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.


Michael in New York said...

Hey, glad you found the first class enjoyable/enlightening. What translation of The Tao Te Ching do yu favor? I like the very unconventional version by Stephen Mitchell, my go-to guy for translations of religious/spiritual texts. Are you reading ahead in the book? Reviews n by hatas said Tolle was strongly anti-organized religion. True that? I know lots of religions offically consider themselves the one true way to heaven, but in practice my Catholicism (or at least how it is taught and lived in America as opposed to Rome) respects other faiths and believes there are many roads to heaven. It would be crazy to think God rejects you because you happened to be born in India and of course were Hindu. Most friends who practice as Episcopalians or Unitarian Universalists and Reformed Jews also adamantly believe this. It's only the tiny but vocal minority of fundamentalist Christians in the US who would look at someone like Gandhi and say, sorrr, not born again, you going down. As a Catholic, I certainly don't believ Jesus came here to found a massive worldwide organized religion and I believe most current catholic theologians would agree. And of course God can't be contained i a Church or church or even one faith. Any place where two people come together in His name, that's where you can find God. (Ving Rhames quizzed me on that during an interview once.) Everything you report Oprah as saying is reasonable and right within line with what I believe and what any priest I'd listen to believes. But to me it doesn't sound like Oprah wants to become an evangelist. Her quick pinning down of Tolle to make clear he didn't want to be one either wasn't because she wants the space for herself. I think it's an extension of what she's always done: sharing her journey with others and hoping they'll come along with her and they can discover it together. She may be leading, but she's taking the journey too, not a spiritual guru with the answers but a pilgrim. A pilgrim with a billion dollars and a talk show and a worldwide audience that wants to know what she's reading and thinking about. Finally, far from "accelerating the destruction of mankind' (a phrase that implies the destruction of mankind is already happening if not inevitable -- to which I say, balderdash), the very event you took part in on the World Wide Web is an example of the exciting, exploding possibilities technology offers nd how it can be used for good. people live longer than ever before in history, travel the globe with ease, have access to more technology and more wonders and so on. Soon we'll be populating other planets, the asteroid belts and then the galaxy and technology helps make that possible.

Yours spiritually,


Lori Lakin Hutcherson said...

The version of the Tao Te Ching I'm currently reading is translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English. As to Tolle, I have read the whole book and am now re-reading it. In my opinion he is not anti-organized religion -- he simply thinks a lot of religions have been stultified by dogma and hierarchy and no longer truly serve spirituality. During the webcast, one person skype'd in and mentioned he had brought together a community to share the experience of being present/still. Tolle and Oprah approved and talked about how joining together can create positive energy fields and help make the shift to consciousness that much easier/powerful. Tolle then said to be careful of becoming too dependent on the collective because the ego can take over in a group setting. I think that's where he's coming from -- he doesn't have a problem with people coming together in spirit but he worries about it being corrupted in a group atmosphere. I don't read that as "anti-organized religion" -- I read that as him emphasizing that we all have to be mindful and awake as individuals and to not to surrender that state whenever part of any group.

I agree with you that it's crazy thinking to believe God rejects you for not being part of whatever practice, but I believe a lot more people think that way than you do. As a Catholic, you might not think that way, but what is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church? Theologians/mystics of most creeds go deep within their religions and thus arrive at the same place, but what is the daily dogma and practice saying to their respective masses?

I also agree that Oprah does not have the intention of being a webevangelist or a guru, but because she is, in effect, leading masses of people to explore certain spiritual teachings, she is a de facto spiritual leader. If she's a pilgrim, she is a pilgrim who is completely aware of her power and the effect she can have on millions. In an "Oprah After The Show" a woman asked her why she picked Tolle's book and Oprah, to paraphrase, said she read Tolle's other book "The Power of Now" and thought Tolle would be "too much for TV" so she put him on her radio "Soul" series show ("where I can talk to whoever I want to talk to"). She then read "A New Earth" and told her producers it's a shame she couldn't make it one of her book club picks because she's never done a book like this. But then she had an epiphany and realized she could do whatever she wanted to, so that's why she did it, because she really wanted the book to have an impact. If Oprah were truly just a pilgrim, she could have mentioned Tolle's book (she mentions a lot of books on her show without ever making them Book Club selections) and left it at that. But Oprah WANTED TO MAKE AN IMPACT ON THE WORLD with this book, hence not only did she make it a Book Club pick, she took it to a whole new level with a free 10-week class.

Finally, I agree that technology provides more advantages than I can think to name. But they also provide us with more capability to maim, kill and destroy. I believe that was Tolle's point -- in the 20th century, hundreds of millions were killed and maimed via bombs, concentration camps, genocide -- all possible because of the advances in science and technology. In the 21st century, as we make even more advances, how will that exponentially improve our chances of annihilating our species? As they discussed this topic, that's when Oprah went "A-ha" about technology, even though of course she was in the midst of using one of the advances for the good of mankind.

With love and spirit,

Michael in New York said...

I would say the mainstream Catholic teaching in America (as distinct from Rome) is probably just as different as Republicans and Democrats in politics. There are definitely conservatives in the Church. But the broad middle ground of both the bishops and priest and lay people would be absolutely positive and respectful towards other religions with a complete recognition that they are valid world faiths. As opposed to say fundamentalist Christians (a tiny percentage of evangelicals) who say if you don't follow their path you're dooomed. I was taught this respect in 12 years of Catholic school and I have never heard a single word said from a pulpit denigrating other faiths or suggesting that those who practiced them were doomed to hell. On the other hand, we're Number One! in terms of Christian heritage and followers.

Technology=good. Anything can be abused and used for bad reasons. But the advances of technology far outweigh the bad, hence the freedom of so many people to live longer, healthier, happier, richer lives. Not to be feared. Besides, once you've built a hydrogen bomb that can destroy entire cities and made enough of them to blow up the world, what can you do that's worse? make something that will REALLY blow up the world?

I'm gonna check out your edition of the Tao.

Michael in New York said...

Prophet vs Pilgrim -- the distinction in my mind is between someone who says, "I have the answers" and someone who says, "Let's find out the answers together" or "This is interesting, it helped me, it might help you." Oprah seems very much the latter. And that's very dfferent from someone who wants to use their power and influence to have people work for them rather than with them, to hand down the tablets in stone rather than figure out things togehter. I'd like her a lot less if she seemed to believe she was the chosen one.

Teddy Tenenbaum said...

Another great post, Lori!