1948 Eckhart Tolle was born Ulrich Leonard Tolle in Lunen, Germany.
1977 Tolle was admitted to postgraduate studies at Cambridge University in London, having completed a degree in languages and history at University of London.
1979 Tolle experienced an “inner transformation,” and after a period of drifting, settled in Vancouver, Canada and began to write his first book, The Power of Now.
1997 The Power of Now was first published.
2000 Television personality Oprah Winfrey recommended the book, propelling it to the New York Times Bestseller Book for Hardcover Advice.
2005 Tolle published A New Earth, which also became a bestseller.
2008 Oprah selected the book for her book club and subsequently partnered with Tolle in a series of internet seminars featuring discussions and meditation.
2009 Tolle’s global audience was estimated to be in the tens of millions.
Ulrich Leonard Tolle was born in Lunen, Germany. His parents’ marriage has been described as the unhappy union of “a strong-willed mother and an eccentric journalist father” (MacQueen 2009). Tolle’s parents divorced when he was thirteen, and when Tollerefused to attend school, his mother sent him to live with his father in Spain. Tolle did not attend school between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two as his father allowed him to study philosophy, language and literature on his own (Walker 2008). He subsequently did complete a degree in history and languages at the University of London and then enrolled in a doctoral program at Cambridge University.
By the late 1970s, Tolle was a doctoral student living in London and in crisis, a “neurotic, near-suicidal mess” (MacQueen 2009). Tolle described himself as “so miserable ‘I couldn’t live with myself any longer” (Grossman 2010). This profound crisis provoked an existential revelation for Tolle one evening. In this moment, he states: "Suddenly I stepped back from myself, and it seemed to be two of me. The 'I', and this 'self' that I cannot live with. Am I one or am I two? And that triggered me like a koan…. It happened to me spontaneously. I looked at that sentence: 'I can't live with myself'. I had no intellectual answer. Who am I? Who is this self that I cannot live with? The answer came on a deeper level. I realised who I was" (Walker 2008). In this transformative moment Tolle recounts having gone from “being depressed and basically insane—normal insane, I mean—to suddenly feeling a sense of underlying peace in any situation…” (MacQueen 2009). The transformation involved “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’” (Cohen n.d.). He reports that “The next morning I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or “beingness”, just observing and watching” (Scobie 2003).
Dissatisfied with academia in the wake of what he experienced as his “inner transformation,” Tolled dropped out of Cambridge after one year of studying Latin American literature. He then changed his name from Ulrich to Eckhart in homage to 14 th-century German Neoplatanist and medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart. For the next two years Tolle lived in London holding temporary jobs while “sleeping on friends' sofas, and spending the days on park benches in Russell Square, or sheltering in the British Library” (Burkeman 2009). For a brief period he taught the fruits of his personal transformation in his friends’ homes, before migrating to the United States West Coast and finally settling in Vancouver, Canada in 1995. It was just two years later, in 1997, that Tolle published his first book, The Power of Now, followed in 2003 by Stillness Speaks and A New Earth in 2005. His popularity skyrocketed following Oprah Winfrey’s enthusiastic promotion of The Power of Now in 2000.
Eckhart Tolle is a business and marital partner with Kim Eng. Eng was born in Vancouver, Canada and met Tolle in 1998 after she
attended one of his retreats. Eng has stated that prior to meeting Tolle she was married and a practicing Christian, but was unhappy with both her marriage and her religion. She ultimately left both and began a spiritual search. It was after attending one of Tolle’s retreats that she had was she describes as a transformational spiritual experience. Eng then began seven years of spiritual training with Tolle, ultimately becoming his partner and associate in disseminating his teachings. She also has developed her own career as a counselor and public speaker, and is particularly noted for her "Presence through Movement" workshops.
Tolle’s teachings are often described as a fusion of Eastern philosophies such as Zen Buddhism, New Age philosophy and established religion. He asserts that his teachings actually contain nothing new but rather state the essential understandings of all religions, understandings that have been lost in the extraneous teachings of established religions. Tolle therefore has drawn a strong distinction between religion and spirituality; while the two may coexist, “religion without spirituality, unfortunately, is very common” (MacQueen 2009). The result is that established religion has become part of what Tolle terms “the insanity.” In his view humanity could reasonably be regarded as “[c]riminally insane, with a few brief lucid intervals,” beset with “chronic paranoid delusions, a pathological propensity to commit murder and acts of extreme violence and cruelty against his perceived enemies
. . .” (MacQueen 2009).
In Tolle’s teachings the fundamental human problem is the sense of self, the ego, which is the product of the structure and operation of the mind. Individuals come to equate themselves with their thoughts, which are the product of their minds, and therefore live in separation from Being. As he has put it, “our true selves are the formless Consciousness, which is Being, which is God. We are all One, and thus we are all God” (Walker 2008). For Tolle, therefore, the concept of a transcendent God that created the universe is not helpful. Rather, Tolle understands there to be an intelligence that is present in every life form and form of life and that constantly creates and recreates the universe. It is the being that knows and experiences life directly; the mind, by contrast operates on the basis of facts, judgments, images, labels rather than direct experience. Operating on this basis the mind lives in a combination of past (memories) and future (projections) rather than in the moment, which Tolle refers to as the Now. Since the mind operates on the basis of constructs rather than realities directly, the mind blocks connectedness with other people and with Being. The mind also finds itself in direct conflict with reality since everyday reality does not coincide with the images and judgments about the way things ought to be based on memories of past and aspirations for the future. It is this resistance to what is and the loss of connection to Being that leads to individual pain and suffering. The greater the individuals’ identification with their minds, the greater the resistance to what is; and the greater the resistance to what is the greater the level of pain and suffering. A “pain-body,” the accumulated pain from past hurtful experiences is the product of this resistance (McKinley 2008).
The solution to the problem of separation from Being, in Tolle’s view, is to be in the Now. The Now is timeless transcendent space, which is who we are. Contrary to conventional logic, we are not what is happening in the present but the space for what is happening (Jonas-Simpson 2010). Being in the Now therefore means both accepting what is and unconditionally surrendering to the present. Avoidance of the present moment therefore is insanity as the present moment is life. Acceptance of and surrender to the present allows one to reconnect with Being. What is required to move in this direction in Tolle’s view is a spiritual awakening, a transformation of consciousness, which will allow humanity to evolve to a higher level. An essential aspect of this awakening process consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness and living in the Now.
Tolle does not specify any formal ritual practices. However, in The Power of Now he recommends Eastern chi meditation (a form of meditation that draws on the life force connecting body, mind and spirit) 10-15 minutes a day and extending mindful meditation to daily life. According to Tolle, this is “particularly fruitful while communicating with others and communing with nature. Through maintaining awareness of the unmanifested in the realm of the manifested, a bridge or portal is built between the two” (Cole 2010). At the same time, Tolle seems to see limitations to meditation. He has stated, “Well, at a certain stage practice may be helpful, but I don't teach practices. The power of presence doesn't really need it. Presence is teaching, stillness is teaching, so it would be unnecessary to have a practice. Of course, there may be certain people who haven't yet had an opening to presence and are not drawn to it; so for them practice may be initially helpful—until it becomes a hindrance” (Clurman 2001).
Tolle does recommend a series of “exercises” that practitioners can employ to become more fully in the Now. These include giving the fullest attention to any routine daily activity; paying attention to the gaps between thoughts generated by the mind, allowing the practitioner to disidentify with the mind and become aware but not engaged in thought; drawing attention away from the mind, bringing one’s attention to the present by becoming aware of breathing, and thereby simply witnessing and experiencing; using negative emotion as an impetus to be more present; observing and dissolving the pain-body; and withdrawing attention from the past and present to eliminate the ego. For Tolle, disidentifying with the mind is the single most important element in the journey toward enlightenment.
Tolle has expressed reservations about establishing formal organizations or becoming a guru-like figure. For example, with respect to his teaching material he has stated that “It’s necessary for it to get out into the world, but one needs to be careful that the organization doesn’t become self-serving” (MacQueen 2009). He has, however, established several organizations for disseminating his teachings. With his partner, Kim Eng, Tolle established Eckhart Teachings. This organization manages Tolle’s speeches, lectures and retreats, as well as the licensing, publishing and distribution of his CDS and DVDs. Tolle’s website, eckharttolle.com, offers an impressive product line of Tolle’s books, as well as parts of the message repackaged into music, cards, calendars, CDs and DVDs. Eng’s meditations and instructional Qi Flow Yoga video are also available. In July, 2010 he established Tolle TV, allowing viewers to access Internet videos of Tolle meditating or teaching. Visitors also have unlimited access to the site’s online community for a monthly fee. ET-TV offers those interested an affordable means of accessing Tolle’s teachings as well as a worldwide reach. Kim Eng also serves in an instructional capacity; she is “the facilitator of the Presence through Movement workshops, in which she draws on her background in meditation, yoga, t’ai chi, and other spiritual practices to offer a more structured approach to embodying Eckhart’s teachings” (Eckhart Tolle TV n.d.). There are over two hundred Eckhart Tolle Meetup groups in over one hundred countries around the world, primarily in North America, Europe and Asia. Several tens of thousands of members use these venues to discuss Tolle’s teachings.
Tolle’s visibility and influence have been significantly enhanced through his association with Oprah Winfrey. In 2008, Oprah selected A New Earth for her book club; she and Tolle then collaborated on a ten-week series of web seminars to discuss chapters of the book and lead meditations. These “webinars” attracted millions of viewers. Tolle’s books have now been translated into thirty-three languages, and many millions have been sold around the globe (MacQueen 2009).
Tolle predictably has faced criticism from the conservative Christian community as well as the secular mainstream press. One source of conservative Christian condemnation is Tolle’s implication that Jesus is unnecessary as a means for salvation: “Religious critics have called him the Antichrist for claiming you can save yourself, no God or Jesus required.” As Tolle put it, “’Was Jesus the son of God?’ Yes. But so are you. You just haven’t realized it yet’” (Grossman 2010). James Beverley, professor of Christian thought and ethics, summarizes the conservative Christian critique: “From a Christian perspective, Tolle misquotes the Bible to assert his strange mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age pop,” he says. “He misrepresents the teaching of Jesus about the self and ignores the clear claims of Jesus as Saviour, Lord and Son of God” (MacQueen 2009). From this perspective Tolle denies a core pillar of Christianity by asserting that there is no difference between humans and Jesus and God. Some other Christians are more charitable toward Tolle. Theology professor John Stackhouse at the evangelical Regent College in Vancouver has stated that Tolle’s teachings may be beneficial for many: “In fact [he] so chops, strains and rearranges the bits that it borrows that it ends up as a nicely vague spirituality that one can tailor to one’s own preferences” (MacQueen 2009).
Tolle has also faced a number of secular critics who generally are dismissive of New Age and other new forms of spirituality. For example, Time Magazine referred to Tolle’s books as “awash in spiritual mumbo jumbo” (Sachs 2003). According to one review of these assessments: ‘Even by the standards of the self-help book industry, Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth is unutterable twaddle,’ said one newspaper book reviewer. ‘Oprah Winfrey's golden touch has turned a stinker into a bestseller for Penguin.’ Another dismissed the book by saying, ‘Its 313 pages are, frankly, baffling – a mix of pseudo-science, New Age philosophy and teaching borrowed from established religions’” (Walker 2008). Neither religious or secular critique has had great impact on Tolle’s popularity and influence, however. In 2008, the New York Times referred to Tolle as the most popular spiritual author in the U.S., and in 2011, the Watkins Review named Tolle as the most spiritually influential person in the world.
Burkeman, Oliver. 2009. “The Bedsit Epiphany.” The Guardian. 10 April 2009. Accessed from http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/11/eckhart-tolle-interview-spirituality on March 21, 2012.
Clurman, Dan. 2001. “Eckhart Tolle Interview.” Inquiring Mind. Fall 2001. Accessed from http://www.meditationblog.com/2007/03/01/eckhart-tolle-interview/, on March 30, 2012.
Cohen, Andrew. N.d. “Ripples on the Surface of Being: An Interview with Eckhart Tolle.” EnlightenNext Magazine. Accessed from http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j18/tolle.asp?page=1, on March 21, 2012.
Cole, Josefine. 2010. “How to Meditate with The Power of Now.” 21 March 2010. Accessed from http://josefine-cole.suite101.com/how-to-meditate-with-the-power-of-now-a216121, on March 30, 2012.
Grossman, Cathy Lynn. 2010. “ ‘Life’s Purpose’ Author Eckhart Tolle is Serene, Critics Less So.” USA Today. 14 October 2010. Accessed from http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-04-15-tolle15_CV_N.htm, on March 21, 2012.
MacQueen, Ken. 2009. “Eckhart Tolle Vs. God.” MaClean’s. 22 October 2009. Accessed from http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/10/22/eckhart-tolle-vs-god/3/, on March 21, 2012.
McKinley, Jesse. 2008. “The Wisdom of the Ages, For Now Anyway.” New York Times. 23 March 2008. Accessed from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/23/fashion/23tolle.html?_r=4&pagewanted=1, on March 21, 2012.
Sachs, Andrea. 2003. “Channeling Ram Dass.” New York Times, 21 April 2003. Accessed from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1004693,00.html#ixzz1qnHPCVFp on April 15, 2012.
Scobie, Claire. 2003. “Why Now Is Bliss?” Telegraph Magazine. 29 September 2003. Accessed from http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2003/09/28/1064687666674.html on April 5, 2012.
Walker , Ether. 2008. “Eckhart Tolle: This Man Could Change Your Life.” The Independent. 21 June 2008. Accessed from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/eckhart-tolle-this-man-could-change-your-life-850872.html, on March 21, 2012.
David G. Bromley
15 April 2012