Feb. 15, 2009 -- He has sold millions of books in many countries throughout the world, and is launching an online channel this spring. Celebrities like Cher and Meg Ryan swear by him, and Paris Hilton even brought his book with her to jail. Oprah Winfrey not only put his book in her book club, but she also hosted an unprecedented 10-part online series with him.
Tolle, who was born in Germany is a rather unassuming "spiritual teacher" and doesn't like the term "guru." Tolle doesn't do "self-help" in the traditional sense. He isn't teaching people how to lose weight, get a job or have a better sex life.
Instead, he's teaching people how to shut off the noise in their heads and be happy. His message is that our egos are destroying our lives, and by ego he doesn't just mean thinking we are special, he means our thinking, period. That voice in our heads, our ego, Tolle believes, has a relentless need to be right, which leads us to make enemies. Tolle granted ABC's Dan Harris a rare interview.
Eckhart Tolle: To me the ego is the habitual and compulsive thought processes that go through everybody's mind continuously. External things like possessions or memories or failures or successes or achievements. Your personal history. All these things, a bundle of thoughts, of repetitive thoughts that give you a sense of who you are.
Dan Harris: So our ego, this constant stream of thinking, the voice in our head is making us miserable?
Eckhart Tolle: Yes, that's right. And it prevents you from being truly alive. So I'm not saying we musn't think anymore. That would not be possible and it would not be desirable. Thinking is a wonderful tool if it's applied. Thinking however can not become the master. Thinking is a very bad master. If you're dominated by thinking then your life becomes very restricted. If you're able to use your mind instead of being used by your mind, that's a beautiful thing. To use your mind constructively.
Psychologists found that 98 or 99 percent of our thinking is repetitive. And also a lot of our thinking is very negative. People tend to dwell more on negative things than on good things. So the mind then becomes obsessed with negative things, with judgements, guilt and anxiety produced by thoughts about the future and so on. Many people live habitually as if the present moment were either an obstacle that they need to overcome in order to get to the next moment, and imagine living your whole life like that, where always this moment is never quite right, not good enough because you need to get to the next one, that is continuous stress.
Tolle blames most of the ills of the world on our egos: broken homes, wars and our destruction of the planet. But according to Tolle, our ego isn't the only thing making us unhappy. He says we're wasting our lives by refusing to live in the present moment. He says he can teach people how to become aware of the voice in their head, and thereby tame it. He calls it "awakening," a fancy-sounding name for what he says is a very attainable state. Tolle's personal spiritual awakening came out of his own mental anguish.
Eckhart Tolle: It's a state of conciousness. The possibility of living in a more peaceful, more vibrantly alive state of conciousness. That's all. Not some weird belief system that we need to adopt. It's much more fundamental and much more simple.
Dan Harris: How did you get this way, how did you awaken?
Eckhart Tolle: I was so unhappy that I couldn't stand it anymore. I had to step out of this identification with the unhappy mind created self.
Dan Harris: So unhappy that you were considering suicide?
Eckhart Tolle: Yes, yes I was several times close to suicide and so one night a shift happened and I realized the unhappy me, the unhappy self, is not really who I am, I could sense underneath it a presence and an aliveness and an intelligence that had nothing to do with the negative thoughts that were continuously going through my head.
After he awakened, he says he quit his job as an academic and eventually sat on a park bench, homeless for several years, living in a state of bliss.
Dan Harris: Don't you ever get pissed off, annoyed, irritated, sad, anything negative?
Eckhart Tolle: No, I accept what is. And that's why life has become so simple.
Dan Harris: Well, what if somebody cuts you off in your car?
Eckhart Tolle: It's fine, it's like a sudden gust of wind, I don't personalize a gust of wind, and so it's simply what is.
Dan Harris: And you're able to enjoy every moment, even if I start asking you a ton of annoying questions?
Eckhart Tolle: Yes, that would be fine. So it's really.
Dan Harris: Don't tempt me [laughing].
Eckhart Tolle: [laughing] It's finding, becoming friendly just with the is-ness of this moment.
While many fans of Tolle's say he has changed their lives, some Christians say his teachings are not compatible with the Bible. They accuse Tolle of promoting "The Doctrine of Demons."
Dan Harris: Do you believe that Jesus is the son of God?
Eckhart Tolle: I believe that Jesus realized his oneness with God and he showed, what he attemped to do was show the way to all of us, how to realize our own onenes with God also, so he's a precursor.
Dan Harris: But that's different, I mean Christians, the whole point of Christianity is the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Eckhart Tolle: Yes, but I believe that what Jesus Christ was really teaching was the divinity in everyone.
Dan Harris: But do you believe that Christianity is just as valid as say Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism?
Eckhart Tolle: Yes, all religions at their core, they have a basic truth.
Dan Harris: But, many Christians would vehemently disagree with that. They would say our religion is the one true religion.
Eckhart Tolle: And that is called the ego, it says we are right and you are wrong. Religion for many people has turned into a form of ego, but for others it hasn't, and for some people religion actually still works.
Tolle seems unperturbed by any controversy that is created about him. In fact, it seemed hard to bother him at all.
Dan Harris: So if we were all to sort of leave the room, right now and just lock you in here and you'd be by yourself. Could you sit happily on the couch here indefinitely?
Eckhart Tolle: Well I don't know indefinitely because the body has its needs and so on, but I'm quite happy being with myself in a room all alone. I enjoy that. I do that quite a lot. Just sit, in a room, or outside, just enjoying the simplicity and aliveness of the present moment. When I go back to my room after our conversation, I just enjoy being there. The present moment is alive, I am alive. The world around me is alive. It's deep enjoyment of living.
Dan Harris: And to those who are going to haer this and say… flaky! You say, "fine, you're losing out?"
Eckhart Tolle: It's your mind that has some judgments about it because your mind doesn't understand what I'm talking about. You need to be a little bit of a glimmer of a recognition from a dimension that is deeper than the mind in you… and you say, "Oh he actually has a point." And from there you can open up and begin to experience what it is to be home with the present moment which is life.