At 29, Eckhart Tolle was a research scholar and doctoral candidate at Cambridge University in England. He was also deeply miserable. As he lay in bed one night, gripped by an intense dread and loathing of his existence, he experienced a profound spiritual transformation. His first sight upon waking was the light of dawn through the curtains. “Without any thought, I felt, I knew, that there is infinitely more to light than we realize,” he later wrote. “That soft luminosity filtering through the curtains was love itself.” Though the room was familiar, he realized he had never really seen it before. “I picked up things, a pencil, an empty bottle, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of it all.”
Gone was the miserable feeling, re-placed by a deep sense of peace. He didn’t have concepts or words for what had happened to him. It was only with the help of spiritual texts and teachers that he began to understand. He had glimpsed his true nature as “pure consciousness” rather than as the ego-bound, separate self, which ultimately was “a fiction of the mind.”
Giving up his doctoral pursuits, Tolle spent almost two years with “no job, no home, no socially defined identity,” sitting on park benches in a state of intense joy. In time, people began to approach him with questions about the power of his presence. Their dialogues later became the inspiration for his books: The Power of Now, Practicing the Power of Now and, most recently, Stillness Speaks (New World Library).
Tolle was born in Germany and educated in Europe. He now lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, and teaches around the world. When I learned that he was giving a retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, I knew I wanted to attend.
In the crowded hall as the retreat began, I felt Tolle’s presence as powerful, though not in an overt way; his is more the power of silence in a noisy room. What isn’t apparent in his books is his joyful, often impish sense of humor. His playful gestures and faces, as he described what he calls “the little me,” were as true to the human condition as the comedy of Buster Keaton. Both his humor and his quiet, unassuming nature were in evidence again when we met for our interview.
Why do we so often try to escape from relationships and situations we view as unfulfilling or difficult?
The tendency to escape is a form of collective mental conditioning that is at work almost all the time, not just when situations turn out to be unpleasant or unsatisfying. In ordinary life, there is a continuous moving away from the moment to an imagined future that is unconsciously regarded as more important.
Our striving toward the future, our inner compulsion to deny the present moment, manifests itself as a continuous sense of unease and latent dissatisfaction with what is. This seems to be the “normal” state of our civilization. Even Freud recognized this when he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents. A literal translation of the German title is “The Unease in Culture.” He saw that our normal state of consciousness could be described as one of continuous unease, more pronounced at some times than at others.
Why are we not more aware of this state?
Because it is everybody’s normal state. Children are conditioned to look to the future from the moment they enter school, always needing the next moment and the next. Even if the future moment is feared, there is still a projection toward it, which generates anxiety. Then the recognition can arise — and this is an amazing realization for people who have never looked at it clearly — that the present moment is all there ever is in one’s life.
What keeps us living in either the past or the future?
We live in a world of mental abstraction, conceptualization, and image making — a world of thought. And that becomes our dwelling place. It is a world characterized by the inability ever to stop thinking. The mental noise is a continuous stream. Psychologists have found that 95 percent or more of it is totally repetitive. Perhaps 10 percent of those thought processes, at most, are actually needed to deal with life.
People’s sense of identity, of self, gets bound up with their mental concepts and mental images of “I” and “me.” This conceptual sense of self is also often threatened by other people, so it is always very uneasy and defensive and constantly needs to replenish and enhance itself. There is always the need for more of “me” to add to who I am. I need to add relationship; I need to add knowledge; I need to add material possessions; I need to add status. If people’s opinions of me are good, if they think highly of me, then I will have status in society, and that can become the basis of my identity. If they think badly of me, if I have no status, that, too, can serve as the basis for my identity — an identity that says, “I haven’t made it. I’m not good enough,” and is characterized by a continuous feeling of insufficiency, lack, fear. Either way, the story of “me” is not complete.
A further characteristic of this fictional self is that it cannot sustain itself in the prolonged absence of conflict or strife. It needs other people and situations with which it can be in opposition, because to be in opposition to something strengthens our sense of self. This need for enemies is part of the insanity of normal human consciousness, which has afflicted us for many thousands of years. . . . And the madness of the world is not just out there. The root of the madness lies in every person’s mind. Of course, it takes on more extreme forms in certain people and less extreme forms in others. An extreme manifestation of insanity is the terrorist who kills thousands of people, including himself. . . . It is possible because the terrorist has conceptualized a large group of people — the other religion, the other tribe, the other nation — as the enemy. And once he has made labels and judgments, he no longer sees them as human beings.
So you’ve killed them before you have killed them.
Yes, that’s right. But, before one condemns the terrorists, one needs to see that terrorism is only a more extreme manifestation of the same dysfunction that exists in everyone.
There is a summer camp near where I live in Maine called Seeds of Peace, founded by John Wallach. It brings together Israeli and Palestinian teenagers to live, eat, and play sports: to discover that the “enemy” has a human face.
Yes, and gradually, the mental construct loses its density, and they see some of the reality shine through — it is amazing. But it is important to realize we are all trapped in mental constructs, and so we separate ourselves from reality; the whole world loses its aliveness — or, rather, we lose our ability to sense that aliveness, the sacredness of nature. When we approach nature through the conceptualizing mind, we see a forest as a commodity, a concept. We no longer see it for what it truly is, but for what we want to use it as. It is reduced. This is how it becomes possible for humans to destroy the planet without realizing what they are doing.
You speak of a shift that is taking place.
I see a shift in consciousness happening for the first time in more than just a few individuals here and there. It is a shift that ancient teachers such as the Buddha and Jesus pointed to — a possibility of living in a different state of consciousness.
If you look at all the ancient teachings — Hinduism, Buddhism, the teachings of Jesus — you’ll see they have two things in common. . . . First, they all saw that there was something not right with the human condition, though they expressed this in different terms. Buddha said the human condition is one of suffering; Jesus said the human condition is one of sin; Hinduism said the human condition is one of illusion. And second, they all realized that there is a way beyond that, and that way is the spiritual path that these original teachings show.
Those ancient teachings pointed the way, but not many people got the message. As a whole, mankind was not ready for it. But it could somehow sense that there was truth in those teachings, so they were not forgotten. Then the human mind, with its tendency to conceptualize, obscured the original truth of these teachings and built on top of them superstructures of religious beliefs, which became part of people’s identities: total delusion.
And we are born into this conditioning?
Yes, that is the collective conditioning of the human mind. But to see the conditioning in oneself is to begin to get free of it. . . . Then you wonder: what part of you sees this? That seeing part is not another thought, but it is aware of thought, and also of the emotions that accompany thought. So there comes the ability to observe the workings of the mind and the emotions that go with them. And that is a new level of consciousness arising, a new level of awareness: to see one’s conditioning and observe it in action.
Why is this new state of consciousness arising now?
I’d say the change is happening now — or, at least, a real possibility of change is arising — because it has to happen now. There’s an urgency that wasn’t there before, because the survival of humanity wasn’t threatened. There was human madness, but not so much that humanity could destroy itself. Now the madness has been magnified, amplified by technology and science, to the point where humanity can destroy itself.
The stakes have been raised.
Yes, and something is arising, because there is a great intelligence at work that goes far beyond the human mind. It is the vast intelligence found in every organ of the body, in the DNA of every cell. It is the intelligence that runs and coordinates all the functions of the human body . . . and that created the galaxies and the world of nature. And that is what is arising now.
How does it arise in us?
It arises at first as the ability to watch the workings of one’s mind. Then comes the choice not to identify with those mental structures.
It seems easier to be in the state that you describe when I am in nature.
Occasionally even people who are immersed in mental noise have moments in nature when the noise subsides, and suddenly they are alert and present. Then they get to watch and see and sense the aliveness all around them: the sacredness, the beauty, the harmony that holds everything together. It is wonderful to walk in nature with a mind that has become quiet — or, rather, with no-mind, but simply in a state of alert presence. Nature can be a great help there.
And if nature isn’t available?
You can watch a plant, a flower, a cloud, a sky. Even the sound of water dripping. Anything.
What about when we need to use conceptual thought, for example, when planning for the future?
Then mental concepts are fine. You can use them. It is not a problem at all, because you are no longer striving for completion of your self through adding “more.” Once the compulsion not to live in the Now goes away, you realize that there is nothing wrong with acquiring more knowledge, having more experiences, or learning new skills, all of which require time. Even acquiring some material things — though no longer compulsively, only certain things that you would like to have or that you need — is all right when it is free of self-seeking.
What does one need to do to become free?
The good news is that you don’t need another thousand years to become free. All you need is to become present to this moment; to open yourself up to the fullness that already is, now. . . .
The word attention is very helpful. The state of not being identified with thought is one of heightened alertness. Jesus tells several parables about waiting for someone to arrive: When you don’t know when that person is going to arrive, you are alert, awake. It’s like listening to catch the faintest noise. Attention is also the essence of Zen, a state of alertness in which there is no tension. It is a relaxed alertness, as if you were listening, though there is nothing to listen to. In this state, thought actually subsides; it stops.
Some people have attained this state of heightened awareness in dangerous situations, where they can’t afford the luxury of thinking, because thought would be too slow. . . . Great artists create from there; great scientists, too. Scientists, of course, use their mind in their work, but the great scientists have all said that their best insights came at a time of mental stillness: They had been doing a lot of thinking and couldn’t arrive at a solution, and then the mind stopped, and out of that stillness, out of that aware presence, came the answer. Great athletes also enter that state. They are not thinking about what they’re doing; the mind has nothing to do with it. Right action happens spontaneously, and they are totally alert.
The ancient teachings point out that it is possible to live that way, such that your whole life is a statement of that state of consciousness; the madness doesn’t reassert itself the moment you stop your artistic or athletic activity.
Isn’t the mind involved in creation?
Creativity doesn’t come from the human mind. The human mind may give it form, but the deep inspiration for it — the essence of it — always comes out of that state of alert presence: not the mind, not thought. Subsequently perhaps, thought comes in, more so in certain activities: writing, for example. But even the writer listens and waits for it to come.
The shift will occur when humans begin to habitually live in that state of consciousness. If this happens, mankind will survive. If it doesn’t happen, it’s unlikely that mankind will make it. So let’s see what happens. But a very important factor in whether or not mankind will make it is you — the individual.
Steve Donoso is a freelance human being living in Rockport, Maine (firstname.lastname@example.org). This interview is adapted from a longer version that first appeared in The Sun (July 2002). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (12 issues) from Box 469061, Escondido, CA 92046; www.thesunmagazine.org