An interview with Eckhart Tolle by Andrew Cohen

AC: What exactly do you mean when you say that the purpose of the world lies in the transcendence of it?

ET: The world promises fulfillment somewhere in time, and there is a continuous striving toward that fulfillment in time. Many times people feel, “Yes, now I have arrived,” and then they realize that, no, they haven’t arrived, and then the striving continues. It is expressed beautifully in A Course in Miracles, where it says that the dictum of the ego is “Seek but do not find.” People look to the future for salvation, but the future never arrives.

So ultimately, suffering arises through not finding. And that is the beginning of an awakening—when the realization dawns that “Perhaps this is not the way. Perhaps I will never get to where I am striving to reach; perhaps it’s not in the future at all.” After having been lost in the world, suddenly, through the pressure of suffering, the realization comes that the answers may not be found out there in worldly attainment and in the future.

That’s an important point for many people to reach. That sense of deep crisis — when the world as they have known it, and the sense of self that they have known that is identified with the world, become meaningless. That happened to me. I was just that close to suicide and then something else happened — 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.” I realized that beyond words, that is who I am. But this realization wasn’t a mental process. I realized that that vibrantly alive, deep stillness is who I am.

Years later, I called that stillness “pure consciousness,” whereas everything else is the conditioned consciousness. The human mind is the conditioned consciousness that has taken form as thought. The conditioned consciousness is the whole world that is created by the conditioned mind.

Everything is our conditioned consciousness; even objects are. Conditioned consciousness has taken birth as form and then that becomes the world. So to be lost in the conditioned seems to be necessary for humans. It seems to be part of their path to be lost in the world, to be lost in the mind, which is the conditioned consciousness.

Then, due to the suffering that arises out of being lost, one finds the unconditioned as oneself. And that is why we need the world to transcend the world. So I’m infinitely grateful for having been lost.

The purpose of the world is for you to be lost in it, ultimately. The purpose of the world is for you to suffer, to create the suffering that seems to be what is needed for the awakening to happen. And then once the awakening happens, with it comes the realization that suffering is unnecessary now. You have reached the end of suffering because you have transcended the world. It is the place that is free of suffering.

This seems to be everybody’s path. Perhaps it is not everybody’s path in this lifetime, but it seems to be a universal path. Even without a spiritual teaching or a spiritual teacher, I believe that everybody would get there eventually. But that could take time.

AC: A long time.

ET: Much longer. A spiritual teaching is there to save time. The basic message of the teaching is that you don’t need any more time, you don’t need any more suffering. I tell this to people who come to me: “You are ready to hear this because you are listening to it.

There are still millions of people out there who aren’t listening to it. They still need time. But I’m not talking to them. You are hearing that you don’t need time anymore and you don’t need to suffer anymore. You’ve been seeking in time and you’ve been seeking further suffering.” And to suddenly hear that “You don’t need that anymore — for some, that can be the moment of transformation.

So the beauty of the spiritual teaching is that it saves lifetimes of —

AC: Unnecessary suffering.

ET: Yes, so it’s good that people are lost in the world. I enjoy traveling to New York and Los Angeles, where it seems that people are totally involved. I was looking out of the window in New York. We were next to the Empire State Building, doing a group. And everybody was rushing around, almost running. Everybody seemed to be in a state of intense nervous tension, anxiety. It’s suffering, really, but it’s not recognized as suffering.

And I thought, where are they all running to? And of course, they are all running to the future. They are needing to get somewhere, which is not here. It is a point in time: not now — then. They are running to a then. They are suffering, but they don’t even know it. But to me, even watching that was joyful. I didn’t feel, “Oh, they should know better.” They are on their spiritual path. At the moment, that is their spiritual path, and it works beautifully.

AC: Often the word enlightenment is interpreted to mean the end of division within the self and the simultaneous discovery of a perspective or way of seeing that is whole, complete, or free from duality. Some who have experienced this perspective claim that the ultimate realization is that there is no difference between the world and God or the Absolute, between samsara and nirvana, between the manifest and the unmanifest.

But there are others who claim that, in fact, the ultimate realization is that the world doesn’t actually exist at all — that the world is only an illusion, completely empty of meaning, significance, or reality. So in your own experience, is the world real? Is the world unreal? Both?

ET: Even when I’m interacting with people or walking in a city, doing ordinary things, the way I perceive the world is like ripples on the surface of being. Underneath the world of sense perceptions and the world of mind activity, there’s the vastness of being. There’s a vast spaciousness. There’s a vast stillness and there’s a little ripple activity on the surface, which isn’t separate, just like the ripples are not separate from the ocean.

So there’s no separation in the way I perceive it. There’s no separation between being and the manifested world, between the manifested and the unmanifested. But the unmanifested is so much vaster, deeper, and greater than what happens in the manifested.

Every phenomenon in the manifested is so short-lived and so fleeting that, yes, one could almost say that from the perspective of the unmanifested, which is the timeless beingness or presence, all that happens in the manifested realm really seems like a play of shadows.

It seems like vapor or mist with continuously new forms arising and disappearing, arising and disappearing. So to the one who is deeply rooted in the unmanifested, the manifested could very easily be called unreal. I don’t call it unreal because I see it as not separate from anything.

AC: So it is real?

ET: All that is real is beingness itself. Consciousness is all there is, pure consciousness.

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Ripples on the Surface of Being