I came to this interview reluctantly. I read Eckhart Tolle's first book, The Power of Now, years ago and had been struck by its sense and force. But since he appeared on a 10-week online seminar with Oprah Winfrey and became a global best-selling author, his name is everywhere. I'm always wary of hype, or what looks like hype, especially when it surrounds religious and spiritual figures. Often the skepticism is valid. But I have also learned that sometimes the people who are getting all the attention are getting it for good reason. I am very glad that I interviewed Eckhart Tolle.
There is a sense in which the core idea behind his teachings flies in the face of the accomplishment of much of my own life. I love the grandeur and intricacy of the human mind, the possibilities of intellect; I love large ideas and their transcendent, transformative power. But as I've grown older and I hope a bit wiser, I have also become aware of the cunning with which my mind can constrict and control possibility. I've come to understand that my impulse to think my way out of problems actually limits my range of options and, paradoxically, my peace of mind. I've learned enough from the exquisitely sophisticated Buddhist analysis of the mind to be aware of my "monkey mind" — the random racing stream of thought that is more primitive than civilized and a near-constant background "mental noise" to my life.
Still, in the absence of a devoted practice of Zen or contemplative prayer or another intense mind-calming discipline, I have not succeeded consistently at tapping what Eckhart Tolle calls "the awareness behind my thinking." This is precisely what Eckhart Tolle offers: tools — or, as he likes to say, "little pointers" — for cultivating that awareness as a practical feature in ordinary time, in ordinary life.
Primary among these, of course, is his teaching about "the power of now." He emphasizes that in our firsthand experience of life, now is all there ever is. Human beings have a tendency to obsess over the past and the future. But we only know the past through the lens of the present moment, and when the future is actually upon us, it will also be another now. When we are truly attentive to the present moment, we are able to stop confusing reality with the racing thoughts in our heads, the stories we've internalized from our families and culture, and the emotions that animate us as a result. We can begin to have sovereignty over our experience of the world and our presence within it. We can take more delight.
Tolle also insists — addressing a concern I've had about Western spirituality in general — that when this internal change is deep and genuine, it does not remain an individualistic experience of fulfillment. Change must begin within each individual, but, he says, the inner spiritual shift he is describing can't help but positively affect the world around us.
As I prepared for this interview, I read several accounts of Eckhart Tolle that described his demeanor as "robotic." But this conversation between us was warm and punctuated by laughter. I encountered a good teacher, and a man of true humility. Shortly after this interview took place in 2008, I moved into a new house. And I wrote on our blog about how his ideas very directly and quite dramatically affected the way in which I approached that typically stressful experience. I'll be curious to hear, if you'd like to write, how Tolle's books or this program find resonance in your life.