Eckhart Tolle, born Ulrich Leonard Tolle on February 16, 1948) is a German citizen and resident of Canada, best known as the author of the The Power of Now and A New Earth, which were published originally in English. In 2011, he was listed by the Watkins Review as the most spiritually influential person in the world. In 2008, a New York Times writer called Tolle “the most popular spiritual author in the United States.”
Tolle claims he was depressed for much of his life until he underwent, at age 29, an “inner transformation”, then spent several years wandering and unemployed “in a state of deep bliss” before becoming a spiritual teacher. Later, he moved to North America where he began writing his first book, The Power of Now, which was published in 1997 and reached the New York Times Best Seller lists in 2000. Tolle settled in Vancouver, Canada, where he has lived for more than a decade.
The Power of Now and A New Earth sold an estimated three million and five million copies respectively in North America by 2009. In 2008, approximately 35 million people participated in a series of 10 live webinars with Tolle and television talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Tolle is not identified with any particular religion, but he has been influenced by a wide range of spiritual works.
Early life and education
Born Ulrich Leonard Tolle in Lünen, a small town located north of Dortmund in the Ruhr Valley, Germany in 1948, Tolle describes his childhood as unhappy, particularly his early childhood in Germany. There, his parents fought and eventually separated, and he felt alienated from a hostile school environment. While playing in buildings destroyed by Allied bombs during World War Two, Tolle felt depressed by his experience of “pain in the energy field of the country”. At the age of 13, he moved to Spain to live with his father. Tolle’s father did not insist that his son attend high school, and so Tolle elected to study literature, astronomy and language at home.
At the age of fifteen Tolle read several books written by the German mystic Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken, also known as Bô Yin Râ. Tolle has said he responded “very deeply” to those books.
At the age of 19, Tolle moved to England and for three years taught German and Spanish at a London school for language studies. Troubled by “depression, anxiety and fear”, he began “searching for answers” in his life. At age 22 or so he decided to pursue this search by studying philosophy, psychology, and literature, and enrolled in the University of London. After graduating he was offered a scholarship to do postgraduate research at Cambridge University which he began in 1977.
One night in 1977, at the age of 29, after having suffered from long periods of suicidal depression, Tolle says he experienced an “inner transformation.” That night he awakened from his sleep, suffering from feelings of depression that were “almost unbearable,” but then experienced a life-changing epiphany. Recounting the experience, Tolle says,
[quote_box_center]I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved. 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.[/quote_box_center]
Tolle recalls going out for a walk in London the next morning, and finding that “everything was miraculous, deeply peaceful. Even the traffic.” The feeling continued, and he began to feel a strong underlying sense of peace in any situation. Tolle stopped studying for his doctorate, and for a period of about two years after this he spent much of his time sitting, “in a state of deep bliss,” on park benches in Russell Square, Central London, “watching the world go by.” He stayed with friends, in a Buddhist monastery, or otherwise slept rough on Hampstead Heath. His family thought him “irresponsible, even insane.” Tolle changed his first name from Ulrich to Eckhart, by some reports in homage to the German philosopher and mystic, Meister Eckhart, by other reports he was drawn to that name coincidentally.
After this period, former Cambridge students and people he had met by chance began to ask Tolle about his beliefs. He began working as a counselor and spiritual teacher. Students continued to come to him over the next five years. He relocated to Glastonbury, three hours west of London, a major centre of alternative living. In 1995, after having visited the West Coast of North America several times, he settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he met his wife to be, Kim Eng.
Tolle’s first book, The Power of Now, was first published in 1997 by Namaste Publishing. Only 3000 copies were published of the first edition. Tolle: “I would personally deliver a few copies every week to some small bookstores in Vancouver … Friends helped by placing copies of the book in spiritual bookstores farther afield”. The book was first published under copyright by New World Library in 1999. In 2000, Oprah Winfrey recommended it in her magazine, O. In August 2000 it reached the New York Times Best Seller list for Hardcover Advice. After two more years, it was number one on that list. By 2008, the book had been translated from English into 33 languages; since then, it has been translated into Arabic. Tolle published his second book, Stillness Speaks, in 2003. In July 2011, The Power of Now appeared on the list for the 10 best selling Paperback Advice books for the 102nd time.
In 2005, Tolle published his third book, A New Earth, which assumed the number one position on the New York Times Best Seller list several times between March and September 2008. By the end of 2008, it reached the list for the 46th time. The high sales of A New Earth in that year followed its selection by Oprah Winfrey for her book club in January. In the four weeks following the announcement, 3.5 million copies of the book were shipped. Tolle partnered with her to produce a series of webinar sessions beginning in May 2008. The weekly webinar sessions included discussions between Tolle and Winfrey, silent meditations, and questions from viewers via Skype. Each webinar focused on a specific chapter of A New Earth. The third webinar attracted more than 11 million viewers.
Tolle formed a company to sell products related to his teachings called Eckhart Teachings. He gives speeches and workshops in English and occasionally in German or Spanish. He also travels for various speaking engagements, such as seminars and retreats. In a 2003 interview with the Telegraph Magazine, Tolle indicated that he had no intention of creating “a heavy commercial structure”, nor of setting up an ashram or centre. He believes one “could develop organically” and said “one needs to be careful that the organization doesn’t become self-serving”.
In 2009, he created a video website, called Eckhart Tolle TV. In June 2009, Tolle and Jim Carrey headlined the first conference of the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment, or GATE, where both are Honorary Founders. In September, he appeared with the Dalai Lama and other speakers at the Vancouver Peace Summit. His most recent book, Guardians of Being, is a picture book illustrated by Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the comic strip Mutts.
Tolle writes in the introduction to his second book, Stillness Speaks, that “A true spiritual teacher does not have anything to teach in the conventional sense of the word, does not have anything to give or add to you, such as new information, beliefs, or rules of conduct. The only function of such a teacher is to help you remove that which separates you from the truth … The words are no more than signposts.”
Tolle says that his book, The Power of Now, is “a restatement for our time of that one timeless spiritual teaching, the essence of all religions”. He writes that religions “have become so overlaid with extraneous matter that their spiritual substance has become almost completely obscured”, that they have become “to a large extent … divisive rather than unifying forces” and become “themselves part of the insanity”.
Tolle writes that “the most significant thing that can happen to a human being [is] the separation process of thinking and awareness” and that awareness is “the space in which thoughts exist”. Tolle says that “the primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it”.
According to Tolle’s official website, “at the core of Tolle’s teachings lies the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening that he sees as the next step in human evolution. An essential aspect of this awakening consists in transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet”.
In his book A New Earth, Tolle describes a major aspect of the human dysfunction as “ego” or an “illusory sense of self” based on unconscious identification with one’s memories and thoughts, and another major aspect he calls “pain-body” or “an accumulation of old emotional pain”.
Tolle often talks about the relevance of figures in intellectual or popular culture. In A New Earth, he quotes Descartes, Sartre, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Albert Einstein. He has spoken of movies such as Groundhog Day, American Beauty, The Horse Whisperer, Gran Torino, Titanic, Avatar, Being There, and Forrest Gump, and musicians such as Mozart, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He arranged an album of music in 2008 entitled Music to Quiet the Mind including work composed by Eric Satie, Claude Debussy and The Beatles, and music by contemporary artists such as Deva Premal, Jeff Johnson and Steve Roach.
According to a 2009 article in the New York Times, Tolle is “not identified with any religion, but uses teachings from Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism and the Bible”. Tolle has said “I feel actually that the work I do is a coming together of the teaching ‘stream’, if you want to call it that, of Jiddu Krishnamurti and Ramana Maharshi“. Tolle himself has mentioned texts such as the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu scriptures, the Buddhist scriptures, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and A Course in Miracles; he has mentioned various individuals such as Zoroaster, Lao Tzu, Mahavira, Gautama Buddha, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Jesus, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Hafiz, Rinzai Gigen, Ralph Waldo Emerson; and he has emphasised the mystical schools within religions such as Gnosticism in Christianity, Sufism in Islam, Hasidism and Kabbala in Judaism, Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism, and Zen and Dzogchen in Buddhism. He has met and spoken with Barry Long and Don Miguel Ruiz, and he wrote a foreword for The Diamond in Your Pocket by Gangaji.
In 2008, an article in the New York Times referred to Tolle as “the most popular spiritual author in the [United States]”. In 2011, the Watkins Review put him at number 1 in a list of “The 100 Most Spiritually Influential Living People”. By 2009, total sales of The Power of Now and A New Earth in North America had been estimated at three million and five million copies respectively.
The books have received a wide range of praise and criticism. One book reviewer characterized The Power of Now as “awash in spiritual mumbo-jumbo”, while another reviewer wrote, “Tolle’s clear writing and the obvious depth of his experience and insight set it apart”. Celebrity admirers of the book include Tony Hawks, Annie Lennox, Gillian Anderson, Jeff Goldblum, Zach Galifianakis, Oprah Winfrey, Ben Stiller, Brett Kirk, Meg Ryan, Jim Carrey, Trey Anastasio, Michelle Ang, Jacoby Shaddix, Rainn Wilson and Dusty Baker.
Some critics characterize Tolle’s books as unoriginal or derivative. A 2009 New York Times article said he is “hardly the first writer to tap into the American longing for meaning and success”. Sara Nelson, the editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly, said Tolle’s writings have been successful due to surging public interest in books that tell you how to be happier, more peaceful and more successful. James Robinson in The Observer called Tolle’s writings “a mix of pseudo-science, New Age philosophy, and teaching borrowed from established religions”.
However, others praise his re-working and synthesis of traditions. New Age writer William Bloom wrote that “Tolle is offering a very contemporary synthesis of Eastern spiritual teaching, which is normally so clothed in arcane language that it is incomprehensible”, thereby providing “a valuable perspective on Western culture”. Publisher Judith Kendra says, “The ideas [that Tolle is] talking about have been in existence for thousands of years in both Eastern texts and with the great Western mystics, but he’s able to make them understandable”. Musician Annie Lennox said “[Tolle] has some kind of special quality that I’ve never encountered before”.
Reception by Christian theologians
Some Christian scholars have spoken against Tolle’s teachings. James Beverley, Professor of Christian Thought and Ethics at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, says that Tolle’s worldview “is at odds with central Christian convictions” and that “Tolle denies the core of Christianity by claiming there is no ultimate distinction between humans and God and Jesus”. John Stackhouse, a professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, says that Tolle “gives a certain segment of the population exactly what they want: a sort of supreme religion that purports to draw from all sorts of lesser, that is, established religions”. Stackhouse also questions Tolle’s integrity by critiquing some public statements as contradictory to his own teachings.
But, noted one journalist, “Tolle does have fans in academic, even Christian, circles”. Theologian Andrew Ryder wrote that “Tolle’s writing is based on his own experience and personal reflection. This makes his approach to the challenge of living in the present moment both practical and fresh” even though “he may not use the language of traditional Christian spirituality”. Stafford Betty finds common ground between Tolle’s worldview and that of Christian mystics. He notes that “one of the key elements in Tolle’s teaching is that deep within the mind is absolute stillness in which one can experience ‘the joy of Being'”. Betty says that such a view is comparable to the view of contemporary Catholic monk Thomas Keating who wrote that “We rarely think of the air we breathe, yet it is in us and around us all the time. In similar fashion, the presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us, and it is delightful”. Betty also says that “for Mr. Tolle, God is in the world in a more radical way than for the Christian” and that Tolle’s theology “is only a footnote to the therapy he holds out to his audience”.
Anglican bishop Michael Ingham has said, “I don’t have any criticism of his message. I think the proper attitude to take with new spiritual movements is one of wait and see.”
Roman Catholic priest and theologian Richard Rohr credits Tolle for helping to reintroduce ancient Christian mysticism to modern Christians: “Tolle is, in fact, rather brilliantly bringing to our awareness the older tradition . . . [which is] both the ground and the process for breaking through to the theological contemplation of God, and acquired contemplation of Jesus, the Gospels, and all spiritual things. He is teaching process, not doctrine or dogma. He is teaching how to see and be present, not what you should see when you are present. Tolle is our friend, and not an enemy of the Gospel. There should be no conflict for a mature Christian.”