We live in an age of revitalised New Age mumbo jumbo; and these days no one is more jumbo with his mumbo than Eckhart Tolle.
The German-born and Vancouver-residing 60-year-old "spiritual teacher" and author has captured the imaginations of a whole host of celebrities since the publication of his first book, The Power of Now, which has since been translated into 33 languages. When in June 2007 Paris Hilton walked into the Century Regional Detention Facility in California, where she served a short sentence for a driving offence, she was clutching one copy of the Bible – and one copy of The Power of Now; the former X-Files actress Gillian Anderson chose The Power of Now as her other book (apart from the Bible) on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs and Jeff Goldblum, the actor and fully paid-up member of LA spiritualistic nonsense, is a fan.
"I think he's truly exceptional," says Annie Lennox, another devotee, who also chose The Power of Now as her Desert Island Book. "But in saying that it's almost like I'm putting some kind of label on him, which could be misleading. Perhaps what I should say is that there are many people claiming to be teachers, coaches, guides and gurus, but he has some kind of special quality that I've never encountered before."
But Tolle's most influential celebrity supporter is Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement of his latest book, A New Earth, on her book club, shifted copies faster than any other of her previous 60 book picks; 3.5 million copies were shipped from Amazon in the month after Tolle was selected.
It now tops bestseller lists across America – with The Power of Now not far behind. In The New York Times, A New Earth is at number one in the mega-selling "Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous" section; The Power of Now is at number two.
But Oprah went further with Eckhart Tolle than she has ever gone with a previous author picked for her book club. She chose to present, with Tolle, a 10-week series of "webinars" – online seminars – with one chapter of the book (which she puts on the bedside table of all of her guest rooms) discussed each week. In the first webinar, transmitted on 3 March, Tolle led Winfrey and the millions of viewers who logged on in several different countries in silent meditation; viewers were then encouraged to submit questions to Tolle via Skype. By the third week, 11 million people were logging on.
"My favourite quote is in the first chapter," says Winfrey during one of these webinars. "Man made God in his own image. The eternal, the infinite and the unnameable reduced to a mental idol that you had to believe in and worship as my God or your God."
Confused? Most of Christian America seems to be. On an episode of her chat show, Oprah mused that Jesus "cannot possibly be the only way to God". Accusations immediately flew that Winfrey, who grew up a member of the Baptist Church, had rejected Jesus in favour of the New Age "hocus-pocus" of Eckhart Tolle.
"So sad, so tragic," complained jesus-is-saviour.com. "Oprah has in effect denied the teachings of the Bible and of Jesus Christ by asking her viewing audience, 'How can there be only one way to heaven or to God?'" reflected christiannewswire.com.
Tolle's theories are certainly seen by many as profoundly non-Christian, even though Tolle often quotes from the Bible. His idea is that our true selves are the formless Consciousness, which is Being, which is God. We are all One, and thus we are all God.
Strong stuff. But it all begs the question: just who is Eckhart Tolle? And what, exactly, is he up to?
Tolle, whose real first name is Ulrich, was born into a German Catholic family in 1948. He changed his name to Eckhart in a homage to the German spiritual leader Meister Eckhart. He refused all forms of formal education between the ages of 13 and 22, preferring instead to pursue his own creative and philosophical interests. Despite all this, he went to the University of London and is acknowledged by Cambridge University to have matriculated as a postgraduate student there in 1977, when he was 29. At 15, he was given the five books written by the German mystic Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken, also known as Bo Yin Ra. He is said to have been heavily influenced by these books; his writing also draws heavily on the New Testament, the Bhagavad Gita and Sufism.
After leaving Cambridge, Tolle went into a steep decline, however. "I was unhappy, depressed and anxious," he said in a rare interview, with the environmentalist website Ecomall.com in 2003. "I was not trying to become enlightened or anything like that. I was looking for some kind of answer to the dilemma of life, but I had been looking to the intellect for the answer; philosophy, religion and intellectual inspiration. The more I was looking on that level, the more unhappy I became."
And then, he says, he had an epiphany. "Suddenly I stepped back from myself, and it seemed to be two of me. The 'I', and this 'self' that I cannot live with. Am I one or am I two? And that triggered me like a koan [a Zen statement that appeals to intuition rather than ration]. It happened to me spontaneously. I looked at that sentence: 'I can't live with myself'. I had no intellectual answer. Who am I? Who is this self that I cannot live with? The answer came on a deeper level. I realised who I was."
He spent the next two years sitting on park benches "in a state of the most intense joy". And then he wrote his first book, The Power of Now. The book, published by Penguin in 1999, sat at the top of the bestseller lists for years.
There is not very much new about The Power of Now – it is Buddhism mixed with mysticism and a few references to Jesus Christ, a sort of New Age re-working of Zen. Its central message is that the root of our emotional problems is our habit of identifying too much with our minds. The past and the future are creations of thought and only the present moment is real and only the present moment matters.
The follow-up to The Power of Now, A New Earth, is an extended riff on the same subject. It aims to "provide a spiritual framework for people to move beyond themselves in order to make this world a better, more spiritually evolved place to live". The encapsulating idea, again, is that by abandoning your ego, you become "Present" in the immortal "Being".
William Bloom is a former professor at the London School of Economics, and one of the UK's most experienced teachers, healers and authors in the field of holistic development. He believes that Tolle's work provides a valuable perspective on Western culture.
"Tolle is offering a very contemporary synthesis of Eastern spiritual teaching, which is normally so clothed in arcane language that it is incomprehensible," says Bloom. "Some people might find him confusing but when he asserts that Descartes' major insight ("I think therefore I am") – one of the foundations of Western thinking – is ostensibly wrong, it's a conceptual challenge to how we think about ourselves. And that has always been the major assertion of Eastern religion: that thinking is not the core of who you are. The core of who you really are is that part of you that can watch yourself thinking – that's very Buddhist, very Eastern, very attuned to the whole field of transpersonal psychology.
"Second, he asks people to exist as best they can in any given moment and to connect with the sensation of the physical body – so instead of just staying in your head thinking, to be aware of what's happening in your feet, your hands, your whole body.
"This is particularly useful in the UK at the moment, because as part of Ofsted's initiative Seal [Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning], teachers are being asked to be very attentive to children's emotions and feelings; the foundation of emotional literacy is being present and to notice what's going on in your body and to feel its subtle sensations as a way of identifying your emotions. Tolle's approach is very body aware. He's done it in a nice accessible way for people.
"The thing that's really good about him," Bloom concludes, "in the midst of all the psychobabble to do with happiness being based on getting what you want, Tolle sounds a clear note stating that happiness comes from a state of consciousness and a connection with being present to the wonder of life. Which is just what's needed."
Tolle's fans regard him as a sort of other-worldly sage; he is often described as "mystical" and "elfin-like"; his blondish hair is always parted on the far left of his head and he sports a beard, but no moustache. He tends to wear corduroy trousers, waistcoats and shirts buttoned to the top, without a tie.
Tolle has his own fan site at inner-growth.info where devotees say things like "Reading The Power of Now impacted me more deeply than I am able to express, and now I wish to share this beautiful book of wisdom and peace with as many people as I can."
At Tolle's own website, there is access to the all-important online store, where fans can purchase all his published works. There is also a dizzying range of accompanying spiritual-guidance material. Each book is available as an audiobook, with prices starting at $29.95 (£15). The Power of Now and Stillness Speaks are broken down in to "Inspiration cards", which are sold in packs of 50 for $17.95 (£9). There are also DVD recordings of Tolle explaining the essence of his theories with lectures such as "What is Meditation?" and "The Deepest Truth of Human Existence".
And if you still can't get enough of the great man, there is a range of music – not, perhaps thankfully, composed by Tolle himself – recommended to aid your meditative pursuits and journey to enlightenment.
Tolle's detractors, aside from the Church, dismiss him as New Age rubbish of the worst kind, popular only because he has managed to get the attention of Oprah Winfrey. "Even by the standards of the self-help book industry, Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth is unutterable twaddle," said one newspaper book reviewer. "Oprah Winfrey's golden touch has turned a stinker into a bestseller for Penguin." Another dismissed the book by saying, "Its 313 pages are, frankly, baffling – a mix of pseudo-science, New Age philosophy and teaching borrowed from established religions."
Indeed, it is difficult sometimes to know what sense to make of Tolle's convoluted discursive style. Try this one, for example: "Something suddenly was there that actually had always been there but had been obscured continuously by identification with the heavy mind structure."
Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Tolle does have fans in academic, even Christian, circles. Andrew Ryder, a theologian at All Hallows College, Dublin, wrote in praise of Tolle in The Way, the modern Christian spirituality magazine: "Tolle's writing is based on his own experience and personal reflection. This makes his approach to the challenge of living in the present moment both practical and fresh. While he may not use the language of traditional Christian spirituality, Tolle is very much concerned that, as we make our way through the ordinary events of the day, we keep in touch with the deepest source of our being."
It's easy to see why Tolle's self-help schtick appeals to such ne'er do wells as Paris Hilton; his central advice about living for now and not dwelling on the mistakes of your past appeals to those with a colourful back history. Too many people, he says, defensively hold on to and preserve guilty, hostile feelings from past events and allow these memories to make them anxious and unhappy.
"I'd say he's got tremendous skill in clarifying perceptions and thoughts from our internal world," says Judith Kendra, publishing director of Rider books, which has been publishing on spirituality and human rights for 100 years. "It's very hard to put those perceptions into words, and he makes it all seem so simple. The ideas he's talking about have been in existence for thousands of years in both Eastern texts and with the great Western mystics, but he's able to make them understandable.
"People can be very derogatory about this sort of thing, but it's only because it's hard to understand, and it seems irrelevant to our everyday speedy world. Most of us are looking for a way to slow down, and it's only in the slowing down that the present moment takes on a very clear meaning which so many of us miss.
"It's very British to be cynical and it's a shame. One or two people have got something really worthwhile to say."
And really, what Tolle is trying to say is: "chill out" – but you can't sell five million copies of that.
Additional reporting by Photini Philippidou
Tolle in his own words
The Power of Now
"The pain-body consists of trapped life-energy that has split off from your total energy field and has temporarily become autonomous through the unnatural process of mind identification"
"Pain can only feed on pain. Pain cannot feed on joy. It finds it quite indigestible"
"In the normal, mind-identified or unenlightened state of consciousness, the power and creative potential that lie concealed in the Now are completely obscured by psychological time. You cannot find yourself by going into the past. You can find yourself by coming into the present. Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be"
A New Earth
"Is humanity ready for a transformation of consciousness, an inner flowering so radical and profound that compared to it the flowering of plants, no matter how beautiful, is only a pale reflection? "
"There are three words that convey the secret of the art of living, the secret of all success and happiness: One With Life. Being one with life is being one with Now. You then realise that you don't live your life, but life lives you. Life is the dancer, and you are the dance"
"If you are not familiar with 'inner body' awareness, close your eyes for a moment and find out if there is life inside your hands. Don't ask your mind. It will say, 'I can't feel anything'"
"Can human beings lose the density of their conditioned mind structures and become like crystals or precious stones, so to speak, transparent to the light of consciousness?"
"You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge. But it can only emerge if something fundamental changes in your state of consciousness"
The modern guru guide
Chopra believes mortality is an illusion and the way you think, behave and eat can increase your life expectancy by 30 years. Chopra is another Oprah acolyte; he came on her show in 1993 to promote 'Ageless Body, Timeless Mind' which, unsurprisingly, became a bestseller. He has an Ayurvedic spa in New York and Madonna appeared on his CD, 'Deepak and Friends'.
The former Radio DJ used to hypnotise people on stage for laughs but he has re-packaged himself as a staggerinly successful self-help genius. He is now the bestselling non-fiction author in Britain. Robbie Williams, The Duchess of York and David Bowie have all sought his help. After the disaster of Euro 2004, David Beckham went straight to see him.
Born in Tanzania to Indian parents, this osteopath and diet guru used to be a British Airways steward. Now, from a London clinic, Joshi offers Ayurvedic medicine and homeopathy to his clients so that they might achieve "an inner and outer glow". This is the man who "cupped" Gwyneth Paltrow's back in 2004, using heated glasses as a form of acupuncture.
Robbins is probably the most successful motivational speaker ever, rumoured to earn $80m (£40m) a year. During his four-day, 59-hour 'Unleash the Power Within' seminars, participants walk over hot coals in bare feet. "We can change our lives," he says. "We can be exactly what we wish." He has also advised such political giants as Mikhail Gorbachev and Bill Clinton.
Gannon also goes by the name Tripura Sundari and is the co-founder of the Jivamukti Yoga Method, a spiritual form of high-energy hatha yoga, which has been very popular with New York's "arty" set. There are Jivamukti Yoga schools in Munich, Toronto, Detroit and London. Sting played his sitar at the opening of the Jivamukti centre in New York.