By becoming responsible for our inner states, whatever happens in life, we gain “the power of choice,” “inner freedom” and inner peace, Maurice Nicoll and Eckhart Tolle similarly explain. 

This is another direct textual comparison of Eckhart Tolle, the bestselling spiritual teacher, and Maurice Nicoll, a little-known Fourth Way teacher and psychologist born in the 19th century. It’s part three in an article series summarising key similarities I’ve uncovered in my extensive comparative analyses of their work. Parts one and two were on “self-observation” and “the light of consciousness” respectively. This segment, on changing our inner reactions to outer life, is closely related to those topics.

These comparisons show that Eckhart Tolle corresponds closely with Maurice Nicoll on the theme of using self-observation to become more aware of our inner states and gain a conscious “power of choice” over how we react to people and events. They convey the same general ideas and, at times, express them in similar ways too, using the same terms and examples. Their similar statements are compared side-by-side in two-column tables below. Quoted text is bolded or underlined in places to highlight key commonalities, but any italics are original to the source material.

Distinguishing reactions from events

Maurice Nicoll Eckhart Tolle
‘Which is most real? … The outer or the inner reality? Is it [not] true to say that it is the inner world? … This inner world we can only get to know by self-observation.’[1] ‘Make it a habit to monitor your mental-emotional state through self-observation…. Primary reality is within, secondary reality is without.’[2]
‘Our inner life attracts our outer life, [so] by changing our inner states . . . we also alter . . . even the nature of the events that come to us.’[3] ‘If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.’[4] ‘You attract and manifest whatever corresponds to your inner state.’[5]
‘You take life-realities and your reaction to them as the same. They are not the same.’[6] ‘They cannot tell the difference between an event and their reaction to the event.’[7]
‘Life is a changing kaleidoscope of events, always turning. The difficulty is that people take life and their reactions to life as the same thing.[8]<s/up> ‘The ego cannot distinguish between a situation and its interpretation of and reaction to that situation.’[9]
They find it difficult to realize that . . . a thunderstorm, is not the same as their mechanical reaction to it. . . . The storm, which . . . is a neutral, impersonal thing, and their mechanical reactions . . . [of], say, alarm, seem identical to them.’[10] You might say, ‘What a dreadful day,’ without realizing that the cold, the wind, and the rain or whatever condition you react to are not dreadful. They are as they are. What is dreadful is your reaction.[11]
‘You never have tried to see the event and separate from your reaction to it.’[12] ‘She had not yet become present enough to … disentangle her reaction from the event and observe them both.’[13]

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Nicoll and Tolle both stress the importance of observing our inner reality that’s affected by changing inner states. We should consider this inner realm to be as or more important than the external world or reality. Our inner states shape how we experience life and can even attract situations, they tell us. So by changing our inner states we can alter not just how we experience events but what we experience in our life.

The trouble is that people often don’t see a distinction between their psychological reaction to an event and the event itself, they claim. They react automatically to what happens, or consider their reaction, if they even notice it, as inevitable. Yet by practicing self-observation, we can discern and separate a reaction from the event or situation that triggers it, and recognise we needn’t react in that way. Both authors cite the example of observing and changing a typical negative emotional reaction to bad weather to make this point.

Inner choice, freedom, and peace

Maurice Nicoll Eckhart Tolle
‘We have the power of choice internally [by observing our state].’[14] ‘With the seeing [of inner dysfunction] comes the power of choice.’[15]
‘When you have practised self-observation for a certain time, you are more conscious of your inner state and in consequence you have, as it were, a moment of choice.’[16] ‘Choice implies consciousness—a high degree of consciousness. Without it, you have no choice. Choice begins the moment you disidentify from the mind and its conditioned patterns.’[17]
‘Try to notice where you are in yourself at this moment, to what thoughts you are consenting….  Have you yet attained any power of inner freedom from … your mechanical thoughts and feelings induced by external circumstances?’[18] ‘By watching the mechanics of the mind, you step out of its resistance patterns, and you can then allow the present moment to be. This will give you a taste of the state of inner freedom from external conditions.’[19]
‘You are entirely dependent on the events of external life…. How can you think that inner peace depends on what happens to you?’[20] ‘The Gospels speak of a peace passing all understanding. Have you got this inner peace?’[21] ‘[Ordinary] happiness depends on conditions being perceived as positive; inner peace does not.’[22]Inner peace and serenity that come from a very deep place…. It is “the peace of God, which passes all understanding.”’[23]
‘The quality of happiness that comes from being first, or having most . . . is not . . . genuine or deep.[24] ‘The happiness that is derived from some secondary source is never very deep.’[25]
‘There is another quality of happiness . . . independent of external things. It belongs to one’s inner being. . . . [It] replace[s] restlessness and its kindred anxiety and fear by peace. This peace cannot be shaken by external events.’[26] Being takes you beyond the polar opposites of the mind and frees you from dependency on form. Even if everything were to collapse and crumble all around you, you would still feel a deep inner core of peace. You may not be happy, but you will be at peace.’[27]

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By becoming conscious of our habitual reactions to life, we gain “the power of choice” over how we respond internally and externally, the authors say, and an “inner freedom” and “inner peace” that’s independent of external conditions.

“The power of observation” gives you a “moment of conscious choice,” over your habitual reactions to life, writes Nicoll.[28] By observing ourselves, we gain “the power of choice” not to consent to, identify with, or be “dragged down” by bad inner states.[29] Being “more conscious of your inner state” grants you “a moment of choice” internally; otherwise we just react automatically according to “long-established associations.”[30] People can gradually awaken, and reach a higher state of consciousness, by making the “inner choice” not to “go with” the unconscious inner states they observe—and instead discard them.[31]

Describing the observation of oneself, Tolle similarly conveys that “with the seeing comes the power of choice”[32] and “you realize that you have a choice”—namely, to drop the patterns of unconsciousness you see.[33]  This inner choice only begins “the moment you become present” as “choice implies consciousness,” he explains; without this degree of consciousness you are too unconscious in the moment and so “have no choice” but to think, feel and act according to your conditioning. This last statement appears under the subheading “The Power to Choose”.[34]

Developing this capacity to choose how we inwardly respond to life, instead of just reacting unconsciously, leads to “inner freedom” and “inner peace” the authors suggest. By consciously watching and not identifying with unconscious inner states, one is no longer controlled by them or events that would typically provoke them. Both use the phrases “inner freedom” and “inner peace” to describe a more conscious state that’s attainable which is independent of anything external and derives from one’s inner being. In contrast, the kind of happiness that depends on what happens outside us isn’t as “deep,” they write.

Both quote the same biblical passage about a peace that surpasses “all understanding” to describe this deeper peace or happiness from within.

Inner responsibility

Maurice Nicoll Eckhart Tolle
‘In our psychological world . . . we have gradually to become more responsible.’[35] ‘You are responsible for your inner space; nobody else is.’[36]
‘To that inner space … only self-observation can make you conscious.’[37]Guard this inner place.’[38] ‘Stay present, stay conscious. Be the ever-alert guardian of your inner space.’[39]
‘An accumulation of wrong or evil psychic material is formed daily in human relationships and, in fact, in everyone’s life. . . . This lack of psychological responsibility, both to oneself and to others . . . is the source of one part of the widespread modern unhappiness.’[40] ‘Your unhappiness is polluting not only your own inner being and those around you but also the collective human psyche of which you are an inseparable part. . . . Millions of unconscious individuals [are] not taking responsibility for their inner space.’[41]
‘You become responsible … when one begins to apply [this Work] to oneself and to the state one is in at any moment. This can be called living more consciously.’[42] ‘To end the misery … you have to start with yourself and take responsibility for your inner state at any given moment. That means now.’[43]
‘You begin to have a new responsibility … when this realization of the meaning of the Work begins to become apparent to you…. You cannot react mechanically in the way you always did. You begin to feel responsible.’[44] ‘With the grace of awakening comes responsibility…. You can see its significance and recognize the arising of awareness as the most important thing.’[45] ‘Your responsibility then is not to create further pain.’[46]

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We should strive to take responsibility for our inner state irrespective of what happens, Nicoll and Tolle suggest, and observing our inner states and reactions in the present moment makes this possible. Any real change to one’s level of consciousness, life and outer conditions needs to start here, as our inner state affects not just ourselves but others and the world. Both point out that we must take responsibility for our inner state at any given moment. More broadly, they tell us to become responsible for our “inner space” or “psychological world” in order to address unhappiness in us and the world. Those who do become more conscious or awakened are said to acquire greater inner responsibility in this regard.

Complaining and criticising

Maurice Nicoll Eckhart Tolle
‘People . . . criticize one another without any restraint and do not possess any inner check to this mechanical criticism.’[47] Complaining, especially about other people, is habitual and . . . unconscious, which means you don’t know what you are doing.’[48]
‘People . . .  should particularly observe silent or expressed criticism of others as a continual wrong factor in themselves.’[49] Complaining is one of the ego’s favorite strategies. . . . Whether you complain aloud or only in thought makes no difference.’[50]
‘Mechanical criticism of others produces a great many psychological difficulties in the person who criticizes. . . . What you do to others, you do to yourself.’[51] ‘Resentment . . . goes with complaining and the mental labeling of people and adds even more energy to the ego. . . . What you react to in another, you strengthen in yourself.’[52]
‘It is this complaining itself that you have to notice in yourself and not what you imagine causes it…. Observe them before they start using your mouth in your name.’[53] Notice, the voice in the head . . . in the very moment it complains about something, and recognize it for what it is: the voice of the ego . . . a thought.[54]
Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” This is a pretty good example of what the Work says about observing yourself instead of finding fault with everyone else.’[55] ‘The egoic compulsive habit of faultfinding and complaining about others. Jesus referred to it when he said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?[56]

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This idea of not reacting unconsciously to outer events and taking responsibility for our own inner state also requires becoming more aware of how we typically react towards the people we interact with. Both authors stress, for example, that we should observe and overcome the reflexive habit of criticising or complaining about other people’s faults—whether openly or mentally—and instead focus on addressing our own unconscious or mechanical complaints towards other people. When we behave judgmentally towards others, we tend to strengthen negative factors in us, they suggest.

Interestingly, Nicoll and Tolle quote the same line from the Sermon of the Mount, about seeing the beam/log in one’s own eye (Matthew 7:3), to underscore their points about the negative implications of fault-finding.

Note that the these comparisons connect closely to a comparison made in the previous article: the idea we unconsciously project our own unacknowledged faults onto others. They also touch upon a much larger topic both authors deal with: addressing our negative emotions and states. Since that subject requires its own attention, I’ll address it in detail in the next article of this series.

Concluding comments

This article draws from and condenses my analysis from an earlier article, “Shifting Perspective on Life” but is arranged in a format better suited to direct textual comparison.[57]

These comparisons show that Maurice Nicoll and Eckhart Tolle closely correspond in describing how we can consciously change our inner reactions to outer life and the benefits of doing this.

Both suggest that the distinction between life’s events, and our inner psychological reactions towards them, is not often clear to us. We may take the two as the same and our reactions as inevitable—or at least justified.

They emphasise the importance of observing one’s inner world, reality or “inner space” and learning to make a conscious distinction between events and our habitual reactions to them. In this way we can start to transform our lives: we gain “the power of choice” over how we react and the potential to respond more consciously instead. We may also acquire “inner freedom,” which means our inner state is no longer determined by events or situations.  But we must be willing to take responsibility for our inner state regardless of outer circumstances and address our negative states especially; this includes our tendency to complain about others instead of addressing our inner reactions and judgements towards them. Only by living more consciously in this way, they suggest, may we come to know an inner peace and inner freedom that’s independent of anything external, and derived from our inner being.

In making these points, there are a number of descriptive parallels. For example, in these comparisons, both mention:

  • Practicing “self-observation”
  • Acquiring “the power of choice”
  • Being “responsible” for our inner state “at any moment” / “at any given moment”
  • Observing/guarding our “inner space”
  • The example of bad weather, when explaining we can change our reactions to unpleasant events
  • The potential for “inner freedom” and “inner peace” independent of anything external
  • The same two lines of scripture on separate occasions when making equivalent points

However, beyond those more specific descriptive commonalities, the comparisons in the tables above show they often broadly describe the same general ideas. And the central idea, in a nutshell, is that through observing ourselves and taking responsibility for our inner state, regardless of outer conditions or other people, we can acquire a better state of consciousness that brings an inner freedom and peace that’s independent of whatever happens to us. While that general concept may not be unique to these authors, what’s interesting is how they express and expand upon it in so many similar ways.

These comparisons also touch upon the theme of negativity, as many of the unconscious or mechanical reactions, emotions and thoughts we need to observe and change, they say, tend to be negative in nature. Addressing negative emotions and states is a major focus in both authors’ work; I’ll compare their many similarities on that theme in the next article in this series.


Notes and references

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