Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The New World Oprah

In all fairness, I have to begin by saying I love Oprah.  I drink the "O"-flavored Kool Aid regularly and I love the taste.  So what you are about to read is admittedly biased because I believe what Oprah has been doing, particularly in the past five years with her show, her media empire and her life, is nothing short of awesome.  And I don't mean that in a "Whoa, dude, check out Oprah, she's awesome!" kind of way, but literally -- for me, Oprah inspires awe.  From launching a magazine devoted to helping people "live their best lives," to an XM satellite radio network with the same conceit, to building an Academy to educate young women in South Africa, to her new television network, to launching the ABC reality show "The Big Give" where people win by giving to others -- one would think that Oprah has done it all.  Well, it turns out Oprah is just getting started.  

Oprah's latest, and perhaps greatest awe-inspiring feat happened just a few nights ago when she hosted a live, ninety-minute, free, worldwide webcast discussing Eckhart Tolle's latest book (and Oprah's current book club selection) "A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose."  I picked the book up as soon as she announced the ten-week class (a pop culture happening, in my opinion, not to be missed), and "good student" I believe myself to be, went online and I reserved my "seat" in class, downloaded my Chapter One Workbook (Professor Oprah does not play -- she gives us homework!) and began to read the book, even though all I knew about it was that Oprah said it wasn't a typical pick for her.

The title of the book intrigued me (who doesn't want to awaken to their life's purpose, or at least check to see if they've got it right?), but it didn't give me a clear understanding of its contents.  I thought the book would be akin to a Dr. Phil-ish experience -- it would annoy me then help me see what's dysfunctional in my life so in the future I could make better choices.  But from the first page, when Tolle writes about the first flowers on the planet and how they had no purpose other than to be messengers from the spiritual realm, I realized "A New Earth" was going to offer so much more than a bald Texan in a bad suit.  Oprah had picked a "deep" book, a "new age" book, a (dare I say it?) "spiritual" book.  

As I read on, the book immediately moved me.  It was reminding me of everything I have been learning over the past few years through personal experience or through Taoism, the spiritual path I am currently exploring.  The coolest ideas to me in "A New Earth" were these: 1)the idea of God/the universe/ consciousness as an absolute truth with the different paths towards it being secondary (Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) and 2)the identification of the individual ego and the collective ego as the culprits behind dysfunction, destruction and madness.  The first idea is pretty clear but the second is a bit esoteric, which is why it takes Tolle some 300 pages to explain it.  

The bottom line, as I understand it, is that when we make our thoughts our identity and value things and ideas over our inner god/spirit, we get out of whack in our personal and collective lives.  Tolle gives examples of this by citing, on the personal level, anger, anxiety, depression, guilt and the like.  On the collective level, wars, murders, genocides -- all justified by the "you're wrong and I'm right" mentality needed by the ego to survive.  I'm sorry if this is even more confusing -- I only mention it to give a glimpse into what the book talks about and why it was such a daring choice for Oprah to put out there to her legion. 
So anyway, Monday night, I'm all ready with my Chapter 1 workbook, my pen (plus several extras) and I log in, "take my seat" early (still in "good student" mode) and watch celebrity testimonials, Oprah clips, and promos from sponsors Chevy and Post-It.  Class begins with a big close-up on Oprah.  She looks tired, but excited.  Sitting across from her on the ethereal, white-and beige colored set is author Eckhart Tolle.  

As Oprah keeps talking my mother Joyce (who I turned on to the book) arrives when I imagine all the cool kids do, a few minutes after the "bell" rings.  She sits and watches with me.  The first question Oprah is asked via interactive computer phone system Skype (another sponsor) is from a woman who wants to know how to reconcile Tolle's ideas (which draw from Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism as well as the Bible) with her Catholic faith and wants to know how Oprah reconciles them with her faith.  Oprah, not realizing the question was going to be directed to her, admits to thinking she'd be able to take a rest, but quickly snaps to attention and answers. 

On her daily show, Oprah has spoken about being raised in the church, but always seemed to steer clear of definitively labeling herself as a practicing Christian.  Well, that day has passed because not only did Oprah identify herself as Christian, she also proclaimed to a world-wide audience that she does not believe "Jesus Christ came here to start Christianity."  Wow!!  Officially, this class was now dynamite.  And not in the J.J. Evans "Dy-no-mite!" way, but the "this is explosive, blowing up the box" way. Oprah officially transcended from well-meaning talk show host to ersatz webevangelist.

Taken out of context, I can see people having a field day with Oprah's Jesus statement and her later statement that "God can't be contained in a church."  But what she was saying (in context) was that Christ's purpose on earth was to show people "Christ consciousness" -- how to be awake and present in the world and how to tap into the Christ within.  She also mentioned a few books ("The Seeker's Guide" by Elizabeth Lesser and "Discover The Power Within You" by Eric Butterworth) that helped her reconcile her Baptist teachings ("Old Spirituality") with non-church based teachings ("New Spirituality") like Tolle's.

Coincidentally it was around this time, as Oprah got a call from a Baptist in Germany, that my feed started stuttering and stammering as if it were 1969 and Oprah was broadcasting from the moon.  When I clicked on the "if you have problems with this webcast" link, the whole thing crashed.  I re-entered the class several times over the next forty minutes, but only got glitchy images, then two-second sound bites that were impossible to follow.  Eventually the web geeks managing the site apologized on the main page for the technical difficulties and encouraged people to come back tomorrow (Tuesday) to watch the video on or download it through iTunes.  I did the latter and just finished watching it in its entirety before I started this blog.

Other highlights from the class were Oprah saying everyone blames the media and movies for negativity but she thinks they are a cultural reflection of where we are as human beings.  She then said look at the movies nominated for Oscars this year -- that tells you where we are.  I don't think Oprah was trying to rag on the filmmakers but in a way she seemed to agree that movies do play into the collective psyche and ego.  She then turned to Tolle and prompted him to quote from his book where he says humans are the only species who watch violence for entertainment.   Will these comments make it harder for Oprah to host her Oscar party next year?  Prevent certain studios from having their stars appear on her show?  Answer:  OPRAH DOESN'T CARE.  

Oprah also had one of her signature "A-ha" moments as she reveled in the coolness of the technology that was allowing her to host the event.  She said she realized the acceleration of technology could accelerate the destruction of mankind if we don't "wake up" to our consciousness.  Tolle confirmed this and quoted from his book about the destruction in the 20th century and all that can be accomplished in the 21st if the collective ego continues to go unchecked.  Did Oprah alienate her technology sponsors with this commentary?  Answer:  OPRAH DOESN'T CARE.  Oprah ended the class on a note of enthusiasm, clapping her hands together gleefully with anticipation for next week's class which will focus primarily on the ego.  

So, in sum, what is so "deep" and "pop" about all of that?  Well, it's pop because Oprah's anointment of this book shot it to the top of every bookseller's list and it has now shipped 3.5 million copies.  It's also an interactive, worldwide event (free live or for download!) that I suspect will only grow in audience over the next nine weeks.  It's "deep" (besides the "deepness" of the subject matter) because Oprah has, with this bold act, made the intention behind her popularity clear: she is using it to awaken people to their consciousness (i.e. "the God within") and thus has positioned herself as our nation's (and planet's?) newest (and perhaps most powerful) spiritual leader.  No wonder Oprah doesn't want to be the President -- to paraphrase Prince, she'd rather be the Pope!  Not in the ring-and-mitre sense, but in the sense that she wants to lead the masses from all corners of Earth to God.  

Oprah no longer cares if she alienates her audience, religious leaders or her sponsors -- not because she is too rich to care (even though she is) but because she is on a mission, and over the web on Monday, that was obvious.  Oprah, ever inclusive, made a point of saying she does not believe Christianity is the only way to God, but that there are several paths to God with six billion people on Earth.  She also affirmed you don't have to give up your current belief system to achieve the kind of spirituality she's touting, and that Tolle isn't trying to be your next guru.  Oprah shot Tolle a quick look when she said this, then moments later asked him point blank if he wanted to be a guru.  He said no and sort of laughed.  Perhaps because he knew he was in the presence of our latest one?  Stay tuned... I know I will.  

Deep Pop.  We love it.