Originally Published: April, 2012
I arrived in Vancouver on the tail end of August, 2011. The Summer days were fading and the cool, crisp, September air was setting in. On the 18 hour plane ride over, I remember thinking, ‘I wonder if I’ll meet him?’ as I flicked through the pages of one of his books. It seemed unlikely, but I hoped it would happen all the same.
It was during the third week of my semester abroad that our paths first crossed. We pulled up next to each other at the traffic lights: me on my pushbike, him in his blue jaguar. I glanced around to see his bearded face in the car window, and waved, hoping to catch his attention. He smiled back.
I enjoyed studying at The University of British Columbia. My philosophy classes were more challenging, the students more enthusiastic than back at Melbourne University. Each time I left Existentialism 385, my head would be pulsating with life's deepest questions. To put them at bay, I would wander off campus into the Pacific Spirit Regional Park: a 1,800 acre forest that spread across the University Endowment Lands, right behind campus, only a 10-mintue walk from my dorm. The trail I most enjoyed walking, lay on Pacific Spirit’s perimeter. To reach it, I followed a road down past the suburban, campus backstreets; past a small secondary school, and there, hidden off on the side, was Sword Fern’s entrance.
Walking Sword Fern soon became somewhat of a daily meditation for me. Unlike many of the other trails throughout this mammoth forest, Sword Fern harboured smaller vegetation, like younger pines, ferns, and shrubs. I enjoyed examining them, pretending I was some kind of botanist as I clasped my hands behind my back and frowned at the various mosses and lichens. Every time I began this walk, I always did my best to leave my worries and woes at the forest’s doorstep. My walking meditation was simple – walk to the end of Sword Fern, clear my mind of all thoughts, and walk back again. Rarely did I encounter others whilst doing this. Now and then a jogger or cyclist might fly by, but on the whole, this trail remained remarkably solitary.
The day I met him, my mind was particularly lively. I reached the forest’s entrance and began focusing on my breath, doing my best to leave my heavy head behind. I followed Sword Fern down, weaving through the trunks along the leaf-littered path, inspecting the ferns, stumps, and rocks that lined it. Nearing the end, I would routinely taper off into the woods to sit in a short meditation. However, on this day, something inside of me whispered, ‘No,’ right at the point where I would normally digress. Obediently, I turned on my heels and wandered back along the way I’d come, never once questioning this sudden change of mind.
About halfway back, I came across him: a middle-aged man with a little white terrier by his side. He was stout and wore a blue cap with the brim pulled down so that his face was obscured. As he approached me, I became distracted by his snowy dog, which was now darting in and out of the ferns; its pink tongue dangling as it panted away. I had almost passed this man, when suddenly I was hit with an immense presence. At the same time, my peripherals caught sight of the familiar, rotund profile that I’d seen only a month earlier.
‘Excuse me…’ I said, whipping round to face him, ‘are you Eckhart Tolle?’
Very slowly he turned around and looked up, a small smile now spreading across his face.
‘Yes…yes…I am…indeed.’ His words entwined like delicate latticework, forming into soft sentences.
With my heart now in my throat, I still managed to utter a few words:
‘Oh wow…it’s…it’s really nice to meet you.’
We shook hands. His grip was tender, his hand warm.
‘It is…very nice…to meet you too,’ he replied.
‘I’m a big fan of yours,’ I proceeded, my star-struck mind regaining focus, ‘I really love your work.’
‘That’s good…I can see you are…very present.’
To this I didn’t really know what to say. I shifted on my feet and paused for a moment, before telling him how I’d waved to him at the traffic lights no more than a month ago. He vaguely recalled the incident, chuckling and saying, ‘Yes…a lot of people…wave to me.’
As the conversation continued, I told him I was inspired by his series of books, and that I too had aspirations of becoming a kind of “spiritual” author. He inquired about my accent and I explained how I was from Melbourne, but was doing an exchange course over here in Vancouver. I mentioned my passion for eastern philosophy and my love for the Taoist and Zen traditions. In fact, rather unknowingly, I seemed to tell him almost everything about myself. Each time I dished out a new detail, he would bend his head in a prolonged nod of approval, and smile his small, bashful smile. His wide, blue eyes twinkled and he appeared completely absorbed in everything I had to say, as if nothing else could distract him from this moment; as if everything outside of our conversation was insignificant.
Eventually, I realised that in my nervousness I was rabbiting on, and so, quickly changed the direction of conversation.
‘Do you walk along here often?’ I asked.
‘Yes…I do. My home is…very close by…just over there,’ he pointed over my shoulder into the distance.
‘Oh, you’re really close by. Isn’t this forest just incredible? I’ve been walking this trail every day, it’s so beautiful.’
‘Yes…I walk through the forest…every day as well. The nature here is…quite spectacular.’
We both fell silent.
‘Anyway, I guess I better get going. I’m really glad I got to meet you,’ I said, ‘it’s strange that I bumped into you again after seeing you not so long ago.’
‘Well…the Universe is…always working in synchronicity,’ he responded.
‘It seems it is,’ I replied, ‘maybe I’ll see you along here sometime again?’
‘Yes…maybe...very nice meeting you. Good luck…with your studies.’
He turned around and walked away. I did the same, caught, not in shock anymore, but in a mixture of amazement and amusement.
My meeting with Eckhart Tolle highlighted numerous realisations for me, but there was one epiphany that struck me the most: divine synchronisation. The series of events was uncanny. It firstly began with thoughts of meeting him, during the airplane ride over to Vancouver. A few weeks into my arrival, I had waved to him at the traffic lights. Now, a month and half into my trip, we were conversing in the middle of a forest. This all occurred to me to be more than just a coincidence. For me it was a sure sign of the Universe’s synchronicity. It made me feel like something greater was watching over me and looking after me. Even though I always sensed this was so, I often had fleeting moments of doubt when I would ask the questions, ‘Is there anything beyond us? Is there anything truly divine beyond the material world?’ This incident felt to me like it was the final answer, and that answer was, ‘Yes.’ As I walked away from Mr. Tolle, it became clear to me that the Universe and I were a team, constantly striving towards harmony. By the time I had reached the forest’s exit, all fear and doubt had melted away, and was now replaced with a deep trust for the process of life.
Additionally, meeting Eckhart not long after I had envisaged this meeting, showcased truth in the law of attraction. The law of attraction is the theory that our thoughts and intentions are directly related to that which manifests in our existence. It can sometimes be difficult to witness because we often miss or “see through” that which we have brought into fruition. I believe missing what we have manifested, is due to a lack of present awareness. Many of us, in the busyness of our lives, dive into what I would call “tunnel vision.” We become so set in our ways and so focused on a goal we’re attempting to reach in front of us, that we become oblivious to what is going on around us; that is, to what is existing in our peripheral vision, outside of this tunnel vision. I myself am no stranger to tunnel vision and unconsciously participate. This is why I take time out to do things such as walking meditations. From my own experience, I can assure you that, more often than not, what we want to draw into our lives has already manifested in some way; however, because we are in tunnel vision, we walk right passed it.
In my scenario, I never recognised Eckhart when he was in front of me. I was oblivious to his presence. That being said, when he was at my side I instantly “felt” him. Had I not been doing a walking meditation and keeping my mind still and present, I can guarantee you I would have waltzed on right by him. Looking back on this, I deduce, that when using the law of attraction to manifest what you want in your life, don’t always expect yourself to find what you seek, directly in front of you. It is more likely that it will exist on the boundary, waiting for you to pull out of tunnel vision and back into present awareness, so that you can turn and face it. Also, it is likely that you will intuitively feel that which exists in your peripherals, before actually seeing it. Thus, it is always important to be in the present moment, so as to be aware of the subtle signs of the universe’s synchronicity. I feel Mr. Tolle would agree, as he is a strong advocate of the power of present awareness, and has dedicated much of his life to teaching it.
My intention, in writing this article, was not to idolize Eckhart Tolle. On the contrary, Mr. Tolle is another human being just like you and I. Looking back on our short meeting, I’ve realised that most of the things I’ve learnt were not things that he taught me directly. In fact, our conversation was not particularly profound or philosophical. I learnt these things by simply being in his company and by observing how he acts. This interaction reminded me of how the old Taoist and Zen sages would rarely teach their students through conversation. Instead, the student would learn by being in the sage’s presence, and witnessing how the sage relates to their surroundings. Being in Mr. Tolle’s presence, I was able to vicariously feel his unwavering trust in the universe. It is this characteristic that makes him stand apart from most other people; it is also why he has become such an amazing teacher for humanity. It seems, his incredible trust in divine synchronisation allows him to fearlessly walk to the universe’s rhythm, and in return, the universe walks to his.
The good news is that we can all do the same. It just takes two things: present awareness and fearlessness:
Present awareness comes from stepping out of “tunnel vision” and coming back to the moment, so that you become aware of your peripherals, and subsequently, everything that is around you. This way, you can tune your senses to the Universe’s frequency. By becoming attuned, you are working as a team with the Universe.
Fearlessness comes from trusting the divine synchronicity at work; knowing everything is part of a higher plan that is for your own greatest good. Once we come to trust this, we can then tap into this plan and become a co-creator. In order to do so, we need to be conscious of the thoughts and intentions we are sending out, and observing how they are manifesting in our lives. Once we are mindful of this relationship, we can then alter it to be exactly the way we want it to be. As a result, our life becomes exceptionally responsive to our intentions.
Try it out yourself. Send out your intentions as accurately and directly as you can and then stay present, in order to observe the manifestations that occur, not just in front of you, but all around you. The correlation is rarely instantaneous, but there is a correlation nonetheless. As you start to see the direct correlation, your trust will begin to grow. As your trust grows, so does your partnership with the divine.
Originally Published: April 27th, 2012
8.05 am. May 5th. The man pointing to the moon appears on my Skype video screen. He is no longer sporting a beard and trendy side-parting. Instead, he looks more like a Caucasian monk with his cleanly shaven face and bald head, now wrapped in large headphones. Some of his features are still recognizable: his large, sharp, noble nose, and grey-blue eyes; his elongated face and high cheekbones.
Michael Stone greets me with his warm smile and his resemblance becomes more apparent. After a few minutes of idle chatter, he asks me to remind him what this interview is for. I respond that various work in spiritually-based projects has left me questioning what so-called ‘spirituality’ actually is.
I tell Michael, the more I think about spirituality’s definition, the more I realize that within this modern, urban lifestyle my peers and I lead, ‘spirituality’ merely appears to be a comparative term. It’s comparative in the sense that we are contrasting a traditional, organic lifestyle of devoted religious practice (mainly in the East), to our present lives here in the West. Upon examining spirituality more in-depthly in my own urban, Western community – Vancouver – I’ve begun to realize that I’m not alone in my attempt to bridge the gap between what was once considered ‘spiritual,’ and what is now considered so. However, this bridging process has resulted in the ‘spiritual’ lifestyle evolving in such a way that it is barely recognizable, when compared to its original roots. One such example is seen in the Western practice of yoga. It would not be a stretch to say, that here in Vancouver, yoga is practiced on almost every fourth block. But it is done so in modified, Westernized, and even commoditized forms, the most infamous being Bikram Yoga – a patented Hatha series, performed in an overheated studio. This evolution can also be observed in the modern practice of meditation. Meditation, a practice once performed by monks and nuns in monasteries and ashrams, under the guidance of a guru, is now done so by Western lay communities in family houses and common-rooms. After tracing this transformation, I couldn’t help but ask, can one be leading a ‘spiritual life’ even without devoted spiritual practice?
And so I came to Michael with this question, and who better to pose it to? Michael is a teacher of both yoga and Buddhism and his focus is on integrating these ancient, traditional schools into a contemporary, urban environment. He is the founder of his own Buddhist and yoga center called The Centre of Gravity, which is situated in his home city of Toronto. The center is a meeting place for those seeking and practicing yogic and Buddhist knowledge. As a result, it aims to examine on the one hand, how the two schools compliment each other, but also, how they differ. The most interesting part about this center is that it’s a hub of spiritual practice that attempts to embrace the environment that it is located in: downtown Toronto. It incorporates Michael’s personal philosophy: that we should be able to merge spiritual practice into the chaotic busy lifestyles that many of us lead, within these big cities we inhabit.
Before Michael responds, he takes a moment and looks to his left, away from the camera, as if the answer is situated externally. Pausing, a smile spreads across his face and his gaze returns:
"I think that the ‘why’ definition of spirituality to me, is being able to connect with something that is larger and deeper and more astounding than our stories about ourselves, and the way we think things are. Spirituality is really a sense of being astonished by how the world really is, and then going beyond just being astonished, and responding.
He continues that “spirituality is about dropping so deeply into your life that there's no separation, and then, following that through with an authentic, creative response to what that means to you."
On the question of what this response might be, Michael says it’s really just about doing the work.
"it’s about rolling up your sleeves and doing the work in your life that benefits yourself and others.” As a result of this, "spirituality is active, it's creative, it's ongoing, and it's continually reworked."
One thing’s for sure, there are no airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky notions residing in Michael Stone’s concept of spirituality. Unfortunately, the new age or ‘spiritual’ lifestyle is stereotyped as relying on a metaphysical world – a world beyond this material world. And this is understandable, as many concepts and truths existent in new age teachings are part of a world that we cannot see, but instead, must have faith in. In contrast, Michael’s view of spirituality sidesteps such a stereotype. The only “mystical experience” he talks of, is the idea of “dropping deeply into our lives.” He is suggesting we do this in order to ground ourselves more on the material plane. In other words, he is proposing that we keep our spiritual practice here in the world in front of us. He even states that spirituality is a term that makes him “uncomfortable” because of its metaphysical implications.
“I like to subtract from the definition of spirituality, the idea of a spirit, or the divine, or the sacred because I don’t want to posit something that’s eternal that we connect with that creates a kind of bliss state,” he says.
In fact, in a recent video posted on Youtube, Michael explains how becoming a “materialist” might not be such a bad thing after all because “coming to love the material” doesn’t necessarily connote attachment. We can come to love the body we inhabit and the possessions we care for in a way that is not attached, but rather, appreciative.
From our initial discussion, I interpret that Michael’s perspective on spirituality is perhaps like a creative or artistic project, such as composing a piece of music, or painting a picture. Alone in our practice, whatever it may be, we are editing that project and reworking it in such a way that we can put it on display for the world. But this project is not completely self-based. We begin working on it ourselves and then we bring it into our communities, in order to collaborate further. Through this collaboration we learn how to help others, and in turn, they help us; much like a composer writing a tune and then bringing it to his band, or the orchestra, so that it can be work-shopped. Or an artist painting a picture and then displaying it in a gallery for others to enjoy.
In my view, it is difficult to conceive being a materialist without attachment, since enjoyment of the material world seems to be all about attachment. To Michael, however, it’s simply a matter of waking up to the world that is around us – a world that is present in our experience. By doing this, we don’t detach from the world. Rather, we do quite the opposite: we allow ourselves to fully engage with the experience we are having. This sort of engagement is one that ideally supersedes judgment. It is engagement that is really at the core of all of Michael’s teachings. In one of his online videos he remarks:
“Forests, rivers, [and] polluted cities don’t care about your enlightenment. What they care about is your aliveness to present experience. Your action in the world and the effects of your actions.”
From his lessons, we come to understand that if we are completely engaged with our lives, we are fully present in that moment because we are committing to the intimacy that the present moment asks of us – and that is all that it is asking of us. It wants us to be intimate with it, to appreciate it, and not to run away from it. Michael argues that to be engaged with our lives through presence is really the greatest gift we can offer the world. He terms it as, “showing up in our hearts.”
This includes being open to suffering. Michael puts great emphasis on the idea that following a ‘spiritual path’ means to be open to the entire spectrum of feelings that we can experience during the course of our life. This spectrum obviously ranges from the greatest highs to the deepest lows. He says it’s important to not just be one with what you like, but to “be one even with pain, one with anxiety, even one with hurt.”
Like many others, Michael came to spiritual practice in the hopes of escaping the suffering that he experienced as a younger man. He describes in an intimate and personal talk on forgiveness, recorded at one of his retreats, how by the age of twenty he was leading the ‘perfect’ life. He’d managed to get a job writing press releases for Paul Newman’s racing car team and this job was making him a lot of money. But during tours with the team, Michael would retire to his hotel room at the end of the day, only to realize that he was actually really depressed. Everyone was telling him his career was set and he had it all, but inside he still felt empty. And in this void state, alone in his hotel room, he practiced yoga and read about the dharma a lot. He admits, he probably read Zen mind, beginner’s mind by Shunryo Suzuki “about 100 times in two years.”
So one day he just quit. He then drove from a hotel in Indiana back to Detroit, and to his apartment where all his belongings lay. Upon arriving, he realized that he wanted to escape the life he was leading so badly, that he didn’t even want to stop to collect his possessions; he just kept driving, all the way back to Toronto. It was on that drive back to his home province that he made a decision that would change his life: he would buy a camper van and go out to a remote park in rural Ontario and not talk to anyone for 6 months. And that’s exactly what he did. Sleeping during the day and staying up during the night so as not to freeze, Michael led a hermitic existence of solitary study, meditation, and painting in the back of his VW kombi. It was during this time in isolation that he “started learning how to sit.”
One could argue that doing this was really just an attempt to avert the prospect of living life. But what Michael was actually doing was sitting down to face his own suffering in a place that was still, with no distractions. He describes:
“[There] comes a point in our lives, when we are ready to just sit down, right in the middle of our lives: right in the middle of pain, right in the middle of boredom, right in the middle of sadness, right in the middle of joy, and start to look more clearly at our lives”
In light of this, Michael teaches that through yoga practice, we come face to face with the suffering we seek to escape from. At first it becomes magnified but over time we learn how to face it, in all honesty, and through this confrontation we learn to accept it. He’s observed how, “when you sit still for the first few months, or even years, it’s a kind of torture.”
There is no promise of happiness or bliss. Michael understands we need to be realistic. He also recognizes that we have to be contemporary when it comes to spiritual practice. We can be knowledgeable of spiritual traditions like Buddhism and Christianity, and be inspired by their figureheads, but we must adapt their teachings and practices to the modern, urban lifestyles we live in a way that allows religious traditions to “come alive in [our] lives now.” Otherwise their teachings, and in turn, our practice, becomes stagnant. As he comically puts it:
“The Buddha and Jesus didn’t know about the printing press and the molecular basis of certain discourses, and biological and nuclear weapons, and the Internet and Twitter and Facebook and iPhones, so their practices have to come alive in the world that we’re in now…with polluted rivers and dying forests.”
But the real question is: how do we do that?
“It’s the integration, of a contemplative life that’s committed to real behavioural change and social change, in such a way that the inner work and outer work are integrated.”
In other words, finding a way of focusing both on the self and the community, so that they are not separated from one another. By doing so, we become actively engaged with both.
Since Michael is all about bringing the traditional into the contemporary in order for it to come “alive,” I decide to take this scenario to its furthest and most literal point and conclude the interview with this situation: Dogen – a 13th century Zen Buddhist sage – has just called Michael on his new iPhone and has invited Michael to meet with him down at the local café. When Michael arrives, they order tea together and Dogen says, “I have brought you down here so that you can ask me a question, any question you like, just ask away.”
I ask Michael what his question would be.
He chuckles and then looks to the left of the camera for an answer, but this time, nothing comes.
“You know, I don’t know. I want to answer your question but I’m not sure if I have a question for Dogen. My question would be silent. It would be just watching him carefully: How does he drink his tea? How does he sit down? How does he walk? What’s his face like? Because I don’t have many questions for spiritual teachers.”
In Zen Buddhism there is a famous saying: one should not mistake a finger pointing to the moon as the moon itself. The finger is a signpost, an indication if you like, to where the moon truly lies, but we must gaze beyond the finger if we want to observe the moon’s true nature.
It seems Michael Stone realizes that to seek answers from spiritual teachers, is merely to observe the finger that points towards the moon. It may guide us closer to the answers we seek, but nothing more. More importantly, it appears that his days of seeking are over. He has looked out beyond the finger to find there is really no profound answer to be sought or cosmic question to be asked. Michael has come to see the moon only through his detachment from seeking. Now he has become the man pointing to the moon, and we can use his finger only as a signpost that points to our own individual discovery of a practice that allows us to live a life of engagement, within our communities.
Originally published: Oct 9th, 2012