I remember Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, before he became a spiritual superstar.
Before Oprah co-opted him.
Before most of his best-selling books.
Before the lecture tours, and before his online marketing machine.
Lately I’ve been wondering: How did he survive all that commotion? Twenty years after the The Power of Now appeared, what — if anything — does Tolle have to say?
As it turns out, there’s enough to still matter.
The perils of spiritual stardom
Tolle was a relatively new phenomenon when a client of mine recommended The Power of Now to me in 2000. I browsed through a copy of it at a bookstore and scratched my head.
The book was structured like a big FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) web page. It seemed haphazard to me. I put the book down and forgot about it.
But for Tolle everything exploded. The Power of Now sold like crazy and became impossible to ignore. Tolle entered the world of spiritual stardom — a career path that’s loaded with land mines.
For one thing, there are your followers. If they tell you over and over again that you’re enlightened or (God forbid) divine, you just might start to believe them.
Thankfully, Tolle has not suffered this fate. But he did descend into another occupational hazard — spiritual jargon.
People who are new to Tolle can struggle with terms that Tolle imbues with his own special meanings — Being, formless, Source, Unmanifested, and more.
The other potential frustration for Tolle’s followers is that he doesn’t teach spiritual practices. That is, he doesn’t really give you anything to do, like meditation instructions or yoga postures.
Perhaps truly enlightened beings rise above the need for practices. But the rest of us down here on the ground need some concrete suggestions.
An authentic awakening
Even so, I cannot dismiss Tolle. For one thing, I still resonate with the account of his awakening as described in The Power of Now.
Until he turned 30, Tolle recalls, he “lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression.”
One night he woke up in the early hours of the morning with a “feeling of absolute dread” that nearly drained him of the desire to continue living.
What happened to Tolle next was an experience of non-duality:
“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe”, I thought, “only one of them is real.” I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy…. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void.
Tolle awoke from the altered state of consciousness to the sight of his bedroom furniture in his London apartment. Everything was bathed in the morning sunlight. He remembers that it all seemed “fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence.”
Tolle got out of bed, dressed, and walked the streets of London, “marvelling at the beauty and aliveness” of everything he saw. This was followed by living “in a state of uninterrupted deep peace and bliss” for the next five months.
Eventually these feelings faded. But Tolle found that “he could still function in the world, although I realized that nothing I ever did could possibly add anything to what I already had.”
A “thunderous truism”
It’s this thunderous truism: We all know on some level that we are thinking all the time, that we have this voice in our heads, and the nature of this voice is mostly negative. It’s also repetitive and ceaselessly self-referential. We walk around in this fog of memory about the past and anticipation of a future that may or may not arrive in the form in which we imagine it….
The possibility that Tolle holds out to us is that we can walk out of this fog — and wake up to who we truly are.
More specifically, Tolle’s teaching boils down to one big distinction — living from ego versus living from presence.
Living from ego
Ego is our typical way of experiencing life — with constant commentary from the Voice inside our head that Dan Harris describes. This stream of thought is reactive, irrational, and judgmental. Tolle describes it as mental noise that makes us suffer.
Being human is like living with someone who is constantly complains and never shuts up — only that “someone” is us.
The Voice inside our head also creates the sense of a separate self — that is, an ego. That’s because much of our mental noise centers on me and my problems. These, we believe, are largely caused by other people and events that violate our expectations.
Ironically, the concepts of I, me, and mine are not present at the level of pure sensation — what we see, hear, touch, taste, and feel. The ego arises only with language: We use personal pronouns to imply that someone “owns” the sensations, which arise spontaneously without our conscious control.
In the state of ego, we maneuver through the world as fearful, isolated entities, constantly trying to arrange the circumstances of our lives for maximum pleasure and minimal pain. This involves constant effort because those circumstances are forever in flux.
To live from the ego, says Tolle, is to enter the world of time. The underlying assumption is: I’ll finally be satisfied when I get married, when I get a job, when I get promoted, when I have children, when I retire, or when [fill in the blank with your favorite attachment].
Unfortunately, that magical moment of satisfaction never arrives. Or, it arises for a short time and then fades away. In the Landmark Forum, this is called the “myth of someday.”)
When functioning from the ego, we define ourselves by what’s happened in the past. We also assume that our mind is housed in a body — a physical form that is limited in space, separated from every other physical form, and fated to die.
Living from presence
For Tolle, presence means allowing the self-critical and self-referential Voice inside our head grind to a halt. We’re willing to notice our experience without judging it or identifying with it. Instead of saying things like I feel happy or I feel sad, we simply notice that moods are impermanent and impersonal.
Using a more concrete metaphor, Tolle talks about entering a gap — the space between thoughts. If you meditate long enough, you experience this when the mind becomes so still that your internal chatter spontaneously stops:
When a thought subsides, you experience a discontinuity in the mental stream — a gap of “no mind.” At first, the gaps will be short, a few seconds perhaps, but gradually they will become longer. When these gaps occur, you feel a certain stillness and peace inside you…. With practice, the sense of stillness and peace will deepen.
No mind is the point after one thought disappears and before another thought arises. In that space is pure awareness with no ego, says Tolle. It is outside of time, not located in space, and not subject to birth and death.
By dwelling in this still point — this space between thoughts — we can stop defining ourselves by what happened in the past. We can witness our thoughts and feelings without identifying with them. And, says Tolle, we can experience a sense of fulfillment that does not depend on achieving any goal in the future.
Those are all grand claims. But I can attest that the experience of no mind is actually possible.
Benefits of releasing the Voice
Through practices such as yoga and meditation, you can observe the Voice as it gradually winds down. You might not experience cosmic thunderbolts of enlightenment, but who cares? You get to release the Internal Critic — if only for a moment — and taste the peace that results.
This practice of stilling the mind has made a difference in my daily life, leading to the following benefits that continue to surprise and delight me.
Releasing reactivity. When the Voice is active, I tend to act impulsively. If someone makes a cutting remark, I am likely to react in kind. If a driver cuts me off in traffic, I am tempted to honk or flash a stiff middle finger.
This is not inevitable, however. Instead, I can enter the gap of no mind.
I can sink in to the space between thoughts by taking a deep breath, checking in with my body, and simply noticing what physical sensations are present. (Tolle is right: Time is a product of the mind, of thinking; the body exists in the present moment.)
The power of this simple practice is that it delays an immediate reaction to the cutting comment or rude driver. That reaction is likely to be equally toxic.
By pausing to enter the present moment, I can let all those little irritations go. They are simply passing moments. They don’t really matter.
This practice has helped me to defuse tension, prevent conflicts, and smile more often. I am convinced that it will save my life someday.
Releasing the need to be right. We can easily become attached to a narrow range of opinions. Over time we can instinctively divide people into two opposing camps — us versus them.
People are “right” when they agree with us. They are “wrong” when they disagree. And if they say the “wrong” things, we feel personally attacked and compelled to defend ourselves.
How refreshing it is to enter the gap of no mind instead. This allows us to notice the need to be right as it unfolds in real time — and to simply drop it.
Tolle says it well:
Once you have disidentified from your mind, whether you are right or wrong makes no difference to your sense of self at all, so the forcefully compulsive and deeply unconscious need to be right, *which is a form of violence, will no longer be there. You can state clearly and firmly how you feel or what you think, but there will be no defensiveness or aggressiveness about it.
Releasing problems. It is also possible to release all your problems — right now, in the present moment.
Again, I’ll quote Tolle:
Focus your attention on the now and tell me what problem you have in this moment.
I am not getting any answer because it is impossible to have a problem when your attention is fully in the Now. A situation needs to be either dealt with or accepted. Why make it into a problem?
I find this quite useful.
If you’re troubled by a situation in your life, then in the present moment you have two sane options: 1) do something to change it or 2) simply accept it until you can do something about it.
But many of us do something else instead: We dwell on the situation mentally without taking action or practicing acceptance. And it is this mental obsession — not the situation itself — that creates suffering.
As Tolle notes:
The mind unconsciously loves problems because they give you an identity of sorts. This is normal, and it is insane. “Problem” means that you are dwelling on a situation mentally without there being a true intention or possibility of taking action now and that you are unconsciously making it part of your sense of self.…
All it takes is a simple choice, a simple decision: No matter what happens, I will create no more pain for myself. I will create no more problems.
In other words, do something about the situation now. Or not. But in either case, don’t dwell on it.
But it is something to practice. And it lightens the load considerably.