On a recent visit to Unity Village, best-selling author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle opened up to talk about his life, his awakening and the teachings that are changing the world.
Unity Magazine: In The Power of Now, you describe having a dramatic personal awakening. What exactly do you think happened to you?
Tolle: For many years I had been deeply identified with thinking and the painful, heavy emotions that had accumulated inside. My thought activity was mostly negative, and my sense of identity was also mostly negative, although I tried hard to prove to myself and to the world that I was good enough by working very hard academically. But even after I had achieved academic success, I was happy for two weeks or three and then the depression and anxiety came back.
On that night there was a disidentification from this unpleasant dream of thinking and the painful emotions. The nightmare became unbearable and that triggered the separation of consciousness from its identification with form. I woke up and suddenly realized myself as the I Am and that was deeply peaceful.
Unity Magazine: You wrote that a crystallizing thought preceded it: “I can’t live with myself any longer.” Tell us about that.
Tolle: Yes. It’s interesting that stepping out of thought was actually triggered by a thought. At that moment, consciousness looked at the thought “I can’t live with myself,” and I realized there are two here—“I” and the “self I can’t live with.” And then there was another little thought: Who is this self that I can’t live with? But there was no answer; that was the last question. And then it didn’t matter. This peace had changed my perception of the world of form too, of the external world. When I woke up the next morning, everything was beautiful and intensively alive and peaceful.
Without perceiving things through the old filter of past conditioning and conceptualization, one can sense the universe is intensely alive. Even so-called inanimate objects – I often pick up little objects and just look at them and sense that they are alive. Physicists actually confirm that what we perceive as dead matter is not dead at all. Everything is an intensely alive energy field. That aliveness is only an aspect of the aliveness or life that I am.
Unity Magazine: Do you continue to live in the state of bliss and peace you experienced after that awakening?
Tolle: Yes, basically, the peace is continuously there. There is a variation of the intensity. At first it was an intense experience for a long period of time—weeks, months, years. It was a kind of bliss, but it was only bliss in contrast to what had been before. Now that kind of peace is normal. Once bliss becomes normal it’s no longer bliss, it’s just peace.
Unity Magazine: Your awakening was dramatic and permanent. Most of us are trying to get there one step at a time. We still have to catch ourselves being in judgment or operating from ego and remember to let that go. Do you ever have to remind yourself of such things, or do you consistently live in higher consciousness without having to course-correct?
Tolle: Well, for the transformation to be integrated fully into my life took quite a few years. At first, on the external level my life continued as if nothing much had happened, although there was one change. Things came into my life without any effort, sometimes on a very small scale, or on a larger scale. But I still continued with my old life, believing that the academic world was still my path. I got accepted for graduate work at Cambridge and, again, that came effortlessly, and for a while I enjoyed it. Then gradually I noticed a heaviness because everybody was in their minds and their egos. So, it took a few years before I readily realized, “This is not where I am meant to be.” I almost touched on unhappiness again at that point. I had to bring myself back to the present moment. It was like the mind tugging on my sleeve and saying, “Come this way towards unhappiness.” And I had to say, “No, I’m not going there.”
Unity Magazine: Does your spiritual practice involve prayer and meditation, or is it more a state of being?
Tolle: It is more a state of being. I don’t pray for anything, but I have used affirmations in the past a few times. They are really a bit more like realizations in that on some level they have already happened.
For instance, before I wrote The Power of Now, I had a vision that I had already written the book and that it was affecting the world. I had a sense there was already a book somehow in existence. I drew a circle on a piece of paper and it said “book.” Then I wrote something about the effect the book had on the world, how it influenced my life and other people’s lives, and how it came to be translated into many languages affecting hundreds of thousands of people. But I didn’t draw it because I wanted it to happen —it was more like I was writing down on this piece of paper what I felt was already a reality on some level.
This is what I think people would call true manifestation and visualization. It doesn’t really work powerfully if you think you need to bring something about or attract it to yourself. It works most powerfully when you realize that it is already a reality on the unseen level. It’s already there. And when you fully realize it’s already a reality, you feel the power of it. Then the feeling you have when you look at a treasure map or a vision board is no different from the feeling you have when it actually comes into manifestation.
Unity Magazine: Many people are searching for what you would call their “outer purpose” – what they are supposed to do with their lives. How does that relate to “inner purpose”?
Tolle: Even if you achieve your outer purpose, it will never satisfy you if you haven’t found your inner purpose, which is awakening, being present, being in alignment with life. True power comes out of the presence; it is the presence.
Some people are called upon to do great things externally in this world by creating some new structure that reflects their awakening consciousness. Other people, whom I call the frequency holders, are not called to go out into the world and create great big things externally. Their purpose is to let consciousness flow into whatever they do – to do everything in a sacred manner.
To do everything in a sacred manner means to do everything fully in the state of presence. Whatever you do, whatever you’re working with, whether it’s manual work or talking to people or buying or selling, every little thing encompasses the power and simplicity of presence. Those people, also, their state of consciousness spreads not only to everybody they come into contact with, but also on an unseen level it changes the collective consciousness.
Ultimately, every great endeavor consists of many little steps. You pick up the phone and you talk to somebody. There’s a voice on the other end and you say what you have to say. This is how I perceive my life. I don’t see myself as “Oh, I’m doing this great thing because I’m going to give this talk, now everybody’s going to be transformed.” If I had all these thoughts, I would live in stress because immediately the mind would say, “What if it’s not going to be inspiring and they are not transformed?” So the reality is there is only each present moment: You are called to give a talk. You get out of a building and into a car. You look out of the window. You arrive at the venue. You sit in the chair; you wait; you step out onto the stage. Every movement is simple. There is only that.
Unity Magazine: Many people say they are unhappy, yet they are unwilling to change. Why do people stay wedded to their misery?
Tolle: Because the unhappy self, or the unhappy me, has become part of their sense of self or identity. It continuously tells them who they are or how miserable they are. They don’t want to let go because there is a fear that they will lose their sense of self.
They need to be shown that their mind movements are not who they are. For some people, it’s the beginning of an awakening when they hear or read, “You have a voice in your head that never stops talking. Have you noticed that?” And suddenly they become aware that the thoughts go through their heads, whereas before they were so identified with them that they were those thoughts.
Unity Magazine: So one way to help ourselves and others is to note that these are just thoughts and to practice observing rather than attaching to them?
Tolle: Yes, anybody who is reading this and finding it meaningful, it means they have already awakened. Anybody who is reading this interview and it’s meaningless, it means the awakening hasn’t happened yet. To recognize the basic truths being expressed by these words, that little opening must be there already inside you because it’s only there that you can recognize it. Thought alone cannot recognize spiritual truths no matter how highly developed thought is. It’s impossible. This is why very often you find educated people in the media who look at spiritual books but they are so identified with their thought process, they don’t get it. They write reviews or articles and they miss the whole point. They can’t see the essence. It’s not their fault; it’s not them personally. It’s the human condition and its mind-identified state. And intelligence in itself doesn’t help. You can have two or three Ph.D.s; it doesn’t get you any closer to spiritual realization. In fact, you might be more distant.
One way of pointing to this realization is, when you think you have big problems, ask yourself, “What problem do I have at this moment?” Usually, you will find that you don’t have a problem at this moment because you’re sitting here and you’re breathing, you’re looking out the window, and it’s fine. There is enough air. You even had enough food today; and if you didn’t have enough food, even that wouldn’t be a problem, but maybe a challenge. So challenges exist, but problems are mind-made. Challenges are something that can only be tackled in the present moment and require action.
So if you have no money, you can apply your mind and say, “What action can I take?” And then become still. Don’t apply your mind without the stillness because, if you start applying your mind without the stillness, you might very soon lose yourself in the mind and that turns into worry. Worry means the mind is controlling you. Worry is always pointless. A solution never comes out of worry.
Unity Magazine: Although we tell ourselves that it does, that worrying is a productive thing to do.
Tolle: Yes, the mind will tell you that you need to think about this because otherwise it will all collapse. But the uncontrolled mind activity is actually what’s stopping you from finding your solution. It’s only when you step out of it and become still and realize that at this moment there isn’t actually a problem, that you find a solution. It might be that because you’ve visited the realm of stillness suddenly the realization of what it is you can do or have to do comes to you when you’re not looking for it.
Unity Magazine: Is that similar to when people say, “I get my best ideas in the shower”?
Tolle: Of course many people are in their thinking mind even in the shower, but some people are able to enjoy the shower and then have a moment of space and stillness so they get an idea there, an original thought. So you have to be able to step into the dimension of no thought for thought to become empowered and that means being fully present.
When you’re in touch with Presence, you feel at home wherever you are. And if you’re not in touch with that, no matter where you go, you always feel there’s something not quite right. Even so-called ideal situations have their limitations. You might say, “I want to be like Oprah.” Once you are like Oprah, you’ll find you can’t go out on your own anymore, or you can’t go shopping, or you can’t go for a walk in the street because you’d get mobbed. So there is a limitation suddenly in life, and the mind says, “Oh, I wish this hadn’t happened.”
Unity Magazine: What does a relationship look like between two awakened people?
Tolle: There is a lack of expectation that the other person should fulfill you or make you happy. Without that demand, there is an openness where you can simply enjoy the other and accept the limitations. Every human being in the human form has limitations. You can marry the Buddha, and after a few months you will find on the human form the Buddha, too, has his limitations. There may be things that the mind reacts to and irritates you about the Buddha. “Why is he sitting over there in meditation?”
Once you accept the limitations of the other, it’s a dance between two forms and a realization that the essence of relationship is the space in the relationship. So, the question that needs to be asked always is, “Is there space in this relationship?” Space really means the level of awareness or presence, not thinking. So, can you look at your partner and not think? Two conscious beings realize that the essence of the relationship is the space in it. Even when there is an egoic overlay, it is not too dense or heavy for you to sense the essence underneath it. You don’t need to react to the egoic overlay. When you don’t react to it you don’t strengthen it.
Unity Magazine: You often talk about the consciousness of animals in your writings. Do you consider animals to have a higher level of awareness than human beings?
Tolle: Not higher but, I sometimes say animals are closer to God than humans. They are closer to the source. The humans are more lost in the mind forms. Being is more obscured to the human because of the overlay of ego and mental formation.
I call animals “guardians of Being,” especially animals that live with humans. Because, for many humans, it’s through their contact with animals they get in touch with that level of being.
We are destined not to go back to the level of animals that we’ve come from but to return to being by going beyond thinking. The animals are at a level prior to thinking. They haven’t lost themselves in thought. We rise above thinking and then we meet them again, where we’re both in no-thought. There’s a deep connection.
The consciousness of the animal also begins to change when it interacts with a human who’s gone beyond thinking. It’s not only the animals assisting us; we are also assisting the animals. The animals certainly like to be close to humans, especially as humans go through the shift in consciousness.
Unity Magazine: How does being more conscious help us deal with tragic occurrences in people’s lives and in the world? Is there an element of faith that even from personal tragedy, some good will come?
Tolle: Yes, when forms begin to crumble – whether the physical form, some external form, your life situation, relationships, whatever – there is always an opportunity for great deepening. By deepening I mean the arising of who you are beyond form. Sometimes people need to experience great loss to really be driven deeper.
When great loss happens—deaths close to you or your own approaching death – this is an opportunity for stepping completely out of identification with form and realizing the essence of who you are, or that the essence of anyone who is suffering or dying is beyond death.
It doesn’t mean you’re not compassionate. Compassion has two aspects to it. When you see around you the human form suffering or dissolving, you have empathy on the human level. You share the suffering because it has to do with the fleetingness of form. But if that is the only level that operates in you, you haven’t gone beyond suffering.
But on the being level, you realize that who you are in essence is beyond form, and who this other person is, in essence, is beyond form. The realization is not an intellectual one; it’s a sensing or feeling. Then, you look upon the other human being and the suffering and you may cry, but underneath it there is a peace and a power.
That peace and power is also the aspect that sometimes brings healing. It may heal the form, or it may heal the other person in the sense of the other person getting in touch with their deeper level. That is the most important healing—realizing who you are. The healing on the outer level is fine, but it’s not the essence of healing.
Unity Magazine: What you’re saying is similar to how we pray in our Silent Unity prayer ministry. When people call, we remind them of the truth of who they really are. We point them back to that untouched essence of God consciousness within them.
You said during the Webcast with Oprah: “The world is not here to make you happy. It is here to make you conscious.” Is this misunderstanding the root of human misery?
Tolle: If people believe the world is here to satisfy them, whenever they begin to encounter their limitations, they become unhappy again. They don’t realize that the world—and by that I mean anything in the world of form, physical form, some mental forms, or emotional forms—cannot give you lasting fulfillment or satisfaction or tell you who you are. They don’t realize what they are looking for is on the formless level, and they’re seeking it on the level of form and that leads to the frustration of human existence.
So the important thing to realize is the world is not here to make me happy. When you don’t demand that the situation, or place, or person should make you happy, then actually the situation, place, or person is quite satisfying.
Unity Magazine: Your teachings are contributing to a global shift in consciousness. How do you perceive what is occurring?
Tolle: A huge number of people are going through the process of awakening, some in the early stages, some in later stages, and it’s wonderful to see. It takes a while before it filters through to the economic, political and social structures. The tendency is for people who run those structures to be still completely identified with the ego. So maybe it will take a while before it reaches the politicians, but you never know.
Unity Magazine: Does the fact that this awakening is occurring convey a sense of hope for the world?
Tolle: Yes. The question is, does the old consciousness need to carry on until it actually brings about its own downfall through chaos and collapse? Or is the new consciousness arising that can gradually replace the old consciousness without excessive destructiveness?
I don’t know the answer to that. We’ll have to wait and see. All we can do is take responsibility for our own lives.