she might interview. Parade magazine puts her 2007 income at $260 million, the most of any celebrity and $150 million more than Steven Spielberg, the most successful filmmaker of all time. So what can she do besides anoint presidential candidates or start a religion?
Indeed, Winfrey already has flirted with several cult-like New Age deals. She’s enthusiastically embraced the Scientology celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. She’s even gone into business with Kirstie Alley, whom she’s planning to give a forum in her own talk show.
She’s also promoted televangelist Marianne Williamson’s kooky "Course of Miracles" and a book of New Age clichés by Australian Rhonda Byrne called "The Secret." (There’s a good piece on the latter at salon.com.)
Winfrey is nothing if not gifted at recognizing what’s already popular in the culture and exploiting it. But her association with Tolle is way over the top. It involves sponsorships with General Motors (Chevy), 3M Corp. (Post-Its) and Skype Internet phone service. In one broad stroke, she’s managed to accomplish what Scientology never has achieved: bringing corporate America’s implicit approval into religion.
What’s interesting is not so much Tolle, with his German accent and blank stare, proselytizing his nonsense. He talks a lot, literally, about looking at flowers and trees in a new way, much like Chauncey Gardner in "Being There."
It’s more about Oprah herself, free associating, selling out her own world as she gushes over those flowers and trees. For example, in seminar 1, she socks it to Hollywood, the source of 50 percent of her guests. This is the same Oprah who does a live special the day after the Oscars and often plugs the worst films just to get ratings.
In that segment, Oprah seems to forget who she is to score points with Tolle, or rationalize why she’s involved in this beyond the corporate money being reaped:
"Everyone complains about the media and the movies. I mean, if you just look at the Academy Awards this year, and the kinds of movies that were made this year, and it’s all a reflection of who we are. You say in the book," Winfrey says to Tolle, "that we’re the species that will go and watch people be maimed and killed and murdered for our entertainment."
We can assume she wasn’t talking about "Juno," "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "The Savages," "Enchanted," "Atonement," "La Vie En Rose," "Michael Clayton," "Elizabeth: The Golden Age," "Into the Wild," "Away from Her" or "Charlie Wilson’s War" — all films that had nominations. Just three films featured overt violence this year — "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood" and "Sweeney Todd."
But it’s the zealous excitement in Winfrey’s eyes when she says it that makes the difference. Those three films are now the whole Academy Awards, and therefore "the media." You can already feel hearts pounding! She’s right! Hollywood had better look at flowers and trees in a new way.
What makes Oprah’s seminars even more creepy are the "study groups" she has lined up for Tolle at bookstores and other locations around the world. They’re all hooked up to the seminars through Skype, and the members can ask questions. They all have that same glazed-over look as people giving testimonials on late-night infomercials.
"I consider this to be a sacred moment when we can all come together … and share in this work," Winfrey says at the start of seminar 6. And why not? You’ll notice that she, not Tolle, has the sole copyright on the broadcasts. Ka ching!
But don’t worry about Eckhart Tolle. His "power of now" is all about his store. All roads lead to his merchandise, which is prominently featured on his Web site and accessed from Oprah’s.
His is a costly philosophy. Books, tapes, DVDs — all of it becomes quite expensive when added up, making Tolle no different than Scientology, Kabbalah or any other shiny new religion. Tolle even sells teaching tools "for professionals" — "A Guide for the Spiritual Teacher and Health Practitioner" — even though it’s unclear what is the basis of his own educational background.
Are we supposed to take this seriously? As Tolle, himself, says to Oprah, "It’s better to laugh at madness."