An Interview with Eckhart Tolle by 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
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
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?
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.
Would you say that you prefer it?
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.
What would it mean to get lost in doing?
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.
When you're alone, do you spend a lot of time physically being
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.
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?
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
Do you mean that one has given up an egotistical,
materialistic relationship to the world?
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.
You mean that they are looking forward in time?
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.
What exactly do you mean when you say that the purpose of the
world lies in the transcendence of it?
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
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
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.
A long time.
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
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.
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?
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.
So it is real?
All that is real is beingness itself. Consciousness is all there is,
You're saying that the definition of "real" would be that
which is free from birth and death?
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.
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.
If someone simply asks you, "Is the world real or unreal?"
would you say it was real or would you have to qualify the
I would probably qualify the statement.
It's a temporary manifestation of the real.
So if the world is a temporary manifestation of the real, what
is the enlightened relationship to the world?
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."
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
No, in fact it may be the opposite. Spiritual practice may be a way
to try to find something new to identify with.
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?
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.
So when you say a "yes" to what is, do you mean not avoiding
anything and facing everything?
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.
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?
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.
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
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—
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
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.
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?
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
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."
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
Those two cases, the Buddha and Jesus, would be examples of
powerful outer manifestations of that inner recognition.
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.
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!
But at that point he didn't know that all that was necessary was
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.
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.
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?
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
Do you mean pure action, untainted by ego?
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.
Source: What Is