In part one of this new interview series, Changing the World From Within, Eckhart Tolle speaks to Suza about the violence in our world — and how human beings can lose their sense of humanity and empathy, inflicting suffering on one another.
Suza Scalora: We are constantly hearing about a world that is violent, chaotic and frightening. It seems as though we’re inundated with painful, horrific stories by way of the Internet, newspapers and other media outlets. The newest headline, for example, was about another possible beheading by the terrorist group, ISIS. How can we find inner peace with all this insanity around us?
Eckhart Tolle: There are many aspects to this. It is important to realize that a large percentage of what we hear or see on the news focuses on those places where there is violent conflict. These tend to be the more unconscious pockets of the planet, where there is still a considerable degree of collective unconsciousness.
SS: Can you explain what you mean when you say, “unconsciousness?”
ET: It is important to understand that when I call a person “unconscious,” I am not referring to somebody who has fainted or blacked out. I am referring to someone who is spiritually unconscious. This is to say that the person is completely in the grip of their ego – their false sense of self. The ego gives rise to a sense of separateness between oneself and others, or between “us” and “them.” A human being in the grip of the ego is identified with mental images or ideas about who they are. The mind creates these mental images, or stories. Then a person’s identity, their sense of who they are, is defined through those images or stories. When this happens, there is a tendency for the egoic person to compulsively judge others, thereby making them into enemies. The ego does this to strengthen its ultimately fictitious sense of self. Whatever a person thinks or believes is, of course, conditioned by the past: their upbringing, the culture they live in–including the collective belief systems of that culture–their education, family background and so on. A person who is in the grip of the ego is totally identified with the conditioned content of their mind.
Such a person’s thinking, as well as behaviour, is therefore completely determined by the ego. This is what I mean by the term “unconscious.”
SS: It seems that our Western culture is gripped by the ego as much as other parts of the world. Could you explain what it means for a pocket of the world to be more unconscious than another? What does it mean to be collectively unconscious?
ET: In the West, as well as some other parts of the world, the personal sense of ego tends to predominate, whereas in other areas there is a more collective sense of ego. This collective ego emphasizes the “we” rather than the “I.” The collective ego may be tribal, religious, nationalistic, or ideological. For example, there may be a religious or political belief structure that people identify with in the collective that makes up a large part of a person’s sense of self or identity. It is less these days than it was in the 20th century, when millions of people were in the grip of collective belief systems. For example, when Mao Tse-tung was in power in China, millions of people were totally conditioned by their collective belief system. This was also the case with Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism. When people are so identified with their collective belief system, their ego becomes enormously pronounced. This collective ego begins looking for “enemies” in order to strengthen the sense of separateness on which the ego depends for its survival.
The personal ego already has a strong element of dysfunction, but the collective ego is, frequently, even more dysfunctional, to the point of absolute insanity. The greatest atrocities that have been committed on the planet were perpetrated by the collective ego. For example, if you go back to the Middle Ages, during the Inquisition, it was a time in which torture and persecution was enacted in the name of religion. The Christian message was completely misunderstood and so the religion became an egoic mind structure. People committed atrocities because their entire sense of self was bound up with that belief structure. Even worse things, of course, happened in the 20th century–as we all know.
SS: How does one become that detached from their humanity? How do people get caught up in this collective mindset?
ET: When people get taken over by the ego to such an extent, there is nothing else in their mind except the ego. They can no longer feel or sense their humanity- what they share with other human beings, or even with other life forms on the planet. They are so identified with concepts in their minds that other human beings become concepts as well. This causes a sense of separateness, on which the ego thrives.
If you are an Islamic Extremist, for example, you view others as infidels who do not share your belief system and so they are pronounced ‘evil.’ You can no longer sense the humanity, or Beingness, of those who don’t share your belief system. Once you have conceptualized a person, violence becomes almost inevitable. This is because you are not seeing them as a human being anymore. It becomes impossible for you to have any kind of empathy with another individual who does not fit into your collective mind structure.
We often ask, “How is it possible that human beings can inflict such suffering on their fellow humans?” The answer is that they are totally in the grip of the ego. The ego’s complete inability to have empathy for others explains how such atrocities can be committed on the planet. Jesus on the cross is reported to have said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” In contemporary terminology, he probably would have said, “Forgive them, for they are completely unconscious.”