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The Problem of Eckhart Tolle


Eckhart Tolle

4,752 words

It would be no exaggeration to say that Eckhart Tolle is now the most popular “spiritual teacher” in the United States – and possibly the world. The New York Times [2] and The Watkins Review [3] have declared as such. And he has been heavily promoted by Oprah Winfrey. The actor Jim Carrey is also a big fan. Normally, this would be enough for me to completely dismiss someone, but in this case I cannot. The reason is that, so far as I can see, Tolle is actually quite genuine. And he presents a teaching that is, for the most part, perennial and valuable. Make no mistake, this is one instance where Oprah and Hollywood, and millions of readers, are actually right about something. Yet there are problems here – with the teaching, with how it is being “packaged,” and with Tolle himself.

Eckhart Tolle was actually born Ulrich Leonard Tölle in the Ruhr Valley in Germany in 1948. This makes him 70 at the time of this writing – which is remarkable, as he looks like a much younger man. His childhood was an unhappy one, but as an adolescent he responded very strongly to some works by the German mystic Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken. Tolle later emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he took a degree from the University of London. He started postgraduate work at Cambridge University, but later dropped out.

Tolle states that he struggled with depression for much of his youth, and contemplated suicide. Then one night, when he was 29, he experienced a profound “inner transformation.” He describes this experience in his first book, The Power of Now (which has sold around three million copies in the US alone since it was first published in 1997):

“I cannot live with myself any longer.” This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. “Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself, there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with.” “Maybe,” I thought, “only one of them is real.” I was so stunned by this strange realization that my mind stopped. I was fully conscious, but there were no more thoughts. Then I felt drawn into what seemed like a vortex of energy. It was a slow movement at first and then accelerated. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words “resist nothing,” as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. It felt as if the void was inside myself rather than outside. Suddenly, there was no more fear, and I let myself fall into that void. I have no recollection of what happened after that. [pp. 1-2]

Here, we recognize immediately that Tolle has stumbled upon a perennial path of discrimination that one finds in Zen, the Fourth Way, and other traditions. All right, so “I cannot live with myself any longer.” But what is “myself”? In asking this question, Tolle becomes aware that he is, in fact, two. There is the “myself” that he cannot stand – but then who is “he”? It is as if there is another self that looks on the first one. And indeed there is. This “second self” is the “witnessing consciousness” which is entirely free because it merely looks on. In making this distinction, we can see that Tolle chose to identify with this “witness” (declaring that only it is real). In doing so, he found freedom. His account continues as follows:

I was awakened by the chirping of a bird outside the window. I had never heard such a sound before. My eyes were still closed, and I saw the image of a precious diamond. Yes, if a diamond could make a sound, this is what it would be like. I opened my eyes. The first light of dawn was filtering through the curtains. Without any thought, I felt, I knew, that there is infinitely more to light than we realize. That soft luminosity filtering through the curtains was love itself. Tears came into my eyes. I got up and walked around the room. I recognized the room, and yet I knew that I had never truly seen it before. Everything was fresh and pristine, as if it had just come into existence. I picked up things, a pencil, an empty bottle, marveling at the beauty and aliveness of it all. That day I walked around the city in utter amazement at the miracle of life on earth, as if I had just been born into this world.

We can see that Tolle’s “transformation” involves two moments. The first is one in which he discriminates between the finite self and the infinite Self (the “witnessing consciousness”). This climaxes in what seems to be, for all intents and purposes, the “death” of his finite self (the experience of being “sucked into a void,” which is actually coming to be “inside” himself; the achievement of a state, it seems, of “no mind”). This is then followed by the second stage of the transformation, experienced the following morning. What he describes as his newfound engagement with the world – “as if I had just been born” – is a description of a classic mystical experience.

There are many historical parallels that could be cited, but I thought immediately of the experience of Jacob Boehme (perhaps because he was also a German). In 1600, while staring at a gleam of light reflected in a pewter dish, Boehme suddenly felt he could intuit the “essences” of all things. “The gate was opened unto me,” he later wrote, “so that in one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at a university; at which I did exceedingly admire, and I knew not how it happened to me; and thereupon I turned my heart to praise God for it. For I saw and knew the Being of all beings . . . also the birth or eternal generation of the Holy Trinity; the descent and origin of this world.”[1] [4]

What is fascinating about Tolle’s experience (and Boehme’s as well) is that it didn’t go away. In the vast majority of instances, the pattern is as follows. Someone has, in a moment of crisis, the “transformative” experience of realizing the witnessing consciousness, and feels their ego become a nullity. They go to bed thinking, “Tomorrow everything will be different” – and then wake up the next morning only to find that everything is exactly the same. This is the danger of “transformative experiences”: they deceive those on the path into thinking they have arrived. What can result is that the ego becomes attached to this “achievement,” thinking it has become “enlightened” – or the seeker quits in frustration, having been repeatedly disappointed. The intelligent seeker realizes that such experiences are mere “glimpses,” and possible traps. He persists on the path, without any expectation that everything is going to change all at once, and that the rest of life will be like an endless orgasm.

With Eckhart Tolle, however, things were different. Radically different. If he is to be believed. The “death of the ego” Tolle experienced that fateful night really does seem to have permanently transformed him. When he woke up the next morning, everything was not the same as it was before. Indeed, everything was completely different. His newfound experience of life really is like an endless orgasm. And it never leaves him. Although he does state that the intensity of it varies (“Sometimes it is very strong, almost palpable, and others can feel it too. At other times, it is somewhere in the background, like a distant melody,” p. 3). This makes Tolle an exceptional human being. Only a very tiny minority of seekers have experiences this dramatic, and remain permanently transformed. Again, one has to go to the annals of classical mysticism, East and West, and look at the cases of celebrated individuals, in order to find parallels for Tolle.

Of course, I did add a caveat just a moment ago: if he is to be believed. And so, the reader may wonder, should we believe this story? As for myself, I have absolutely no difficulty believing Tolle, as I think he is quite genuine and that the transformation he claims to have experienced was real and no fantasy – and certainly, it is no fraud. I base this on reading The Power of Now, and on seeing videos of his talks and interactions with questioners.

To begin with Tolle’s book, it is filled with spiritual advice that is exactly what one would expect to receive from an advanced practitioner of Zen, or (especially) the Fourth Way. (Either Tolle has an immense, unacknowledged debt to the Gurdjieff Work, or he has managed to arrive at a remarkable reduplication of aspects of the Work; I actually suspect it is the latter.) Tolle’s advice to seekers, written in a question and answer format, is by no means simplistic. It is pitched at a relatively high intellectual level (for a bestselling book), generally avoids oversimplification, makes important distinctions, and often employs striking metaphors. In general, it is a wise and reliable guide to anyone following the path of what is called in the Fourth Way “self-remembering.” This essentially means the path of shifting one’s sense of “self” to the free attention of the “witnessing consciousness” mentioned earlier. (I have discussed this in more than one essay.[2] [5])

Tolle calls self-remembering “being present,” and this is the same as an experience of the “now” referenced in the book’s title. It is helpful (up to a point) to gloss this as “being aware that we are aware.” To take an example, suppose that I am in the kitchen and I pick up a tomato. Instead of simply picking up the tomato as I normally would, in a kind of automatic fashion, with my mind on something else, I become aware of the act of reaching out my hand, of the feel of the tomato in my hand (its weight, its texture), of the red sheen on its surface, and of the strong and pleasing tomato odor I can smell, even at arm’s length. In this moment I am fully immersed in the now, fully “present.”

This is a new experience for most of us. It is certainly a new way of experiencing a tomato – which would really be present to me in a way it never has been before. I am struck by the miracle that such a thing is (and perhaps this is what Boehme meant by being able to intuit the “essences” of things, in his transformed state). Of course, the tomato is present to me, but so is myself. My attention, in fact, is divided. I fully sense the impressions I am having – including whatever thoughts go through my head, or whatever emotions I feel as I hold this object. All of this that I call “mine” is present to me. In this act, therefore, I have “activated” – or shifted identification to – the “witnessing consciousness.” This “I” (my real “I” or real “Self,” as both Tolle and Tradition teach) sees what is “mine.” And if it can see these things, then it must not be these things; it must be separate. Thus, I realize that “I” am not these sensory impressions, thoughts, or feelings. I am not the body, mind, or emotions “my” Self can “see.” “I” am something quite other.

The Power of Now is full of sound advice for practicing this way. For instance:

In your everyday life, you can practice this by taking any routine activity that normally is only a means to an end and giving it your fullest attention, so that it becomes an end in itself. For example, every time you walk up and down the stairs in your house or place of work, pay close attention to every step, every movement, even your breathing. Be totally present. Or when you wash your hands, pay attention to all the sense perceptions associated with the activity: the sound and feel of the water, the movement of your hands, the scent of the soap, and so on. Or when you get into your car, after you close the door, pause for a few seconds and observe the flow of your breath. Become aware of a silent but powerful sense of presence. There is one certain criterion by which you can measure your success in this practice: the degree of peace that you feel within. [p. 17]


Through self-observation, more presence comes into your life automatically. The moment you realize you are not present, you are present. Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence.

Be present as the watcher of your mind – of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don’t judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher. [pp. 45-46]

In addition to his advice on practice, Tolle sometimes has surprising things to say about theory. It is reasonable to ask what the point of the practice of presence is – to ask, in effect, for a theory or account of its worth. Should we enter into the “now” as a form of self-help, to heal ourselves? At times, as I shall discuss later, Tolle seems to veer in this direction, but this is largely because his audience’s questions and concerns moves him there. His audience is, after all, made up mostly of Americans, and it is difficult to sell “spiritual enlightenment” to Americans unless it can be shown to have “practical” benefits such as treating anxiety and depression, lowering blood pressure, and so on. (This is the basic way in which yoga has been offered to Americans for decades now.)

However, one element in the traditional account of the way to union with the “silent watcher” is that it is never offered as a path to power or self-improvement. Indeed, if this is one’s motivation then there will be no progress, and the techniques of “release” may backfire, and have negative effects. Tolle recognizes this: “All cravings are the mind seeking salvation or fulfillment in external things and in the future as a substitute for the joy of Being. In that state, even my desire to become free or enlightened is just another craving for fulfillment or completion in the future” (p. 25).

Elsewhere, Tolle has something more to say about the purpose of this path – the cosmic goal, if you will, of this work. And what he says is rather remarkable:

When you become conscious of Being, what is really happening is that Being becomes conscious of itself. When Being becomes conscious of itself – that’s presence. Since Being, consciousness, and life are synonymous, we could say that presence means consciousness becoming conscious of itself, or life attaining self-consciousness. But don’t get attached to the words, and don’t make an effort to understand this. There is nothing that you need to understand before you can become present. [p. 81]

In other essays, I have taken a position very much like this.[3] [6] I have sometimes called that position “neo-Hegelian.” It amounts to saying that the telos, or end of all of nature, is its coming to consciousness of itself in human beings. The point of it all is the confrontation of humankind with the Being of beings (to put it in Heideggerean language – and in truth my position fuses Hegel and Heidegger). This is very much like what Tolle is saying. On the whole, I was thus impressed with The Power of Now – and pleasantly surprised.

So far, I have only been speaking of Tolle’s first, most famous book (and now is as good a time as any to admit to the reader that I have not yet read his other works). Now I must speak of Tolle the man. As I said earlier, I do believe that his spiritual realization is quite genuine. In fact, I base this chiefly on seeing videos of his talks. Physically, Tolle is unprepossessing, with a beady-eyed, rabbit-like quality. He has a rather weak chin, which he seems to be trying to disguise by sporting a whisper of beard. His demeanor is extremely mild, almost disconcertingly so. Tolle often greets audiences with hands pressed together in the namaste gesture. I find this a bit of an affectation, coming from a European. His adoption of the name “Eckhart” (obviously a reference to Meister Eckhart) also seems like an affectation, but I don’t attach a lot of importance to it. Tolle’s eyes blink rapidly, which seems odd to me, but there is apparently no consensus among psychologists as to what this means, or whether it means anything at all.

Tolle speaks with a very pleasant German accent, in absolutely perfect English. In contrast to his mild physicality, his voice is quite strong. His speech is firm and self-confident, and conveys benevolent authority. He is an excellent extemporaneous speaker, and what he says is always clear and articulate. The videos available of him (a great many of which can be found on YouTube) often involve him taking questions from audience members. In every case, he listens intently to the question and offers an answer that provides the questioner with understanding, and gives him some practical indications for how to deal with whatever issue he has raised (invariably questioners discuss some problem they are having with applying Tolle’s teaching to their personal lives). In addition, he is also extremely funny, often at his own expense. The importance of this cannot be overstated. There is no trace of ego in how he speaks of himself. I have observed all of these traits in individuals I have met, or read accounts of, who have achieved genuine spiritual realization. It is impossible to convince readers of this. They should simply watch some videos of Tolle themselves. I will link to a few at the end of this article. Perhaps the reader’s impressions will differ from mine, but I am quite confident that Tolle is “the genuine article.”

So why, then, is there a “problem” of Eckhart Tolle? On balance, I would say that he is a positive influence, and a good source to go to for instruction in the perennial path of Self-realization – especially for those just starting out. As alluded to at the beginning of this essay, I had long avoided Tolle because of his popularity and his reputation as a “New Age guru.” That Oprah was pushing him certainly inclined me to dismiss him entirely (though, surprisingly, his conversations with Oprah are substantive and useful, in spite of her continual interruptions – see the linked videos below). Does Tolle deserve to be labelled a “New Age guru”? Yes and no. He certainly doesn’t deserve some of the things critics have said about him. One wrote that The Power of Now was “awash in spiritual mumbo jumbo [7].” Another said that his teachings are “a mix of pseudo-science, New Age philosophy, and teachings borrowed from established religions [8].” Both these judgments are unfair, but unsurprising, given that most critics don’t know anything.

Yet there is indeed a “New Agey” side to Eckhart Tolle, and one finds it throughout The Power of Now. He writes, for example, “The time-bound mode of consciousness is deeply embedded in the human psyche. But what we are doing here is part of a profound transformation that is taking place in the collective consciousness of the planet and beyond: the awakening of consciousness from the dream of matter, form, and separation” (p. 55). What exactly is the “collective consciousness of the planet”? I suspect Tolle doesn’t really know himself. And what is meant by “of the planet and beyond”? He goes on to say, “However you look at it, it is a quantum leap in the evolution of consciousness, as well as our only chance of survival as a race” (p. 56).

Here we see that Tolle may have achieved a high degree of personal transformation, but he is understanding that transformation in terms of modern, Western theories and prejudices which he has not critically examined. He assumes that there is such a thing as a universal human nature with a “collective consciousness” that will inevitably make Progress. There is, of course, no such thing as a universal human nature, or a collective consciousness. Human beings are radically different in their cognitive and spiritual capacities. What Tolle has achieved, almost no one else can. And even the percentage of individuals who might try – who might, say, show up at one of Tolle’s weekend retreats – is vanishingly small. Tolle also makes the familiar mistake of assuming that “evolution” is the same thing as “Progress.” And expressions such as “quantum leap” – which sound like something out of the loathsome Deepak Chopra – don’t help.

Yes, Tolle has his illusions. And it is not difficult to see why. He has experienced a radical transformation that is reserved for the very, very few. This resulted in his seeing the world in an entirely new way, and in giving him inner peace. It is not very surprising that he has leaped to the conclusion that this is the key to solving all the world’s problems. “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species,” he writes. “That’s not a judgment. It’s a fact” (p. 67). Well, no, that’s a judgment! Like a born-again Christian (note his use of “as if I had just been born”), he wants to spread the Gospel and heal all the sick and insane souls. That he has become a teacher is admirable, for others are drawn to this path and need direction. The trouble is that, again, they are few in number. And while few are called, still fewer are actually chosen. We can be quite sure that of the customers filling Tolle’s tent, most are seeking, in fact, some form of self-gratification, and will abandon this path for the next fad promoted by Oprah. For this path is, in fact, quite tough: “Sharp like a razor’s edge, the sages say, is the path, difficult to traverse.” It is not for nothing that the Fourth Way calls it work.

And what will be the result, once Tolle and others like him (such as his Asian girlfriend Kim Eng, also a spiritual teacher) nudge the planetary consciousness further towards its quantum leap in awakening? Why, world peace, of course. Tolle writes at one point that “[p]hysical violence would be impossible without deep unconsciousness” (p. 61). And from there, of course, he extrapolates that war is the result of “unconsciousness.”[4] [9] This seems to presuppose that if everyone “awakens,” then all conflicts of interest between individuals and groups will simply disappear. And this, in turn, presupposes a further metaphysical claim: that awakening means leaving behind the body, and history, and cultural identity. Somehow, in other words, to the awakened, these things no longer exist or simply do not matter. But this is quite untrue, and it is a basic, very Western misunderstanding of what Tradition teaches about spiritual realization. In my commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad [10], I offered the following observations, which are quite relevant to the problem of Eckhart Tolle:

Westerners will invariably conclude that . . . we should, upon achieving this realization, behave as if there is no difference between thief and slayer, no difference between caste, and no difference between “good” and “evil.” But what Indian mysticism teaches is something far more subtle than this. The man who achieves realization is still a man. In so far as he acts in the world, he must recognize the reality of all sorts of distinctions, social and natural. To take an obvious example, if a man has achieved the “unitive state” does that mean that he can now lie down with cobras and expect not to be harmed? Of course not. If he did, he would certainly die. For however a man himself may have changed, the world outside him has not. . . . And no matter what higher state we may have reached, so long as we are embodied we still live in that very real world, which demands that we respect distinctions of all sorts. All that has changed is that, inside ourselves, we are able to see how all of these distinctions are expressions of an underlying unity – the One, the All, the Self – and that ultimately there is no distinction between ourselves and that unity. The “differentiated” type of man (to use an expression of Evola’s) lives in two worlds, while he remains alive. As the text states, “The human being has two states of consciousness: one in this world, and the other in the next.” While he lives and acts in the worldly world, he must abide by its rules.

The basic problem with Tolle is that he lacks the knowledge to contextualize and understand his own spiritual transformation. Certainly, he has delved deeper into philosophy and mysticism than the average individual. Just not deeply enough. He lacks sufficient knowledge of Tradition. (He should, in particular, explore the way of karma yoga, taught in the Bhagavad Gita.) And, as I have said, his judgment is colored by modern, Western, progressivist flapdoodle.

Of course, this flapdoodle is probably one of the reasons for Tolle’s success in the United States! I have already mentioned the tendency of his American audience to see his teaching as “self-help” (something he does not discourage often enough). It is also typically American to not just strive for spiritual realization, but to want to drag the rest of the world along, kicking and screaming. Inside every Hottentot there is an Eckhart Tolle just screaming to get out and brew a soothing cup of herbal tea. I think Tolle believes his own flapdoodle and has the best of intentions, but his claims about the planetary consciousness serve to feed the vanity of his already very vain, affluent, and spoiled American audience. “We are the vanguard, soon the rest of the planet will follow . . .” These pretensions are embedded very, very deeply in the American psyche.

I am reminded of what D. H. Lawrence said about Walt Whitman:

He drove an automobile with a very fierce headlight, along the track of a fixed idea, through the darkness of this world. And he saw everything that way. Just as a motorist does in the night.

ONE DIRECTION! toots Walt in the car, whizzing along it. . . .

ONE DIRECTION! whoops America, and sets off also in an automobile.

ALLNESS! shrieks Walt at a cross-road, going whizz over an unwary Red Indian.

ONE IDENTITY! chants democratic En Masse, pelting behind in motor-cars, oblivious of the corpses under the wheels.

God save me, I feel like creeping down a rabbit-hole, to get away from all these automobiles rushing down the ONE IDENTITY track to the goal of ALLNESS.[5] [11]

These reservations aside, I do think that Eckhart Tolle is one of the more remarkable figures of our time. His work can be read (or viewed) with profit – if it is approached with caution, and with a solid background in Eastern and Western teachings concerning spiritual realization.

Eckhart Tolle on Video

One of Tolle’s appearances with Oprah [12]. This is actually a valuable discussion.

A very typical talk by Tolle [13], on the subject of “staying present.”

Tolle answers a question from an audience member [14] (submitted in advance).

Finally, here is a talk for our readers who understand German [15].

Literally hundreds of other Eckhart Tolle videos are available on YouTube.


[1] [16]. See Jakob Boehme: Essential Readings, ed. Robin Waterfield (Wellingborough, UK: Crucible, 1989), 64.

[2] [17] See my essays “What is Odinism? [18]” in TYR, [19]Vol. 4 [19], and “On Being and Waking” in TYR, [20]Vol. 5 [20].

[3] [21] See the two Tyr essays just referenced, and see “The Stones Cry Out: Cave Art and the Origin of the Human Spirit [22]” in Collin Cleary, What is a Rune? And Other Essays [23] (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2015).

[4] [24] In fairness, Gurdjieff seems to have taken the same position.

[5] [25] D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 175-176.