Lessons from the present

Eckhart Tolle doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. Recurring bouts of anxiety and suicidal depression, which he suffered in his 20s, became fodder for a transformation that led him to drop his graduate studies and spend his days on park benches in London, watching the world go by.
During these years, his family considered him “irresponsible” and even “disturbed.” But Tolle leveraged his observations into a career as a spiritual teacher, changing his name (he was born Ulrich Leonard Tolle) and becoming a world-renowned expert in living consciously.
Tolle’s profile erupted after Oprah picked up his 1997 book, The Power of Now. The philosophy he wrote about emphasized living in the present and not worrying about the past or future. People began to look to Tolle and his teachings as a way to be happier. But when I speak to Tolle, partway through a series of sold-out talks in northern Europe, he counters the simplistic approach to the pursuit of happiness.
“I don’t use the word ‘happiness’ too often,” he says. “Very often, the very same situation that makes you happy, after a
little while, makes you unhappy. For example, you get a great job, but it makes
you ill with stress.” Or you fall in love, and the person inevitably disappoints you. Such experiences, Tolle says, are unavoidable when we believe other people are
the ones with the power to bring us satisfaction. Sometimes they do, and after that, we expect them to do it forever. But Tolle maintains that joy springs from within ourselves and the way we engage with the world and other people.
I protest: Doesn’t inner peace from thinking this way lead to passivity and resignation? Would any of the things we see around us be here if it weren’t for our continual
dissatisfaction? Tolle starts slightly. Or perhaps I’m imagining it.
Tolle2“I can see how one could interpret it that way,” he says. “But there is another basis for taking action, and that is acceptance.” Dissatisfaction can spur action—as it did Tolle before he was 30—but it’s a myth, he says, that we need it all the time to grow. We can expand our consciousness in confidence, without being disturbed by unhappiness.
Smiling, Tolle tells how some people who attempt to practice Zen—Westerners, in the main—try to force themselves to attain peace and silence, thereby making it impossible. Acceptance is the key: Try too hard, and you’ll only get in your own way.
I’ve interviewed a lot of management gurus in my time. In comparison, talking to Eckhart Tolle is an invigorating relief. He has a natural ability to put those around him at ease. When we meet in a canal-side hotel in Amsterdam, I ask whether he’s sick of the endless interviews.
“I don’t consider it work,” Tolle says. “I don’t even like the word ‘work.’ Because somehow, the implication of the word ‘work’ means you have to do it, but you don’t really like to do it. There’s a Chinese expression: ‘Love what you do, and you’ll never work again.’”
Tolle acknowledges that it wasn’t always this way. As a child, he was deeply unhappy. His parents had a troubled marriage, and the tension took its toll on young Eckhart. Its repercussions became clear much later; at the time of his episode in his late 20s, Tolle says, life was unbearable. “I must have realized that the unhappiness was not really created by my life circumstances and my situation of life.” In fact, he says, its cause lay within him. “I completely believed in the self-talk in the head, which interpreted my life, my life situation, very negatively.”
I reread The Power of Now before meeting Tolle. The book comes across as less shocking than it did a decade ago; it seems as calming and natural as a babbling brook. Its message isn’t the overblown missive of a life coach like Anthony Robbins, focused on social success and making money as an expression thereof.
Yet the basic principles aren’t all that different. Tolle agrees with Robbins—and Friedrich Nietzsche—that reality is a product of the mind. If we suffer, it’s chiefly because of how we see things. “There are no facts, only interpretations,” Nietzsche said. An expert on classical antiquity, he was echoing stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Tolle says he became acquainted with these philosophers only after writing his breakthrough book.
As I read, I was reminded of something I once heard a Belgian psychologist and professor say in a lecture: All therapy is a search for self-acceptance. “I consider therapy successful once the office is empty, and I’m alone with the client,” he said. At first, the room is crowded with others: parents, siblings, friends, lovers, colleagues—the parade can be endless.
Tolle and I come to the subject of his father, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Today, the author refers to his parent as “a ticking time bomb.” Though Tolle’s father aimed his aggression at his wife, the young Eckhart, who identified with his mother, felt perpetually threatened.
Tolle says he understood his father better later. “I realized the origin of his anger was that he was the seventh child, the last child his mother gave birth to. They didn’t really want him, but he just came.” As a boy, Tolle’s father received little attention from his mother and sisters. “So for the rest of his life, he had anger towards women and the terrible need to be accepted by women.” Tolle says his father was a handsome man who seduced numerous women. “He drew them in, and as soon as the relationship started, the anger came.”
I ask in a neutral tone whether things eventually turned out okay for him. Not entirely, Tolle replies. But “towards the end of his life, certain shifts happened in him. The ego, which always had been very strong…some aspects of his ego dissolved. In some areas of his life, he became almost enlightened. For example, when he had to wait for something, he would say, ‘I don’t mind. I can sit anywhere.’ Before, he couldn’t have done that. The ego would have regarded waiting as a personal insult.”
Tolle3
Our conversation turns from the father to the child and how we bring up kids. Underlying the way we raise and educate them is the assumption that a gap exists between what they are and what they can—or should—become. “A child is not complete when it is born,” Tolle says. “The child grows physically and also in consciousness. To guide a child in his or her growth and consciousness is a wonderful thing. But only a person who has already grown sufficiently can accomplish it successfully, without inflicting on the children the same dysfunctional patterns that they carry. Unconscious parents, as I call them, inflict on their children the same patterns that they got from their parents.”
By now, I feel as if I’ve known Tolle for years, and I’m not afraid to ask him whether he’s troubled by any such dysfunction himself. “There are no strong patterns anymore that make me unhappy or that interfere with my life,” he replies. He still has likes and dislikes, he adds with a shrug, “but dysfunctional patterns have dissolved.”
Something bothers me: When we gain inner peace, we lose our discomfort, I reason, so when we let go of dysfunctional patterns, perhaps passion departs too. Isn’t there something in us that—to quote the poet Hendrik Marsman—wants “to live a grand and compelling life?”
Tolle points out that emotions can easily throw us off balance. Passion can mean pain: Think of the passion of Christ. In German—Tolle’s mother tongue, though he’s a longtime resident of Canada—the word for passion is leidenschaft. Its root, leiden, means “suffering.” “Some people tend to say that passion is about this up and down,” he says. To feel intense emotion is to feel alive, and preferable to the indifference that otherwise threatens.
Tolle regards his own feelings from a distance, which allows him to smile at the fuss he’s making. It’s an instructive, therapeutic attitude that expands consciousness. It enables us to recognize we’re human, and nothing human is foreign to us. And we gain compassion for who and how we are.
The clock strikes noon, interrupting our conversation. Its gentle ticktock underlines the silence and peace of the lounge where we’re sitting. “I love old ticking clocks and watches,” Tolle says. “When you’re in a very quiet room, like here, and you listen to the ticking of the clock, it’s like having two dimensions. You have this time, but in between the ticks, you have that stillness, which is timeless, eternal.”
As our chat draws to a close, we turn to the subject of death. It is, I suggest, the ultimate existential problem. The end of bodily form is physically inescapable, Tolle readily acknowledges—“but the eternal in us cannot die.” Accepting finality is a precondition of eternal being. We have entered the terrain of transcendence, where evidence loses value and the question becomes one of faith.
It underscores the centrality of silence in Tolle’s approach. Silence can help us understand who we are and what we’re called to do. This is how I interpret his words. Enjoyment is key and inner joy arises when we do what’s right for us. Many human actions have negative effects, says Tolle, because their foundations are negative.
Silence seems to frighten us. We’re surrounded by noise. We fear quiet for the same reason we keep death out of sight. For Tolle, silence is a balm for the soul, and playfulness is the way to go through life. “There’s always a smile in the background,” he says. “In the best ancient Buddha statues, the Buddha has a smile because he’s connected through that deeper level.”
Harry Starren is an entrepreneur, an expert on leadership and a regular contributor to the Dutch edition of The Intelligent Optimist. He currently lives in the now.
Photos: Rikkert Harink

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Lessons from the present

Eckhart Tolle doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects. Recurring bouts of anxiety and suicidal depression, which he suffered in his 20s, became fodder for a transformation that led him to drop his graduate studies and spend his days on park benches in London, watching the world go by.
During these years, his family considered him “irresponsible” and even “disturbed.” But Tolle leveraged his observations into a career as a spiritual teacher, changing his name (he was born Ulrich Leonard Tolle) and becoming a world-renowned expert in living consciously.
Tolle’s profile erupted after Oprah picked up his 1997 book, The Power of Now. The philosophy he wrote about emphasized living in the present and not worrying about the past or future. People began to look to Tolle and his teachings as a way to be happier. But when I speak to Tolle, partway through a series of sold-out talks in northern Europe, he counters the simplistic approach to the pursuit of happiness.
“I don’t use the word ‘happiness’ too often,” he says. “Very often, the very same situation that makes you happy, after a
little while, makes you unhappy. For example, you get a great job, but it makes
you ill with stress.” Or you fall in love, and the person inevitably disappoints you. Such experiences, Tolle says, are unavoidable when we believe other people are
the ones with the power to bring us satisfaction. Sometimes they do, and after that, we expect them to do it forever. But Tolle maintains that joy springs from within ourselves and the way we engage with the world and other people.
I protest: Doesn’t inner peace from thinking this way lead to passivity and resignation? Would any of the things we see around us be here if it weren’t for our continual
dissatisfaction? Tolle starts slightly. Or perhaps I’m imagining it.
Tolle2“I can see how one could interpret it that way,” he says. “But there is another basis for taking action, and that is acceptance.” Dissatisfaction can spur action—as it did Tolle before he was 30—but it’s a myth, he says, that we need it all the time to grow. We can expand our consciousness in confidence, without being disturbed by unhappiness.
Smiling, Tolle tells how some people who attempt to practice Zen—Westerners, in the main—try to force themselves to attain peace and silence, thereby making it impossible. Acceptance is the key: Try too hard, and you’ll only get in your own way.
I’ve interviewed a lot of management gurus in my time. In comparison, talking to Eckhart Tolle is an invigorating relief. He has a natural ability to put those around him at ease. When we meet in a canal-side hotel in Amsterdam, I ask whether he’s sick of the endless interviews.
“I don’t consider it work,” Tolle says. “I don’t even like the word ‘work.’ Because somehow, the implication of the word ‘work’ means you have to do it, but you don’t really like to do it. There’s a Chinese expression: ‘Love what you do, and you’ll never work again.’”
Tolle acknowledges that it wasn’t always this way. As a child, he was deeply unhappy. His parents had a troubled marriage, and the tension took its toll on young Eckhart. Its repercussions became clear much later; at the time of his episode in his late 20s, Tolle says, life was unbearable. “I must have realized that the unhappiness was not really created by my life circumstances and my situation of life.” In fact, he says, its cause lay within him. “I completely believed in the self-talk in the head, which interpreted my life, my life situation, very negatively.”
I reread The Power of Now before meeting Tolle. The book comes across as less shocking than it did a decade ago; it seems as calming and natural as a babbling brook. Its message isn’t the overblown missive of a life coach like Anthony Robbins, focused on social success and making money as an expression thereof.
Yet the basic principles aren’t all that different. Tolle agrees with Robbins—and Friedrich Nietzsche—that reality is a product of the mind. If we suffer, it’s chiefly because of how we see things. “There are no facts, only interpretations,” Nietzsche said. An expert on classical antiquity, he was echoing stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Tolle says he became acquainted with these philosophers only after writing his breakthrough book.
As I read, I was reminded of something I once heard a Belgian psychologist and professor say in a lecture: All therapy is a search for self-acceptance. “I consider therapy successful once the office is empty, and I’m alone with the client,” he said. At first, the room is crowded with others: parents, siblings, friends, lovers, colleagues—the parade can be endless.
Tolle and I come to the subject of his father, with whom he had a difficult relationship. Today, the author refers to his parent as “a ticking time bomb.” Though Tolle’s father aimed his aggression at his wife, the young Eckhart, who identified with his mother, felt perpetually threatened.
Tolle says he understood his father better later. “I realized the origin of his anger was that he was the seventh child, the last child his mother gave birth to. They didn’t really want him, but he just came.” As a boy, Tolle’s father received little attention from his mother and sisters. “So for the rest of his life, he had anger towards women and the terrible need to be accepted by women.” Tolle says his father was a handsome man who seduced numerous women. “He drew them in, and as soon as the relationship started, the anger came.”
I ask in a neutral tone whether things eventually turned out okay for him. Not entirely, Tolle replies. But “towards the end of his life, certain shifts happened in him. The ego, which always had been very strong…some aspects of his ego dissolved. In some areas of his life, he became almost enlightened. For example, when he had to wait for something, he would say, ‘I don’t mind. I can sit anywhere.’ Before, he couldn’t have done that. The ego would have regarded waiting as a personal insult.”
Tolle3
Our conversation turns from the father to the child and how we bring up kids. Underlying the way we raise and educate them is the assumption that a gap exists between what they are and what they can—or should—become. “A child is not complete when it is born,” Tolle says. “The child grows physically and also in consciousness. To guide a child in his or her growth and consciousness is a wonderful thing. But only a person who has already grown sufficiently can accomplish it successfully, without inflicting on the children the same dysfunctional patterns that they carry. Unconscious parents, as I call them, inflict on their children the same patterns that they got from their parents.”
By now, I feel as if I’ve known Tolle for years, and I’m not afraid to ask him whether he’s troubled by any such dysfunction himself. “There are no strong patterns anymore that make me unhappy or that interfere with my life,” he replies. He still has likes and dislikes, he adds with a shrug, “but dysfunctional patterns have dissolved.”
Something bothers me: When we gain inner peace, we lose our discomfort, I reason, so when we let go of dysfunctional patterns, perhaps passion departs too. Isn’t there something in us that—to quote the poet Hendrik Marsman—wants “to live a grand and compelling life?”
Tolle points out that emotions can easily throw us off balance. Passion can mean pain: Think of the passion of Christ. In German—Tolle’s mother tongue, though he’s a longtime resident of Canada—the word for passion is leidenschaft. Its root, leiden, means “suffering.” “Some people tend to say that passion is about this up and down,” he says. To feel intense emotion is to feel alive, and preferable to the indifference that otherwise threatens.
Tolle regards his own feelings from a distance, which allows him to smile at the fuss he’s making. It’s an instructive, therapeutic attitude that expands consciousness. It enables us to recognize we’re human, and nothing human is foreign to us. And we gain compassion for who and how we are.
The clock strikes noon, interrupting our conversation. Its gentle ticktock underlines the silence and peace of the lounge where we’re sitting. “I love old ticking clocks and watches,” Tolle says. “When you’re in a very quiet room, like here, and you listen to the ticking of the clock, it’s like having two dimensions. You have this time, but in between the ticks, you have that stillness, which is timeless, eternal.”
As our chat draws to a close, we turn to the subject of death. It is, I suggest, the ultimate existential problem. The end of bodily form is physically inescapable, Tolle readily acknowledges—“but the eternal in us cannot die.” Accepting finality is a precondition of eternal being. We have entered the terrain of transcendence, where evidence loses value and the question becomes one of faith.
It underscores the centrality of silence in Tolle’s approach. Silence can help us understand who we are and what we’re called to do. This is how I interpret his words. Enjoyment is key and inner joy arises when we do what’s right for us. Many human actions have negative effects, says Tolle, because their foundations are negative.
Silence seems to frighten us. We’re surrounded by noise. We fear quiet for the same reason we keep death out of sight. For Tolle, silence is a balm for the soul, and playfulness is the way to go through life. “There’s always a smile in the background,” he says. “In the best ancient Buddha statues, the Buddha has a smile because he’s connected through that deeper level.”
Harry Starren is an entrepreneur, an expert on leadership and a regular contributor to the Dutch edition of The Intelligent Optimist. He currently lives in the now.
Photos: Rikkert Harink

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