Eckhart Tolle
Living Here Now

Douglas Todd
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, October 05, 2002

Eckhart Tolle, who is a new age teacher blending elements of Buddhism and Hunduism for western consumption, is pictured seated on a tree stump along Spanish Banks. (Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun)

'It's about time!" The publisher of the phenomenal bestseller, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, was trying to tell me, with a rather aggressive smile, it was about time The Vancouver
Sun did a big profile of her author, Eckhart Tolle.

Connie Kellough didn't realize she was making a play on words with the first utterance that came out of her mouth when I arrived at her to-die-for Point Grey mansion, with its airy view of the gentle sea off Spanish Banks.

She was genuinely shocked I hadn't already told the world that Tolle offers the path to salvation, to inner peace. After all, if Tolle is good enough for Oprah, Meg Ryan and Cher -- all of whom have been singing his praises lately -- he's got be good enough for his local newspaper.

Kellough didn't recognize, however, that her remark also summarized the mystical teaching of Tolle, a once-reclusive 54-year-old German who has managed largely by word of mouth and New Age magazine exposure to become an internationally adored guru.

In The Power of Now, which has sold more than 400,000 copies and more than 200,000 related audio- and videotapes, Tolle says the secret to life is . . . to live in the present.

You have probably already heard this advice a few hundred times. It is a central emphasis of Zen Buddhism, some forms of Hinduism and most meditation and yoga practices.

Even on North American shores, the idea of being in the moment has been popular for at least 30 years. In the hippie era, San Francisco-based Baba Ram Dass wrote a book titled Be Here Now. Tolle's book is striking the same kind of chords once hit by Ram Dass' classic.

Tolle claims to be enlightened -- to be living completely in the now.

Countless people around the world believe him. At the same time the concept has a way of sounding banal. Is there something to it?

The man who just might be Canada's biggest spiritual guru du jour was raised by inactive Catholics and never studied religion in any formal sense. He spent an unhappy youth dividing his time between divorced parents in Germany and Spain, then studied literature at the University of London. His breakthrough moment came when he was 29, a PhD student in London living as a virtual hermit.

He had been invited to become a literature researcher at Cambridge University, but was gradually realizing that his academic career was motivated primarily by fear of failure. Compounding his anxiety was the fear he experienced growing up in post-war Germany, where as a child he played in bombed-out buildings. Pain, he says now, "was in the energy field of the country." But his central concern was career
failure -- and the possibility of disappointing his mother, who'd always been uptight about whether her boy would make anything of himself.

His anxiety led to suicidal depression and the sort of revulsion toward the world that existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre described in his famous book, Nausea.

Then, in the middle of one fateful night he woke up unbearably anxious, feeling as if he could no longer live with his emotional pain, with himself. That was it. Suddenly, he realized his depressed self was not his real self:

He had another self that transcended it. He heard an inner voice say, "Resist nothing." And he let go.

As he describes it now, all his fears vanished. The insight drew him into a vortex of internal energy. The next day he woke up feeling brand new, noting the sunshine and birds chirping. He walked around amazed at the miracle of life on Earth. He was in bliss. And he says he's been there pretty well ever since.

Externally, however, things didn't change that much. He still stayed mostly by himself, but he began reading books on Eastern religion, especially Zen and Vipassana Buddhism, known as insight meditation, where practitioners aim for enlightenment by trying to release themselves from attachment to worldly desires. He went to hear a number of spiritual teachers lecture, but realized he'd already undergone the transformation they talked about.

He began teaching small classes, occasionally counselling acquaintances. He was still living hand to mouth, but all the while he was collecting his thoughts for what would later become The Power of Now, the book that launched him on to the international scene.

The central idea of Tolle's book is that we must avoid becoming neurotic captives of time. A bad attitude to time will either lock us in the habit-formed suffering of the past or make us yearn for a grass-has-got-to-be-greener future. "Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have," he writes.

"To offer no resistance to life is to be in a state of grace, ease and lightness. This state is then no longer dependent upon things being in a certain way, good or bad."

"True salvation is fulfilment, peace, life in all its fullness. It is to be who you are, to feel within you the good that has no opposite: the joy of Being that depends on nothing outside yourself."

Posh-sounding mumbo-jumbo? Or profound words from a spiritual master?

Kellough, a former literature instructor and management consultant, takes me up her classy curved stairway to sit on a couch and wait for Tolle, who she says is going to be 30 minutes late. Her fluffy white poodle roams contentedly at my feet.

As we wait, Kellough gushes with enthusiasm about Tolle. She met him after he moved to Vancouver in the mid-1990s, when he was teaching a course on mysticism. She decided to go out on a limb and help him get a book published. The Power of Now is the first one she ever published, under the name Namaste Publishing.

As politely as I can, I ask if her incredible house was made possible by the royalties from The Power of Now. She says the visible wealth flows from her husband, who I discover later is a prominent lawyer.

Still, the book has been blindingly successful. Talking rapidly, gesturing broadly, Kellough brings out documentation showing how The Power of Now has already been translated into more than 20 languages, including Danish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Korean, Chinese and Turkish. It's distributed in the U.S. by New World Library.

Tolle routinely speaks to sold-out audiences of anywhere from 400 to 1,200 on the New Age circuit -- from New York's Omega Institute to London's alternative St. James Church in Piccadilly.

At Banyen Books, the Kitsilano alternative bookstore that hosted a recent Tolle event in Vancouver, The Power of Now has been an in-house bestseller for the past three years. The store routinely sells 50 to 100 copies each month, as well as related tapes and videos.

Despite only infrequent bursts of mainstream media coverage, Tolle's book -- first released five years ago -- has in the past two years hit No. 9 on the Los Angeles Times non-fiction bestseller list, above Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead. It was No. 4 on the San Francisco Examiner's list. California, hotbed of alternative spirituality, is eating Tolle up.

Why is the book hitting bestseller lists now? One reason is Oprah, who has done her bit, big time. The mega-popularizer of things literary wrote little snippets this year in her magazine, O, in which she made comments like: "Meg Ryan told me about this book. It's a reminder to be truly present in our own lives and liberated from our past and future. It can transform your thinking. The result? More joy, right now."

Later, Oprah said certain teachings from The Power of Now seem handpicked for her, such as "'Wherever you are, be there totally." And: "I have to choose to surrender to this process and drop the negativity. I just have to let go."

Oprah then approached Tolle to write a one-page article about his teachings, which was published last year in the magazine.

Then Cher announced this year in US Magazine that The Power of Now "really changed my life."

The peculiar thing about Tolle is that his reputation has probably mushroomed and gained mystique in part because he's generally been flying beneath the radar of mass-media journalists, the typically jaded, cynical, party-pooping types.

The ebullient Kellough can't say enough about her client, who she says captures the essence of pure Buddhism and Vedanta Hinduism. The Power of Now, she says, is a modern-day classic. "I think it's going to be around long after we leave this incarnation."

I admit it: my usual skepticism about New Age gurus is advancing more rapidly with each comment she makes. I am struggling to remain open- minded.

There is a slight shuffling at the top of the stairs. The master has arrived.

He is not the kind of person who lights up a room. He's small and unpretentious looking, with hunched shoulders that convey a sense of humility. His broad face, wide upturned nostrils and narrow eyes give him an elfin look, a slightly porcine pleasantness.

He takes little steps across the polished hardwood. Kellough gives him a bear hug, and he smiles, a touch sheepishly. His softness offers relief from the intense, well-meaning hype of his publisher. I wonder if he's feeling mildly embarrassed at her wide-eyed embrace. In his work, he discourages anyone from treating him as special. He is 25 minutes late, and although he apologizes, he doesn't offer an explanation.

Is that what it means to live in the now? No justifications? No regrets over the past? No race to a better future? Just experiencing the moment, the suchness of being (as Zen Buddhists, 19th-century German philosophers and Tolle like to put it)?

I hold off on the blue-sky questions about what it means to be in the now to focus first on how such a famous spiritual master could come out of little old Vancouver.

In between a semi-reclusive life of counselling and teaching in Europe, he says he travelled to the West Coast of Canada and the U.S. in the mid-1990s, retracing an earlier visit to the West Coast made when he was a miserable student.

During that visit something in the West Coast air made him buy a notepad and start filling it with whatever came into his mind. "I was writing down things I didn't know myself before I started writing them."

When he returned to England, with its weight of history and tradition, the writing stopped.

"I woke up and realized I had to return to the West Coast of Canada," he says. "I find Vancouver has a very special energy field. It has a very gentle energy field, which is rare as far as big cities go. U.S. cities have a nervous energy field, which can be exciting, but also lead to madness."

When he first moved here he lived in the West End. After his book started attracting wide fascination, he moved to a condominium next to Pacific Spirit Park. "It's like a tree house, overlooking the forest." He doesn't want to be more specific about his location, since he's already feeling overwhelmed by fans' polite demands to correspond, to be hugged, to talk, to sit at his feet.

"I always love not to be noticed. I love sitting in cafes and just watching people. By nature, I'm kind of introspective, or withdrawn almost," he says.

His voice is so tender it is not hard to believe him.

More and more frequently, however, people in Vancouver, Los Angeles and even England recognize him. Given the choice, Tolle says he would prefer to avoid fame. "But I live as if I would have chosen it," he says.

Though enigmatic, he seems sincere. His response to being a celebrity relates to his desire to be in the now. He approaches stardom like a spiritual discipline. He adopts a position of "non-resistance, of accepting what this moment presents."

Yet Tolle is not an anything-goes guy. His eyes are intense. He has a quiet determination. When he talks about his ideas, the flow is almost unstoppable, the devotion to his thoughts unrelenting. He doesn't hype for effect, but because he's convinced.

Great things are coming out of Vancouver, he says. First there was Greenpeace, the world's most famous environmental organization. Now, he says, there is his book, The Power of Now.

He has a way of making such a remark that doesn't seem egocentric. Just realistic.

Okay. What's it like to be in the now?

It is bliss, he says. He knows he's achieved full self-realization.

When he was profiled in the book Dialogues with Emerging Spiritual Teachers, by John Parker, he said of his enlightenment: "The certainty is complete. There is no need for confirmation from any external source. The realization of peace is so deep that even if I met the Buddha and the Buddha said you are wrong, I would say, 'Oh, isn't that interesting, even the Buddha can be wrong.'"

Unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Tolle's teachings don't recommend a lot of challenging techniques for reaching enlightenment. He fears they can be a hindrance, become ends in themselves.

The goal, he says, is to free yourself from fear, "to be totally aligned with what is."

At a psychological level, Tolle suggests, the human mind and its endless boiling thoughts create suffering by replaying the body's memories of fear and fretting over them, creating repetitive worry. That makes many people yearn for the future, where they hope they will finally, magically, be released from their pain.

"To be a master means simply not resisting now. So that life becomes a flow." Tolle claims Jesus was talking about the same thing when, speaking about the kingdom of heaven, he said, "Look at the flowers. They're not living for tomorrow."

Although Tolle is definitely not a Christian but a "neutral" spiritual teacher (closer to Zen than anything else), he changed his first name many years ago from Ullrich and borrowed that of Meister Eckhart, a famous mystical Christian from the medieval era.

Meister Eckhart used Christian language, but didn't get stuck on narrow doctrinal "religious" issues, Tolle says. He was very Buddhistic. "He got to the essence of things. One of his noted teachings was, 'There's no greater obstacle to God than time,' whether that meant past or future.'"

Tolle insists time is an illusion. "There's nothing that exists that's not now."

At this point, I'm thinking Tolle is an accessible writer and lucid thinker who has many valuable things to say in the way he interprets Eastern thought for Western consumption. But I am not convinced by everything -- for example, his argument that time is an illusion. I think time is real. There is a past, in which great and terrible things have happened, and there will be a future, which can and should be anticipated.

I look further a field for another perspective on Tolle.

Like me, Linda Christensen, who lectures about mysticism and world religions at Simon Fraser University and the University of B.C., also sees some value in the idea of living in the present.

"At a psychological level, it's very liberating to not fret over your past or your future. But on a metaphysical level, it might be lacking."

If the ultimate purpose of life is to attain bliss, she says, does this mean trying to be unhampered by the burning issues of the day? "Or is there something more to the human journey?"

As someone who began taking a beginner's yoga course this fall at my nearby community centre, I can see the value of calming the clutter of one's racing mind in a culture that's jacked up on coffee and overstimulated by media.

Whether you're Christian, Buddhist or atheist, yoga can combat the stresses of work, family and life itself.

I can't help but think, however, that Christensen has a point when she suggests obsessing about living in the now and turning off one's mind as if it were some sort of all-purpose answer to the burdens of life -- could easily turn into escapism.

As Christensen puts it, "It's so easy to not deal with your shit -- your past issues and future concerns."

There's such a thing as productive anxiety, she says. And I agree. Living in the eternal now may have short-term appeal, but it's not the way to run the planet. Global issues like pollution, war, poverty and economic security can't be resolved by sitting on your backside in contented splendour.

But when I ask Tolle about this, he says he doesn't see a problem. Looking at the soaring ceilings of the shimmering room in which we're sitting, I suggest that constructing such a thing of beauty takes immense planning for the future.

So does trying to make the world a better place. Tolle counters my argument by saying that creative people who design houses, or press to protect the environment or preserve animal rights, are often living in the now as they do these things. They only go wrong when they reduce their planning to a "means to an end, by focusing on a moment that never comes."

Christensen hasn't read The Power of Now, so she emphasizes that her comments are not directly aimed at his work, but she points out that obtaining pure consciousness doesn't necessarily answer tough questions about the meaning or purpose of life. Nor does it directly address the challenges of living in community, which is where the rubber hits the road.

Tolle says he spends most of his time in solitude and teaching. (He's in a relationship now, after many years of celibacy, but doesn't say more.) But what about the real stresses of raising children, performing a job for a tough employer or volunteering on the front lines of community enhancement?

Eastern spiritual traditions have often been weak on such everyday social realities.

"It's easy to be spiritual when you're by yourself," Christensen says. But what about when your baby is screaming with colic at 3 a.m. in the morning and you've got to take the bus to work at 8 a.m.?

The audience at the glamorous, golden, baroque Orpheum Theatre looks fit, well-scrubbed, lean and relaxed. Most of the people here dress with a casual West Coast elegance, as the fashion writers might say. Many carry bottles of water. They're all ages, but many are in their 20s, and most are under 50.

Most religious leaders would kill for the crowd of more than 1,300 that's come to hear Tolle speak, paying anywhere from $40 to $125 for the privilege.

This early-September session begins with an introduction by Michael Bertrand of Banyen Books, who tells us Tolle would prefer the audience not applaud when he makes his stage entrance.

Then Tolle quietly walks across the bare stage. He heads for a simple black chair. Besides a Persian carpet and two vases of yellow flowers, the only nod to making this a theatrical event is a video screen above that stage that shows Tolle about three times life size.

Standing, Tolle brings his palms together in front of his chest in a prayerful gesture meant to honour the audience. He sits down. Then 40 seconds of silence.

When he speaks, he immediately lowers expectations.

This will not be a performance, he says. "All you will get is a man in a chair, speaking. And not even a man who has much of a stage presence."

Gales of laughter.

"If you expected food for thought, you probably won't get very much." More knowing laughter.

"It is inevitable that a few people will walk out after 20 minutes. They won't be able to stop the stream of thinking. And I'm not here to stimulate the mind."

With a smile, Tolle is soon acting the role of a skeptical audience member who is desperately waiting for him "to say something with which he can disagree."

"Most people are totally identified with their own thoughts," he says, darting his head about, eyes upward, in an imitation of busy thinkers, his expression suggesting that the thoughts jumping around in his head are nasty wasps.

Laughter again.

"Thought separates us," he then says, his voice soft, soothing. Almost hypnotic.

"I don't mean you shouldn't think any more. But we need to end thinking as the main mode on this planet. We just shouldn't be so captivated by thoughts. You won't be so reactive. You'll be able to align yourself with the suchness of the moment."

The woman beside me, like most in the audience, is highly attentive. A few others, however, are quietly walking out, just as Tolle predicted.

He talks. On and on. He does not tell stories, like an entertaining preacher or rabbi. He speaks like a German philosophy professor -- extremely abstractly.

After two hours of monologue, some in the crowd are subtly struggling to find a more comfortable sitting position, including me. This is the most traditional and demanding educational format known to Western humanity: an ad lib lecture. A few have fallen asleep. Tolle seems to notice and announces intermission.

In the lobby, the group crowding around a long table piled with Tolle books, tapes and videos is five rows deep. The bustling long-time owner of Banyen Books, Kolin Lymworth, says Tolle is a breath of fresh air in alternative spirituality.

"He's refreshing in the lack of drama and glitz. He's unpretentious and profound. His teaching really helps people get free of their patterns of suffering. He directs people back to their own experience, rather than to
some big idea."

The people who've paid to attend this event describe their response to Tolle in various ways. Kenneth Terry, who works in the film industry, said he doesn't idolize Tolle "because that would be missing the point," but he appreciates how he teaches people to catch themselves when they're being unaware of reality. Terry happily paid $70 for his ticket. Sprawled on a couch in the lobby, Steve Pauls, a 35-year-old realtor wearing an all-black outfit, says of Tolle: "I like everything about everything. He offers another piece of the puzzle. It's all whole. And this is a part of it."

Pauls' 19-year-old girlfriend, Ashley Russell, an actress and model, is equally challenging to understand.

Wearing pink sunglasses and a pin-striped body suit, she says she's a "Christ follower," but she doesn't like Christian doctrine. Like Tolle, she doesn't think people should judge or label others. She likes how Tolle says we "shouldn't worry about tomorrow."

After intermission, Tolle talks about how you can lose your fear of death by becoming aware you are already dying, aware that your body is just a form that is impermanent. The trick of life, he says, is to escape the endless cycle of history.

The soft voice gently continues. Some couples in the audience are tangled in somnolent half-embraces. Others are leaning heavily on their arms. A few are asleep. It's been almost four hours of straight talk.

I realize I'm nodding off.

When the end comes, Tolle says, "So your mission is clear: To know yourself as presence."

He bows again to the audience and shuffles, bent-necked, off stage. Even though the audience has been asked not to clap, many do.

In the lobby, the book table is again swamped.

When we meet to drive to the near-empty beaches of Spanish Banks for a photo session, Tolle opens the door of my car for me. He has an alluring European gentility. As we head for the beach we discuss how he's dealing with his fame and new wealth.

As he does in his public appearances, he almost makes fun of those who think he is the answer. "They don't realize what they're responding to is in them.

They think it's in me."

He says he's seen a lot of spiritual teachers, whom he won't name, who have succumbed to adoration and started thinking themselves "special." He wants to tell the world he's not.

Until his book was published five years ago, he had no savings, he says. No insurance. No investments. "I was probably living below the poverty line. But if people told me I was poor, I would have said 'I didn't know that.' Now there's relative abundance in my life. I enjoy it. But the enjoyment is the same. I used to travel in buses, but now I have my own car."

What kind of car?

"An Infiniti," he says.

"I like the name."

He chuckles rhythmically and repetitively, bringing his shoulders up toward his ears. He seems without guile. Even if I don't agree with everything he says, I find myself thinking that maybe nice guys don't finish last.

He says his 82-year-old mother is coming out soon to Vancouver to visit him, and I quickly sense mom has had a lot to do with how Tolle has turned out.

Worried about her boy and his prospects, she has spent her life believing that the key to human existence resides in the future, in status and money.

Her approach to life is exactly what Tolle criticizes.

Mom is not the kind of person who is satisfied to live in the sacred present, no matter what it offers. "My mother thought I'd failed miserably in life. She was unhappy for many years," Tolle says. "Now," he says with a wry and tolerant smile, "she's happy."

A galaxy of spiritual celebrities have filled the North American firmament in the past 50 years. Here's how Tolle compares to four of the biggest names Thomas Merton One of the 20th century's most famous spiritual teachers, Merton was a member of the Catholic Trappist order, an anti-war activist, an inspiration to Bob Dylan and among the first Western thinkers to embrace the teachings of Buddhism. Merton died in 1968 after writing his autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain, which has sold more than a million copies. Countless Westerners, like Tolle, have since followed Merton to explore the wisdom of the East. While Merton incorporated Buddhist meditation practices into his Catholicism, Tolle prefers to talk about being a "neutral" spiritual teacher whose insights are available to virtually anyone.

Baba Ram Dass
Born Richard Alpert in 1931, he became one of the pioneers of psychedelic exploration with Timothy Leary. After a trip to India, he met a guru who named him Ram Dass and he settled in California. He co-founded the Seva Foundation, which helps blind and AIDS-ridden people in the Third World. Ram Dass wrote the million-seller-plus Be Here Now, which focusses on a theme similar to Tolle's The Power of Now. Unlike Tolle, however, Ram Dass says he's not enlightened, just "on a path" to change the world for the better.

Jack Kornfield
One of North America's most well-known Buddhist writers, Kornfield blends psychotherapy with Vipassana Buddhism, or insight meditation. He approaches it in a more traditionally Buddhist and rigorous way than Tolle.

Insight meditation encourages practitioners to recognize reality is impermanent, characterized by suffering and emptiness. Kornfield's best-known title is Jesus and Buddha, which emphasizes the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. He is among the first to admit North American Buddhists have rejected Asian-style hierarchical communities.

Deepak Chopra
The author of more than 26 books, which have sold more than 10 million copies, Chopra is an industry. Making more lavish claims than Tolle, his Hindu-flavoured teachings promises psychic powers, freedom from stress, unbridled creativity, inner contentment, loving relationships, material wealth and the ability to live to age 120 or
longer. When Chopra, who is a friend of Oprah, Madonna, Michael Jackson and a host of other celebrities, was in Vancouver last year, like Tolle, he charged $40 to $125 for a ticket.

About 4,000 showed up for Chopra's talk at GM Place, which had been well-publicized in the mainstream media. In September, about 1,300 attended Tolle's event at the Orpheum, which received little advance publicity.

Copyright 2002 Vancouver Sun

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