At age 30, Eckhart Tolle went from suicidal thoughts to spiritual awakening, literally overnight. Can you tell us the story of his life-changing epiphany?
Eckhart, according to his own description, was an unhappy, neurotic, confused intellectual and his background was of that generation of Germans who are carrying around a lot of the karma of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany.
He describes in his book an evening where he was ready to take his life. He said to himself, 'I can't live with myself anymore.' And then suddenly there was a kind of realization: Are there two of me here? There's the self that's so miserable that I can't live with, but what is the "I" that is observing this self?
It was a spontaneous process of what in the Advaita Vedanta tradition in India is called "self-inquiry." In other words, the question turned back on itself: Who am I? Who is this "I" that can't live with this self? And this produced a spontaneous form of self-inquiry that led very quickly to a kind of ego-death, where his personality died, his self as he had known it for 30 years, had died.
And he went into kind of a swoon, he describes it in the book as kind of what people describe in near-death experiences -- you know, going down through the tunnel, and so on. And then he woke up in the morning in a state of thoughtless awareness and happiness that never left him. And that was essentially his epiphany. It was a spontaneous death of the conditioned self, of the personality, of the ego.
Upon waking he didn't know what had happened to him, because he had no background in spiritual work at all. He was a kind of strict rationalist, you know, a research scholar in Cambridge in England. According to his own description he had no points of reference for understanding his own enlightenment. All he knew was that he was happy.
He was fully present, in the now, so to speak, conscious. He describes it as a state of thoughtless awareness. In other words there was a minimum of what we describe as thinking, of mental activity; it's consciousness, awareness, presence. Thoughts would come in and out but there was a capacity to witness those thoughts, to observe them, [instead of being] identified with them. And just a state of real peace and bliss.
Then what did he do?
He spent the next two years reading Krishna Murti, Ramana Maharshi, going to some Zen meditations, reading The Course in Miracles, connecting with Buddhists in the London area, and so on. And so he began to assemble, after the fact, the intellectual cognitive structure for his own enlightenment. He didn't have a word for it before [laughs], didn't have a way of framing it - all he knew was that he was happy, he was in a state of stillness and bliss.
What is your understanding of what he calls the "now"?
There are so many words that point to what cannot be described. Consciousness, presence, God -- in the sense of an immanence of God, a living God -- being. The now is just another word for that kind of awareness or consciousness. Because it no longer involves the domination of the analytic thinking mind which by definition is predicated on either memory (relating to the past), or the future (having to do with anticipation). Thought by its very nature deals with either the future or the past. When thought is not active, there is just the moment, just consciousness, just awareness. Thought may arise in that field of awareness, but it no longer is the master. Thought becomes, from this perspective, a kind of servant or a tool, but it no longer dominates or runs us.
Every tradition has this. Every religious tradition, every spiritual tradition in some form or other recognizes that there is this underlying field of presence, formlessness, eternity, out of which various phenomena including thought, including physical forms, arise. Forms can manifest in many different ways -- as thoughts, as feelings, as physical forms, objects, and so on. This constant process of creation out of emptiness, to use a Buddhist term, out of shinyata, arise these forms. They manifest, last for a period of time, and then they disappear. So the now is just another way of referencing that.
He says the forces that work against our experiencing the present moment are the ego, thoughts, the mind itself. What is the source of this resistance, ultimately?