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?
It's all of our conditioning, all of our social conditioning, our educational conditioning, our religious conditioning, our cultural conditioning. It has to do with the type of society that we've grown up in. Every nation has different kinds of conditioning. The educational system that has emphasized the development of the mind at the expense of emotional intelligence, for example. And some of it has to do with being born in a human form. Again this is a kind of Buddhist understanding. That just being born in a body there's an inherent kind of process of conditioning and limitation that arises through form. Through the form of the human body, through the form of the human mind.
My sense of that is that as one practices, or cultivates the capacity to access presence, the amount of mental or emotional activity that entertains disaster scenarios begins to diminish. In other words one is not always collapsing into the future. Because the future is either the desire for something to happen or the fear that something will happen. The past has to do with the regret for something that did happen or didn't, or the attachment to something that did happen in the sense of the "good ol' days."
It's not a question of denial or putting your head in the sand like an ostrich. As people can access the capacity to be in stillness and presence, that fear begins to diminish, and then you take whatever course of action is necessary. The mind still continues to function but it functions in a clearer, a better way. So you may take a look at your situation and say maybe it's time to leave New York or Washington, maybe it's time to take some practical steps, to have some food and water stored.
As a teacher of Tolle's work, why do you think his message resonates with so many people? What is it that the people in your workshops are searching for?
Every so often something comes along that really captures the people at a deep level. My own reading when I read "The Power of Now" I was just so captured by it because it seemed to me to be coming from such a pure, clear place. One could almost say - this sounds a little woo woo - the book was written from such a level of depth and consciousness that it was contagious just reading it. But in reading it I became aware, or still.
I think there is a kind of spirituality emerging that is free from institutional forms. It's very much a kind of grassroots spirituality, or if you want a label for it, a secular spirituality. My sense is, and Eckhart has pointed to this also, that there is a tremendous quickening going on now and people are waking up to a deeper level of consciousness. Traditional religious institutions don't do a very good job of addressing that inner search.
In his book you find the essence of all religions, particularly what you might describe as esoteric Christianity, or esoteric Buddhism. He jokes sometimes and says "I'm not Christian enough for the Christians, I'm not Buddhist enough for the hardcore Buddhists" -- but it does speak to many Christians and many Buddhists who in reading the book are reminded of the core of their own teachings. It captures truth in a way that's accessible to people - in a very practical, nondogmatic way.
In what role does Tolle see himself? As an enlightened being like the Buddha? As a prophet? A teacher?
He's said on occasion that being a spiritual teacher is a function not a role. So that when he's in a retreat or in a seminar he's functioning as a spiritual teacher. But when that's over he's just an ordinary person, he goes to the supermarket. And I love the simplicity of that. But he clearly has a deep enlightened capacity. And I love it because to me he's a kind of Every Man; he's just an ordinary person who one day woke up.