Ripples on the Surface of Being: An interview with Eckhart Tolle by Andrew Cohen
This interview was re-edited and reprinted with a special introduction for the 15th anniversary edition of Enliighten Next. Click to view the full issue: http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j18/tolle.asp.
ANDREW COHEN: Eckhart, what is your life like? I’ve heard that you’re a bit of a recluse and that you spend a lot of time in solitude. Is that true?
ECKHART TOLLE: That was true in the past, before my book The Power of Now came out. For many years I was a recluse. But since the publication of the book, my life has changed dramatically. I’m now very much involved in teaching and traveling. And people who knew me before say, “This is amazing. You used to be a hermit and now you are out in the world.” Yet I still feel that inside nothing has changed. I still feel exactly the same as before. There is still a continuous sense of peace, and I am surrendered to the fact that on an external level there’s been a total change. So it’s actually not true anymore that I am a hermit. Now I’m the opposite of a hermit. This may well be a cycle. It may well be that at some point this will come to an end and I will become a hermit again. But at the moment, I am surrendered to the fact that I’m almost continuously interacting. I do occasionally take time to be alone. That is necessary in between teaching engagements.
AC: Why is it that you need to take time to be alone, and what is it that happens when you take the time to be alone?
ET: When I’m with people, I’m a spiritual teacher. That’s the function, but it’s not my identity. The moment I’m alone, my deepest joy is to be nobody, to relinquish the function of a teacher. It’s a temporary function. Let’s say I’m seeing a group of people. The moment they leave me, I’m no longer a spiritual teacher. There’s no longer any sense of external identity. I simply go into the stillness more deeply. The place that I love most is the stillness. It’s not that the stillness is lost when I talk or when I teach because the words arise out of the stillness. But when people leave me, there is only the stillness left. And I love that so much.
AC: Would you say that you prefer it?
ET: Not prefer. There is a balance now in my life, which perhaps wasn’t there before. When the inner transformation happened many years ago, one could almost say a balance was lost. It was so fulfilling and so blissful simply to be that I lost all interest in doing or interacting. For quite a few years, I got lost in Being. I had almost relinquished doing completely—just enough to keep myself alive and even that was miraculous. I had totally lost interest in the future. And then gradually a balance re-established itself. It didn’t re-establish itself fully until I started writing the book. The way I feel now is that there is a balance in my life between being alone and interacting with people, between Being and doing, whereas before, the doing was relinquished and there was only Being. Blissful, profound, beautiful—but from an external viewpoint, many people thought that I had become unbalanced or had gone mad. Some people thought I was crazy to have let go of all the worldly things I had “achieved.” They didn’t understand that I didn’t want or need any of that anymore.
So the balance now is between aloneness and meeting with people. And that’s good. I’m quite attentive to that so that the balance doesn’t get lost. There is now a pull toward increasing doing. People want me to talk here and talk there—there are constant demands. I know that I need to be attentive now, so that the balance is not lost, and I don’t get lost in doing. I don’t think it would ever happen, but it requires a certain amount of vigilance.
AC: What would it mean to get lost in doing?
ET: Theoretically, it would mean that I would continuously travel, teach, and interact with people. Perhaps if that happened, at some point the flow, the stillness, might not be there. I don’t know; it may always be there. Or physical exhaustion may set in. But I feel now that I need to return to the pure stillness periodically. And then, when the teaching happens, just allow it to arise out of the stillness. So the teaching and stillness are very closely connected. The teaching arises out of the stillness. But when I’m alone, there’s only the stillness, and that is my favorite place.
AC: When you’re alone, do you spend a lot of time physically being still?
ET: Yes, I can sometimes sit for two hours in a room with almost no thought. Just complete stillness. Sometimes when I go for walks, there’s also complete stillness; there’s no mental labeling of sense perceptions. There’s simply a sense of awe or wonder or openness, and that’s beautiful.
AC: In your book The Power of Now you state that “The ultimate purpose of the world lies not within the world but in transcendence of the world.” Could you please explain what you mean?
ET: Transcending the world does not mean to withdraw from the world, to no longer take action, or to stop interacting with people. Transcendence of the world is to act and to interact without any self-seeking. In other words, it means to act without seeking to enhance one’s sense of self through one’s actions or one’s interactions with people. Ultimately, it means not needing the future anymore for one’s fulfillment or for one’s sense of self or being. There is no seeking through doing, seeking an enhanced, more fulfilled, or greater sense of self in the world. When that seeking isn’t there anymore, then you can be in the world but not be of the world. You are no longer seeking for anything to identify with out there.
AC: Do you mean that one has given up an egotistical, materialistic relationship to the world?
ET: Yes, it means no longer seeking to gain a sense of self, a deeper or enhanced sense of self. Because in the normal state of consciousness, what people are looking for through their activity is to be more completely themselves. The bank robber is looking for that in some way. The person who is striving for enlightenment is also looking for it because he or she is seeking to attain a state of perfection, a state of completion, a state of fullness at some point in the future. There is a seeking to gain something through one’s activities. They are seeking happiness, but ultimately they are seeking themselves or you could say God; it comes down to the same thing. They are seeking themselves, and they are seeking where it can never be found, in the normal, unenlightened state of consciousness, because the unenlightened state of consciousness is always in the seeking mode. That means they are of the world—in the world and of the world.
AC: You mean that they are looking forward in time?
ET: Yes, the world and time are intrinsically connected. When all self-seeking in time ceases, then you can be in the world without being of the world.
AC: What exactly do you mean when you say that the purpose of the world lies in the transcendence of it?
ET: The world promises fulfillment somewhere in time, and there is a continuous striving toward that fulfillment in time. Many times people feel, “Yes, now I have arrived,” and then they realize that, no, they haven’t arrived, and then the striving continues. It is expressed beautifully in A Course in Miracles, where it says that the dictum of the ego is “Seek but do not find.” People look to the future for salvation, but the future never arrives.
So ultimately, suffering arises through not finding. And that is the beginning of an awakening—when the realization dawns that “Perhaps this is not the way. Perhaps I will never get to where I am striving to reach; perhaps it’s not in the future at all.” After having been lost in the world, suddenly, through the pressure of suffering, the realization comes that the answers may not be found out there in worldly attainment and in the future.
That’s an important point for many people to reach. That sense of deep crisis—when the world as they have known it, and the sense of self that they have known that is identified with the world, become meaningless. That happened to me. I was just that close to suicide and then something else happened—a death of the sense of self that lived through identifications, identifications with my story, things around me, the world. Something arose at that moment that was a sense of deep and intense stillness and aliveness, beingness. I later called it “presence.” I realized that beyond words, that is who I am. But this realization wasn’t a mental process. I realized that that vibrantly alive, deep stillness is who I am.
Years later, I called that stillness “pure consciousness,” whereas everything else is the conditioned consciousness. The human mind is the conditioned consciousness that has taken form as thought. The conditioned consciousness is the whole world that is created by the conditioned mind. Everything is our conditioned consciousness; even objects are. Conditioned consciousness has taken birth as form and then that becomes the world. So to be lost in the conditioned seems to be necessary for humans. It seems to be part of their path to be lost in the world, to be lost in the mind, which is the conditioned consciousness.
Then, due to the suffering that arises out of being lost, one finds the unconditioned as oneself. And that is why we need the world to transcend the world. So I’m infinitely grateful for having been lost.
The purpose of the world is for you to be lost in it, ultimately. The purpose of the world is for you to suffer, to create the suffering that seems to be what is needed for the awakening to happen. And then once the awakening happens, with it comes the realization that suffering is unnecessary now. You have reached the end of suffering because you have transcended the world. It is the place that is free of suffering.
This seems to be everybody’s path. Perhaps it is not everybody’s path in this lifetime, but it seems to be a universal path. Even without a spiritual teaching or a spiritual teacher, I believe that everybody would get there eventually. But that could take time.
AC: A long time.
ET: Much longer. A spiritual teaching is there to save time. The basic message of the teaching is that you don’t need any more time, you don’t need any more suffering. I tell this to people who come to me: “You are ready to hear this because you are listening to it. There are still millions of people out there who are not listening to it. They still need time. But I am not talking to them. You are hearing that you don’t need time anymore and you don’t need to suffer anymore. You’ve been seeking in time and you’ve been seeking further suffering.” And to suddenly hear that “You don’t need that anymore—for some, that can be the moment of transformation.
So the beauty of the spiritual teaching is that it saves lifetimes
AC: Unnecessary suffering.
ET: Yes, so it’s good that people are lost in the world. I enjoy traveling to New York and Los Angeles, where it seems that people are totally involved. I was looking out of the window in New York. We were next to the Empire State Building, doing a group. And everybody was rushing around, almost running. Everybody seemed to be in a state of intense nervous tension, anxiety. It’s suffering, really, but it’s not recognized as suffering. And I thought, where are they all running to? And of course, they are all running to the future. They are needing to get somewhere, which is not here. It is a point in time: not now—then. They are running to a then. They are suffering, but they don’t even know it. But to me, even watching that was joyful. I didn’t feel, “Oh, they should know better.” They are on their spiritual path. At the moment, that is their spiritual path, and it works beautifully.
AC: Often the word enlightenment is interpreted to mean the end of division within the self and the simultaneous discovery of a perspective or way of seeing that is whole, complete, or free from duality. Some who have experienced this perspective claim that the ultimate realization is that there is no difference between the world and God or the Absolute, between samsara and nirvana, between the manifest and the unmanifest. But there are others who claim that, in fact, the ultimate realization is that the world doesn’t actually exist at all—that the world is only an illusion, completely empty of meaning, significance, or reality. So in your own experience, is the world real? Is the world unreal? Both?
ET: Even when I’m interacting with people or walking in a city, doing ordinary things, the way I perceive the world is like ripples on the surface of being. Underneath the world of sense perceptions and the world of mind activity, there is the vastness of being. There’s a vast spaciousness. There’s a vast stillness and there’s a little ripple activity on the surface, which isn’t separate, just like the ripples are not separate from the ocean.
So there is no separation in the way I perceive it. There is no separation between being and the manifested world, between the manifested and the unmanifested. But the unmanifested is so much vaster, deeper, and greater than what happens in the manifested. Every phenomenon in the manifested is so short-lived and so fleeting that, yes, one could almost say that from the perspective of the unmanifested, which is the timeless beingness or presence, all that happens in the manifested realm really seems like a play of shadows. It seems like vapor or mist with continuously new forms arising and disappearing, arising and disappearing. So to the one who is deeply rooted in the unmanifested, the manifested could very easily be called unreal. I don’t call it unreal because I see it as not separate from anything.
AC: So it is real?
ET: All that is real is beingness itself. Consciousness is all there is, pure consciousness.
C: You’re saying that the definition of “real” would be that which is free from birth and death?
ET: That’s right.
AC: So only that which was never born and cannot die would be real. And since the manifest world is ultimately not separate from the unmanifest, according to what you are saying, in the end, one would have to say it’s real.
ET: Yes, and even within every form that is subject to birth and death, there is the deathless. The essence of every form is the deathless. Even the essence of a blade of grass is the deathless. And that’s why the world of form is sacred. It’s not that the realm of the sacred is exclusively being or the unmanifested. Even the world of form I see as sacred.
AC: If someone simply asks you, “Is the world real or unreal?” would you say it was real or would you have to qualify the statement?
ET: I would probably qualify the statement.
AC: Saying what?
ET: It’s a temporary manifestation of the real.
AC: So if the world is a temporary manifestation of the real, what is the enlightened relationship to the world?
ET: To the unenlightened, the world is all there is. There is nothing else. This time-bound mode of consciousness clings to the past for its identity and desperately needs the world for its happiness and fulfillment. Therefore, the world holds enormous promise but poses a great threat at the same time. That is the dilemma of the unenlightened consciousness: it is torn between seeking fulfillment in and through the world and being threatened by it continuously. A person hopes that they will find themselves in it, and at the same time they fear that the world is going to kill them, as it will. That is the state of continuous conflict that the unenlightened consciousness is condemned to—being torn continuously between desire and fear. It’s a dreadful fate.
The enlightened consciousness is rooted in the unmanifested, and ultimately is one with it. It knows itself to be that. One could almost say it is the unmanifested looking out. Even with a simple thing like visually perceiving a form—a flower or a tree—if you are perceiving it in a state of great alertness and deep stillness, free of past and future, then at that moment already it is the unmanifested. You are not a person anymore at that moment. The unmanifested is perceiving itself in form. And there is always a sense of goodness in that perception.
So then all action arises out of that, and has a completely different quality from action that arises out of the unenlightened consciousness, which needs something and seeks to protect itself. That is really where those intangible and precious qualities come in that we call love, joy, and peace. They are all one with the unmanifested. They arise out of that. A human being who lives in connectedness with that and then acts and interacts becomes a blessing on the planet, whereas the unenlightened human is very heavy on the planet. There is a heaviness to the unenlightened. And the planet is suffering from millions of unenlightened humans. The burden on the planet is almost too much to bear. I can sometimes feel it as the planet saying, “Oh, no more, please.”
AC: You encourage people to meditate, to as you describe it, “rest in the Presence of the Now” as much as possible. Do you think that spiritual practice can ever become truly deep and have the power to liberate if one has not already given up the world and what the world represents, at least to some degree?
ET: I wouldn’t say that the practice itself has the power to liberate. It’s only when there is complete surrender to the now, to what is, that liberation is possible. I do not believe that a practice will take you into complete surrender. Complete surrender usually happens through living. Your very life is the ground where that happens. There may be a partial surrender and then there may be an opening, and then you may engage in spiritual practice. But whether the spiritual practice is taken up after a certain degree of insight or the spiritual practice is just done in and of itself, the practice alone won’t do it.
AC: Something that I’ve found in my own teaching work is that unless the world has been seen through to a certain degree, and unless there is a willingness based on that seeing to let go of it, then spiritual experience, no matter how powerful it is, is not going to lead to any kind of liberation.
ET: That’s right, and the willingness to let go is surrender. That remains the key. Without that, no amount of practice or even spiritual experiences will do it.
AC: Yes, many people say they want to meditate or do spiritual practice, but their spiritual aspirations are not based on a willingness to let go of anything substantial.
ET: No, in fact it may be the opposite. Spiritual practice may be a way to try to find something new to identify with.
AC: Ultimately, would you say that real spiritual practice or real spiritual experience is meant to lead one to the letting go of the world, the transcendence of the world, the relinquishment of attachment to the world?
ET: Yes. Sometimes people ask, “How do you get to that? It sounds wonderful, but how do you get there?” In concrete terms, at its most basic, it simply means to say “yes” to this moment. That is the state of surrender—a total “yes” to what is. Not the inner “no” to what is. And the complete “yes” to what is, is the transcendence of the world. It’s as simple as that—a total openness to whatever arises at this moment. The usual state of consciousness is to resist, to run away from it, to deny it, to not look at it.
AC: So when you say a “yes” to what is, do you mean not avoiding anything and facing everything?
ET: Right. It’s welcoming this moment, embracing this moment, and that is the state of surrender. That is really all that’s needed. The only difference between a Master and a non-Master is that the Master embraces what is, totally. When there is nonresistance to what is, there comes a peace. The portal is open; the unmanifested is there. That is the most powerful way. We can’t call it practice because there’s no time in it.
AC: For most people who are participating in the East-meets-West spiritual explosion that is occurring with ever-greater speed these days, both Gautama the Buddha and Ramana Maharshi—one of the most respected Vedantins of the modern era—stand out as peerless examples of full-blown enlightenment, and yet, interestingly enough, in regard to this question of the right relationship to the world for the spiritual aspirant, their teachings diverge dramatically.
The Buddha, the world-renouncer, encouraged those who were the most sincere to leave the world and follow him in order to live the holy life, free from the cares and concerns of the householder life. Yet Ramana Maharshi discouraged his disciples from leaving the household life in pursuit of greater spiritual focus and intensity. In fact, he discouraged any outward acts of renunciation and instead encouraged the aspirant to look within and find the cause of ignorance and suffering within the self. Indeed, many of his growing number of devotees today say that the desire to renounce is actually an expression of ego, the very part of the self that we want to liberate ourselves from if we want to be free. But of course the Buddha laid great stress on the need for renunciation, detachment, diligence, and restraint as the very foundation on which liberating insight can occur.
So why do you think the approaches of these two spiritual luminaries differ so widely? Why do you think that the Buddha encouraged his disciples to leave the world while Ramana encouraged them to stay where they were?
ET: There’s not one way that that works. Different ages have certain approaches, which may be more effective for one age and no longer effective in another age. The world that we live in now has much greater density to it; it is much more all-pervasive. And when I say “world,” I include the human mind in it. The human mind has grown even since the time of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago. The human mind is more noisy and more all-pervasive, and the egos are bigger. There’s been an ego growth over thousands of years; it’s growing to a point of madness, with the ultimate madness having been reached in the twentieth century. One only needs to read twentieth-century history to see that it has been the climax of human madness, if it’s measured in terms of human violence inflicted on other humans.
So in the present time, we can’t escape from the world anymore; we can’t escape from the mind. We need to enter surrender while we are in the world. That seems to be the path that is effective in the world that we live in now. It may be that at the time of the Buddha, withdrawing was much, much easier than it would be now. The human mind was not yet so overwhelming at that time.
AC: But the reason that the Buddha preached leading the homeless life was because he felt that the household life was full of worries, cares, and concerns, and in that context he felt it would be difficult to do what was needed to live the holy life. So in terms of what you’re saying about the noise and distraction of the world, that is actually precisely what he was addressing and why in fact he led the homeless life and encouraged other people to do the same.
ET: Well, he gave his reasons, but ultimately we don’t know why the Buddha put the emphasis on leaving the world rather than saying as Ramana Maharshi did, “Do it in the world.” But it seems to me, from what I have observed, that the more effective way now is for people to surrender in the world rather than attempt to remove themselves from the world and create a structure that makes it easier to surrender. There’s a contradiction there already because you’re creating a structure to make it easier to surrender. Why not surrender now? You don’t need to create anything to make surrender easier because then it’s not true surrender anymore. I’ve stayed in Buddhist monasteries and I can see how easily it can happen—they have given up their name and adopted a new name, they’ve shaved their heads, they wear their robes—
AC: You’re saying that one world has been abandoned for another. One identification has been given up for another; one role has been dropped and another has been assumed. Nothing has actually been given up.
ET: That’s right. Therefore do it where you are, right here, right now. There’s no need to seek out some other place or some other condition or situation and then do it there. Do it right here and now. Wherever you are is the place for surrender. Whatever the situation is that you’re in, you can say “yes” to what is, and that is then the basis for all further action.
AC: There are many teachers and teachings today that say that the very desire to renounce the world is an expression of ego. How do you see that?
ET: The desire to renounce the world is again the desire to reach a certain state that you don’t have now. There’s a mental projection of a desirable state to reach—the state of renunciation. It’s self-seeking through future. In that sense, it is ego. True renunciation isn’t the desire to renounce; it arises as surrender. You cannot have a desire to surrender because that’s non-surrender. Surrender arises spontaneously sometimes in people who don’t even have a word for it. And I know that openness is there in many people now. Many people who come to me have a great openness. Sometimes it only requires a few words and immediately they have a glimpse, a taste of surrender, which may not yet be lasting, but the opening is there.
AC: What about the spontaneous call from the heart to abandon all that’s false and illusory, all that’s based on the ego’s materialistic relationship to life? For example, when the Buddha decided, “I have to leave my home behind—it would probably be hard to say that was an egotistical desire, looking at the results. And Jesus saying, “Come follow me. Let the dead bury their dead.”
ET: That is recognizing the false as false, which is mainly an inner thing—to recognize false identifications, to recognize the mental noise, and what had been identification with mental images as a “me” entity, to be false. That is beautiful, that recognition. And then action may arise out of the recognition of the false, and perhaps you can see the false reflected in your life circumstances and you may then leave those behind—or not. But the recognition and relinquishment of all that is false and illusory is primarily an inner one.
AC: Those two cases, the Buddha and Jesus, would be examples of powerful outer manifestations of that inner recognition.
ET: That’s right. There’s no predicting what is going to happen as a result of that inner recognition. For the Buddha, of course, it came because he was already an adult when he suddenly realized that humans die and become ill and grow old. And that was so powerful that he looked within and said that everything is meaningless if that’s all there is.
AC: But then he was compelled to go off, to abandon his kingdom. From a certain point of view he could have said, “Well, it’s all here right now, and all I need to do is just surrender unconditionally here and now.” Then I guess the result could have been very different, he could have been an enlightened king!
ET: But at that point he didn’t know that all that was necessary was surrender.
AC: Yet, when Jesus was calling the fishermen to leave their families and their lives to follow him and, similarly, when the Buddha would walk through towns and call the men to leave everything behind, their surrender was demonstrated in the actual leaving, in saying “yes” to Jesus or the Buddha and letting go of their worldly attachments. And obviously there would also be their inner attachment to let go of as well. In these cases, letting go wasn’t only a metaphor for inner transcendence; it also meant literally letting go of everything.
ET: For some people that is part of it. They may leave their habitual surroundings or activities, but the only question is whether or not they have already seen the false within. If they haven’t, the external letting go will be a disguised form of self-seeking.
AC: For my last question I’d like to ask you about the relationship between your understanding of enlightenment, or the experience of nondual consciousness, and engagement with the world.
In Judaism, fully engaging with the world and human life is seen as the fulfillment of the religious calling. In fact, they say it is only through wholeheartedly living the commandments that the spiritual potential of the human race can become manifest on earth. Jewish scholar David Ariel writes, “We finish the work of creation . . . God stands in need of us because only we can perfect the world.”
Many enlightenment or nondual teachings like your own emphasize the enlightenment of the individual. Indeed, transcendence of the world seems to be the whole point. But our Jewish brothers appear to be calling us to something very different—the spiritualization of the world through devoted men’s and women’s wholehearted participation in the world. So is it true that nondual enlightenment teachings deprive the world of our wholehearted participation in it? Does the very notion of transcendence rob the world of the fulfillment of our potential to spiritualize it as God’s children?
ET: No, because right action can only flow out of that state of transcendence of the world. Any other activity is ego-induced, and even doing good, if it’s ego-induced, will have karmic consequences. “Ego-induced” means there is an ulterior motive. For example, it enhances your self-image if you become a more spiritual person in your own eyes and that feels good; or another example would be looking to a future reward in another lifetime or in heaven. So if there are ulterior motives, it’s not pure. There cannot be true love flowing into your actions if the world has not been transcended because you’re not connected with the realm out of which love arises.
AC: Do you mean pure action, untainted by ego?
ET: Yes, first things first. What comes first is realization and liberation, and then let action flow out of that—and that will be pure, untainted, and there’s no karma attached to it whatsoever. Otherwise, no matter how high our ideals are, we will still strengthen the ego through our good actions. Unfortunately, you cannot fulfill the commandments unless you are egoless—and there are very few who are—as all the people who have tried to practice the teachings of Christ have found out. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the main teachings of Jesus, and you cannot fulfill that commandment, no matter how hard you try, if you don’t know who you are at the deepest level. Love your neighbor as yourself means your neighbor is yourself, and that recognition of oneness is love.