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A Conversation With Eckhart Tolle

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One of my favorite moments on Oprah's Super Soul Sunday came when Oprah asked the poet Mark Nepo what he considers sacred. When he replied, "Conversations like this are sacred to me," Oprah said, "They're so sacred to me I created a whole show to have them!"

In 2008 Oprah and the spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle held a number of those conversations as part of their Web series Oprah & Eckhart Tolle: A New Earth. Now they're bringing those episodes to television for the first time, Sundays at noon on OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network. Since my new book Thrive is concerned with many of the same questions, I asked Tolle about the series, why this is a conversation we as a society need to have now, and the moment he knew he needed to change his life. Here's our conversation.

There's a great deal of common ground between your work and Oprah's: You share belief that by looking at our inner world, we can better equip ourselves to improve our outer world and the lives of those around us. Why did you decide to join forces with Oprah for this series, and how did it come together?

It all started when Oprah chose A New Earth as one of her book club selections. I got a message from my office that Oprah wanted to talk to me. At the time I was at our little island vacation home when Oprah called and told me that she had chosen A New Earth to be her book club selection, which was wonderful news. Then she said, "There's something else: I don't just want to have this book as my book club selection; I also want to do a teaching seminar with you on the Web, and we can do that over a 10-week period to bring the teaching to all those people who chose to tune in." I was amazed. I didn't even realize that such a thing was possible.

I said to Oprah, "Have you ever done this before?" She said, "No, this is completely new," and then I immediately heard myself say, "Yes, I'll do it." That's how it started. It was, for both of us, and for millions of other people, a wonderful experience and a way to use the new technology to bring greater consciousness to the planet and to humans on a very large scale. That's how it started, and it acquired its own momentum, as things do. By now it has been viewed over 40 million times.

Now, for the first time, it's on television, because when we first did it, it was only accessible on the Web. Now it will be reaching even more people, and there are people now who were not ready at the time, because to be able to understand and become transformed through a spiritual teaching, there needs to be a point of readiness. Not every human has reached that point of inner readiness. Sometimes it takes time and more suffering before people become ready to awaken. So the series is reaching people now who perhaps it could not reach then.

In your book A New Earth, and in the new series with Oprah that's based on the book, you made a compelling case for the need to be more present in our lives. Is there something about this particular moment that makes that message more important and urgent?

To become present in one's daily life is the arising of what may be called a different state of consciousness or a shift in consciousness. Everybody can verify that for themselves by noticing the difference between what it feels like when you are completely identified with every thought that comes into your head and what it feels like when you are present. When you are present, there is clarity, inner peace and a sense of aliveness, which is so different from the mind-identified state. When you are completely identified with thinking, you are also reactive. This is a dysfunctional, negative state that creates a lot of conflict.

Collectively, we are at a point where the old -- I call it the old, dysfunctional, egoic state of consciousness -- has become extremely dangerous. We can go back 100 years ago, which is 1914, when World War I started, and that was the first time humans fully realized how insane warfare was because of all the advances in technology that had happened by that time. Millions upon millions of people died in World War I from chemical warfare, tanks, poison gas, machine guns and all the other clever inventions of the egoic mind. That was the first time we realized the magnitude of the dysfunction in the collective consciousness, as it became amplified by the advances in science and technology.

We have reached a point now where if there's no shift in consciousness away from the dysfunctional, egoic state that generates all that insanity, then humans would most likely destroy themselves, or at least bring about a complete collapse of civilization. We have arrived at a point of great danger, collectively, but danger also means great opportunity for change. There's a fundamental universal truth, and that is humans do not change until they reach a point of crisis. That applies not only to individuals, but it also applies to humanity as a whole. It's only when we reach a state of crisis, the suffering that it produces creates the impetus behind the shift in consciousness. This is the point that we have reached now, and we've been moving towards this for the past 100 years. This is why so many people are now ready to undergo that shift.

So this is a very important moment in human history, where there is a possibility of almost a quantum leap in human consciousness. There's also the possibility, of course, that humans are not going to make it, that the shift won't happen, in which case there would be a regression in human evolution that could throw us back several thousand years. Hopefully, that's not going to happen, but it could happen, and even that would not be ultimately tragic, because I believe that consciousness is destined to grow and flower on this planet. I'm fairly confident that it is happening already, but we must not underestimate the gravitational pull, so to speak, of the old, dysfunctional consciousness that is still here and operates, as you can see when you watch the daily news. Most things you see on the daily news are reflections of the old, dysfunctional consciousness, or, rather, unconsciousness. We have reached a very interesting point in human evolution. It's quite amazing to be alive at this time.

Was there a moment in your own life -- a wakeup call or a personal turning point -- that showed you the importance of presence, focus and stillness?

Yes, there was a moment when the unhappiness in me became almost unbearable. I was depressed and anxious most of the time. This is what we've just been talking about now, the deep crisis that precedes a change in consciousness. I experienced that in my own life. I briefly describe it in the introduction to The Power of Now. I couldn't live with myself any longer, and so I considered suicide. I had considered suicide quite a few times in my life. At that point, suddenly something happened within me. I didn't understand what it was, because it happened spontaneously. It was only later I realized that what happened inside me was the arising of presence.

It was spontaneous. Nobody had told me that there's such thing as presence; it just happened. I disidentified from the thinking mind, the voice in the head that, in my case, as it is in many people's lives, was quite negative and self-destructive. I stepped out of the stream of thinking, and what arose inside me was presence or awareness, and suddenly I found this inner peace, and this happened as a result of extreme depression and anxiety. So I reached a crisis point in my life, and then, spontaneously, this shift in consciousness happened. This could be called a spontaneous healing at a very deep level, because the only true healing is a change in consciousness.

All other forms of healing, although they may be helpful and beneficial, are ultimately temporary and relatively superficial. This deep healing happened to me without a conceptual understanding, and that's an interesting thing, because it's not that I suddenly understood everything. I didn't understand conceptually what happened, so the shift in consciousness does not happen on the conceptual level. For most people it is helpful to come into contact with a teaching, to read a spiritual book or to listen to a spiritual talk. Those are conceptual pointers, and they can be helpful, but presence itself has nothing to do with concepts in your mind; it's going beyond thinking. You realize that there are basically two dimensions inside of you.

One of those two dimensions is thinking, which is where your identity as a person lies. The other dimension is consciousness itself, which is a where you are connected with something vast that goes far beyond who you are as a person. It is where you are connected to the universal intelligence itself that underlies the entire universe. This happened to me as a result of suffering, so there is a redeeming feature to suffering, because suffering can bring about that shift, and until a certain point in an individual's evolution is reached, suffering is inevitable and fulfills a necessary function, without which the shift would not take place. Humanity as a whole has already suffered enormously. Most of history is a history of dreadful suffering, much of it self-inflicted through violence and continuous conflict.

Because humanity has already gone through acute suffering, there are many people alive now who are actually at a point of readiness. They don't need to suffer that much more, because now we benefit from the past collective human suffering.

The ego is central to your work and the series -- how to understand it, talk about it and ultimately transcend it. How can we begin to free ourselves from our own egos?

In A New Earth I dealt in more detail with the ego and the various ways in which it manifests. I recommend that people read those chapters, but here I'd just like to mention that on the most basic level ego means complete identification with the thinking mind. In the egoic state, your sense of self, your identity, is derived from your thinking mind -- in other words, what your mind tells you about yourself: the storyline of you, the memories, the expectations, all the thoughts that go through your head continuously and the emotions that reflect those thoughts. All those things make up your sense of self. This mind-made sense of self is a mental image, and you live through that mental image. This mental image is the ego.

How you can free yourself from the ego is by realizing that there is another dimension of consciousness in you. That dimension is in everybody, but if you're completely identified with every thought that comes into you head, then you continuously overlook that there is that dimension of stillness and spaciousness inside you. Thought can be so seductive and hypnotic that it absorbs your attention totally, so you become your thoughts. When you become your thoughts, that is the ego. To realize that you are not your thoughts is when you begin to awaken spiritually.

For example, when your mind is very critical of yourself or other people, frequently complaining or berating yourself or creating anxiety by worrying about what might go wrong in the future, this creates a lot of unhappiness. Then you reach a point where you ask yourself, "What is at the root of this unhappiness I feel all the time?" And then you may be amazed to realize that in most cases when you are unhappy, you're not unhappy because of something that's happening in your life; you're unhappy because of what your mind is telling you about it. It's not a situation or an event that makes you unhappy but your mental commentary about it, the voice in your head. When you realize that, that's when you begin to disidentify from the voice in your head. The disidentification from thinking is the arising of presence. Then you realize that there is a sense of conscious presence behind your thoughts, and that this conscious presence is who you are. The thoughts happen within that presence, so thoughts come and go.

I like to give the analogy of the sky. The sky also has two dimensions: There are clouds, and there is the empty, blue sky. In this analogy the clouds are your thoughts, and they continuously drift past. And for many people there are so many clouds that their inner sky is continuously overcast. They don't realize that beyond the clouds is a vast, blue sky -- luminous vastness. But then a moment comes when there is a break in the clouds, a gap between two thoughts, and you realize, "Oh, the clouds are there, but I am that spacious vastness that is beyond the clouds." That means you're beginning to be free of the ego. Then your sense of identity is the feeling of your own presence. This is the realization that the essence of who you are is consciousness. Consciousness can be compared to space. It enables everything to be. We could put it like this: You are not what happens; you are the space in which it happens. That space is consciousness.

Thoughts are fine when you don't confuse them with who you are, and then thoughts are not a problem. Thinking is a wonderful tool to create things in this world. It only becomes problematic and a source of suffering when you confuse thinking with who you are. When you no longer confuse thinking with who you are, you begin to be free of the ego. It doesn't mean that you don't periodically fall back, because awakening is gradual.