These days we’re blessed with many new voices speaking the dharma in fresh and revitalizing ways. Buddhism and other perennial philosophies such as Taoism and Advaita Vedanta are flowering in the West. Each expression offers yet another vehicle (more or less loaded with the latest accessories) for connecting with timeless wisdom. As the Zen master Dogen aptly put it, “The place is here; the way leads everywhere.”
One new voice of the way is Eckhart Tolle, who was born in Germany and spent the first thirteen years of his life there. After graduating from the University of London, he became a research scholar and supervisor at Cambridge University. At the age of twenty-nine, a spontaneous spiritual transformation radically changed the course of his life. The next few years were devoted to understanding and living more fully with the shift he had experienced.
Eckhart Tolle is now a wisdom teacher living in Canada. His best-selling book, The Power of Now, presents teachings in a simplified language offering a few easily accessible practices. He describes our fundamental conflicts as deriving from compulsively living in time; we create distress out of memory and anticipation—a classic dharma insight. “Living in time creates an endless preoccupation with past and future and an unwillingness to honor and acknowledge the present moment and allow it to be. This compulsion arises because the past gives you an identity and the future hold the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.” Tolle suggests that instead we live directly in the now (or recognize that this is already happening regardless of what we think), thereby disidentifying from our time-created identities.
In our interview, Eckhart Tolle strongly emphasized “presence”—the bare sense of being, of simple awareness—as the essential teaching. The stillness and peaceful presence is what one feels in his company.—Dan Clurman
Eckhart Tolle: You don’t have prepared questions. That’s very good. [Laughter]
Dan Clurman: Being aware that silence says it all, to begin speaking does feel somewhat silly. On the other hand, sometimes words carry the perfume of the silence, or point back to the silence. In reading your book and listening to you speak, it seems that what you are saying points back to stillness—and that is how you live your life.
ET: Yes. I’m aware that a sense of stillness comes through in the book. Somehow, there’s a certain power that goes beyond the words, and that’s the place where art originates. A work of art comes out of a state of deep stillness. Somehow, and nobody knows how, the essence of the unmanifested, of the stillness, flows into the work.
DC: The work becomes a carrier of the stillness. A person can also become a work of art, in that sense.
ET: When someone becomes transparent, then something shines through that person that has nothing to do with the person or any of his or her personal history. What is required is becoming so transparent that the self or ego dissolves.
DC: From what you say in your book, this dissolution occurred spontaneously for you, at a time when you were deeply depressed.
ET: It happened when the pain became truly unbearable. Usually, even though the mind says, “I can’t stand it anymore,” you can still stand it. You have not yet reached the point where the little egoic me is dissolved. But when the pain that the little me creates for itself becomes intense enough, the ego will self-destruct. It has a self-destruct mechanism built in, fortunately, so eventually every ego dies.
DC: Sometimes not until actual physical death.
ET: Yes, unfortunately. Collective egos function in the same way. When the ego dominates in organizations, even spiritual organizations, there is usually a big drama or upheaval of some kind, and self-destruction begins.
DC: So over time the little me sows the seeds of its own destruction.
ET: That’s right. And after this self-destruction is when the real spiritual teaching comes. It’s beyond words. Words are just a little signpost that say, “I don’t need suffering anymore, and I don’t need time.” With that realization comes the end of all spiritual seeking, when it’s truly realized that you don’t need suffering and you don’t need time. The two go together, but it often takes time to realize that you don’t need time anymore. [Laughter] That’s the paradox, and spiritual truth can often only be captured through some kind of paradox.
DC: How does a spiritual teaching work toward the dissolution of the ego?
ET: Well, first there are the signposts—the words—that point you in the right direction. But the main teaching is that of presence itself, which is very hard to talk about. You come into the field of presence, which has no past to it, no future, no time. That field of presence is the teaching and the true teacher. It dissolves time in you; it dissolves the conditioning of the mind, which is also time; and it dissolves the conditioned entity, the me, which is also time. It also dissolves the suffering that has accumulated, including what I call the “pain body”—the accumulated suffering from the past. All of that, in the presence of presence, begins to dissolve, and that’s the true teaching.
That’s why presence is so beautiful and why people want to be close to a teacher. It’s not the form of the teacher; the attraction is to be in the presence of presence. It’s a very powerful thing to sit with someone who looks like somebody but is not somebody. When there’s somebody there who is transparent enough so that the stillness comes through unhindered, there’s a reciprocal movement in you because the presence of stillness suddenly recognizes itself. There’s an almost magnetic pull of being. It gets pulled out of you, forward, and it meets all of the other being’s being. Words are not really necessary for that to happen. They can be floating on the surface. Being recognizes itself. People come together, being in response to being. That’s the beauty of it.
DC: It seems that there are tastes of this presence all along the way. And each taste informs . . .
ET: These tastes are glimpses of stillness and the power that is in the stillness. It doesn’t matter how long the glimpse may last. It’s not measured in time, and it’s not even a memorable experience, as such. In a way, one could almost say that a glimpse of stillness is the absence of any experience, since stillness itself can’t really be called an experience. And it is not memorable; the mind doesn’t know what to do with it. At best, the mind might remember something peripheral about that moment when the stillness came. It might remember: “I was climbing a mountain and suddenly, when I got to the top, there was an incredible sense of peace all around and within.” The mind had stopped at that moment. In the physical exertion and the overwhelming beauty, there was a momentary cessation of thinking. I know some people who often have glimpses of stillness, but then noise obscures it again. Usually, the noise is the little me, a mental image. The thinking mind can be so noisy that it cannot relate to stillness. It doesn’t even recognize it and certainly can’t remember it.
DC: You mean that the ego wants to get back to its problems: “Let me remember what my problems are so I can have a sense of reality again.”
ET: Peace can be threatening because peace is the absence of problems and conflict. There is something, perhaps in the personal you, that does not want freedom or peace, or the absence of problems. There’s something that wants the opposite.
I was walking along the shore this morning, and the ocean seemed completely still. Yet huge waves were coming in out of the stillness, breaking like thunder. This thunder is like the thunder of stillness. The waves are like waves of bliss, of unconditioned consciousness. It is vast. The waves break, then stillness again. Then another wave comes, very silently. These waves come from within now in many humans. It sometimes seems as if it’s happening to the whole world, to everybody. Occasionally, though, when I switch on the TV, I realize, “Oh, no, it’s not happening to everybody.” [Laughter] Compared to the waves, this mental noise is like trying to drown out the sound of the ocean with musical instruments.
DC: How do you think about practices that “cultivate” presence?
ET: Well, at a certain stage practice may be helpful, but I don’t teach practices. The power of presence doesn’t really need it. Presence is teaching, stillness is teaching, so it would be unnecessary to have a practice. Of course, there may be certain people who haven’t yet had an opening to presence and are not drawn to it; so for them practice may initially be helpful—until it becomes a hindrance. Every practice at some point will become a hindrance. No practice can ever take you there, to freedom, to liberation. That’s important to realize. Every practice will have to be relinquished at some point; it’s a question of knowing when that point has been reached. Some people get attached to their practice. They get good at it, but even becoming a good meditator can be a hindrance.
DC: How so?
ET: In a very subtle way, ego comes in. I sometimes see it when I look at meditators who have a lot of strong “doing” going on. It might be the sense “I’m going to get there” or “I’m there already, because I’m the best meditator.” The ego is just waiting to identify with anything. Whether it’s your misery or being a great meditator, it seeks some identification.
Teaching a practice can also be a hindrance if it becomes one’s identity. To be a spiritual teacher is a temporary function. I’m a spiritual teacher when somebody comes to me and some teaching happens, but the moment they leave I’m no longer a spiritual teacher. If I carry the identity of spiritual teacher, it will cause suffering.
Another hindrance of practice is that it usually has steps, which require time to go through or time to become good at. Because it takes time, a practice can’t really take you there. Only when time is removed—either it collapses or is removed through the power of a teaching—do you realize that you are already “there.”
DC: What about Buddhist meditation practices?
ET: There are some Buddhist practices that are very simple, such as Zen, where you’re just sitting and watching. It’s perhaps no practice, and that’s the best kind. Sometimes people ask me about vipassana, saying, “Oh, when you talk about feeling the inner body, that reminds me of vipassana.” Of course, it is the same principle—that is, inhabiting the body. So vipassana is fine until it becomes a technique that has many stages and that takes time to develop. That can be okay for people for a while, but then you have to leave the technique behind. If anybody reading this interview feels a reaction at this moment, that might be a sign that there’s an ego identification with their practice, and it’s time to let go. [Laughter]
DC: I have often heard the comment that people can wake up without a practice, but then they go back to sleep. The conclusion is that the practice is necessary to stay awake.
ET: A practice can be helpful, but didn’t the Buddha compare it to a raft, suggesting it be abandoned when you reach the other shore?
DC: Could it be that there are different degrees of awakening? It sounds as though in your case the sense of me just didn’t come back strongly after awakening occurred. You’ve mentioned that at times you still feel the sense of me arise like a little tug on your sleeve, but then it dissolves back into presence, or now. That doesn’t seem to be the case for many people. Perhaps they get a big glimpse and it’s very clear there’s no one there, but then the little me reclaims that glimpse as its territory and says, “I woke up.”
ET: It does seem that in my case the sense of me dissolved almost completely. Remnants of the little me remain, and the tiniest remnant is enough for it to grow into a fully blown little me again. It’s a bit like the film Terminator 2, in which the robot is made of liquid metal. [Laughter] When it’s destroyed, even if there’s only a drop of liquid metal left, that drop immediately forms into a full robot again. When I saw that in the film, I said, “Oh, there’s the ego.”
Eventually, the little me has to go completely, but that dissolution depends on the degree of surrender that happens. Total surrender will completely annihilate the ego. A little surrender means only a little bit of ego becomes less dense. That can happen in a relatively meaningless situation, like at a traffic light, in accepting that moment instead of fighting it. At that moment there might be a diminishment of the solidity of ego. The softening of the ego won’t last, but it’s there. There can be many little moments like that, and gradually the ego loses its heaviness and density. Then, perhaps, something happens to finally annihilate the ego, dissolve the ego. Well, annihilate sounds as if it were an enemy. Maybe it’s better to say dissolve or transmute.
For example, an Indian man I know was staying at a hotel while traveling. After showering, when he got back to his room, all his belongings were gone: money, passport, backpack. He told me that that was his moment of liberation. It may appear to be a relatively minor thing—losing his money and passport—yet perhaps he had already come in contact with spiritual teaching, so there was a readiness in him. If the only teacher you have is your suffering, you will need a substantial dose of it for the ego to dissolve. But if the power of spiritual teaching is already at work, then a minor event can dissolve the ego. This is why a spiritual teaching is such wonderful grace and compassion.
DC: Even after the dissolution occurs, though, there is still this human form and life happening all around. How does the shift happen while one is still in this human incarnation?
ET: It’s a strange paradox that the human form is still here, and that something beyond form is also present. While every form contains the limitless, every form also has its limitations. When you look at a liberated being, you see the formless, but you also see the limitations that are part of every form. Sometimes, when people discover that their spiritual teacher has limitations, they say, “Oh, he can’t be a real teacher.” But you can’t seek perfection in the form of the teacher.
DC: Did you experience any physical transformation as part of your awakening?
ET: Yes. There is a release. My body feels completely at ease. My body suffered greatly during my years of suffering, and some of that suffering is lodged in the bone structures. That may not change, but it’s not alive as suffering anymore. Only the footsteps of suffering remain.
Meanwhile, there does seem to be a greater sensitivity and aliveness in my body—the cells are alive—and a certain lightness. Once, before I understood what had happened to me, I was sitting in a state of bliss and listening to somebody’s drama. Suddenly, she stopped talking and said, “Oh, you’re doing healing.” I could feel that my whole body was in a state of bliss, and she had felt something. In her frame of reference it was called healing, and because I didn’t understand much
at that point, for a while I actually thought I was a healer. So for a couple of years people called me a healer. [Laughter] People started coming to me and saying, “Oh, can you remove that pain?” or “I want to get rid of this physical problem.” I thought, “That’s not right. They only want me to remove some pain.” I soon stopped using that word, healer. Healing still happens, physical healing can happen as a by-product of waking up, but it’s never an end in itself.
DC: Most people define happiness as depending on certain external circumstances or conditions. How do you understand happiness?
ET: Actually, the test is whether the state you call happiness changes or not when circumstances change. True happiness is not related to external conditions but comes from the unconditioned.
The ego’s form of happiness can’t exist without unhappiness. The ego will be happy when something good happens but unhappy when it ends. The whole movement of happiness, unhappiness, happiness, unhappiness, could be called unhappiness. You’re suffering because your state of mind is in flux, moving back and forth. The ego’s happiness is really a form of suffering, because it cannot live without unhappiness.
Yesterday I saw a happy wedding couple taking photos outside the church, and I remembered a wedding I went to years ago where everybody was happy. A friend married a girl who was beautiful and wealthy and intelligent. It was a very happy occasion. That was the wedding. Five years later he was sitting with me, his wife had just left him for another man, and he was close to suicide. It’s the same event.
DC: Do you have any suggestions for how to remember, how to stay awake to the now?
ET: A built-in reminder is the simple understanding that whenever any kind of unhappiness arises, you know you’ve lost the now. That’s a built-in little alarm clock. The moment you realize you’ve lost the now, come back to the now. Immediately the alertness is back. It’s always available. After a while, when you see that you’re identified with thinking, that you are basically asleep in the dreamland of thought, then step out of thought into now. Again, suddenly, you’re awake. Sense perceptions, simple beingness, presence, stillness: all here, now. After a while, presence becomes more self-sustaining because the qualitative difference is so vast between the state of presence and being identified with mental noise. As you become familiar with presence, you will “choose” presence more and more, rather than being identified with thought.
Actually, the ability to choose presence depends on the degree of presence that’s emerging in you. Ultimately, you are not choosing, there’s nobody there to choose. When you think you are choosing, presence is simply emerging in you at that moment. But if I say, “There’s nothing you can do,” that is not helpful. I say you can choose presence, but I know presence is really choosing you.
DC: The sense of presence becomes so satisfying in itself. Presence basks in the sense of presence, and, paradoxically, it looks like nothing is going on.
ET: Presence remains even amidst worldly activities. Stillness is there even when you’re doing something quickly, like rushing to answer the phone. Otherwise you would be condemned to moving in slow motion.
DC: Presence also has no form, yet there’s a recognition of presence amidst form. It’s easy to think that it’s a characteristic of some form, but there’s no location to presence at all.
ET: When there’s a teacher who embodies presence, then it seems to come for a while through that opening. The teacher is an opening to presence. But ultimately that’s just a temporary perception; presence has no physical place. Again, paradox comes back in. Presence seems to come from a physical place.
DC: Even looking at trees or plants, when there’s a sense of presence everything seems to radiate presence.
ET: That’s so. The whole world changes when there’s presence—sunlight everywhere—because you’re not separate from the world.
DC: It feels like such a gift to celebrate this presence together, a blessing.
ET: Questions have dissolved, haven’t they?