The remarkable spiritual teacher whose new book Oprah calls the most important she's ever chosen for her book club explains how to free yourself from the tyranny of the past, live more fully in the present, and come to the calm, joyful place where intuition, creativity, and wisdom live and breathe.
When I interviewed Meg Ryan eight years ago, she told me about The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Eckhart Tolle. It's one of the most transformative books I've ever read; I keep a copy with me wherever I go, flipping through its highlighted pages time and time again. For anyone seeking to lead a more connected, vibrant life, The Power of Now is essential reading, and Eckhart's follow-up books-Stillness Speaks and A New Earth-explain the core principle that has resonated so deeply with me and many others: The only moment we ever really have is this one. Happiness isn't in the future or the past but in mindful awareness of the present.
Eckhart should know. By 29 the German-born author had become an eminent research scholar in comparative literature at the University of Cambridge in England, but success wasn't enough to halt his descent into a depression so severe that he considered ending his life. In what could have been his final hour, Eckhart stumbled upon an insight that started him on the path to becoming a spiritual teacher: We are not our thoughts. The very fact that we can objectively observe our thinking, he reasoned, suggests that the constant and often negative dialogue in our heads is separate from who we really are. Realizing this can bring us closer to the kind of fearlessness and peace that Eckhart has experienced since his dark night of the soul.
It was one of the great joys of my career to talk to Eckhart on Oprah Radio on XM Satellite Radio as part of my Soul Series. He gave a kind of course on conscious living: trading our autopilot existence for intentional awareness; recognizing how we create our own suffering through obsessing over our past history; and learning how to be present, for ourselves and for the people around us, in a compassionate, nonjudgmental way. His encouraging inspiration has allowed me and many other people to see the possibility of an awakened consciousness. I think he is a prophet for our time.
OPRAH: In the beginning of The Power of Now, you describe how, at 29 years old and considering suicide, you thought, "I cannot live with myself any longer.... 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...only one of them is real." I love this because it's the first time I thought, When I say I'm going to tell myself something, who is the "I" and who is the "self" I'm telling? That's the fundamental question, isn't it?
ECKHART: That's right. Most people are not aware that they have a little man or woman in their heads that keeps talking and talking and whom they are completely identified with. In my case, and in many people's cases, the voice in the head is a predominantly unhappy one, so there's an enormous amount of negativity that is continuously generated by this unconscious internal dialogue.
OPRAH: What happened that enabled you to realize this?
ECKHART: One night, at the moment you were referring to, a separation occurred between the voice that was the incessant stream of thinking and the sense of self that identified with that voice, and a deeper sense of self that I later recognized as consciousness itself, rather than something that consciousness had become through thinking.
OPRAH: When you realized that the voice in your head was separate from the awareness, did it blow your mind?
ECKHART: Yes, it did. I didn't understand it; I just realized the next day that I was suddenly at peace. There was a deep sense of inner calm, although externally nothing had changed, so I knew something drastic had happened. A while after this transformation, I was talking to a Buddhist monk who said that Zen is very simple: You don't rely on thought anymore; you go beyond thinking. Then I realized that's what had happened. All that unhappy, repetitive thinking wasn't there anymore.
OPRAH: Where does our identification with these thoughts and this voice in our heads come from?
ECKHART: That identification that is derived from our thinking-which includes all of one's memories, one's conditioning, and one's sense of self-is a conceptual one that is derived from the past. It's essential for people to recognize that this voice is going on inside them incessantly, and it's always a breakthrough when people realize, "Here are all my habitual, repetitive, negative thoughts, and here I am, knowing that these thoughts are going through my head." The identification is suddenly broken. That, for many people, is the first real spiritual breakthrough.
OPRAH: How is it spiritual?
ECKHART: I see it as not believing in this or that, but as stepping out of identification with a stream of thinking. You suddenly find there's another dimension deeper than thought inside you.
OPRAH: And what is that?
ECKHART: I call it stillness. It's an aware presence, nothing to do with past or future. We can also call it waking up. That's why many spiritual traditions use the term awakening. You wake up out of this dream of thinking. You become present.
OPRAH: Your book Stillness Speaks is all about that awareness. I love this line: "When you notice that voice, you realize that who you are is not the voice-the thinker-but the one who is aware of it."
ECKHART: That's right. The stream of thinking is connected with the past. All your memories, reactive patterns, old emotions, and so on, they're all part of that, but it is not who you are. That's an amazing realization. Of course, the mind may then say, "Well then, who am I?"
OPRAH: That's the big question. So what is the answer?
ECKHART: The answer is, who you are cannot be defined through thinking or mental labels or definitions, because it's beyond that. It is the very sense of being, or presence, that is there when you become conscious of the present moment. In essence, you and what we call the present moment are, at the deepest level, one. You are the consciousness out of which everything comes; every thought comes out of that consciousness, and every thought disappears back into it. You are a conscious, aware space, and all your sense perceptions, thinking, and emotions come and go in that aware space.
OPRAH: You've often characterized thinking as a terrible affliction, even a disease, that is the greatest barrier to the power of now. But isn't to think to be human? Isn't that how we differ from other animals?
ECKHART: Yes, and thinking can be a powerful and wonderful tool. It only becomes an affliction if we derive our sense of who we are from this dream of thought. In that case, you're continuously telling yourself what I call "the story of me." For many people, it's an unhappy story, so they're always dwelling on the past. That's a dysfunctional and unhappy state. OPRAH: We live in a world where most people believe they are their story. "I was born in this family, this is where I was raised, these are the things that happened to me, and this is what I did." If you are not your story, then who are you?
ECKHART: That's a very good question. You cannot deny, of course, that these events exist; one's personal history has its place, and it needs to be honored. It's not problematic unless you become totally lost in that dimension. How do you experience your past? As memories. And what are memories? Thoughts in your head. If you're totally identified with these thoughts in your head, then you're trapped in your past history. So, is that all there is to who you are? Or are you more than your personal history? When you step out of identification with that and realize for the first time that you're actually the presence behind the thinking, then you're able to use thought when it's helpful and necessary. But you are no longer possessed by the thinking mind, which then becomes a helpful, useful servant. If you never go beyond the thinking mind and there is no sense of space, it creates continuous conflict in relationships.
OPRAH: Tell me more about that space.
ECKHART: It's that spacious, aware presence that you can bring to any relationship. For example, when you listen to your partner or a friend or even an acquaintance, can you be there as the aware space that is listening? Or, while the other person is speaking, are you constantly thinking, preparing the next thing you're going to say? Are you judging and evaluating what you're hearing, or can you be there as the space for the other person? I would say that's the greatest gift you can give someone. It's especially important for parents and children, but also in intimate relationships. Can you listen to the other person in that simple state of alertness in which you're not judging what you're listening to? If you can, then you're there as a presence rather than as a person. You're not imposing mental labels, judgments, or definitions on the other person. There's a deeper level of awareness.
OPRAH: For those of us who are still working with this idea of separating ourselves from that voice in our heads, how do we become a nonjudgmental space?
ECKHART: You can invite it by bringing more awareness of the present moment into your life. For example, I recommend that people bring a conscious presence to the everyday activities that they do unconsciously. When you wash your hands, when you make a cup of coffee, when you're waiting for the elevator-instead of indulging in thinking, these are all opportunities for being there as a still, alert presence.
OPRAH: Yes. Like when people take showers in the morning, they're not in the shower; they're thinking about getting to the office, what they have to do that day, and making lists instead of feeling the water, staying in the moment.
ECKHART: That's right. Bring those spaces into your everyday life, as many as possible. When you get into your car, shut the door and be there for just half a minute. Breathe, feel the energy inside your body, look around at the sky, the trees. The mind might tell you, I don't have time. But that's the mind talking to you. Even the busiest person has time for 30 seconds of space. OPRAH:The Power of Now has saved me many, many times. As a matter of fact, this has been one of the most hectic days. I just got back from Africa. I'm sleep deprived, and I woke up this morning thinking, Oh my God, I'm going to be so stressed. But I let that go and just thought, I will be present now. I taped four television shows today, and I was very excited about being able to talk to you, but I kept saying to myself, Don't think about how many other things you have to do. Just be present now. And that is what has gotten me to the end of the day, in this moment.
ECKHART: That's a continuous refocusing on what really matters-what matters most in anybody's life, which is the present moment. People don't realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind.
OPRAH: But that's what throws me: In The Power of Now, you say nothing ever happened in the past. But there has to be a past, because there are all our memories, all these ways we have defined ourselves.
ECKHART: Nobody can argue with the fact that there is such a thing as time. We used time to meet here-otherwise it would have been difficult.
OPRAH: Right. We agreed on this time, and we are here, because this is now.
ECKHART: Yes. So time is something that we cannot do without. We could even say time is what dominates this entire life that we experience here, the surface level of reality. It's completely dominated by time, which is the past and future in the continuous stream. People look to time in expectation that it will eventually make them happy, but you cannot find true happiness by looking toward the future. It's been said there are two ways of being unhappy: One is not getting what you want, and the other is getting what you want. If you think this, that, or the other thing will make you happy, when you get what you wanted, you will again be focusing on the next moment-never being in this moment, which is all we have.
OPRAH: That's another thing that changed me when I read The Power of Now: You wrote that all our stress is based on thinking about what happened in the past or what should be happening in the future, and that, no matter what crisis is going on in your life, if you're able to take a deep breath and look at what is happening now, in this moment, you're okay.
ECKHART: That's right. Many people identify their sense of self with the problems they have, or think they have. As a reality test, I ask people, "What problem do you have at this moment? Not in an hour or tomorrow, but what problem do you have now?" Sometimes they'll suddenly wake up when they hear that question, because they realize that at that moment, they don't have a problem.
OPRAH: Maybe at that moment, during a lecture with you-but what if you're in a dangerous situation in the present moment? That's a problem! What then?
ECKHART: If danger arises in the present moment, there may be an emotion. There may even be pain. But that's a challenge, not a problem. For a problem to exist, you need time and repetitive mind activity. In a dangerous situation, you don't have time to turn it into a problem. So when people ask how they can get over their problems, I suggest that they go into the present moment and see what the problem is now. They always have to admit, "Well, right now I don't actually have a problem." Even people serving life sentences in prison have written to me to say, "I understood your message, and I have become free." They're free inside. OPRAH: Okay, what if you're not in a dangerous situation but have normal, everyday problems? I have a lot of those swirling around right now.
ECKHART: Start by entering the present moment so you find that space in which problems cannot survive. In that moment, you contact a deeper intelligence than the conditioned thinking mind. That is the place where intuition, creative action, knowledge, and wisdom come from. Make sure you're not in a state of negativity with the present moment, because you can take action on the basis of negativity-for example, you might feel angry about not having much money. You work extremely hard and after some years you become wealthy. But all that action is contaminated by negativity if it comes out of anger, and it will create further suffering for yourself and others.
OPRAH: How can you change that?
ECKHART: See how you relate to this moment. When you do that, what you're really asking is, "What is my relationship with life?" The present moment is your life. It's nowhere else-never, ever. So no matter what the situation is when you align yourself with the present moment, find something to be grateful for. Gratitude is an essential part of being present. When you go deeply into the present, gratitude arises spontaneously, even if it's just gratitude for breathing, gratitude for the aliveness that you feel in your body. Gratitude is there when you acknowledge the aliveness of the present moment; that's the foundation for successful living. Once you've made the present moment into your friend through openness and acceptance, your actions will be inspired, intelligent, and empowered, because the power of life itself will be flowing through you.
OPRAH: Even if what's going on in that moment is making you uncomfortable.
ECKHART: Yes, even if the mind judges the moment as negative. Sometimes the mind will tell you there's no point in even trying. But you don't have to believe every thought that comes into your mind.
OPRAH: Do you practice this all the time? Are you always in the now?
ECKHART: Yes. Occasionally if, for example, I see somebody inflicting pain on somebody else, anger may arise briefly and pass through. But it doesn't link into the brain and create an enormous amount of useless thinking. Emotions can come and go, but I'm in a state of surrender to what is, because what is happening is already the case. You can't really argue internally with what is; if you do, you suffer.
OPRAH: But does accepting whatever is happening leave you passionless for life?
ECKHART: No. In fact, you are more passionately alive when you're internally aligned with the present moment. You let go of this inner resistance, which on an emotional level is negativity and on a mental level is judgment and complaining. People have an enormous amount of complaining going on in their minds. Some even do it out loud.
OPRAH: And usually they're complaining about what happened in the past.
ECKHART: Or what should be happening but isn't. These are ways of denying the present moment. That's a very dysfunctional state because you're basically denying life itself. There is no life outside of now. OPRAH: All right, but then how do we plan for the future? We're all told that we should do that, not be passive about it.
ECKHART: Yes, and by planning for the future, you won't need to lose yourself in the future. The question is, are you using time on a practical level, or are you losing yourself in the future? If you think that when you take a vacation, or find the ideal partner, or get a better job or a nicer place to live or whatever it is, then you will finally be happy, that's when you lose yourself in the future. It's a continuous mental projection away from the now. That's the difference between clock time, which has its place in this world, and psychological time, which is the continuous obsession with the past and the future. There needs to be a balance between dealing with things in this world, which involves time and thinking, and not being trapped here. There is a deeper dimension in you that is outside that stream of time and thinking, and that's the inner stillness, peace, a deep, vibrant sense of aliveness. You're very passionate about life in that state.
OPRAH: Wow. That's what we're looking for here! The Power of Now is one of the most enlightening books I've ever had the privilege to read. Why did you feel the need to write a follow-up, Stillness Speaks?
ECKHART: The teaching evolved in the years after the book came out; I had some new perspectives on the basic truth. Also, there was more to be said about that which blocks the new consciousness in most of us; one way to describe it is the human ego.
OPRAH: This is my favorite thing to talk about. How does the ego block consciousness?
ECKHART: Well, first we need to see clearly what the ego is. It's not just being selfish or arrogant or thinking yourself superior; ego is identification with the stream of thinking. The beginning of ego is described in the Old Testament with the famous story of the apple: Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge, and they lost that state that is externalized in the Bible and called Paradise; they lost a deeper state of connectedness. I don't think it was as immediate as it's described in the Bible. To me, that story is about the rise of the ability to think, to make judgments: This is good, this is bad. And I believe it took a long, long time of increased thinking until people reached a point where they derived their entire sense of who they are from the stream of thinking, the mind-made entity composed of memories, past conditioning, and mental concepts. This is the ego that people identify with.
OPRAH: Your latest book, A New Earth, was my most recent book club pick and the subject of my first-ever Webcast course on oprah.com. In it you write that the ego is no more than identification with forms-physical forms, thought forms, emotional forms-and that if evil has any reality, this is also its definition: complete identification with form.
ECKHART: That's right. OPRAH: And that it results in a total unawareness of connection with every other being, as well as with the source, and this forgetfulness is the original sin. When I read that, I thought, You're right. Every evil act or sinful thing we've heard described is due to a complete disconnection, a lack of understanding that I am the person or being that I am attempting to violate.
ECKHART: Yes. By living through mental definitions of who you are, you desensitize yourself to the deeper aliveness of who you truly are beyond your thoughts. What arises then is a conceptual identity: I'm this or that. Once you're trapped in your own conceptual identity, which is based on thinking and image-making by the mind, then you do the same to others. This is the beginning of pronouncing judgments on others, and then you believe that judgment to be the truth. It's the beginning of desensitizing yourself to who that human being truly is.
OPRAH: You also wrote that we identify with labels in A New Earth, and that the more exclusive the label is, the more we identify with it.
ECKHART: Every ego wants to be special. If it can't be special by being superior to others, it's also quite happy with being especially miserable. Someone will say, "I have a headache," and another says, "I've had a headache for weeks." People actually compete to see who is more miserable! The ego doing that is just as big as the one that thinks it's superior to someone else. If you see in yourself that unconscious need to be special, then you are already free, because when you recognize all the patterns of the ego-
OPRAH: What are the other patterns?
ECKHART: The ego wants to be right all the time. And it loves conflict with others. It needs enemies, because it defines itself through emphasizing others as different. Nations do it, religions do it. If you identify with one particular religion, you need the nonbeliever-the other-to feel your own sense of identity more strongly.
OPRAH: You've explained this by saying that it starts when a baby first reaches for a toy, and if the toy is taken away or not given to them, they say, "No, that's mine."
ECKHART: That's the beginning of identification with things.
OPRAH: And what happens is, we all grow up and just get bigger toys.
ECKHART: Yes. Ego is always identification with one form or another, which could be a possession-my house, my car, and so on. Your sense of who you are is in that thing. If that thing is then criticized by somebody else, you become extremely defensive or aggressive because your sense of self is being threatened. There are other forms of identification; opinions are mind forms. "I am right" implies, of course, that somebody else has to be wrong.
OPRAH: But tell me this: As long as we are in this human form, we must need the ego; otherwise we would have evolved out of it.
ECKHART: We're evolving out of it now. The ego has been here for thousands of years, and that means it has its place in the evolution of humanity. But our ability to think more and more, so that gradually we became identified with thinking, was how we lost a deeper connectedness with life-with Paradise. I believe we are now at an evolutionary transition where far more human beings than ever before are able to go beyond ego into a new state of consciousness. OPRAH: You've said that we face a very stark and daunting choice-evolve or die.
ECKHART: This is the point where the evolution of consciousness, the awakening of humanity, is no longer a luxury. The effects of the dysfunctional ego are now being amplified by technology. What we are doing to ourselves, to our fellow human beings, and to the planet is becoming more and more destructive and devastating.
OPRAH: Yes. I was speaking with Elie Wiesel, and he was saying that this will be known as the Sick Century because of our ability to do the sickest, most evil things to one another. And you're right: Because of technology, there are even greater bombs, ammunition that can kill from farther distances.
ECKHART: Sometimes people ask me if things are getting better or worse, and my answer is, at the moment, both; things are getting better and worse. There are two streams in existence now: One stream is the old, unenlightened, egoic consciousness, which is still continuing. You see it when you watch the news. The other stream is us sitting here now, talking. I'm not saying we're special, but the fact that we're addressing this and that many, many people are reading it and it's meaningful to them means there is another stream here, which is the stream of humanity awakening. Both are present at this time.
OPRAH: How can we not allow ourselves to be dominated by the ego? I know it's a lifelong process, but what can we begin to do today?
ECKHART: The ego cannot survive in stillness, so invite stillness into your life. It doesn't mean that stillness is something you get from outside; it's realizing that underneath the stream of thinking, everybody already has the stillness.
OPRAH: So you don't have to go to Hawaii and sit on a mountaintop.
ECKHART: No, and you don't have to do anything to create it because it's already there. Look very deeply into yourself and see your sense of "I-ness"-your sense of self. This "I" is bound up with the stillness. You're never more essentially yourself than when you are still. You can invite stillness into your life by taking a few conscious breaths many times during the day. Just observe your breath flowing in and out. Another way is to feel the aliveness of your body from within. Ask, Is there life in my hands? And then you feel it. It's subtle, but it's there. Is there life in my feet, my legs, my arms? You can feel that your entire inner body is pervaded by a sense of aliveness, and that can serve as an anchor for stillness. It doesn't mean you turn completely away from the external world. It brings balance into your life between being still and being able to deal with things out here.
OPRAH: It's finding the space in between.
ECKHART: That's right. And you may also become aware of a short silent space between two thoughts. When you become conscious of that, then it becomes a little longer, so you have a longer gap of stillness.
OPRAH: But if you become aware for so long that you start thinking about it, then you lose it.
ECKHART: The moment you say, "Oh, look, I'm not thinking!" you're thinking again. OPRAH: What did you mean when you wrote in Stillness Speaks, "Look at a tree, a flower, a plant. How still they are, how deeply rooted in Being. Allow nature to teach you stillness"?
ECKHART: When you watch a tree, just be there as the aware presence perceives the tree. Nature is very helpful for people who want to connect with the stillness. Man-made things generate more thinking because they are made through thinking. Go to nature. Eventually you can sustain the state of stillness even in the midst of a city. I enjoy walking along busy streets with infernal noise and people rushing about and feeling the deep sense of stillness in the background.
OPRAH: So it's like being in the world, but not of it.
ECKHART: That's exactly what it is.
OPRAH: You've said that spirituality has nothing to do with what you believe but everything to do with your state of consciousness.
ECKHART: It's the stillness that's the spiritual dimension.
OPRAH: And beliefs are not spiritual?
ECKHART: No, because beliefs are thoughts. Thought in itself is not spiritual, though it can sometimes be helpful because it can be a pointer. If we say, "Find the stillness that's already inside you," that's a thought, but the thought is pointing beyond itself.
OPRAH: At the end of A New Earth you say that the foundation for a new earth is a new heaven, the awakened consciousness.
ECKHART: Yes, and that's a wonderful thing. Jesus said, Heaven does not come with signs to be observed. It is already within you.
OPRAH: The stillness.
OPRAH: Do you think it will ever be possible to live peacefully in the now, or is that too much of a lofty goal?
ECKHART: Rather than asking if you can ever be free, because "ever" is a huge amount of future time, ask if you can be free at this moment. The only place where you can or need to be free is this moment. Not the rest of your life. Just now.