We live in a very messed up world. All over the place people are killing each other, torturing each other, stealing from each other and exploiting each other in every way imaginable. Apart from the overt hostility and suspicion that we are witness to, there is also much self-inflicted human suffering in the form of addiction, greed, envy, self-loathing, and a host of other neuroses. This is not to mention what we are collectively doing to the planet and the animal kingdom.
Given all this trouble and strife, it is a very brave man indeed who comes along and says he has the solution. Eckhart Tolle is such a man. For those not familiar with him, Eckhart is a German-born spiritual teacher who has written several international best-sellers, including The Power of Now and more recently A New Earth, which has already sold six million copies and is recommended by Oprah.
"Eckhart Tolle will give you the confidence to let go of fear, anxiety and the eternal quest for more," says the back cover of A New Earth. If you read the book, it adds, you will "stop defining your life and start living it with true openness and freedom".
One has two choices, I feel. One can accept that we are all doomed and the planet is doomed and that things will just keep getting worse. Or one can actively seek out ideas and opportunities to make a difference, and take action.
Personally, I am in favour of trying out ideas, in case one of them works, which is why I was extremely keen to read Eckhart's book and also to speak to him in person.
I had already read The Power of Now, which talks about how most of us live our lives in thoughts of the future and of the past, and completely miss our actual lives which are happening right now in the present moment, which is the only moment that we ever have.
While I utterly agree with this, and while I do my best to meditate regularly, I immediately confess to him, when we speak on the phone (he lives in Canada) that I have been having trouble keeping my attention in the present moment, especially when I am about to interview someone, because I think ahead to what I am going to say to them and I worry that I will make a mess of the interview.
He laughs. "You may have been terrified before we spoke but now that we are speaking, you are not terrified, are you?" he says. He has a very soft German accent, and rather a jovial tone, which is not what I had expected of such a heavyweight philosopher.
"No," I admit. "I am actually enjoying our conversation."
"And our conversation flows quite naturally, without your having to think ahead?" he asks.
I admit that yes, it does.
He points out that this is the subtle difference between using your head to calculate what you will do in the future and allowing your consciousness, or intuition, to guide you. "Clarity and wisdom come from being in a state of pure consciousness," he says.
Which is why, when he comes to Ireland on October 19 to give a talk, he will not be making any notes.
"I just turn up, and allow the energy of consciousness to speak through me," he says.
I suggest that this must be a lot easier and more relaxing than having to have a plan. He agrees.
Eckhart is already extremely popular and rich and so he doesn't need to travel around the world, giving talks. But he feels that it is his life's purpose to spread his message.
His essential message is all about awareness of the human ego, he says, and about the ways in which it limits us and causes suffering, to ourselves and to the world in general. The ego is in constant need of boosting, because by its very nature it is fragile and feels small and insignificant, and deep down it senses that when we die, it will die too. So it tries to build itself up by creating a strong sense of identity.
The more successful we are, the more superior we feel to others, the more status we accumulate, the stronger the ego becomes. Which explains our societies' compulsive need to acquire more and more stuff -- even at the expense of our relationships and our planet's resources, and our out-of-control appetite for all things celebrity-related. As well as our obsession with being thin and beautiful and looking young and fit.
All of the obsessions of the ego keep us in a permanent state of anxiety, of worrying about how we will get more of what we want and how we will hang on to what we have. Sometimes the anxiety can lead to mental and emotional breakdowns.
When he was in his 20s, like most people Eckhart strove to be special and important. "But I didn't have good looks or a stunning physique to impress people with," he laughs. "So I had to become an incredibly successful academic." Needless to say, the success did not make him happy, and he became depressed and suicidal. And one night, when he was 29, everything changed.
"I let go. And it was like I was being sucked into a void. And then fear disappeared, and I woke up in the morning in a state of incredible inner peace -- bliss, in fact."
He has stayed in that state ever since, which is why, he says, he goes around the world teaching other people how he did it. I tell him that I have been meditating for 15 years, hoping to reach that state. He laughs. "For some people it happens instantly," he says. "But for most people, it is a gradual process."
He is optimistic that as people become aware of how their ego is creating the suffering that they experience, the awareness in itself will help them not to identify with the ego, but with the part of us that is loving and connected and secure and eternal. It is this state of awakened consciousness of what is real and what is not real that will change our world, he says.
"A new heaven and a new earth are arising in you at this moment," he says in the book. And I have a feeling he could be right, even if it is taking its time.
Eckhart Tolle is at the RDS, Dublin, on October 19; www.seminars.ie