“We’d like to welcome the author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, whose book has sold almost 100,000 copies!”
The year was 1999, and I was attending a conference in La Jolla, California, sponsored by Inner Directions, a book publisher of spiritual teachers philosophically aligned with the nondual enlightenment tradition. Eckhart Tolle was the new spiritual face on the block, just getting started on what would become a rapid ascent to the dizzying heights of spiritual stardom. I had heard positive things about Tolle from several sources, as word-of-mouth buzz was already spreading. But Oprah had yet to give his book her stamp of endorsement, Meg Ryan had yet to rave about it in interviews, and The Power of Now had yet to become the publishing bonanza that it is today, having sold over two million copies and creating a mini-industry in and of itself.
Tolle’s presentation did not disappoint. With a quiet, unassuming presence, he calmly led the audience through a dissertation on what he meant by “the power of now.” His teaching was clear and sensible, a fresh expression of the timeless dharma of nondual enlightenment. And most of all, his words had a powerful transmission. As he spoke, the room filled up with a palpable presence, and the very air around us began to vibrate with a depth of silence and stillness—the power of now coming alive in the five hundred–person auditorium for all to experience. The crowd loved every moment, and he walked off the stage the unrivaled star of the weekend.
Curious about the man as well as his teaching, I watched as attendees thronged around him between sessions. Perfectly gracious to his adoring fans, Tolle was attentive and dignified, but he came across as anything but an extrovert. Shy, sensitive, and quiet, he still looked every part the hermit that he once was, and there were moments when I half expected him to suddenly lapse into a meditative silence—one from which he might not return. To invoke an ancient phrase, Tolle was clearly in this world, but somehow he seemed not really to be of it.
Fast-forward a couple of months and I was back in the offices of What Is Enlightenment? hard at work on Issue 18, an issue that would eventually be titled “What Does It Mean to Be in the World But Not of It?” Reading Tolle’s megabestseller as part of my research into this question, I was particularly struck by the opening account of his awakening. Not only was it an authentic description of a powerful enlightenment, but it occurred in a very unusual psychological context. “Until my thirtieth year,” Tolle writes, “I lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed by periods of suicidal depression.” Now that hardly sounds like the opening line of a spiritual fairy tale, but strangely enough, it was Tolle’s depression and his decision one fateful night that he simply could no longer “live with himself” that was the crucial catalyst for his subsequent enlightenment. Unafraid of dying, close to suicide, Tolle was ready to cash in his chips and walk away from this world altogether, but somehow he managed instead to walk right into the arms of a profound spiritual realization.
What did it mean, I wondered, for a spiritual breakthrough to be predicated on a suicidal state of mind? How would it affect one’s subsequent conclusions about how one should relate to the world? Moreover, Tolle wasn’t the only one with such a biography. His story parallels that of Byron Katie, the housewife turned popular spiritual teacher who was also speaking at the conference in La Jolla. Katie, whose accolades have also grown over the years and who was listed in the year 2000 as one of Time magazine’s one hundred spiritual luminaries, had her own awakening while she was living in a halfway house, caught up in depression and thoughts of suicide. Both Tolle’s and Katie’s enlightenment experiences were deep, profound, and life-transforming. And both had come to teach a spiritual path in which transcendence was heavily emphasized and the purpose of life in the world was ultimately to liberate oneself from suffering.
So what does it really mean to be in the world but not of it? Our own inquiry into this all-important question was inspired not just by my observations at the conference but by a larger trend that the editorial team had noticed arising in the East-meets-West spiritual subculture, a trend that Tolle and Katie were very much a part of. As more and more sophisticated enlightenment teachings and techniques were proliferating in Western culture, more people than ever were having peak experiences, powerful awakenings, and real glimpses of enlightened consciousness. And as a result, something very interesting was happening. Many of the teachings that were proving so effective at catapulting individuals into heightened states of consciousness and provoking extraordinary experiences of a reality beyond time and space were also proving inadequate to address the question that inevitably arises on the heels of such awakenings: How do I live? How do I relate to the manifest world?
It is hardly a new conundrum. In fact, on most top-ten lists of spiritual and religious questions, it’s a perennial contender. But many contemporary spiritual teachings simply fail to address the issue. Realize oneness, realize being, realize your true Self, they often tell us, and the rest will take care of itself. And our religious traditions also present something of a confusing picture when it comes to this crucial question. Some say that we should embrace the world, recognizing everything—all the way from sex to superconsciousness—to be a manifestation of the divine. Some tell us that we should renounce the world, viewing it as essentially unreal, a tempting siren luring us into an egocentric life of attachment and desire. Others implore us to walk the path of transcendence, living in the world but remaining untouched and uninvolved, always careful not to implicate ourselves too deeply in the fate of anything so transient as time, space, and physical form. And still others present a varying mixture of all three.
Now it didn’t take reading but a few pages of The Power of Now to see where Tolle comes down in this ancient debate: transcendence. It is our false identification with the mind, with time, and with ego, he states, that is the source of suffering. Transcend these attachments and one will find freedom and enlightenment, and a wholesome relationship with the world will naturally follow. But can the inner notion of transcendence adequately address the practical outer realities of life in the twenty-first century? After all, there is an urgent demand today that our spiritual concerns be intimately related to the larger context in which human development is occurring. Indeed, given that the world as we know it is rapidly changing and evolving and that the planet itself is undergoing a profound crisis caused in part by our activities, how we relate to the world will not just determine the result of our personal spiritual lives but will ultimately affect the fate of the larger evolutionary experiment in consciousness that we are all a part of. So what does it mean to be in the world but not of it today? Our exploration of that question in the form of eight extensive interviews eventually became Issue 18 of WIE, an issue that contained one of my all-time favorite articles, “Ripples on the Surface of Being,” an interview with Eckhart Tolle by WIE founder Andrew Cohen.
Much has changed in the six years since this interview. What Is Enlightenment? has gone to a quarterly format, it is now published in full color, and the focus of our editorial inquiry has shifted from perennial spiritual questions to an exploration of how spirituality itself is being re-visioned in a world informed by the knowledge of cosmic evolution. Time has also been more than kind to our favorite power-of-now mystic. Tolle has published several new books, held seminars around the world with thousands and thousands of participants, and The Power of Now is still riding high on bestseller lists. But the essential question of how we, as spiritually inclined individuals, relate to the world around us is perhaps more relevant and more urgent than ever. Because how we view the manifest dimension of reality and the fundamental position we take in relationship to it—be it renunciation, transcendence, acceptance, or something else entirely—will inevitably color the way we see and respond to literally everything. And it will help determine the impact we have, positive or negative, on this complex, evolving planet we call home.
So when it came time to choose an article for this anniversary issue celebrating fifteen years of What Is Enlightenment?, I didn’t have to reflect very long. For my money, “Ripples on the Surface of Being” represents the type of article that has long made WIE such a unique forum. Two contemporary teachers of enlightenment engaged in a hard-hitting dialogue about one of the most important issues facing any individual with spiritual inclinations. The questions are challenging, the inquiry is authentic, and the subject is desperately relevant. At times enlightening and at times disquieting, the article shakes up our old ideas and forces us to consider new ones. Like all WIE interviews, it is personal, practical, and philosophical all at the same time. And you simply won’t find anything like it anywhere else.
» Continue to the interview