Meister Eckhart on Disinterestedness
In a previous discussion, I used the awkward term “inner states” to describe the religious experience, attempting to distinguish internal from external events, such as “miracles”. Basically, I was trying to say that the latter are much easier to prove or disprove than the former, which being so wholly individual are hard for outsiders to even comment on.
One of the things I had in mind was Meister Eckhart’s essay about abgescheidenheit, a somewhat tricky word that Raymond Blakney translates as ‘disinterest’, instead of the more typical ‘seclusion’, ‘solitude’ or ‘detachment’. Personally, I agree that solitude doesn’t work; but I also think Eckhart really is talking about something like total detachment, both from the self and external things, an idea a bit like ‘nothing’ in zen meditation. Here, again, the external world is totally beside the point and really a barrier to an inner ‘bubbling forth’ of God. Eckhart believes this detachment or disinterest is the highest of all virtues.
It’s a somewhat strange suggestion given the Christian emphasis on works, and it’s helpful to remember that Eckhart was a fairly important mystic at a time rife with Christian mystics; also remember that Eckhart himself was at last embroiled in the merely nominal world of politics- as a Dominican in the early 1300s, he was put at odds with the Franciscans, two of whom, associated with the Archbishop of Cologne, had him brought up on charges of heresy. His defense is worth reading as well, summed up by his statement: “I may err but I may not be a heretic- for the first has to do with the mind and the second with the will!” The Pope eventually decided his statements were heretical, although by this time Eckhart had died and the Church, having never declared the man himself to be a heretic, today feels he has been suitably exonerated. Pope John Paul was fond of quoting him.
The essay on detachment invites comparisons to Aquinas and Socrates- who one imagines would sympathize with the idea of emptying the soul of all external unrealities. There is a strong Neoplatonic undertone and the first image that bubbled forth in my mind was Socrates standing dead to the nominal world and lost in thought. Like Socrates, Eckhart ranks disinterest higher than love, which compels man to suffer, and thus focus on his suffering. Love also compels him to move closer to God, while disinterest brings God closer to man. Disinterest is also higher than humility, which makes us pay attention to the creatures we humble ourselves before. It is even higher than mercy, which is a form of attention to others.
The ideal state of disinterest is a pure ‘nicht’ (not), which Blakney translates as pure zero, but I think nothingness will work as well. The soul is detached from other creatures and from the self, and thus at a state of total sensitivity to God. Elsewhere, Eckhart describes grace as not stationary, but always found in a Becoming. We could think of disinterest as clearing the soil of weeds and stones in order for a connection with God to sprout forth. Because Eckhart sees this bubbling forth as an act of grace, the individual is completely passive; prayer is nice, but not key.
Eckhart also sees God as indifferent in some sense. Because He sees the future and past spread out like neighboring mountaintops, God lives outside of time and place. The ideal that Eckhart aims for in himself is a sort of Godly timelessness and placelessness, manifest as indifference to time and place. It would be glib to call this Nirvana- but it’s essentially the same precondition with different hoped-for events.
Where this is relevant for our previous discussion is when Eckhart answers the obvious counterargument- if disinterest is higher than suffering and love, why do Christians value figures like Mary and Jesus who excelled at both? He answers by making a distinction between the inner man and the outward man, explaining that each individual is thus two men. The senses operate by agents of the soul, and man is required to use all of the agents of the soul. While a person who is dominated by the senses is more animal than man, pure quiescence is neither possible, nor is it pious. Activity, though, needn’t disturb the soul: “A man may be ever so active outwardly and still leave the inner man unmoved and passive.” Whew.
The similarities between these concepts and certain ideas in Buddhism have been long noted; Schopenhauer, for instance, actually claimed that Meister Eckhart and Siddhartha Gautama teach the same lessons, with Eckhart cloaking them in Christian concepts. Among all the other great things at Sacred Texts is a very interesting essaythat notes the similarities between disinterest in Eckhart and emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism. It’s an interesting line of thought and probably very fruitful, but I’m not sure if it doesn’t take Eckhart to a place he wouldn’t recognize. Regardless of what we might think he was doing, Meister Eckhart thought he was clearing a space for grace- his terms were not just terms- they were central to his thought. With all due respect to Gautama, he left the question of God open; Eckhart, of course, doesn’t, and (pardon the glibness) there is a difference between emptying your house of all clutter in order to reach a state of higher living and doing so because company’s coming.
The basic problem I have with the essay, Eckhart only addresses in passing: who in the world could actually reach this sustained and total state of disinterest? Eckhart answers: “no one living in such times as these.” And this is a Dominican theologian in the fourteenth century! What chance would any of us have, in a time in which it often seems hard to focus on one thing, much less on no things? That Platonic detachment from the world that is so significant in Western thinking, and the same Buddhist detachment that is so important in Eastern thinking- is this goal maybe too narrow to be accomplished in a human life? Is it, in some sense, anti-life, or even anti-human? Isn’t there enlightenment and grace to be found in the body as well as the soul? Must we always turn away from the body to come to the soul?