Skip to main content

If there's anyone who can be named to Oprah Winfrey's much-coveted book club and not have it go to his head, it's Eckhart Tolle.

Twenty-four hours after being called "one of the world's leading spiritual teachers" by the world's leading talk-show host, the author of the ego-rejecting manifesto A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose is sitting in his Vancouver living room, calmly explaining that he believes the universe has conspired to bring him and Winfrey together.

"I feel I'm being used by consciousness and she's being used by consciousness," he says. "I'm just open for what wants to happen, and I believe Oprah is the same."

Not a fan of television (A New Earth suggests TV is partially responsible for causing attention-deficit disorder), Tolle says Winfrey is the exception. "She's done a lot for the transformation of consciousness."

Tolle has not yet met Winfrey in person, but he took a call from her in mid-December asking if he'd be interested in the collaboration. "She said she loved the book, she'd been reading it, and she wants the message to get out into the world," says Tolle.

On Wednesday, Winfrey revealed that A New Earth would be her 61st book-club selection and, in an Oprah first, the basis of a 10-week course Tolle and Winfrey will teach at Oprah.com. "This is my boldest choice yet," Winfrey told her audience. "I'm just over-the-moon excited about it."

Tolle watched the show in his little downtown Vancouver office. He couldn't tune in at home - the cable isn't connected at the moment. In his quiet German/Spanish/English accent, Tolle says he was "quite amazed" by what he saw. "It's hard to connect when she holds up the book and says 'Eckhart Tolle' and to [realize]'Oh, that's me.' "

Afterward, there was no splashy celebration, not even a dinner out. His partner, Kim, is on an all-raw-food diet right now.

Despite the announcement, Tolle is trying to keep things as they always have been in his life. He's refusing most interview requests, not answering the phone, and continuing with grocery shopping and his daily walks. "Sometimes, it feels a little bit overwhelming, but I continue to lead a very normal life"

It's no secret that in publishing, Winfrey's word is gold. Being named to her book club means instant fame and an enormous spike in book sales. Marion Garner, Publisher at Vintage Canada, says that after Ann-Marie McDonald's Fall on Your Knees was made an Oprah pick in 2002, "sales went through the roof." (The first Canadian Oprah pick, in 2001, was Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.) Sure enough, on Thursday morning, when Tolle checked Amazon.com, A New Earth was the site's top seller.

But Tolle says he is much more interested in the spiritual impact on Winfrey's viewers and, ultimately, the human race. "What I enjoy is to be used by the evolving consciousness. I don't feel so much that I am doing what I do. I feel that I'm being used by something that is evolving here on this planet through humanity."

A New Earth explores Tolle's theory that human beings have not yet fully evolved. The race can only reach the next stage of evolution, he argues, if people turn away from their negative, cluttered, ego-driven lives. Tolle says the future of the race depends on reaching a new state of consciousness; that human dysfunction's creation of weapons and warfare, coupled with technology, could spell the end of the planet.

"We've arrived at a crisis point where the collective dysfunction of humanity has become a threat to humanity's very survival," he said on Thursday, before taking his current read, Niall Ferguson's War of the World, down from one of his many bookshelves. "Before, the dysfunction manifested itself with people killing each other with swords or clubs. And then it became rifles and cannons. And now it's atom bombs."

Tolle, 59, was born in postwar Germany, hated school, and dropped out at 13. He spent some time in Spain, then returned to his studies in his 20s, in London. After graduating from university, he left academia to become a spiritual teacher. Then, in the early 1990s, he had a revelation. "One morning I woke up and I realized, 'I have to move. I have to move to the west coast of North America.' "

He left England for Vancouver, then California, ultimately settling in British Columbia. "Vancouver, I find, has a particularly gentle energy field."

During that time, Tolle began writing his first book, The Power of Now. He asked a friend, Constance Kellough, to publish it. The first print run, only 3,000 copies, still proved challenging to unload.

Then Meg Ryan, introduced to the book by her yoga instructor in Los Angeles, told Winfrey about it. Winfrey wrote about it in her magazine O, and then mentioned it on one of her episodes devoted to her favourite things.

That day, Kellough watched The Power of Now inch its way up Amazon's bestseller list, as the show was broadcast in different time zones across the continent. "By the time it hit California, [the book]was No. 1," she says.

It has now sold some four million copies, according to Kellough, and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Winfrey keeps a copy by her bedside (according to her website).

It's all made Tolle and Kellough very wealthy, and Kellough's tiny Vancouver publishing company, Namaste, very solvent. "The monetary rewards that we receive are not to be downplayed. They're substantial," says Kellough. "But they are not the motivation for our work."

Despite what some might expect of a spiritual teacher, Tolle enjoys his creature comforts. He has a spacious condominium on the edge of the UBC campus overlooking the forest, almost at treetop level. He has another suite on the same floor, where Kim lives with her dog. He has a place on Saltspring Island. He enjoys the odd glass of wine with dinner. He drinks coffee - usually lattes - at Starbucks.

He gets recognized fairly often. Like many of his celebrity devotees, he's taken to wearing ball caps when he goes out. On the main floor of his building, someone posted a note on Thursday about the Oprah developments; neighbours smiled and nodded in quiet congratulations as they passed Tolle in the hall.

Tolle describes himself as a private person, a hermit even, and all of this public exposure, and being recognized on the street, is not really his cup of tea. "I'd rather sit alone or watch the trees or read a book," he says. "And yet I do this because I know that's what's needed. The universe is telling me that's what I need to do."