A Sideways Glance with Richard Bogartz: Eckhart Tolle: A mystic for everyone

Thursday, December 01, 2022

Recently I’ve been reading and rereading Eckhart Tolle. Tolle is a contemporary mystic who adopted Meister Eckhart’s name as his first name. Meister Eckhart was a 13th-14th century mystic in the Catholic religion who some regard as the pinnacle of western mysticism. The church hierarchy gave him a hard time. More recently he has been rehabilitated.

Tolle does not belong to a particular religion but he shares ideas with christian mystics, advaita vedanta, sufism, hasidism and kabbalah, zen buddhism, and other mystical traditions.

I’d encountered and been impressed by numerous quotations from Tolle but I think, because of the name Eckhart, I unconsciously rejected reading another ancient. Then I discovered he was a contemporary and recently acquired three of his books: “The Power Of Now;” “A New Earth;” and “Stillness Speaks.” I recommend all three, in that order. They are profoundly insightful into spirituality and the purpose of life. If books don’t grab you, there are many lectures by Tolle on YouTube.

Tolle says all but a few of us are insane. We confuse egoic mental activity, rooted in the psychological past and future, with our actual self which exists in the single timeless moment that is Now. We dwell on guilt about the past, worry about the future, remembrances, and anticipations. With this egoic activity of mind, we miss what is happening now, the only real part of what is going on. He argues that past and future are only thoughts going on now, in this moment, but that they go on largely in service to the ego, a body of mental activity pretending to be our real self.

In filling our awareness with the future and the past, we miss what we are, mistaking the I, Me, Mine notions for our true self. We take our self to be this mental activity when in reality we are the awareness with which we are aware of thoughts and events. Tolle says, “Nothing that comes and goes is you.” You are not your thoughts or ideas or feelings or perceptions because they come and go. “You are the knowing, not the condition that is known.”

Tolle says that our true nature, our true self, is consciousness, a deep inner stillness that we can become aware of as the background for all our experience. “You can become aware of awareness as the background to all your sense perceptions, all your thinking. Becoming aware of awareness is the arising of inner stillness.”

The importance of the arising of inner stillness, known as pure consciousness in some traditions, is that without it we become so totally lost in our thoughts, in the activity of the mind, that we take mental activity to be what we are. To the extent that inner stillness arises and we witness our thoughts, we are able to realize we are not those thoughts and gradually we become aware of what we actually are. “You are the knowing, not the condition that is known.”

Reminiscent of the inscription “Know Thyself,” in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, Tolle asserts that there are relatively important matters in life such as success or failure, health or illness, wealth or poverty, knowledge or ignorance, but there is only one thing that is absolutely important, and that is finding the essence of who you are at your deepest level.

Tolle asserts that you cannot find your actual self in the past or the future. It is not a matter of getting there over time. Now, this moment, is the only real time. Now is the only place where your real life can be found. It is in this Now that you can know yourself as “the awareness in which phenomenal existence happens.”

This real self, this awareness, is here, now, usually concealed by the incessant egoic mental chatter. All that is needed to bring it to awareness is a quieting, a stillness. Peace. Tolle suggests a variety of methods to bring pure awareness into the present.

As in Vedanta’s “Atman is Brahman,” where the deepest individual soul is the soul of the All, or as in an alternative take on Jesus’s “I and the Father are One,” Tolle sees the individual awareness, the individual consciousness as the universal consciousness, the same consciousness out of which all the forms in the manifest existence are arising. In knowing your own true self, you know the self of every other, and the self of the All.

Richard S. Bogartz is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.