Author of “Stillness Speaks”
By Josh Max
Eckhart Tolle was born in Germany, where he spent the first thirteen years of his life. After graduating from the University of London, he was a research scholar and supervisor at Cambridge University. When he was twenty-nine, a profound spiritual transformation virtually dissolved his old identity and radically changed the course of his life. The next few years were devoted to understanding, integrating and deepening that transformation and marked the beginning of an intense inward journey.
For the past 15 years, he has been a counselor and spiritual teacher doing workshops and lectures in Europe and North America, and is not aligned with any particular religion or spiritual tradition.
Eckhart Tolle hits a deep spiritual and psychological cord in his readers and those who attend his events. His message is simple: The egoic mind, busy and active with-in us, almost without ceasing, will do anything to avoid the present moment, when activity ceases and one has the potential to enter a “still-point” out of time.
That timelessness is now, the present instant, stillness, the thin gap between past and future. Central to his message is the realization that spiritual enlightenment is possible and achievable for everybody, right now, regardless of one’s life situation and spiritual practice.
I came to know Eckhart Tolle’s work in stages; first via the printed words of his best-selling “The Power Of Now,” and then through his new book “Stillness Speaks” on CD, and finally in person at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. Each encounter brought me closer to the man’s stillness and his wisdom, which I gauged by the stillness I felt within myself as I absorbed what he had to say.
JOSH: I’d like to talk about your transformation at age 29, where you say your personality was erased. Many people spend their lives trying to get something like that to happen, and it happened to you at a young age. Can you talk a little bit about that?
ECKHART: I was unhappy, depressed and anxious. I was not trying to become enlightened or anything like that. I was looking for some kind of answer to the dilemma of life, but I had been looking to the intellect for the answer; philosophy, religion and intellectual inspiration. The more I was looking on that level, the more unhappy I became. I reached a point where the phrase came into my head — and this is in the book “The Power Of Now” — “I can’t live with myself any longer.” That part of my self — that entity became so heavy and painful.
Suddenly I stepped back from myself, and it seemed to be two of me — The “I” and this “self” that I cannot live with. Am I one or am I two? And that triggered me like a koan. It happened to me spontaneously. I looked at that sentence — “I can’t live with myself.” I had no intellectual answer. Who am I? Who is this self that I cannot live with? The answer came on a deeper level. I realized who I was.
When I’m speaking about it now, it becomes intellectualized because I’m using words, but that realization was beyond words. What “I” as consciousness had identified with was a very heavy mental and emotional form consisting of thought and accompanied by an energy field. At that moment the identification with that mind structure was withdrawn. It collapsed, and what remained was a spacious, peaceful consciousness.
The identification was broken, and because of that, the mental/emotional structure — the psuedo self collapsed. My sense of identity broke down and was replaced by something that is very hard to put into words. Awareness. Consciousness. The words only came a few years later. I couldn’t even talk about it. I had been anxious and depressed for years and suddenly I was deeply at peace.
JOSH: Do you think your transformation had less to do with achieving peace than letting go of the anxiousness and the worry?
ECKHART: Yes. It wasn’t really the achievement of anything; it was the realization by letting go of the identification. Something suddenly was there that actually had always been there but had been obscured continuously by identification with the heavy mind structure. As I came to work with other people, I realized every human being already has that dimension. No matter how anxious, depressed, disturbed and fearful they may be. That dimension is already in there, in every human being.
And so I came to understand why some masters sometimes say, “You are already enlightened.” That dimension is already in there, it just needs to be discovered. Something needs to be let go of, something needs to be recognized.
JOSH: You know, when I walked in here, I had no idea who was going to be here. I’d read your books but had never seen you except in photographs. When you opened the door, it was like the sun was in this flat. I couldn’t help but forget any reservations or shyness I may have had, and I almost burst out laughing.
ECKHART: The reason for this is that in the act of meeting you, there were no thoughts about who you are or who I am. There was the openness of consciousness recognizing itself in another human being. And that is extremely joyful. And it’s also joyful for someone who experiences that with someone else, because they feel more themselves in that moment.
JOSH: It’s rare that you meet such a person. One thing that struck me while listening to your CD (“Stillness Speaks”) on the way to our interview is that you say people make themselves miserable and in turn make others miserable. It hadn’t occurred to me that a person who habitually finds problems and “disasterizes” things affects everyone, the same as your smile affects me.
ECKHART: Yes. It affects everybody else, it draws everybody else into their drama, and it’s meant to do that. That happens both on a personal level and you also see it in corporations and politics. I sometimes meet people who work for corporations and some of them have said it’s amazing that anything gets done at all, considering how much energy is uselessly burned up through inner conflict in the organization. And it makes everyone’s life miserable.
JOSH: Yes. I work for a lot of big media organizations, and I’m dumfounded at the wars I see when I walk into some of their offices. And these are people who are telling us what’s going on in the world! When you see it on that level, it’s easier to take the news a lot less seriously. It’s just one person’s point of view.
ECKHART: Yes — and sometimes you find the same even in religious organizations. Because religion in many cases is really ideology. I’m not condemning all religions because that would not be correct, but to a large extent people have not freed themselves from their identification with their conditioned thinking. I know that at the core of each religion there is the truth, heavily obscured in some cases, but it’s there. What happens when an organization arises is the amplification of the ego, the ego-ic mind structures.
JOSH: You say “all religions” — have you investigated religions? Judaism, Christianity, Islam?
ECKHART: Yes, some more than others. Buddhism, Christianity, and to some extent Hinduism. At the core, the truth will shine through. Sometimes we have to look very deeply, but it’s there.
JOSH: I was also struck by your interpretation of the cross as a symbol of “thy will be done”.
ECKHART: It’s a strange dualistic symbol. Basically, it’s a torture instrument. To me, Jesus stands for humanity. So this man is nailed to the torture instrument, totally helpless, in deep suffering. At that point comes total surrender to what is. “Not my will, but thy will be done.” At that point, the symbolic significance of the cross is changed from being a torture instrument to a symbol of the divine.
So what it points to is the very thing that seems to stand in the way of realizing who you are. The very suffering that comes with being here in this physical realm —because eventually some form of suffering comes to everybody —and can become an opening into that which we call the divine.
If you’re lucky, disaster comes before the physical form is lost and the psychological form dissolves. This sometimes happens through extreme suffering, when people lose everything, or they find out they don’t have much more time to live. So they are faced with extreme disaster which cannot be explained away.
Philosophies collapse in the face of extreme disaster. Before, they might have had philosophy or religious beliefs, but when quite a few people face death of a loved one or their child or spouse, suddenly they question their beliefs. “This wasn’t supposed to happen to me, I had a business arrangement with God. I wasn’t supposed to suffer.” The mind, the “me”, collapses. Explanations fade. So you’re faced with disaster you cannot explain that seems to deny the existence of something deeper. The cross seems to stand between you and the transcendental dimension to love. But, strangely, that very cross is the opening also.
Somebody once put it this way: “What stands in the way is the way.” And you realize that when you no longer internally resist the form that this moment takes. I call it the “is-ness” of this moment.
JOSH: Would that be disaster or the honk of a horn while I’m trying to work?
ECKHART: Yes. A little thing or a big thing, resistance is basically the same kind of mechanism. An internal “no” to what is. And since the now is all there ever is in your life, your entire life unfolds as the present moment. People don’t realize it, but all they ever have is “this”. This moment. Always.
It seems so strange to put it into words. Your life is always this moment. No more, no less. But just “this” is what most people are unconsciously trying to run away from. They are always in some future moment where things are hopefully better, or more fulfilling. Or mentally they project a future moment they see as fearful, that they have to tackle this possible thing that might go wrong in the future and they try to deal with now. Ignoring the aliveness that is actually there concealed in now.
It is a collective mental habit to run away, to deny and to resist the is-ness of this moment. Not to align with now. And everybody inherits that as a part of their collective mental conditioning. They’re taught to live like that from their parents, from their schools. They probably inherit even the very mind structures that create that kind of consciousness.
But there’s a shift happening in humanity, a shift in consciousness, happening now because it has to happen now. Because if it doesn’t happen now, mankind probably won’t survive. The dysfunction of the human mind and its condition is becoming more and more intolerable to the planet, and to humanity. People can’t live with themselves much longer. The planet cannot live with humans much longer! The dysfunction has become so magnified through technology.
Whereas before, a human could kill a few hundred with a sword — if he were a warrior — now, the same dysfunction is magnified. So we have the weaponry, destruction of the planet, pollution, destruction of forests, countless manifestations of humans using their intelligence in the service of the dysfunction, the madness. It’s a strange juxtaposition. Humans are intelligent, but if you look at history or even watch TV, they’re also incredibly stupid.
JOSH: Speaking of weapons of mass destruction; what do we do about that? What do we do about countries which wish our country great harm? What’s an alternative if the other side is bent on suicide, as the men of 9-11 were? If you have a vast Army at your disposal, what do you do?
ECKHART: I don’t know what I would do, because I can only know what is right in an actual situation which demands a response. It’s very hard when you look at hypotheticals. What we can do is look at the dysfunction in its collective aspects that we’re witnessing now. We can see, for example, what’s happening in the Middle East with the eternal insane conflict between Israel and Palestine.
We can see how each faction is totally convinced that their mental position is the correct one. Each faction sees itself as the victim of the other. There was a writer I read last year who said each side cannot recognize any narrative other than their own; that’s also true. Narrative means the story through which you interpret reality.
People have collective stories which are mental perspectives and mental positions. Of course, when they explain it to you, it sounds absolutely right. Then you go to the other story, and they explain it to you, and that sounds absolutely right. Both are so entrenched in their narrative, their mental positions and their identifications with mental positions, they cannot see anything else. That really symbolizes the very thing that lies at the core of human dysfunction.
There you see it expressed collectively. An inability to hold truth in your consciousness. To rise above polarities, and say, here’s this perspective which is ours, and I can also see the other perspective which is yours. If both could do that — even if one party could do that — there would be an end to the madness. It only gets perpetuated by two. You can see the same in personal relationships, you can see the same in marriages that exist in a state of warfare. Both are entrenched. There is this ongoing need to be right. What that ultimately means is they are identified with the thinking. They have not stepped out of the structure of thought — their mental position, their thought position.
The way out of the madness is to recognize thought as just thought. To see your own stream of thinking, to see that no thought can encapsulate the entire truth in any situation. You have to step out of thought to see that. To become the awareness outside of thought. Some people are driven out of thought, out of suffering, others can step out of thought because they see that thought is dysfunctional. So we see then that a terrorist who inflicts suffering on innocent people, kills thousands, blows himself up — how is it that he cannot see what he is doing?
He cannot see because he has reduced other human beings around him to a mental concept. He puts a mental label on other human beings, or groups of humans, or whatever he calls them — infidels, evil. Once you have conceptualized another human being, covering up their essential aliveness, you also do it to yourself. You become identified with your own self concepts of who you are, because you are right, you are the believer, you are in possession of the truth.
You can then inflict acts of violence on other humans without feeling anymore because you’ve already desensitized yourself, you’ve deadened their aliveness. So violence becomes very easy when you only operate from the level of thought. Thought plus very destructive emotion that accompanies those destructive thought patterns. That’s what drives the terrorist. He truly, as Jesus puts it on the cross, “They know not what they do.”
In spiritual terms, they are completely unconscious. Unconscious means identified totally with thought. You reduce reality to a conceptual reality. A lot of violence arises in that way. Terrorists are not the only ones who are unconscious. The United States manufactures an enormous amount of totally senseless weaponry. Biological, chemical. They manufacture the most fiendish weapons — if they ever used them, it would be hell on earth. Why are they working on this? They are intelligent scientists, thousands of them, the Government sponsors it.
What is the purpose in creating such weapons if the use of these weapons would create hell on earth? Don’t they got enough weapons already? So it applies; “they know not what they do.” You can see human unconsciousness in so many forms. You can see it very clearly in the terrorists. Sometimes it’s easier to see the madness in others — but we also have to see it in ourselves.
JOSH: How does one do that? How do you do it?
ECKHART: Well, primarily it needs to be done on a personal level. For example, for me, to see how identified I am with my own mental position when I’m talking to someone, when I’m putting forth an idea or opinion, and that opinion is questioned by the other person. They might say, “No, you’re wrong — that’s not how it is.” If I can then observe the violence with which I defend my position, I’m actually becoming more conscious because by observing it, something else is arising that is not conditioned thinking, but awareness.
JOSH: As opposed to saying, “No, you’re wrong.”
ECKHART: Yes, because when people are engaged in being right, defending their mental position, an enormous amount of defensiveness and violence comes already. Why do two people become so agitated, in some cases even violent, when they’re defending a mental position? Because that’s what they derive their sense of self from. Thought has become invested self. That’s the very essence of dysfunction — that humans derive their sense of self through thought. This is a delusion, because who they are is so much deeper than thought. They can only realize that when they detach from their thinking and observe their thinking.
Who or what is it that is able to observe you are identified with a mental position? Who or what is it in you that is able to notice the emotional violence that comes as you start to defend your own position? You can then ask, “Wow, what’s going on? What am I defending?” You are defending an illusory sense of self — your sense of self and your mind structure.
That very dysfunction, which looks relatively harmless on a small scale, is the very same dysfunction that drives the terrorist. So it’s only in yourself that you can detect it. And if you see it, you see the root of human dysfunction and madness; identification with thinking. But the moment you see it, you are already one foot out of it. The seeing of it is not part of the dysfunction. So in other words, when you see that you are mad, you are no longer mad.
That’s the arising of something new in humanity. I sometimes call it the unconditioned consciousness. But it is also a field of stillness, where you see the torn roots of the human mind. Once it emerges, it’s a process that cannot be reversed. It emerges more and more fully, and you become less and less identified with the structure of thought. Then thought is no longer dysfunctional. It is actually beautiful. It can be used for helpful purposes. It’s wonderful — you are no longer looking for an identity in the structure of thought because now you know that who you are is deeper.
You are the very awareness prior to thought. You are the stillness that is deeper than thought, much vaster than thought. We call it “stillness” but it’s just a word. We’ve reduced it to something. It’s more than that. It’s consciousness itself, unconditioned. Which is the essence of each human being. It’s when you meet anybody in a state of open, aware attention, without labeling them mentally or judging them, that you are already operating as a current or conscious awareness between human beings.
That would change human relationships dramatically. When aware presence operates between human beings, they are no longer dominated by mind structures. On a deepest level, that is also love. That is the only dimension from where love can come into this world.
Eckhart Tolle’s newest book “Stillness Speaks,” published by New World Library, is available at your local bookstore.
Josh Max is a journalist whose articles about cars, motorcycles, travel and first-person adventures have appeared frequently in the New York Times, Newsweek, The NY Daily News and other publications. He is a performing musician, singer and songwriter. See www.JoshMaxsOutfit.com
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