Eckhart Tolle on enlightenment, ego, and apocalyptic collapse



Eckhart Tolle

I have sometimes wondered about the reactions of my readers whenever I mention the writings of Eckhart Tolle with approval, as I have done several times. Tolle is a best-selling writer whose books occupy the same general “mind/body/spirit” publishing niche as those of Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, etc. He’s a speaker who has now appeared at Google’s headquarters, the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, and other trendy signature places and events representing the front line of tech culture’s faux fusion with spirituality. He has famously been associated with Oprah Winfrey. (One of the most read posts here at The Teeming Brain, by the way, continues to be “Oprah, Eckhart Tolle, and the fundamentalist hijacking of Christianity.”) The organization that is set up to promote his work puts out a veritably relentless flood of merchandising associated with his books and teachings. All of the marketing markers point toward his being another fluffy new-gen spiritual guru of the kind whose apparent mission is to make money by encouraging the wealthy and the upper middle class to feel good about themselves by exploring their own specialness.

The thing is, he’s more than that. As I and a bunch of other people discovered well over a decade ago when Tolle’s The Power of Now became a grassroots publishing phenomenon at the turn of the millennium, he is a writer and teacher of frankly astonishing power who manages to communicate to a general audience, in exquisitely lucid prose and spoken words, the same nondual spiritual message that was formerly propounded to a much more rarefied audience by the likes of J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi, and others (and indeed, Tolle has named Krishnamurti and Maharshi as being among his primary influences). Say what you will in criticism of the various directions his “brand” has taken in recent years — and a number of such criticisms, some that I view as valid, have indeed been offered — the man himself appears to be the genuine article, as in someone who experienced a profound spiritual awakening/transformation (arising out of intense personal suffering, by the way) and then found that other people wanted to hear about it, and that he was gifted to convey it in words and personal presence. I sometimes wonder whether, in both sociological and religious or spiritual terms, his presence in modern digital mass media culture, including the various aspects of it that invite criticism, might not represent the arrival of a new guru/anti-guru model that’s valid for the present age.

And in a way, I said all of that to say this: hey, look, Eckhart is talking about apocalyptic collapse again. I’ve quoted his apocalyptic observations before. Now here’s a new one, appearing in a recent interview for The Huffington Post that was conducted by Arianna Huffington herself (who has headlined with him at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference). I never fail to find it fascinating when he says things like what’s quoted below, because although on one level he might be taken as just another spiritual guru who is barking about the supposed imminent end of the world and possible advent of a new spiritual age involving a forward leap in consciousness, on another he is truly saying something insightful when he links the age-old nondual realization about the fraught relationship between ego and world, self and other, inner and outer — and about the ground reality that encompasses and gives rise to both — to the quite real disruptions that are visibly attending our ongoing journey into formerly unknown realms and configurations of technological, ecological, economic, and sociological reality on a new planetary scale. Which is all to say that I find his words well worth attending to, not least because he offers not a rosy optimism but an honest recognition that we may well fail the challenge:

Collectively, we are at a point where the old — I call it the old, dysfunctional, egoic state of consciousness — has become extremely dangerous. We can go back 100 years ago, which is 1914, when World War I started, and that was the first time humans fully realized how insane warfare was because of all the advances in technology that had happened by that time. Millions upon millions of people died in World War I from chemical warfare, tanks, poison gas, machine guns and all the other clever inventions of the egoic mind. That was the first time we realized the magnitude of the dysfunction in the collective consciousness, as it became amplified by the advances in science and technology.

We have reached a point now where if there’s no shift in consciousness away from the dysfunctional, egoic state that generates all that insanity, then humans would most likely destroy themselves, or at least bring about a complete collapse of civilization. We have arrived at a point of great danger, collectively, but danger also means great opportunity for change. There’s a fundamental universal truth, and that is humans do not change until they reach a point of crisis. That applies not only to individuals, but it also applies to humanity as a whole. It’s only when we reach a state of crisis, the suffering that it produces creates the impetus behind the shift in consciousness. This is the point that we have reached now, and we’ve been moving towards this for the past 100 years. This is why so many people are now ready to undergo that shift.

So this is a very important moment in human history, where there is a possibility of almost a quantum leap in human consciousness. There’s also the possibility, of course, that humans are not going to make it, that the shift won’t happen, in which case there would be a regression in human evolution that could throw us back several thousand years. Hopefully, that’s not going to happen, but it could happen, and even that would not be ultimately tragic, because I believe that consciousness is destined to grow and flower on this planet. I’m fairly confident that it is happening already, but we must not underestimate the gravitational pull, so to speak, of the old, dysfunctional consciousness that is still here and operates, as you can see when you watch the daily news. Most things you see on the daily news are reflections of the old, dysfunctional consciousness, or, rather, unconsciousness. We have reached a very interesting point in human evolution. It’s quite amazing to be alive at this time.


MORE: “A Conversation with Eckhart Tolle

Image by Kyle Hoobin (, via Gregcaletta at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

About Matt Cardin


Posted on April 28, 2014, in Psychology & Consciousness, Society & Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Tolle has his moments, but on the whole he veers towards charlatanism. People did not ‘realize how insane war was in 1914’, since they kept at it for a full four years and then repeated the process twenty years later. We have had flamethrowers since the Byzantines and biological warfare since the Crusades. What happened in WWI was that technology had rendered certain military tactics obsolete and the discrepancy between the tools and the theory led to unprecedented casualties.

    Also, a ‘regression in human evolution that could throw us back several thousand years’ is an utterly nonsensical phrase. Does he actually argue that we might biologically devolve? Probably what he is intimating is that we might experience regression as a society, following a collapse of civilization, which technically is not impossible, but it is more improbable now than it was fifty years ago.

    Really, it’s this whole ‘now is the turning point’ all these guys sell that is a Litmus test for their seriousness.

    • My sense is that Tolle’s statement about 1914 was more of a characterization than a claim, and that he meant the unprecedented scale of death and destruction in World War I represented and represents a kind of apocalyptic flashpoint that revealed the insanity of war more pointedly and awesomely than ever before. As I’m sure you know, a great many historians and others point to World War I as the traumatic nexus event that signaled the end of the old Western sociopolitical, economic, and cultural order and gave birth to the modern one. This is the context in which I’ve always read Tolle’s references to it. I doubt he meant to argue that people en masse actually experienced a conscious and collective revelation about the nature of war in 1914, and I agree with you that it would be erroneous to say such a thing.

      I know what you mean about the whole “now is the turning point” shtick. I always take all such pronouncements with ten grains of salt and a heady dose of irony, for reasons that I think are self-evident to anybody who has even the slimmest knowledge of the long history of such things. But it’s also true that there really are cultural and historical inflection points that serve as real moments (in the large and metaphorical sense of the word) of transition and transformation on a wide and collective scale, and I, for one, find my own thoughts, feelings, and intuitions resonating with Tolle’s (and others’) statements to the effect that our present constellation of factors represents just such a moment, and a particularly dramatic and pivotal one at that.

    • Hi Matt,

      Great article on Tolle. I believe he deserves all of his success for educating people to mindfulness and the destructive power of the egoic mind. What he is saying is not really new, he’s simply pouring old wine out of new bottles, but it is a wine whose effects are easily dismissed and forgotten by the wiley monkey mind. The more reinforcement the better. Keep up the great work. The Teeming Brain is awesome and always blasts me out of my trenches.

  2. Scenes from Mike Leigh’s “Naked”

  3. “The universe, Kushog knew in his delirium, seeks non-existence, nirvana. The universe, God, whatever the name of the total sum of everything might be, exists in a tragic agony, yearning not to be, never to have been. All its stars and galaxies, every particle of matter, every wave of radiation sears it. It has to fit itself into itself to articulate this pain, and the more fiercely it articulates this, the more persistently it exists, and creates itself. For it has wrapped time and matter round themselves, tying a knot in the midst of absolute nothing so that its end generates its beginning; so that its primal explosion and its final collapse wrap around each other too, eternally and simultaneously, now and always. Immense compassion overcame Kushog in the final moments of his agony, as his bent-around body screamed the root sound.”
    -Ian Watson, “Alien Embassy” (1977).

  4. But… We have been “sent back a few thousand years” a few times before.
    Civilisations more advanced than our present one even.

  5. Thank you very much, Jesus, for informing the Universe of Its existential problems and the appropriate way to solve them.

    The Universe/God will now understand and appreciate that some entities on a planet called Earth comprehend Its problems more than It ever could and will stop all Its layers of Existence after Its next collapse, not expanding once again.

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