The renowned spiritual teacher on getting stuck in the future and saving the planet.
Photography by Kevin Steele
By: Karen Bouris
To the uninitiated, Eckhart Tolle might be mistaken for a nature photographer. His persona—a soft German-accented voice, a boyish visage, his love of vests—doesn’t exactly scream, “guru!” Yet Tolle is one of the world’s most popular spiritual teachers and a literary powerhouse whose best-selling books The Power of Now and A New Earth have influenced millions.
Born in Germany, educated at the universities of London and Cambridge, and now a resident of Vancouver, Canada, Tolle writes and lectures on the evolution of human consciousness. His work synthesizes many world views and spiritual teachings, including those of Buddhism, the New Testament, the Bhagavad Gita, and the German mystic Bo Yin Ra—all delivered with wry, gentle insights.
Tolle has embraced new technology to connect with others, airing videos and live feeds of his lectures and guided meditations on his web channel, Eckhart Tolle TV. In June, he plans to be in San Francisco, where he’ll record new material to share. S&H Editor-in-Chief Karen Bouris spoke with Tolle recently about how we can best deal with daily human challenges—both personal and collective—and transform them into opportunities.
Why are people so focused on this notion of enlightenment?
If people are focused on enlightenment—or whatever word they are using to describe self-realization or awakening—at least they’ve realized that the answer does not lie in external things. They have realized that the answer lies within rather than in obtaining more possessions, or achieving this or that, or changing the world out there. So it’s a good thing. It’s a transitional stage from the normal state of consciousness, where all the solutions and problems are seen as external, to realizing that whatever we experience as our external reality is a reflection of our inner state of consciousness.
It’s true that the people who are looking for enlightenment are a minority. In ordinary human existence, people want to find the ideal partner, acquire more things, gain power, or acquire a better body. And in ordinary consciousness, you look to those things for salvation, fulfillment, and happiness. As you’re beginning to awaken, you realize it’s not there. But even for those who are beginning to awaken, the old mind pattern—the deeply ingrained pattern that always looks to the future for fulfillment and salvation—still tends to operate.
So, even when we are “searching,” we are still looking toward the future?
Yes. This mind pattern assumes that the future is going to be more important than the present. It ignores the present moment, does not honor it, and does not give it its due. I have met people who have been spiritual seekers for 20 years, have read hundreds of books, attended workshops, gone to ashrams in India—and they are getting frustrated, asking, “When am I going to get it? When am I going to get enlightened?”
The actual experience of awakening can only be in the present moment. The future does not exist, because nobody has ever experienced it. You can only ever experience a present moment. The future is a mental projection that you are having in the present moment. I’m not talking about the practical aspects of the future, like booking a flight or planning what you want to do this year, but the psychological future. That’s where we can get trapped. If you are always focused on the future, you miss the reality of life, which is the present moment.
When people get very old, there isn’t much future left, so they tend to focus mainly on the past. But they are still not in the present moment. Life is now.
How do you catch yourself from drifting into the past or the future, maybe even avoiding the present moment?
Whenever you get drawn back into the mind and into the future, you’ll notice it because usually you don’t feel so good anymore. You become upset, discontented, irritated, depressed. It means you lost the present moment, you lost the vertical dimension, and you lost awareness of yourself as consciousness. [You’re back to being] a mind-created person with this limited personal history and a mind-created “little me,” the ego. It’s never satisfied for long.
You can only break through to a deeper level of one’s self in the vertical dimension of the present moment. That’s regardless of the circumstances of your life. So many people say, “Oh, if I had more free time, if I didn’t have to worry about my finances, or I didn’t have this or
that, I could dedicate all my life to spiritual awakening. Wouldn’t that be great?”
Yes, the idea of the monk sitting peacefully on the mountaintop.
It would not be great, because it’s through the very challenges of daily life that you become more motivated to awaken. You can actually use whatever the circumstances are, and instead of working against them, see if you can align yourself with the present moment internally.
When people talk of being present, though, there is this idea they’ll only encounter good, positive feelings. Can you talk about observing presence, as you call it, in the face of negative feelings or situations?
It’s important to bring awareness into whatever arises in the present moment. Negative feelings arise, and “negative” is not a moral judgment; it just means it doesn’t feel good.
The difference between being aware and being unaware of the negative feelings is that when there’s a lack of awareness, then you get completely taken over by those negative feelings. There’s no inner space anymore, and you think, say, and do things that are controlled by that negative energy inside you.
Often it happens that people get taken over by that temporarily, and then when they become a little bit more conscious again, they say, “Oh, how could I have done that?” or, “How could I have said that?”
So the difference is, when the same thing happens again and you become irritated, you become angry, whatever it is—reactive in some way—sad or depressed, there’s an awareness that this is happening to you. You have the observing presence in the background that’s more who you are rather than the emotion. You are still there as it happens.
Can you give an example of an observing presence?
Let’s say you’re in a long line at the supermarket or the airport. The line isn’t moving and you’re getting irritated and angry. If you’re present with it, you may realize it’s not the line that’s causing you to be angry. It’s your mind, whatever your mind is telling you. And the emotions are your body’s reactions to your thoughts about the situation. That’s a very important realization, because now an element of choice comes in. You see that it just makes your life unpleasant to be feeling those things—the irritation and anger serve no purpose. It doesn’t change the situation. And now you have the choice of letting go of those thoughts, to experiment to see what the situation is like when you don’t attach these thoughts to it. You’re in the same situation, totally free of negativity.
What about dealing with other people? Isn’t that harder?
You have a lot of power and freedom to become free internally from external conditions. That includes other people and whatever they do and how they behave. They no longer have the power to determine your inner state of consciousness.
If you meet a person who’s rude to you, for example, your thoughts automatically are, You shouldn’t behave like that! But of course, these thoughts conflict with reality, because the person is behaving like that. [When you are observing,] you’re able to let go of those thoughts. You’ve realized the fallacy of internally arguing with what is. And you can simply be with what is in any given situation.
How should we look at global challenges—things like climate change—from this place of awareness? Is it a response of my ego, for example, to think that I have a responsibility to help save the planet?
Personal challenges can sometimes be quite big, whether they’re challenges with health, finances, or relationships. Yet sometimes those personal ones are actually connected to the larger challenges in the collective.
We need to save the planet, of course. Yes, it’s true that we need to save the planet. But let’s not fall into the erroneous thinking that all the solutions are out there somewhere. Because most of the problems—violence, pollution, war, terrorism—all those things have their origin in human consciousness or unconsciousness. So your primary responsibility is not doing anything outside of you; your primary responsibility is your own state of consciousness. And once that is achieved, then whatever you do and whomever you come into contact with, and even many people you don’t come into direct contact with, get affected by your state
If you don’t take responsibility for your state of consciousness, and you believe all the solutions are out there, then you fall into errors like they did with communism, for example. The initial motivation for communism was actually idealistic; it was good. The proponents said, “There’s so much injustice in the world—there are people who are exploiting millions of others,” which was true. They wanted to create a society that was more just and fair and do away with personal property. It all sounded wonderful, but what they had neglected was there was no change in their state of consciousness. And once they got into power, they re-created the same evils. What they ended up with was as bad as, if not worse than, what they had fought against. So many revolutions have ended up like that. Initially people had good intentions, but good intentions are not enough if you bring your old state of consciousness to them.
So if you have awareness, then you can begin to engage in “awakened doing”?
Yes. Awakened doing is when you don’t create suffering anymore for others—or for yourself—by your own actions. It also implies that your primary intention, the focus of your attention, is on the “doing” in the present moment, rather than the result that you want to achieve through it. Joy flows into what you do, rather than stress. Stressful energy arises when you think some future moment is more important than the present moment, and the doing becomes only a means to an end. Many people look always to the end of the workday, or the end of the week, or the next vacation or a better job. Millions of people live in almost continual stress because they are not aligned with the present moment.
In some of your books, you mention the imbalance between the male and the female energy. Can you talk more about this?
Yes. Male energy doesn’t necessarily mean men, and female energy doesn’t necessarily mean confined to women. But male energy resonates more with doing, and the female energy resonates more with being. The world is out of balance because it is focused primarily on the doing, and there is a loss of the awareness of being. This is when stress and negativity arise: when people try to get things done and they no longer are centered within that aware space of being. You cannot feel your being anymore; you cannot feel the consciousness behind all the doing. So many women these days have internalized the imbalance and are also out of touch with being more focused on doing.
Both society as a whole and individual humans need to find some kind of inner balance between the ability to be still and the ability to do. Personally, I’m more in the feminine realm than in the male realm. I’m much more drawn to being than doing. Every human needs to look within to find some kind of balance. In the famous symbol of the yin and yang, the two sides are embracing each other. But in the middle of the white side there is a black spot, and in the middle of the black side there is a white spot. Even within the stillness, there needs to be the dynamic quality of doing so that you don’t go to sleep. And when you’re doing, there needs to be a stillness at the center. Otherwise you’ll lose yourself in the doing.
It’s sounds so simple, the idea of balancing presence and stillness. So why does it feel hard?
The difficulty is the shift from the old consciousness to the new, because the old consciousness still has a momentum behind it. When we step out of the old consciousness, yes, the transition may be difficult, but the more we embody and live through the new consciousness, life actually gets easier for us. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be any more challenges; the challenges will continue to come, but you’ll find you’re more capable of meeting the challenges when you aren’t creating the negativity around them.
One Perfect Sentence
“You may remember the book The Road Less Traveled. The first sentence of that book is ‘Life is difficult.’ I think it’s the best beginning of any book I’ve read,” says Tolle, referring to the 1978 classic by M. Scott Peck, a psychiatrist who blended theology and science in the study of human behavior. “He says once you accept the fact that life is difficult, it’s not really difficult anymore. It’s only when you think it shouldn’t be, that it makes it very hard. We’re here, we’re meant to be challenged by life, and that is part of the how consciousness evolves.”
Tolle asks us to imagine a world where we could all choose our own life circumstances. “Everyone would say, ‘I want love. I want to have absolute financial security. I would like to have perfect health. I would like to have a wonderful and happy relationship with no conflict, children who are no problem. A good job, a fulfilling job.’” But if you actually had that ideal life, he says, “it would not contribute to your awakening. It’s the very things that we don’t want that provide the motivation for becoming more conscious.”
Editor in Chief at Spirituality & Health; Exec Dir at Merwin Conservancy