03 Apr Spending no time with Eckhart Tolle
I will never forget my first conversation with Eckhart. It was in Hong Kong, in a friend’s apartment. The Power of Now had been released just a few months ago in the United States, and Eckhart had been invited to give a talk there by close friends of my sister Nikki, who had been greatly impacted by the book and decided to invite him over. Private sessions with Eckhart were also organized, where people could book a time, sit with him individually, discuss their life-situation and ask him for guidance. This was, of course, when he was nowhere near as popular as he is today.
I was holidaying at the time in Hong Kong. Nikki said that she would love for me to meet Eckhart, and went ahead and booked a session so that I could spend quality-time with him. I was completely resistant to this idea. I had not read the book nor had I heard much of Eckhart, and I thought it wasn’t a very entertaining way to spend an afternoon in such a vibrant city. Besides, I had a short attention span for such matters. When I met Eckhart that afternoon, I mentioned to him that I really had not come with any specific life questions or troubles, as I was on vacation. I was sure he would have found that arrogant. After all, there was a waiting list of people to meet with him and here I was with nothing specific to ask, taking up his precious time and, more so, denying someone else the opportunity of being with him, who perhaps yearned for it more than me.
Meeting Eckhart was more than a pleasant surprise. I found him cool as a cucumber, and we actually had an enjoyable forty-five minute conversation, talking about the weather, the colour black seeming to be the favourite of the people walking on the streets, the money-energy prevailing in the environment, and other such mundane things. But, deep down, I felt this was indeed a very different kind of conversation. I tried to analyse it but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Later on, I realised what it was. It was the total attention that Eckhart held the conversation in. He listened with rapt attention, as if sacred mantras were pouring forth from my mouth, when in fact I was engaging in what would be regular garden-variety conversation. It was the magnitude of this striking attention given to what I was saying which enraptured me, as if he was totally submerged in the conversation with his entire being. He seemed riveted to what I was saying, and that made me squirm a bit at first, given that we were just talking shop and not discussing, as it were, something as important as the theory of relativity. There was also a considerable calm and quiet that pervaded the room; a total silence wrapped around the words being spoken. Every other noise seemed to fade into the background, and what I could hear was perhaps the stillness of his single-pointed attention to what I was saying.
I distinctly recall Eckhart’s penetrating gaze throughout this conversation. I remember this absolutely ‘direct’ look making me uncomfortable initially, but I realised that if I looked back and held his gaze instead of moving my eyes away, I was locked in. There was no option to run or hide, but just to be ‘seen through’. It was as if the words were coming out of his eyes when he spoke. And, when he didn’t speak, it was as if he was looking with a razor sharp intensity which could have burned a hole in the back of my head, like when a magnifying glass is used to focus the sun’s rays on a particular spot of paper, and a hole is burned into the paper after a few seconds. It was later on that I read that some spiritual Masters burned up lifetimes of karma of their disciples when they give them this ‘look’. With Eckhart, I didn’t know at the time whether it was my karma that was burning, but something surely was. Also, there was a seeming hollowness in his look, as if pure consciousness was pouring forth from the pools of his eyes and there was nobody behind them.
It’s the mundane things I remember about my times with Eckhart, no walking-on-water miracles but simple moments in daily living. For instance, I remember when we went to a fancy Italian restaurant in Vancouver for dinner. An exquisite bottle of red wine was opened, and we did the customary round of ‘Cheers’ and raised the glass to our lips. We all savoured the first sip – including Eckhart. Indeed, the wine was of an outstanding vintage. I was seated opposite Eckhart. After a while, from the corner of my eye, I once again saw Eckhart raise the glass to his lips to take a sip. However, I was a bit confused, for it looked to me as if he was taking the first sip from his glass – the way he looked at the glass, the movement of his hand raising it to his lips, inhaling the aroma, twirling the glass in his hands, and taking the sip – it certainly looked like this was the first sip. And yet, I distinctly remember him taking the first sip when we did the customary ‘Cheers’. So I asked him, “Eckhart, I saw you take the first sip. Now, the second sip that you took, it looked as if you were taking the first sip!” I thought for a moment I had caught him off-guard with the question, as he had the look of someone who didn’t know the answer to a question posed to him – it seemed that he himself was not sure whether it was the first or second. Then, I saw this incredible look on his face, like that of a little boy enjoying each successive bite of his chocolate, as if it were the first. The law of diminishing marginal utility certainly didn’t apply in his case. Well, Eckhart put my doubts to rest by simply stating, “Yes, it was my second sip, but it was as if it were my first.” And, it was perhaps the first time that it struck me that he was a living example of his teaching – he was his teaching!
Eckhart’s visit to India in February 2002 was really special. The Power of Now had only been launched six months earlier in the Indian market, but he had already developed quite a fan following, cutting across all backgrounds and age groups – covering seekers ranging from nuns to CEOs. Eckhart spoke to a full audience in Chennai, Pondicherry, Rishikesh and Mumbai. But the highlight of Eckhart’s India trip was the short detour we made to the Ramana Maharshi Ashram, in Tiruvanamalai, for a couple of nights. The high point was walking up the sacred mountain Arunachala with Eckhart, to sit in Ramana Maharshi’s cave for a while. The walk up was not as quiet as Eckhart would have liked it to be, as he was easily recognised and hence interrupted many a time. He did express the desire to return again, though I don’t see him having a quieter trip than the earlier one. In Pondicherry, besides visiting Sri Aurobindo’s ashram, we also visited Matri Mandir – one of the most spectacular meditation chambers in India and perhaps the whole world – a round, all-white room situated at the top of what looked like a geodesic dome, which housed one of the world’s largest crystals. Envisioned by The Mother, the purity of the crystal, all-white surroundings and pin-drop silence have an instantaneous effect of switching off one’s thoughts. Matri Mandir resonates with an electrifying purity, and we sat there for about forty-five minutes soaking in the rarefied atmosphere. At both these spiritual centres, I can hardly remember the content of conversations with Eckhart; I think that’s because hardly any took place.
It had been over two years since we last met Eckhart, when he visited India in February 2002. When we found out that Eckhart was giving talks in Glastonbury and then Findhorn, Scotland in May/June 2004, it seemed the perfect setting to meet with him once again.
I had always wanted to visit Glastonbury – the Isle of Avalon, replete with Arthurian legends and a place of intense mysticism. A three-hour drive from London, it was considered to be the last resting place of the Holy Grail. Joseph of Arimathea is supposed to have brought the chalice to Glastonbury, where it is now said to be buried. Today, Glastonbury, which is a one-street town, is considered to be one of the most powerful energy points on the planet. Its main attraction is the Glastonbury Tor, a peculiar mound of earth which rises up in the middle of nowhere, atop which is perched a tower. The tower is so simple, basic and banal that you almost wonder what it’s doing up there. But something deep within tells you that there is certainly more to it than meets the eye. The peculiar labyrinth-like pathway that ascends to, and then descends from the Tor, was supposed to be like a ‘meditative walk’, with each step bringing man closer to God. Some new-age enthusiasts consider it to be the heart chakra of the world.
The evening we arrived in Glastonbury, we spoke with Eckhart to ask him when we could meet up for some private moments together, other than the meals that were at fairly big tables. Eckhart mentioned that he would love to take a walk with us up the Tor, as it was something he had not done in a long while. Many years ago, while he was driving to nowhere after his life-transforming experience, his car mysteriously broke down in Glastonbury and he ended up staying there for quite a while. During that stay, he mentioned he had climbed up the Tor almost every single day, for over a hundred days! I mentioned to Eckhart that we had booked a tour guide in advance who seemed to be the best in the town, for he owned the biggest new-age bookstore on the main street, and was a member of the local Order of the Templars to boot! What better tour guide could one ask for?! There was complete silence at the other end of the phone line. Then, in a gentle tone, Eckhart politely declined, for he mentioned that what he had in mind was more like a ‘silent walk’, a silent tour of the Tor, to soak in the natural beauty and wonder of this ancient hillock. He was clearly not interested in a historical dates-and-events driven perspective of the same. What use was it, anyway? Now, this is something I should have anticipated. Of course, the possibility of a silent tour had not even entered my mind. I was quite happy at the prospect of having to walk up this path in silence with him and our small group. So, we decided to speak to the guide we had fixed up with and excuse ourselves from the Tor part of the tour, and he willingly agreed when he knew we were walking up with Eckhart who was taking on the mantle of being our tour guide. Upon my return to India, I thought I would look up the internet to find out more about the historical facts of the Tor. I did not get down to doing this, but the visual imprint of the scenery and beauty of the surroundings is etched into my memory. And this I certainly owe to Eckhart, for else the mind would have focused more on what the tour guide would have been speaking, and in doing so less attention would have been given to ‘what was seen’ and experienced.
From the top of the Tor, the view is stunning and splendid, for you can see 360 degrees all around you, as if you are standing on higher ground and closer to heaven. We spent moments there in silence, appreciating the natural beauty of the place. On this occasion again, as in the past, I felt nature come alive much more when I was in Eckhart’s presence. It was as if nature were welcoming her son home, and he appreciated and acknowledged that in return. A kind of muted, invisible exchange of mutual respect and admiration. It reaffirmed my belief that given the option, Eckhart would prefer to spend time with the trees and the sky and grass, and leave the man-made world far behind. He was completely immersed in the breathtaking scene before him, lost in it and oblivious to the world, a look, which was reminiscent of the Heart Sutra of the Buddha: Gate, gate, paragate… (Gone, gone, gone over to the other shore…)
Eckhart’s Glastonbury talk was brilliant, full of his delightful humour. As Glastonbury was a hub for psychics and fortune-tellers, there were naturally many of them in the audience. And Eckhart could not help but mention in his talk, with a glint in his eye like a mischievous child: “I want to tell all the psychics here that you can only be psychic in the present moment.” I couldn’t help but think how obvious it is that our future is bound to the present moment, but it is we who slice up time as if it were a big loaf of bread, creating slices while forgetting that all along what exists is only the loaf. This reminds me of the Zen saying, ‘You cannot enter a place that you never left’. The Town Hall hadn’t seen a crowd quite like this before, all for a man who just sits in a chair, the only prop on the stage besides a bouquet of flowers, and with no powerpoint presentation or laser-pointer in hand, speaks on the Now. Truly, simplicity and humility are the hallmark of a sage. When Advaita sage Ramesh Balsekar is asked by seekers how one can determine whether a sage is genuine or not, he says that what he does know is when a person is not a sage – and that is when there is an absence of humility. Humility and simplicity are qualities I have repeatedly observed in Eckhart. As Eckhart himself mentioned at the talk, “Before The Power of Now I was just an ‘ordinary’ person. Now, after its success, people look at me and say, “Oh, look at the author of The Power of Now, he looks so ordinary!”
All in all, I knew that coming to the talks was just an excuse in a way. The main purpose was to share some moments with Eckhart other than those while he was ‘talking’. And perhaps all seekers and disciples could approach their teachers with this in mind. Rather than just reading their books, seeing the space between the words, which allows the words to be. Rather than just listening to their talks, hearing the silence that enables them to speak. Casting aside all images, projections, concepts and preconceived ideas, and being open to the pulsating, throbbing dynamism of the moment. Great sages like Ramana Maharshi and Nityananda mostly taught through silence. Meher Baba did not speak for the last 40 years of his life. It is on the threshold of silence that stillness arises within us, and with that the heightened awareness of what the present moment has to offer. Which could perhaps give us a glimpse into eternity. In Eckhart’s words, “Eternity does not mean endless time. It means no time.”