Eckhart Tolle The Power of Now | The On Being Project

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October 8, 2009

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I'm Krista Tippett. Today, "The Power of Eckhart Tolle's Now."

Millions of people of every age and walk of life are being affected by his teachings and philosophy. We'll probe the core ideas that have generated so much excitement and get a close-up sense of the man behind the books. His philosophy fundamentally challenges the notion that Descartes captured in a sentence: "I think, therefore I am."

ECKHART TOLLE: What we are talking about here is a state of alert attention to what is where compulsive thinking no longer operates. This means you rise above thinking to a large extent in your life. Where you can face life without the interference of the mind, still being able to use the mind when it's needed but not being used by it.

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. Stay with us.


MS. TIPPETT: I'm Krista Tippett. This hour, my 2008 interview with Eckhart Tolle, one of the most influential spiritual teachers in the world today. Long a reclusive figure with a quietly expanding following, Tolle has recently become a household name and a global best-selling author. He believes that a planetary shift in consciousness is underway. And his vision fundamentally challenges the notion that Descartes captured in a sentence: "I think, therefore I am."

From American Public Media, this is Speaking of Faith public radio's conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, "The Power of Eckhart Tolle's Now."

Eckhart Tolle began to gain attention as a spiritual teacher with his 1997 book, The Power of Now. Then in 2008, Oprah Winfrey chose his follow-up work, A New Earth, for her book club. She conducted a 10-week online seminar with Tolle that has been downloaded 27 million times. The philosophy that Eckhart Tolle brings to readers and live audiences draws on and synthesizes core teachings of many religious and spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Taoism, Hinduism, and especially Buddhism. Tolle echoes the Buddhist analysis of the mind as a primary source of human suffering. That is, the notion that we confuse reality with the racing thoughts in our heads, the stories we've internalized from our families and culture, and the emotions that animate us as a result. Becoming aware of this, Tolle says, is the only way we can truly ever direct our experience of the world and our presence within it. And he prescribes a direct route to this new way of being the shift in awareness to what he calls "the power of now." Tolle emphasizes that in our firsthand experience of life, now is all there ever is. Human beings have a tendency to obsess over the past and the future. But we only know the past through the lens of the present moment, and when the future is actually upon us, it will also be another now.

MR. TOLLE: When people value the next moment more than they value what is, they are dissatisfied with what is but they are hoping some other future moment is going to free them from this dissatisfaction. But the other moment never actually comes because when the so-called future comes, it appears again as the unsatisfying present. [Laugh] And so when you realize, OK, where is my life? Essentially, it's here and now, and it will never not be here and now. And suddenly you pay more attention to this.

MS. TIPPETT: Now in his 60s, Eckhart Tolle himself was a deeply private person for most of his life. He spent decades as a semi-nomadic teacher, leading something of a hermit's existence. Today he lives in Canada with Kim Eng, his partner in business and life for over a decade. I wanted to probe his ideas to understand the powerful reach he has acquired. I also wanted to understand how his own life gave rise to his insights and how they continue to develop through his experiences now. Eckhart Tolle was raised in a Catholic family in Germany and moved to Spain at the age of 13, to live with his father, after his parents separated. He dropped out of school and did not pursue a formal education again until he went to England to study at the universities of London and Cambridge. There, at the age of 29, Eckhart Tolle experienced a catharsis that led to the teachings for which he is now known.

MS. TIPPETT: You really you kind of schooled yourself, didn't you? And then you pursued your studies as an adult in graduate studies. It seems that your life was very cerebral. I mean, you were kind of an embodiment of this Western notion that "I think, therefore I am."

MR. TOLLE: Yes. I only read what I enjoyed reading, so it wasn't an academic kind of upbringing. And at that time, I was not particularly interested in intellectual things. That started in my early 20s, when after I had moved to England


MR. TOLLE: where I got a job. And then I became suddenly very interested in intellectual things. I also started to suffer from depression.


MR. TOLLE: And the intellectual quest was an attempt to find some kind of meaning also for my life because I believed that the meaning was to be found there somewhere through the intellect. And it took me quite a few years to realize it wasn't there. You couldn't find it that way. [Laugh]

MS. TIPPETT: You know, you told a story in A New Earth about an experience you had, which was actually a few years before you really had kind of a breakthrough and came out of that, where you experienced a woman talking to herself on the train, right? On the tube train.


MS. TIPPETT: Tell that story. Kind of caught in her thoughts, and then you came to understand that you had some of the same problems.

MR. TOLLE: Yes. So she would I would sometimes see her on the train. I call it the tube, the subway, in the morning. And she would continuously talk to herself or, rather, to an imaginary person in a very angry voice. Continuously complaining, "And then he did this to me. Then he said, and I said then how dare he tell me this," and I watched in amazement how can anybody be so insane and still apparently have a job? Because she would catch the subway every morning.

MS. TIPPETT: [Laugh] She was going somewhere, right?

MR. TOLLE: And one day I was sitting opposite her on the subway, and she got off at the same station that I needed to get off to go the university library. I followed her, and we got closer and closer and finally I realized, oh, my God, she's going to the university.


MR. TOLLE: Because at that time, I still thought the university was the great temple of knowledge, and all the answers the professors and so on, they had all the answers and I would eventually find them too. I was washing my hands in the bathroom and I thought, "My God. Her voice. She never stops talking." And I suddenly realized, well, I do that too, except that I don't do it out loud. And then I thought, "I hope I don't end up like her," and somebody next to me looked at me and I suddenly realized in shock that I had actually said these words aloud just like her. I said, "I hope I don't end up like her." [Laugh] So I realized my mind was as incessantly active as hers. Our only difference was that my thought was mostly based on feeling sorry for myself. It was kind of depressed kind of thinking. Her patterns were fueled by anger. But that was only a very brief


MR. TOLLE: flash of realization. But I always remember it because that was it took years before I finally was able to really step out of the stream of thinking and realize there is a place inside me that is far more powerful than the continuous mental noise with which for many, many years I had been completely identified, just like that woman.

MS. TIPPETT: So what happened to you when you were 29 to finally really jolt you out of that?

MR. TOLLE: Well, I was in the depth of depression, and I lived in anxiety about my life and my problems and my future. And one night I woke up in the middle of the night again feeling this sense of dread, and a phrase came into my head, which said, "I can't live with myself any longer. I can't live with myself any longer." And that phrase went around and around in my head a few times and suddenly, I was able to stand back and look at that phrase: "I can't live with myself any longer." And I thought, "Oh, that is strange. I cannot live with myself. Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with? Because there must be two of me here, if that phrase is correct."



MS. TIPPETT: Interesting.

MR. TOLLE: There are two of me.


MR. TOLLE: The "I" was there, and the "me" that I couldn't live with actually was the continuous mental noise, the stream of thinking that considered life and that considered myself as a problem.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. TOLLE: So that was the answer to that question, "Who am I and who is the self that I cannot live with?" The answer came experientially. Not that I stopped it through an act of will. It subsided by itself.

MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean when you say the answer came experientially? How? How did that unfold experientially?

MR. TOLLE: Well, after that night, I woke up in the morning and the first thing I noticed as I opened my eyes and listened that everything seemed much more alive than I was used to, that the room that I was in, the light coming through the window, objects on the table. And I looked. It was everything was precious and alive, almost as if I was looking at it and listening to it for the first time. So I was in a state of kind of amazement. "Wow, this is all very beautiful." And I picked up a pen, held it. Looked out of the window at the beautiful tree that had always been there but I'd never really seen it. Then I was in London at the time when I had to take a bus and go into town. And even there, sitting on top of the double-decker bus, everything seemed so peaceful, even the traffic. Later, I saw that phrase in the Bible somewhere, "The peace that passes all understanding."


MR. TOLLE: That's what happened because I didn't understand why I was at peace because externally nothing had changed. Internally, everything had changed.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, here's something that's striking to me about your story, because I think many people have had these breakthroughs. I mean, like the moment you described a few years earlier where you had this kind of cathartic experience and you saw something momentarily and you were momentarily changed. But you had this transformation. I mean, it sounds like, from the story you tell, you were never the same after that day. What was it that happened to you that was so complete?

MR. TOLLE: I don't have an answer to that. I know that for most people it does not happen in that way. For most people, it's a gradual process. Perhaps because the suffering was so dreadful, the psychological suffering, that it was a dark night of the soul, as I realized later, that many people before this shift in consciousness happens they go into the depths of depression or despair. And there is a permanent change that happens when you let it go that low.

MS. TIPPETT: That far. Mm-hmm.

MR. TOLLE: Yes. Most people don't actually have to go into the depths of despair. They have their ordinary daily suffering, and that's also enough to eventually bring about a transformation of consciousness.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. TOLLE: But I have no ultimate answer, really, why in my case it was a very dramatic permanent shift, and for most people it's a gradual transition. I realized that later.

MS. TIPPETT: Spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle.

[Sound bite of music]

MR. TOLLE: Historically, we're reaching a very critical point on this planet, and so many people are realizing that something fundamental needs to change. And the fundamental dimension is not outside; it's within each human being. And so if there is a great readiness now on the part of many, many people for this inner shift in consciousness, and that's why so many people read these books. I was amazed when The Power of Nowcame out 10 years ago

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. TOLLE: When I wrote the book I thought, "OK. This will appeal to a few people who have already gone deeply into meditation or whatever." That's what I thought. And then I thought I suddenly realized many people who have never read a spiritual book in their lives, they looked it and said, "I understand now. I understand the structure of my unhappiness."


MR. TOLLE: And I understand that it is not necessary. [Laugh]

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And you've now had what, 26 million people watch the 10-week


MS. TIPPETT: Webinar with Oprah Winfrey and millions of copies of A New Earth. And not just your book. I mean, there's an explosion.


MS. TIPPETT: And you speak about, and I think we can all see many, many indications of that, this spiritual energy. You know, and you are actually saying you are writing about a profound shift in planetary consciousness that is destined to take place in the human species. Now, I mean, I hear many people say these days, these last years, you know, something is changing. There's a shift in consciousness. We're understanding more. We're learning more. And yet I worry that this is a Western a luxurious phenomenon that's only available to those of us who don't have to think about survival. Because there are many places in the world right now, and this is also part of what's happening on our planet now, I mean, some of the basic elements of survival food are scarce. And


MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. So how do you think about that? That disjunction?

MR. TOLLE: Well, as long as survival occupies your mind then there's very little room for anything else and even for unhappiness. The strange thing is as long as you're struggling to survive, you don't even have the energy the mind doesn't have enough energy

MS. TIPPETT: To have what we call unhappiness.

MR. TOLLE: for an unhappy me.


MR. TOLLE: An unhappy self. You wouldn't even know what somebody's talking about when they talk about unhappiness because you're struggling to survive. But once there is sufficient, then a different thing comes in. The mind suddenly begins to work in a different way and becomes very problematic. So the fact that now there are still many humans who don't have enough food and so on.

MS. TIPPETT: And water. Yeah.

MR. TOLLE: There's a great im and water. There's a great imbalance on the planet, again, largely created by the greed of the human mind. So, yes, that is there, but the transformation of consciousness has to start somewhere on the planet. And then it will affect the rest of the planet. The collective and the individual are really very much the same.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. TOLLE: So it doesn't work if you say, OK, I need to have a good income and a really peaceful place where I can meditate every day, and then I can really tune in and be at peace and go very deep. It's not going to work.


MR. TOLLE: The spirituality has come into the so-called unsatisfying reality. It has to this is the moment to enter it, rather than waiting for your life to improve. It will never really improve unless the spiritual dimension comes in.

MS. TIPPETT: Let me ask you this. I think a criticism some people have, or a wariness, of what's been called New Age spirituality, and I actually think we're in a different era now even, that what might have been called New Age is evolving into something different.

MS. TIPPETT: Your work is sometimes associated with that sphere. And I think that there is a concern that, you know, it is engaged in a spiritual quest and yet it's very individualistic, that it is inward looking. And in that way would diverge from some of the impulses, you know, in the great traditions Christianity, Judaism this impulse that comes also from that consciousness or from faith to repair the world. You know, a kind of active compassion, the agape love of the New Testament.

MR. TOLLE: Yes. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: Is there a disconnect?

MR. TOLLE: No. I believe that really it's for every individual to realize within themselves that there is the old consciousness working in them, the structures of their own mind, and there is the possibility of stepping out of that. The shifting consciousness, it's for you to experience. You realize that in essence you are not whatever is in your mind but the awareness behind your mind. Then a much greater depth is suddenly active in you. And when you touch that, when you have access to that, when you are that, then the way in which you interact with other human beings and with the world at large changes. You become a force for good in this world. It's only there where really true compassion and true love, which ultimately is not what the ego thinks love is, which is "Don't you ever leave me. Don't you dare leave me. I need you," or whatever, some kind of it's not that, but true compassion, true love, and real the joy of being alive. They all arise on that level. And it's only then anybody who embodies this shift in consciousness and many people are going through it now on the planet not the majority yet, it's still a minority, but they are they cannot not have an influence on the world around them. They influence not by wanting to influence; it just happens. And then many people will be called upon to do things in this world, to be active. But it comes from a much more peaceful place within, not from an angry conflict-ridden state of consciousness. And very great power comes through you then. But the primary thing is not changing the outer world; the primary is going through the change within. And then you cannot not change the outer once that has happened.

MS. TIPPETT: Wasn't it Gandhi who said, "I can't change the world but I can change myself"?

MR. TOLLE: Yes. And ultimately, you see, that's where true change happens. So it sometimes looks from an external viewpoint as if you were preoccupied with yourself. But, no, the normal state of consciousness, you are continuously preoccupied with yourself. [Laugh]

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I mean, I think what you're saying also, and certainly those experiences could be confused. I mean, someone might imagine that they were very spiritual and yet still very preoccupied with themselves, right? I mean, I think what I hear you saying is that for you a sign and a symptom of a true shift in consciousness would be that one was having a good effect on, a different effect on the world around them.

MR. TOLLE: Yes. A very good yardstick or criterion is, for example, your relationship with other human beings. Do they become more peaceful? Do they become free of conflict? Are you still contributing to the conflict or does conflict dissolve in your presence?

MS. TIPPETT: Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: You have a really interesting analysis of, or just an observation about humility and real humility that can arise when people have a true passion for their calling. I mean, humility is one of these words really hard to talk about. It's hard to talk about in American culture. But to me it's very hopeful because you also name the fact that true humility is out there. And I think when you say that, we all know we've known people like that.

MR. TOLLE: Yes. And basically one could say true humility is no longer living through a concept, a mental concept, of who you are.

MS. TIPPETT: Just being that, right?

MR. TOLLE: Just being that.

MS. TIPPETT: Fully being that.

MR. TOLLE: Yes. Yes. And so it's not something one can actually cultivate because anything that you cultivate really is a mental concept.

MS. TIPPETT: And it's also not a sacrifice in that sense, right?


MS. TIPPETT: Because I think that in Western culture, humility is like debasing yourself.


MS. TIPPETT: And that's not what you're talking about. It's really about being fully alive.

MR. TOLLE: Being fully alive and fully engaging with life in the present moment, which is where life happens. Fully responding to the needs of this moment, not rejecting this moment, not arguing with this moment, but being open to it.

MS. TIPPETT: And I wonder if it's also some aspect of that is that when you are fully alive and fully present, even if in a very powerful way, right, I mean even if your presence is powerful, there's something about knowing your place in the scheme of things. I mean, being aware of how complex and large everything around you is.

MR. TOLLE: Yes. The vastness of it all and the compulsion to continuously interpret whatever you are experiencing at any given moment, that is no longer there. And there's great freedom in not compulsively interpreting other people, situations, and so on. Not imposing all these judgments. That's another word for it. Imposing thinking, thinking continuously on the world, which is so alive and so fresh and new at every moment. It's all when we impose the continuously compulsive thinking on it then we deaden it, and we become dead to the aliveness of the world. We become dead to the aliveness in others. And so we can no longer have empathy for others when we are behind a screen of conceptualization through which we judge others. And so, yes, the mind is beautiful. The ability to think is a great thing. And it does not mean that you fall below thinking when you are open to the present moment in the state of

MS. TIPPETT: Or that you turn your mind off, right? It doesn't

MR. TOLLE: Yes. It doesn't mean you become semiconscious or it doesn't mean it's a thing that happens to you when you have a few drinks.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

Eckhart Tolle The Power of Now | The On Being Project

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