Ripples on the Surface of Being
An Interview with Eckhart Tolle
by Andrew Cohen
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 of—
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.
AC: 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.