On the cusp of the new millennium, Eckhart Tolle ushered in a new era of spirituality in America with his bestselling book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment.
For Tolle himself, spiritual enlightenment didn’t come as easily as picking up a book. He struggled for many years – lost, unhappy, in search of meaning – before he arrived at his vision of being, of living in the present.
Tolle’s story reminds us that even spiritual gurus find their way by getting lost, and that to move forward, we may need to forget where we’ve been and where we’re going, releasing our self-centered thoughts into the moment, to discover our guiding purpose.
The Hero’s Journey to Success - Desperately Seeking Answers
Ulrich Leonard Tolle was born February 16, 1948 in Lünen, Germany, a small Northern town visibly and physiologically scarred by WWII. Growing up in a very somber environment, Tolle retreated into books as an escape from his unhappy school and family life. From an early age, he anxiously sought answers that would provide some secure meaning in his life.
But this quest for knowledge only deepened Tolle’s depression as he pursued a more traditional education. At age 19, he moved to London as a language teacher, and then enrolled at the University of London to study philosophy, psychology, and literature.
After graduating, he received a scholarship to do research at Cambridge University, but he dropped out. His own mind was out of his control. From this point on, Tolle would frequently spiral down into long stretches of suicidal thoughts.
Then, one night, when Tolle was 29-years-old and suffering an unbearable bout of depression, he woke with a question that would change his life – and the countless lives he would touch – forever: “Who is this self that I cannot live with?”
Tolle realized that the self is something that we make in our minds, along with all the problems that we cannot resolve. In that moment, Tolle let go, and he found the peace of simply being in the world, not inside the mind; he found the peace of presence.
By cultivating this presence, turning his mind away from obsessive thoughts of the self -- expectations and dissapointments, desires and losses -- toward the purpose of being in the now, the purpose that connects us spiritually to all existence.
As Tolle began to embody that purpose, he experienced the greatest joy and fulfillment, when for so long, he had endured the deepest anxiety and emptiness.
The Hero’s Success – Spreading the Message
After that first sleepless night, Tolle devoted the next few years of his life to this “inner transformation.”
Through this solitary journey, he prepared to share the gift of purposeful presence with the world. He turned a deeply personal epiphany into a widely practicable philosophy that would help millions overcome the difficulties of a world overrun by ego-based values and behaviors.
However, Tolle’s message of unity and peace was not received in the same spirit. When his first published book, The Power of Now, soared up the bestsellers’ list and earned Oprah’s recommendation, he was denounced by authorities in the Christian community for going against the teachings of the Church. Other critics discounted his work as just another new-age self-help book dabbling in religion and psychology.
Rather than question his purpose in the face of criticism, Tolle focused on finding and reaching the audience for his message, promoting his book in bookstores, working as a spiritual teacher, and eventually writing a second book, The New Earth: Awakening to your Life’s Purpose, to broaden the potential of his ideas for creating a better world.
He continually adapts the form of his teachings to make them as widely accessible as possible: webinars (in partnership with Oprah), video products, speeches, workshops, retreats, conferences, any means of teaching that puts spiritual gain over profit.
For all this commercial success, Tolle remains true to the roots of his vision by creating a community of people with a shared purpose, rather than a corporation with a central organization.
Teaching Beyond the Books
Eckhart Tolle’s life has changed the course of so many journeys. His influence comes from his deep understanding of the pains that make us all human. He reaches people because he makes his knowledge and experience accessible, transforming spirituality into something that his readers and students can practice independently in their own lives.
We often get so hung up on memories of the past and fantasies of the future, but these are only images. We only have power now.