Jordan Peterson and Eckhart Tolle: Contrasting Two Top Teachers of Our Time
Given that you’ve clicked on this link, I’m sure you too have been greatly influenced by two of the leading teachers of our age, Jordan Peterson and Eckhart Tolle.
They’ve been the two leading lights in guiding men from the chains of chronic anxiety, addictions, and despair to a path of meaning, peace, and stability.
Many men credit these two teachers as fundamental in their growth yet simultaneously question how the sometimes contradictory teachings fit together.
Where Tolle embodies a divine peace embedded in the Now, Peterson is an intense character whose teachings take us through the Bible, to Auschwitz and Stalin’s gulags.
Perhaps most alarmingly, Peterson warns us that these places live inside of our own hearts and can and will spring forth if we allow ourselves to become corrupted.
In my experience of not only studying the two but actively acting out their teachings, they have come to represent different parts of my being, and my journey of personal development.
It’s pretty evident that Tolle sits more on the ‘spiritual’ plain.
He emanates and teaches people’s innate ‘Buddha-nature’, or ‘Christ-consciousness’.
His ‘pointings’ take you away from the noise of the mind to the objective peace of the present moment, unveiling The Great Reality of life beyond your narrow egocentric ‘I’ identity.
Thus Tolle represents a direct spiritual practice, there is zero politics or doctrine, you don’t have to believe anything, but simply experience what you are in the present moment – i.e. spirit.
Peterson is much more political and complex.
In drawing out the wisdom of mythologies and Western culture, he uncovers a deep and highly sophisticated framework in which one can understand his lived existence, as well as that of his culture, and ultimately follow a sound and reliable – if rigorous – blueprint for living.
This blueprint aids you in defending yourself against the tragedy, pitfalls, and pains of life, it is, as Peterson has articulated, perpetuated in the symbolic Biblical tales we tell ourselves as a culture.
For example, the story of Noah is no longer a meaningless silly story about a man saving animals, but a deeply symbolic tale of how man should approach life.
The storm is representative of any tragedy a man may face in his life, the ark Noah creates is representative of the integrity of a man’s charcter, and the animals symbolic of the fruits of life that is entrusted to him who shows character, grit and responsibility.
This piece offers an outline of both Jordan Peterson and Eckhart Tolle and their key work, followed by an outline of how the two teachings can work together.
Professor Jordan Peterson came to notoriety in a compelled speech scandal over gender pronouns in Canada.
Where the progressive left claimed he was an out-dated bigot spewing ‘transphobia’, he countered emphatically, pointing to years of research centering on the underlying framework for political fanaticism and tyranny that he argued underpins contemporary postmodern leftist thought.
Peterson argued that the disciplines within the humanities have been co-opted by ‘postmodernist’ influenced neo-Marxist intellectuals.
Such intellectuals’ work is based upon the inherent power within hierarchies of dominance in Western Culture.
The function of these dominance hierarchies is, as the theory goes, to maintain the power of a given group (white, straight males in this case, at least according to the progressives).
Peterson’s central point – through a prism of Carl Jung, a psychological reading of The Bible and Alexander Solzhenitsyn – is that this school of thought isn’t intellectually honest, but actually empowered by one’s own externalized resentment towards the dominance hierarchies themselves.
Peterson has therefore argued that the contemporary ‘social justice’ movement spreading from the humanities isn’t really about social justice at all, but political authoritarianism and virtue-signaling.
Through this prism, Peterson draws parallels with the intellectual underpinnings of the Soviet Union, which centered upon identity politics, albeit with regard to class as opposed to the race and culture angle that the contemporary progressives focus on.
Peterson has described himself as an ‘American Pragmatist and a British liberal’.
Note that ‘liberal’ means something different in Britain than it does in the US.
In the UK, a liberal is a political centrist who places responsibility on the individual rather than the state, seeing his autonomy as the fundamental cornerstone of liberty.
When one combines Peterson’s focus on political extremism in the 20th century and the sanctity of the individual on the other, his philosophy thereby celebrates the mythology of the Western Tradition with its focus on of sorting yourself out spiritually and emotionally.
In doing this, you maximize your personal potential as the highest good for you, your family, and your society.
Such a mode of being allows individuals regulate themselves, with a moral duty to guard against dishonesty and resentment within.
This is the polar opposite of Marxist theory, which places all responsibility on the state, institutions and power structures to mould the individual with the eventual aim of equality.
In making his point, Peterson touches on the stories of the Bible from a psychological standpoint.
In doing this he demonstrates how truth is acted out in the world by a noble shouldering of the burden of suffering.
He references the teachings of the Buddha (self-mastery/acceptance of suffering) and ultimately Jesus, whose death on the cross Peterson sees as the great symbolic centerpiece of Western Culture, in fulfilling this aim, stating that it is these teachings which underpin our very civilization.
While he is unclear on his actual position on the existence of God, he evidently believes the cultural, spiritual and psychological model of God needs to be at the heart of post-Christian societies in order to keep the individual free from the tyrannical power of the state.
Before his spiritual awakening at the age of 29, Eckhart Tolle was a German academic, studying and teaching in London.
Tolle has stated that at this point in his life he felt that the ‘intellect could solve all of the world’s great problems’.
Tolle also suffered from chronic anxiety and depression, commenting many times on its suicidal nature.
One evening the pain was ‘so intense’ that Tolle simply couldn’t bear his life anymore, at which point he uttered to himself ‘I can’t bear my mind any longer’.
It is this statement that opened up Tolle’s ‘philosophy’ (or spiritual reality, if you will) as he began to question ‘If I am that which cannot bear the mind, am I one or two?’
It was here his consciousness lost identification with the separated ‘I’ and fell into the ‘pure bliss of consciousness prior to identification with form.’
The question whether we are our mind or the aware indefinable spirit of being beyond the mind is central to the mystic traditions in all of the major religions; Buddhism (Zen), Christianity (mysticism/Gnosticism), Islam (Sufism).
Each of these traditions holds that the mind is not the individual, but that there’s a spiritual reality, an awareness of awareness, a pure being of conscious being-ness which is the true reality of who we are.
This consciousness is beyond the intellect and it is always Now, with both the future and past mere mental constructs in Tolle’s teaching.
Tolle’s teachings centre around the transcending of the ‘ego’, which he uses in a slightly different context to the one Freud uses it in (and which Peterson would be more familiar with).
For Tolle, the ego is that which appears to be ‘me’ but is actually an illusion – it is the mind-made sense of self.
This mind made self traps the individual in a world of fear, based upon the inherent perceived separation from others and the world.
Such a separation breeds fear, distrust, and paranoia.
When one is in the ego, or ‘unconscious’ as Tolle says, which virtually all non-awakened people are, we act on impulses which are based upon the propagation of the false self and suffer, as well as bring suffering to the wider world.
Tolle’s solution for this is that we go back to our natural state, that is one of pure acceptance and non-judgmental awareness of being, just as animals, a tree or the sky itself is.
From this state, the ego can be watched (and not judged) but seen to be what it is; a rambling thinking machine that is not ‘you’.
In fact, when one transcends the ego, Tolle states this is where Oneness is truly experienced, and the sense of an individual self (the egoic ‘I’) melts away.
What is left is universal Oneness.
Therefore, in Tolle’s teaching we are conscious because the universe is itself is conscious and the universe, or the source behind it, is what we are.
In this sense, we are the universal Oneness looking back at itself, not individuals in existence.
In expressing his outlook, Tolle uses a wide array of teachers and philosophers, but the point is always the same: The ‘I’ is just an illusion, past and present are mind creations, and that to transcend the ‘I’, one must accept the eternal Now.
Remember, in the ‘Now’, one is totally present, and cannot tell stories about yesterday, 30 years ago or two weeks in the future.
In presence, one is abiding in pure truth, in pure being without a concept of self, but in real, active truth.
This is where Tolle points us to dwell.
Differences between Jordan Peterson and Eckhart Tolle
Given the spiritual nature of the teachings, there is some clear crossover, yet the most evident difference is in the notion of the ego.
For Peterson, a Jungian psychoanalyst by trade, the ego must be gardened and kept in check in order to bargain with the future and thereby create a better tomorrow.
This is done in the form of the underpinnings of Judeo-Christian culture: You must manage your resentments, forgive others, work hard, act honestly, et cetera.
Most importantly, you must strive to not be corrupted.
If the above happens to enough people, Peterson warns that this will manifest in the attacking of the other (i.e. Nazis with Jews, Soviets with Middle/Upper classes).
Conversely, for Tolle, the ego must be transcended.
Transcendence for Tolle is watching the self non-judgementally and dwelling in presence.
Essentially, where Tolle points to eternal consciousness as the route of what we are and the freedom from suffering, stating we must silently accept what is to transcend our egoic nature, Peterson maintains we should actively combat the excesses of the ego, through diligent work and an acceptance that suffering is inevitable to bring forward a stable society, while being aware tragedy is an inherent part of life.
Put even more simply; where Tolle aims for transcendence of the ego completely, Peterson looks to ‘garden’ out the ego’s excesses, accept suffering and integrate the ego into the wider tradition of society and Western Culture.
Perhaps what is most interesting about the two on this perceived difference is that they both draw heavily from the teachings of Jesus.
It is surely fascinating that two giants of modern thinking/spirituality find such richness in these teachings, somewhat validating JP’s point that there’s more to these stories in our culture than we know, and we’d be unwise to eradicate them.
On a final note to that point, Peterson has oft pointed out that we need the cultural mythology that Christianity has provided the West to maintain the value structures of the stable societies we live in.
Tolle meanwhile has pointed to Jesus’s acceptance of suffering on the cross as synonymous with that of the Buddha, and tends to see the influence of religion within society as more corrupted, with the essential meaning of the religions (transcendence, love, the Now) lost in egocentric dogma.
Despite this, both champion a reawakening of the ancient stories with a renewed interpretation, reawakening the great teaching at the heart of human existence.
The ‘I’ at the Source of Being
Perhaps the most important distinction one can make between Jordan Peterson and Eckhart Tolle is who, or what, is the ultimate authority of the individual.
While Tolle’s spiritual awakening has been articulated above, it is interesting to view the below video regarding Peterson’s own spiritual experience.
Peterson explains how he began to watch his thinking mind, much in the same respect as Tolle articulates in his teachings, however there is a nuance in their emphasis on the ‘I’.
As Peterson explains, when beginning to ‘watch the thinker’ he noted there was another from of awareness viewing reality, which he terms ‘the critic’.
This is what Jordan Peterson sees as the fundamental ‘I’, and he has later referenced this as ‘the captain of the ship’ that is the true self.
Tolle meanwhile goes one step further and states that the awareness itself is the true Self experiencing itself in our human form.
This is a slight nuance with huge proportions.
This means that in Tolle’s teaching, human consciousness is an expression of God, or Being, as he likes to term it, while in Peterson’s philosophy, the individual is the abstract source being capable of discerning truth from falsehood.
The key difference between Jordan Peterson and Eckhart Tolle
Essentially, in Tolle’s teaching we are part of God, in Peterson’s we need the mythological model of God to guide us on the deepest level.
While our relationship to a creator is unclear in Peterson’s thought, he seems to advocate the Christian notion of God as ‘The Father’ – wise, judging, benevolent, loving – in a manner we can’t truly intellectually comprehend.
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