Conscious Activism Dialogue with Eckhart Tolle
Simone: What are your experiences or observations regarding activism, especially regarding the potential futility of fighting even that which is considered “the good fight”?
Eckhart: Yes, there’s a losing sight of the root cause of all those manifestations of human unconsciousness that you find in the world — whether it’s destruction of the environment, suffering inflicted on animals, starving children, violence. There’s no end to things that need to be changed. It’s easy for the mind to become absorbed in one particular cause, to become obsessed with that, and then you lose yourself trying to fight one manifestation of human unconsciousness.
You can never ultimately win this battle when you only address the many ways in which dysfunction of the collective human mind manifests. There’s no way of winning that fight against unconsciousness because you cannot fight unconsciousness itself. You can do little things to sometimes remedy certain extreme manifestations here and there, but unawareness of the root cause of all those manifestations leads to being lost, losing oneself in that battle and ultimately getting drained.
You also find that within many groups that are fighting, initially against some common enemies, conflict develops within the groups themselves. This is because the people who are engaged in those struggles haven’t looked at the core — the root cause of human unconsciousness. They carry the human unconsciousness, whose manifestations they are fighting against, into their own action, into their activism. Before they know it, they’re fighting amongst themselves as well.
So there are many groups that are fighting for peace or fighting against war, but sooner or later they’re fighting amongst themselves. They wage an internal war and the organization splinters or breaks up.
Simone: Yes, I've lived through that. People would be drawn together, passionate about a cause and moved to take action. Eventually, there would be disagreements about how to best take action. People would get so attached to their positions and started perceiving those with differing views as "enemies". It was painful to experience. That's why I feel we need to wake up out of our own unconsciousness first, because without that we inevitably add to the pain in the world that our hearts want to mend. But I'm really torn about this because there are so many major challenges in the world that urgently need attention. Yet until we get to the core of it...
Eckhart: Yes. It’s so important to look at the root cause of all that. And that is spiritual work — to realize what the root cause is. It’s a false sense of self, a sense of identity that’s based on a conceptual reality and a sense of identity that it is never enough. It always needs more, and it needs its enemies.
So the activist must begin to look at this deeply embedded structure in the human mind, the egoic mind, which is the need for enemies. In some cases, it looks as if you’re fighting for a good cause. But if you haven’t looked truly within yourself, very often the deeper unconscious motivation for those struggles is the unconscious egoic mind structure that needs its enemies. Because when you are fighting against something or someone, your sense of who you are gets strengthened. That ultimately fictitious sense of identity gets strengthened, especially for people who carry a lot of anger into their activism. For them it can temporarily feel good.
Simone: And we do this as groups, religions, countries.
Eckhart: Right, because there's also a collective egoic identity: you identify with your group or cause against all “those” out there, or one particular group of people that you are fighting against. And you’re fighting what looks on the surface like a very worthwhile cause, but it is possible that the deeper motivation is to unconsciously strengthen your sense of self. Even when activists talk about their worthwhile cause, as long as they are trapped in an egoic identity they need to enhance it because the egoic identity has the deep-seated need to strengthen its sense of self.
Some people do it through acquiring status, possessions or knowledge, or by identifying with certain mind structures that cause them to judge themselves as failures. That works too. You can base your identity on the mental image of being miserable and then you will seek miserable experiences. You will be seeking all those things for a stronger sense of self.
Simone: Even if that stronger sense of self includes greater suffering.
Eckhart: That's part of the madness that's there if you haven’t looked into the underlying unconscious mind structures. And you'll bring all of this into relationships as well. No area of your life will be left untouched by this.
And if we only look at the manifestations of unconsciousness — there’s so much — where do we start? What’s the most important one? Is it the fact that humans and children are starving, or is it the fact that we are destroying nature — the very basis of all human life — is that even more important? Or is it the weapons and the military— the continuous warfare — is that it?
And there’s no realization that the core of all that is madness. It is an insanity in the human mind, a deep flaw in the human collective mind which all the ancient traditions have also pointed to. This is a the deeper meaning of “original sin.” What the Buddha called “suffering,” and what Hinduism calls “illusion.” There’s a flaw, and once you see it that’s already the beginning of freedom. Just seeing that unconscious core of the human mind is already the beginning of freedom.
The seeing is awareness arising, the witnessing consciousness arising. Awareness arising is an internal experience, not something you can see outside of yourself. And when you see the core of human unconsciousness in yourself, you realize there’s nothing personal in it at all. It’s nobody’s personal problem. It’s simply collective. It’s the species in its present stage of development. That’s how it is, nothing personal. But it’s essential to see it in oneself.
Simone: Because without seeing it you can't truly know what is at the root of the madness. You might not even recognize that there's madness!
Eckhart: And once you’ve seen the core of unconsciousness as the ego’s deep-seated need to enhance itself, to have opposition somewhere so it can define itself through one form of enemy or another — and you’ve seen that in yourself as well — you’re less likely to construct an identity for those people who are still totally in the grip of that unconsciousness and therefore producing all the manifestations of unconsciousness that we find in the world. Whether they are manufacturing or using weapons, killing humans, destroying the environment, it’s all the same.
The important thing is that once you’ve seen it as non-personal you will not point at others and say, “Those are the evil ones.” Because when you personalize human unconsciousness and believe that you possess the truth or are on the side of good and they are on the side of evil, you've gone mad again.
"Good and evil” is really consciousness and unconsciousness. When you believe that you represent good and you’re fighting evil out there, then you have not yet seen something within yourself because unconsciousness/consciousness is within each human being. If you identify with consciousness only and say “all unconsciousness is out there,” that’s an illusion.
The true meaning of evil would be human unconsciousness. The original meaning of “sin” as used in the Old Testament is missing the mark, you miss the purpose of life. That’s the original translation of “sin.” Realizing that, you would already operate from a greater dimension of freedom.
Simone: Gandhi embodied this.
Eckhart: Gandhi did not create enemies. He did not make the British into enemies and yet his was a powerful way of activism. And it is not the only way. There are other similar ways of doing it. Mother Theresa did a lot of good and never created an enemy. Martin Luther King pointed things out while not identifying others as enemies “out there.” The activism actually becomes more powerful when you are no longer personalizing it. You can take action but it won’t be action against a projected identity that you have out there. It won’t be against “those people,” and it will be more effective action.
But this can only happen when you’ve already discovered within yourself that the cause of human unconsciousness is here, within. Then there’s freedom to act. And then there’s also not the compulsion, the obsessive element, because when you are obsessed with a cause or an action, you can very quickly get drawn into unconsciousness yourself. When you’re fighting unconsciousness, whether as an activist or fighting unconsciousness in another human being, you very quickly get drawn into unconsciousness yourself. That applies whether it’s a collective fight or whether it’s on a personal level.
You cannot fight unconsciousness or the manifestations of unconsciousness out there. That draws you into unconsciousness because that’s reactivity. It’s a fascinating subject and it’s very subtle. It’s good to look at people who were effective in bringing about a certain amount of change in the outer world and see that the most effective ones did not create enemies.
Simone: That’s a great pointer as to which forms of activism are most effective — the ones that do not create enemies.
Eckhart: Yes. Part of activism includes, in many cases, speaking out and pointing things out because people don’t realize certain things. But that can be done in an unconscious way with a lot of anger and negative energy — accusing and making enemies. You might be writing a letter to a newspaper and, although the facts may be true, everybody who reads that letter feels worse and more angry after reading it. And then each reader who opened the paper that morning and read it carries that energy into that day. It’s unimaginable what that does to the collective energy field, just one little thing like that.
Simone: Or when we come from fear.
Eckhart: Fear — a very strong energy. But the same letter could be written from the point of greater consciousness without the element of anger or fear, a letter that simply points out the facts and the madness of it without personalizing the madness. Then it’s actually more effective because anything that you do that contains fear or anger creates more of that. And that’s the trap for activists — not seeing that. Then they contribute to the unconsciousness, believing they’re fighting for the light but they are actually creating more darkness.
Simone: Often one of the pitfalls in activism is that being motivated from fear or from reactionary anger feels much juicier to the ego. It’s more seductive and easier to get caught in.
Eckhart: Oh yes, because it gives you a stronger sense of self in the absence of having found a true sense of self. That true sense of self is who you are beyond mind, beyond mental concepts, beyond mental images. In the absence of that, every ego is looking for a stronger sense of self. So what you call “juicy” means it feels good to the ego. It doesn’t really feel good to you but to the ego feels good because the ego grows through that.
Simone: There’s an adrenaline rush and all the physiological things that go along with that.
Eckhart: Yes, it’s an amazing thing to see but, once you’ve seen through all that, there’s a lot to be said for how good it can feel when activism is done in a conscious way. It’s a wonderful thing. Personally, my function, almost exclusively, is to address the root cause. So I could be called, in that sense, a “specialist.” But there is a lot of room for those who not only address the root cause within themselves but also the manifestations of unconsciousness in the world. This is what you are referring to as Conscious Activism. Being in balance when engaging in activism, not getting lost. You’re very likely to be much more effective when you no longer believe that all the bad is out there.
Simone: World transformation needs to start from within.
Simone: But can we afford to wait for this transformation, this awakening of consciousness to occur? We’re running out of time as the global crises become more urgent.
Eckhart: We don’t need to wait and do nothing. Bring more awareness into the doing because it is there that consciousness can actually come in. If someone sits alone, waiting for some change to happen — perhaps they no longer interact that much because they feel they're not ready — then they could wait a long time. You actually see it more clearly the more you interact. The more you do, the more you can become aware of certain mind structures in yourself.
For example, I mentioned writing a letter to a newspaper. You may feel there’s something that you need to say about something — recent events, or whatever the cause is. You can sit down and write a letter and then the next morning you get up and read it and you suddenly sense an undercurrent of anger or fear in the letter. And you recognize that that was the state you were in when you wrote it last night. Then you pause for a moment and see that, in subtle ways perhaps, you had created an enemy. And then you write that letter again in a state of greater clarity but it doesn’t contain the undercurrent of fear or anger. When you write something, have a little bit of a gap where you can look at what you’ve written — perhaps leave it for a few days, a few hours, and come back to it.
When you are talking to someone you don’t have that gap, and you might realize only afterwards that some of your speaking was motivated by unconscious fear or anger. And then the next time you are more attentive, perhaps more alert when you engage. That self-observation comes in more and more. But avoid being critical. When it’s critical self-observation then you’re making unconsciousness into a person again, a “me.”
Simone: That’s where I often get lost. I can become too cautious that I don’t taint things I do or say and then that cripples or paralyzes me in taking action.
Eckhart: Yes, but the doing itself is the learning.
Simone: It takes a lot of trust and surrender.
Eckhart: Yes, it’s wonderful. And there’s a lot you can do when you meet with people who are also engaged in whatever form the activism takes. Just one conscious person — maybe not even totally conscious, but one person endeavoring to be in the state of presence — can make a big difference. You could just be there, present, without necessarily needing to say a word. Just holding a conscious space.
Just being there, is often enough a teaching in itself. Being there in a state of presence and not condemning others in your group who perhaps get drawn into unconsciousness. Again, not making an identity and saying, “You should know better,” but accepting them with compassion. Compassion arises when you see that there’s nothing personal in human unconsciousness. Compassion, not just for the people around you who are with you, but also for those that represent unconsciousness to you.
Inevitably, compassion arises when you no longer personalize the manifestations of unconsciousness. “They know not what they do.” But see that without feeling superior, another little trap of the ego. The ego can come in through the back door at any point. Even when you realize that “they know not what they do,” the ego can suddenly claim superiority. Again you would have, in a subtle way, made an identity out of unconsciousness because then you feel superior and they are inferior — comparison has come in.
So the work happens on two levels: the outer and the inner, simultaneously. It’s not that you need to get the inner right and wait. It’s better simultaneously because it works more effectively. One can easily fool oneself if you withdraw and say, “I’m going to spend three years in meditation just to see if I can become free.” But if you isolate yourself you wouldn’t get enough reflections to even know whether you are free or not. It’s only through human interaction that you can get the reflections, the reactions, and then you learn about yourself. It’s easy to fool yourself if you are shut away in a room and perhaps your meditation goes well. It’s as if you’ve “made it” . . . until you start interacting again. And then you get the reflections and realize, perhaps not!
In a way, the greatest saddhana, or spiritual practice, especially for our present day civilization, is to do human relationships. How could it be otherwise? There’s never been so many humans living on the planet; they’re everywhere! You can’t get away from them so this has to become your spiritual practice. The main focal point or spiritual practice in some recent teachings such as A Course in Miracles is human interaction, relationships. This is different from some spiritual traditions in past times where people would withdraw as much as possible. For those times, perhaps that was appropriate. And for a few, isolated individuals here and there — even nowadays it may still be appropriate — but for most, needing to withdraw would not be true.
Simone: There’s more at stake now. There may not be a livable planet left by the time we come out of our isolated spiritual practices.
Eckhart: Yes, that’s right. The urgency of change is here very strongly.
Simone: The words “unconscious” and “conscious” have different psychological, medical and spiritual definitions. Let's clarify what you mean when you use those words, like when you referred to Jesus pointing to unconsciousness when he said, “They know not what they do."
Eckhart: You have to look at the human mind to understand what being unconscious is. The simplest definition is complete identification with the mind, which includes emotions, reactions, and behavior patterns, thoughts and beliefs — all thinking-based. Complete identification with thought and emotions. Complete identification means there’s no witnessing presence at all. You’re run by conditioning from the past. It’s the collective conditioning of the collective mind. You’re run by that, and you and everybody else thinks there’s a “somebody” there. [Laughs] “Unconsciousness” is complete identification with that. And being “conscious” is to step out of identification with mind. Not that there is no mind anymore, but what arises then is the awareness, the witnessing presence. That is the growth of consciousness.
Many people these days may be conscious for a while, quite present for a few days or even a few weeks, and suddenly something happens and they get pulled back completely into unconsciousness again. And then you suffer. And through the suffering you wake up again. You may sometimes meet people engaged in spiritual work who seem totally awake, and then you meet them again a few weeks later and they’re the opposite. [Laughs] That can happen; it’s the case with many people. And again, it doesn’t mean that you made a mistake when you saw them before. It just means they got pulled back into mind.
You can perhaps observe it in your own life. Sometimes there’s great presence and then perhaps something happens, often through a relationship or interaction with another human being, and it pulls you back into reactivity, thoughts, emotions — enormous mind structures being amplified by old emotions.
More and more people will be ready to see this operating within, but some may not yet be able to. And others still so identified with mind will refuse to see it. The mind doesn’t want to see it. The ego, the egoic entity, doesn’t want to see it. And some people may react when they hear the truth of this as they did strongly with other teachers. With Jesus, they reacted very strongly. There was less readiness then so they killed him.
Simone: Yes, which is why I see Conscious Activism as an act of great courage, both in the willingness to face one’s own shadow, as well as facing unconsciousness in other individuals and the collective. For me, there's such urgency for more of us to step up, for more and more conscious people to step forward and act.
Eckhart: True. I can see that many people are going through inner transformation now. It's also important for us to pay attention to what's going on in the world around us and to see how we want to contribute to the inner and outer transformation that urgently needs to take place. Each of us needs to transform and contribute in our own way. The very outcome of life on this planet depends on it.
And paying attention not just in conventional activism but in day-to-day interactions as well. How conscious you are affects every interaction, every human encounter. You can affect a person unconsciously through fear and that will have ripple effects throughout the collective, or you can affect people through being in presence and then presence spreads throughout the collective.
Simone: Conscious awareness, conscious living, is the ultimate activism.
Conscious Activism Dialogue with Eckhart Tolle & Simone Marie Lorenz
Oct. 22, 2001
© 2001 Simone Marie Lorenz