An Interview with Eckhart Tolle by Josh Max
I'd like to talk about your transformation at age 29, where you
say your personality was erased. Many people spend their lives
trying to get something like that to happen, and here it happened to
you at a young age. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I was unhappy, depressed and anxious. I was not trying to become
enlightened or anything like that. I was looking for some kind of
answer to the dilemma of life, but I had been looking to the
intellect for the answer; philosophy, religion and intellectual
inspiration. The more I was looking on that level, the more unhappy
I became. I reached a point where the phrase came into my head---and
this is in the book "The Power Of Now"---"I can't live with myself
any longer." That part of my self---that entity became so heavy and
Suddenly I stepped back from myself, and it seemed to be two of
me--- The "I", and this "self" that I cannot live with. Am I one or
am I two? And that triggered me like a koan. It happened to me
spontaneously. I looked at that sentence---"I can't live with
myself". I had no intellectual answer. Who am I? Who is this self
that I cannot live with? The answer came on a deeper level. I
realized who I was.
When I'm speaking about it now, it becomes intellectualized because
I'm using words, but that realization was beyond words. What "I" as
consciousness had identified with was a very heavy mental and
emotional form consisting of thought and accompanied by an energy
field. At that moment the identification with that mind structure
was withdrawn. It collapsed, and what remained was a spacious,
peaceful consciousness. The identification was broken, and because
of that, the mental/emotional structure---the psuedo self collapsed.
My sense of identity broke down and was replaced by something that
is very hard to put into words. Awareness. Consciousness. The words
only came a few years later. I couldn't even talk about it. I had
been anxious and depressed for years and suddenly I was deeply at
Do you think your transformation had less to do with achieving
peace than letting go of the anxiousness and the worry?
Yes. It wasn't really the achievement of anything; it was the
realization by letting go of the identification. Something suddenly
was there that actually had always been there but had been obscured
continuously by identification with the heavy mind structure. As I
came to work with other people, I realized every human being already
has that dimension. No matter how anxious, depressed, disturbed and
fearful they may be. That dimension is already in there, in every
And so I came to understand why some masters sometimes say, "You are
already enlightened." That dimension is already in there, it just
needs to be discovered. Something needs to be let go of, something
needs to be recognized.
You know, when I walked in here, I had no idea who was going to
be here. I'd read your books but had never seen you except in
photographs. When you opened the door, it was like the sun was in
this flat. I couldn't help but forget any reservations or shyness I
may have had, and I almost burst out laughing.
The reason for this is that in that act of meeting you, there
were no thoughts about who you are or who I am. There was the
openness of consciousness recognizing itself in another human being.
And that is extremely joyful. And it's also joyful for someone who
experiences that with someone else, because they feel more
themselves in that moment.
It's rare that you meet such a person. One thing that struck me
while listening to your CD ("Stillness Speaks") on the way to our
interview is that you say people make themselves miserable and in
turn they make others miserable. It hadn't occurred to me that a
person who habitually finds problems and "disasterizes" things
affect everyone, the same as your smile affects me.
Yes. It affects everybody else, it draws everybody else into
their drama, and it's meant to do that. That happens both on a
personal level and you also see it in corporations and politics. I
sometimes meet people who work for corporations and some of them
have said it's amazing that anything gets done at all considering
how much energy is uselessly burned up through inner conflict in the
organization. And it makes everyone's life miserable.
Yes. I work for a lot of big media organizations, and I'm
dumfounded at the wars I see when I walk into some of their offices.
And these are people who are telling us what's going on in the
world! When you see it on that level, it's easier to take the news a
lot less seriously. It's just one person's point of view.
Yes---and sometimes you find the same even in religious
organizations. Because religion in many cases is really ideology.
I'm not condemning all religions because that would not be correct,
but to a large extent people have not freed themselves from their
identification with their conditioned thinking. I know that at the
core of each religion there is the truth, heavily obscured in some
cases, but it's there. What happens when an organization arises is
the amplification of the ego, the ego-ic mind structures.
You say "all religions"---have you investigated religions?
Judaism, Christianity, Islam?
Yes, some more than others. Buddhism, Christianity, to some
extent Hinduism. At the core, the truth shines through. Sometimes we
have to look very deeply, but it's there.
I was also struck by your interpretation of the cross as a
symbol of "thy will be done".
It's a strange dualistic symbol. Basically, it's a torture
instrument. To me, Jesus stands for humanity. So this man is nailed
to the torture instrument, totally helpless, in deep suffering. At
that point comes total surrender to what is. "Not my will, but thy
will be done." At that point, the symbolic significance of the cross
is changed from being a torture instrument to a symbol of the
divine. So what it points to is that the very thing that seems to
stand in the way of realizing who you are. The very suffering that
comes with being here in this physical realm---because eventually
some form of suffering comes to everybody---can become an opening
into that which we call the divine. If you're lucky, disaster comes
before the physical form is lost and the psychological form
dissolves. This sometimes happens through extreme suffering, when
people lose everything, or they find out they don't have much more
time to live. So they are faced with extreme disaster which cannot
be explained away.
Philosophies collapse in the face of extreme disaster. Before, they
might have had philosophy or religious beliefs, but when quite a few
people face death of a loved one or their child or spouse, suddenly
they question their beliefs. "This wasn't supposed to happen to me,
I had a business arrangement with God. I wasn't supposed to suffer."
The mind, the "me", collapses. Explanations fade. So you're faced
with disaster you cannot explain that seems to deny the existence of
something deeper. The cross seems to stand between you and the
transcendental dimension to love. But, strangely, that very cross is
the opening also.
Somebody once put it this way: "What stands in the way is the way."
And you realize that when you no longer internally resist the form
that this moment takes. I call it the "is-ness" of this moment.
Would that be disaster or the honk of a horn while I'm trying to
Yes. A little thing or a big thing, resistance is basically the
same kind of mechanism. An internal "no" to what is. And since the
now is all there ever is in your life, your entire life unfolds as
the present moment. People don't realize it, but all they ever have
is "this". This moment. Always.
It seems so strange to put it into words. Your life is always this
moment. No more, no less. But just "this" is what most people
unconsciously trying to run away from. They're always in some future
moment where things are hopefully better, or more fulfilling. Or
mentally they project a future moment they see as fearful, that they
have to tackle this possible thing that might go wrong in the future
and they try to deal with now. Ignoring the aliveness that is
actually there concealed in now. It is a collective mental habit to
run away, to deny and to resist the is-ness of this moment. Not to
aligned with now. And everybody inherits that as a part of their
collective mental conditioning. They're taught to live like that
from their parents, from their schools. They probably inherit even
the very minds structures that create that kind of consciousness.
But there's a shift happening in humanity, a shift in consciousness,
happening now because it has to happen now. Because if it doesn't
happen now, mankind probably won't survive. The dysfunction of the
human mind and its condition is becoming more and more intolerable
to the planet, and to humanity. People can't live with themselves
much longer. The planet cannot live with humans much longer! The
dysfunction has become so magnified through technology.
Whereas before, a human could kill a few hundred with a sword---if
he was a warrior--- now, the same dysfunction is magnified. So we
have the weaponry, destruction of the planet, pollution, destruction
of forests, countless manifestations of humans using their
intelligence in the service of the dysfunction, the madness. It's a
strange juxtaposition. Humans are intelligent, but if you look at
history or even watch TV, they're also incredibly stupid.
Speaking of weapons of mass destruction; what do we do about
that? What do we do about countries which wish our country great
harm? What's an alternative if the other side is bent on suicide, as
the men of 9-11 were? If you have a vast Army at your disposal, what
do you do?
I don't know what I would do, because I can only know what is
right in an actual situation which demands a response. It's very
hard when you look at hypotheticals. What we can do is look at the
dysfunction in its collective aspects that we're witnessing now.
We can see, for example, what's happening in the middle East with
the eternal insane conflict between Israel and Palestine. We can see
how each faction is totally convinced that their mental position is
the correct one. Each faction sees itself as the victim of the
other. There was a writer I read last year who said each side cannot
recognize any narrative other than their own; that's also true.
Narrative means the story through which you interpret reality.
People have collective stories which are mental perspectives and
mental positions. Of course, when they explain it to you, it sounds
absolutely right. Then you go to the other story, and they explain
it to you, and that sounds absolutely right. Both are so entrenched
in their narrative, their mental positions and their identifications
with mental positions that they cannot see anything else. That
really symbolizes the very thing that lies at the core of human
There you see it expressed collectively. An inability to hold truth
in your consciousness. To rise above polarities, and say, here's
this perspective which is ours, and I can also see the other
perspective which is yours. If both could do that---even if one
party could do that---there would be an end to the madness. It only
gets perpetuated by two. You can see the same in personal
relationships, you can see the same in marriages that exist in a
state of warfare. Both are entrenched. There is this ongoing need to
be right. What that really ultimately means is they are identified
with the thinking. They have not stepped out of the structure of
thought---their mental position, their thought position. The way out
of the madness is to recognize thought as just thought. To see your
own stream of thinking, to see that no thought can encapsulate the
entire truth in any situation. You have to step out of thought to
see that. To become the awareness outside of thought. Some people
are driven out of thought out of suffering, others can step out of
thought because they see that thought is dysfunctional. So we see
then that terrorists that inflict suffering on innocent people,
kills thousands, blows himself up---how is it that he cannot see
what he is doing?
He cannot see because he has reduced other human beings around him
to a mental concept. He puts a mental label on other human beings or
groups of humans or whatever he calls them---infidels, evil. Once
you have conceptualized another human being, covering up their
essential aliveness, you also do it to yourself. You become
identified with your own self concepts of who you are, because you
are right, you are the believer, you are in possession of the truth.
You can then inflict acts of violence on other humans without
feeling anymore because you've already desensitized yourself, you've
deadened their aliveness. So violence becomes very easy when you
only operate from the level of thought. Thought plus very
destructive emotion that accompanies those destructive thought
patterns. That's what drives the terrorist. He truly, as Jesus puts
it on the cross, "They know not what they do."
In spiritual terms, they are completely unconscious. Unconscious
means identified totally with thought. You reduce reality to a
conceptual reality. A lot of violence arises in that way.
Terrorists are not the only ones who are unconscious. The United
States manufactures an enormous amount of totally senseless
weaponry. Biological, chemical. They manufacture the most fiendish
weapons---if they ever used them it would be hell on earth. Why are
they working on this? They are intelligent scientists, thousands of
them, the Government sponsors itself sponsors it. What is the
purpose in creating such weapons if the use of such weapons would
create hell on earth? Haven't they got enough weapons already? So it
applies; "they know not what they do." You can see human
unconsciousness in so many forms. You can see it very clearly in the
terrorists. Sometimes it's easier to see the madness in others---but
we also have to see it in ourselves.
How does one do that? How do you do it?
Well, primarily it needs to be done on personal level. For
example, for me, to see how identified I am with my own mental
position when I'm talking to someone when I'm putting forth and idea
or opinion and that opinion is questioned by the other person. They
might say, "No, you're wrong---that's not how it is." If I can then
observe the violence with which I defend my position, I'm actually
becoming more conscious because by observing it, something else is
arising that is not conditioned thinking, but awareness.
As opposed to saying, "No, you're wrong."
Yes, because when people are engaged in being right, defending
their mental position, an enormous amount of defensiveness and
violence comes already. Why do two people become so agitated, in
some cases even violent, when they're defending a mental position?
Because that's what they derive their sense of self from. Thought
has become invested self. That's the very essence of
dysfunction---that humans derive their sense of self through
thought. This is a delusion, because who they are is so much deeper
than thought. They can only realize that when they detach from their
thinking and observe their thinking.
Who or what is it that is able to observe that you are identified
with a mental position? Who or what is it in you that is able to
notice the emotional violence that comes as you start to defend your
own position? You can then ask, "Wow, what's going on? What am I
defending?" You are defending an illusory sense of self---your sense
of self and your mind structure.
That very dysfunction, which looks relatively harmless on a small
scale, is the very same dysfunction that drives the terrorist. So
it's only in yourself that you can detect it. And if you see it, you
see the root of human dysfunction and madness; identification with
thinking. But the moment you see it, you are already one foot out of
it. The seeing of it is not part of the dysfunction. So in other
words, when you see that you are mad, you are no longer mad.
That's the arising of something new in humanity. I sometimes call it
the unconditioned consciousness. But it is also a field of
stillness, where you see the torn roots of the human mind. Once it
emerges, it's a process that cannot be reversed. It emerges more and
more fully, and you become less and less identified with the
structure of thought. And then thought is no longer dysfunctional.
It is actually beautiful. It can be used for helpful purposes. It's
wonderful---you are no longer looking for an identity in the
structure of thought because now you know that who you are is
deeper. You are the very awareness prior to thought. You are the
stillness that is deeper than thought, much vaster than thought. We
call it "stillness" but it's just a word. We've reduced it to
something. It's more than that. It's consciousness itself,
unconditioned. Which is the essence of each human being. It's that
when you meet anybody in a state of open, aware attention, without
labeling them mentally or judging them, then that you are already
operating as a current or conscious awareness between human beings.
That would dramatically change human relationships. When aware
presence operates between human beings, they are no longer dominated
by mind structures. On a deepest level, that is also love. That is
the only dimension from where love can come into this world.
Josh Max is a writer and musician
in New York City. This interview was conducted October 18, 2003 at
the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Josh Max is a journalist
whose articles about cars, motorcycles, travel and first-person
adventures have appeared frequently in the New York Times, Newsweek,
The NY Daily News and other publications. He is also an ordained
interfaith minister, performing musician, singer and songwriter.
Balanced Living Magazine