Eckhart Tolle, the Forrest Gump of spirituality
This week I saw Eckhart Tolle teach at the Royal Albert Hall.
He spoke for three hours, and his wife Kim Eng also led a meditation.
It was organized by Alternatives, the venerable New Age organisation which has run talks at St James church in Piccadilly since the 1980s. I spoke at Alternatives earlier this year and they were kind enough to give me a free ticket to Eckhart.
I walked into the legendary auditorium, filled with 5000 people, and thought ‘wow, so this is where you speak when you’ve really made it as a teacher.’
Eckhart shuffled on stage — a small man in charity-shop clothes, with a little goatee, piggy nose, and a hunchback. Socrates meets Forrest Gump.
‘I don’t spend much time thinking about the past’, he says. ‘But I remember the last time I was here, many years ago. I was sitting all the way up there…’
In the cheap seats. And now look at you.
He was born Ulrich Tolle, in February 1948, in north Germany.
‘When I was a child, I did not feel better than others. As children we construct a mental sense of our self — the ego. The ego loves to compare. How does my self-construction compare to your self-construction. I was not physically strong, or attractive. I was not from a rich family with distinguished ancestors. Then I moved to London to study [when he was 19]. It had even more of a class system then than it does now. I saw all these people with their accents and money and titles. I didn’t have any of that. So I thought I would become an intellectual, and become superior that way.’
He studied history and languages at Kings College London, apparently graduated with a first, then started a PhD at Cambridge (in Latin American studies, I believe).
‘But I just ended up very depressed’. He was haunted by a sense of ‘generalized failure. A fear of life, a fear of failure…being nobody really is the ego’s strongest fear.’
He still recalls those difficult years in London.
‘The Tube would cause me a lot of suffering. Especially the Northern Line. It used to be called the Misery Line — I don’t know if it’s improved since then. I would stand on the Tube, it would be very hot, crowded and noisy. And I would just hate it.’
I feel you Eckhart.
When he had become extremely depressed, something shifted. He was in his bedsit in Belsize Park, his ego-mind sinking into darkness. Then some other awareness stepped back from the drama and just observed it.
He later wrote:
‘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 realisation that my mind stopped. I was conscious, but there were no more thoughts.’
He had a sudden awakening, realizing that his serious emotional problems were caused by his thoughts, his inner narrative, and these thoughts were not him. There is a deeper Self, which is spacious, joyous, light, free, and always available.
The horizontal trajectory of Ulrich’s conditioned existence in time and space suddenly intersected with the vertical trajectory of Eternal Being.
I can relate to his sudden liberation from suffering. I also got lost in the labyrinth of my own thoughts when I was 19, until I was sick of myself and sick of existence. Then I felt suddenly liberated by that weird near-death experience I’ve previously mentioned. I knew that what was causing my suffering was my own thoughts, which I was free to change, or simply pay less attention to.
I felt so blissful for some weeks and months, without any need to seek any validation or approval from externals. I felt a bubbling spring within me. I felt rich with Being.
But the sense of fullness and joy faded and the old habits of anxiety and depression came back. That’s why I turned to CBT and Stoicism and all the rest of it. Ulrich, apparently, stayed in that state and hasn’t left it since.
He would sit on a bench in Russell Square, filled with bliss, watching the world go by. He didn’t need much — he got by with a low-paid admin job at the Kennel Club. He seems to have a deep love of dogs (he has a spaniel called Maya). He says:
‘Dogs have non-egoic consciousness. They’re not troubled by low self-esteem or body-image problems. You can look into their eyes and feel temporarily liberated from your worries. They’re guardians of being — some people are kept sane by having a dog nearby. But dogs are pre-thought. It’s not our evolutionary destiny to go back to their level.’
Occasionally, he would go to Alternatives at St James church in Piccadilly. ‘The last talk I saw there was by [radical psychiatrist] RD Laing. He was completely drunk. His theory was that ordinary people are insane while those officially deemed insane are often saner. It’s a bit extreme but there is some truth in it. What we consider ordinary consciousness is usually deeply dysfunctional.’
At some point in the 1980s, Ulrich changed his name to Eckhart — an allusion perhaps to the medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart (Tolle says he saw the name in a dream). He moved to Vancouver, got another menial job to pay the bills, and taught an evening course in mysticism. I can imagine the fliers, stuck on the wall of the local New Age shop.
He felt an inner voice telling him to write, so he wrote a book called The Power of Now. A student of his called Constance Kellough paid for its printing, and sold copies from the boot of her car. Then it was bought by New World Library (my US publisher) in 1999. In 2000 it was read by Oprah Winfrey, who invited Eckhart on her show and made him a global star. I hear New World still sell a quarter of a million copies of his books each year, so they’re basically made. Two decades later, my local Waterstones still has 10 copies in stock, at all times.
What is his message? In many ways it’s very simple. The most obvious message is ‘be here now’, bring our attention back to the present rather than always worrying about the future or ruminating over the past.
‘Ordinary consciousness is waiting for the next thing to happen, and then when it does, feeling dissatisfied and waiting for the next thing.’
That is very true. And it’s also true that liberation can only happen now. Liberation from over-identification with the thought-stream.
‘Most people are completely identified with their thinking, with their thought-objects. They are unconscious, or asleep. They say ‘I think’, as if they are in charge, when really their thinking is obsessive, compulsive, addictive.’ Our involuntary thoughts rule us.
Being swept along by our ordinary thought-stream leads to restlessness, dissatisfaction and suffering — what the Buddha called dukka:
‘We can have a permanent sense of insufficiency, a sense there is something lacking with me, and our mind is constantly looking for the solution to the Problem of Me and My Life. We spend so much of our time worrying about this problem, trying to find a way out. It becomes very heavy.’
As St Augustine wrote: ‘I have become a problem to myself.’
We devote all our energy to polishing our ego-concept, but it always seems lacking somehow. We constantly compare our self to others.
‘If someone seems better than us our ego feels diminished for a while. But then the Ego Security System kicks in. Say we are riding a bicycle, and someone passes us in a Limousine. We feel diminished for a while. But then we think ‘probably a corrupt foreigner. I am far more spiritual than they are.’’
Perhaps we look for a solution to the Me Problem in another person. If I could just meet The One, I would be healed and whole. Everything would be better.
‘It’s like in a restaurant, you see two couples.’ He’s obviously a great people-watcher. ‘One couple has only been on a few dates. They stare at each other as if they’re hypnotized. They think the other is perfect and they will be blissfully happy forever. The other couple, perhaps they’ve been dating a few months…and they’re just staring at their phones. They’re disillusioned. They think: ‘Who is this person opposite me, with all their problems?’
So we look for another solution to our dissatisfaction. An affair, a holiday, a new job, a new hobby.
All the time our ego-consciousness is thinking planning thinking planning worrying worrying comparing ruminating arguing fantasizing ruminating thinking planning worrying thinking arguing fantasizing
It’s the greatest shaggy dog story ever, and like suckers we keep expecting a punch-line.
When all the time, right there waiting for us, is that different consciousness, Being-Awareness, the Essential I. Spacious, joyous, free.
We yearn for it. We kind of know it’s there, but we don’t know how to get back there. Because the habit of ego-thinking is so ingrained, so distracting, so absorbing.
‘People use substances to find a temporary self-transcendence. They have a few drinks, and then, no thinking, no worries. They feel lighter. But it’s a delusion. It feels like transcendence but really you are going lower, below thoughts, you are regressing back to an animal state of mind.’ This is what Aldous Huxley called ‘downward transcendence’.
We can find the thread out of the labyrinth by heeding the little moments when Being-Awareness shines through — when we feel peaceful and still looking at a sunset. We can rest in ‘alert stillness’.
Like Huxley, Eckhart offers an agreeably perennial philosophy. He quotes Lao Tzu — ‘the Dao you can talk about is not the Dao’ — and the Buddha — ‘all life is dukka’ — and Jesus — ‘we must become like children’ — and Socrates — ‘all philosophy begins in wonder’ — and Pythagoras — ‘know thyself’. He says the Stoics and the Buddha were the first to truly discover the wisdom of not identifying with your everyday thought-stream.
Instead of talking about God he prefers terms like ‘universal consciousness’, or ‘the universe waking up’. It’s quite a Daoist or Hindu idea of the All, the Undifferentiated, the Eternal, growing to fruition within us.
There is a teleological aspect to Tolle’s spirituality. Humanity is waking up. It is our evolutionary destiny. We are at a tricky stage between animals and awakened Buddhas. He assures us that we, the audience, are beginning to wake up.
This feels exciting, and slightly millennarian. It is refreshing, in 2019, to feel that humanity has a glorious spiritual destiny ahead of us.
But what are the limitations of his vision, the criticisms one could make of it?
He mentions the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, from Luke 10.38. When Jesus comes to visit, Martha busies herself in acts of service, while Mary just sits in adoration at the Master’s feet. Jesus says: ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.’
Eckhart insists that the most important thing in our life is to learn to rest in non-egoic awareness.
One could criticize this. What about trying to improve the world? What would happen to the world if we all sat around slack-jawed in bliss?
Well, it might be better for the planet if we learned to nourish our inner resources, rather than restlessly extracting, producing and consuming to try and fill our inner void.
But can’t one be totally in the Now and still a bastard? Certainly — the Sixties was full of such immoralists. Child support? Live in the now baby!
There is a bit of an ethical deficit in his teachings — a focus on a state of mind regardless of ethical frameworks. Most spiritual teachers are childless, after all. Few make good parents.
But western consciousness is so utterly Martha, so busied in outward actions, and so utterly lacking in Mary-Consciousness, it is surely good if at least one person points out this free resource of Being-Awareness-Joy within us.
It is still a radical and counter-cultural idea in our production-obsessed culture that the most important thing to do in life is rest and be aware.
Perhaps his millenarian sense that the world is awakening is more 1999 than 2019. It was easier to believe in 1999, in the golden age of the internet and globalization, when the worst thing we had to worry about was OJ Simpson’s glove-size.
In 2019 we face the rise of extremist politics, growing distrust between races and genders, fears about internet mind-pollution, and a scarily-altering ecosystem.
What does the Prophet of Now say about that?
He does have some things to say for our present situation. He talks, for example, about the danger of becoming stuck in a victim identity. ‘Of course, bad things do happen to people in this world, but we can get caught in a victim identity, because when we are a victim we are morally superior.’ That resonates with 2019’s culture of competitive victimhood.
His message also has added resonance in the age of the smartphone. He says:
‘Of course, the phone is useful. But it can become the master, and we the servant — like the mind. We stare at it, hypnotized, waiting for the next thing to happen. It reminds me of the Greek myth of Narcissus, who saw his image in a pool and fell in love. It didn’t end well. That was the first selfie. Then we pick up our phone again. ‘What has he tweeted now?’ You know who I’m talking about. ‘He’s really gone too far this time!’ But he went too far yesterday as well. Or we disagree with someone online. ‘You bastard!’ We get furious with a complete stranger. And we can’t leave our phone alone. It calls to us from our pocket. No one just sits in a café and looks around anymore.’
What I really love about him is not so much his words — they’ve all been said before, by the Stoics, the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and many others. More impressive than his words is his presence. I felt filled up and refreshed after having sat with him, like drinking from a cold spring after a hard journey.
And he’s funny as well — at least 30% of mass market spiritual teaching is stand-up comedy. His comedy is very physical, with him imitating our everyday neuroticisms like Mr Bean.
It’s reassuring that, after 20 years in the spiritual marketplace, those who know him still speak well of him. That is the exception rather than the rule. One Mind Body & Spirit publisher tell me they have got so sick of working with spiritual teachers who are incredibly pushy, they’ve chosen to focus on books about angelic pets (‘dogs, cats, horses…donkeys are hot right now’).
While I sat writing this, a friend of mine, who has been sectioned, was having their review in a psychiatric hospital. The psychiatrist told my friend they would be released from the hospital that day, and he ended the session by saying ‘the most important thing for your recovery is that you should read The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.’ I was struck by the synchronicity of this, and bought my friend a copy of the book.
That evening, I took the bus back to Bristol. There was an accident on the M4 so the bus went on diversion through the countryside of Wiltshire. My phone and Kindle ran out of batteries, so there was nothing to do but look out of the window, as the evening sun seeped sepia yellow over the fields of England. There was nothing to do but observe. I felt so joyful.