Meister Eckhart: On performing works

In this talk, as in most others, Meister Eckhart is amazingly frank about the content of enlightenment, discussing God’s gifts (supernormal abilities in Buddhism, mysteries in Catholicism, powers in Hinduism) as if these were everyday matters. One interesting thing is that he alludes to unspecified dangers awaiting an untrained man attempting to imitate a saint: “If an untrained, unpractised man wanted to conduct himself and behave like a trained man, he would destroy himself and nothing would ever come of him.” He then mentions “food or drink or anything else,” which conjures up Simon Magus and his “licentious” eating habits and his friendship with a former prostitute.

Lester Levenson (1993) warned against the misuse of supernormal powers in a talk entitled “Healing”:

Getting interested in these psychic powers is a wrong approach. Being interested in the powers one might develop the powers. Then using the powers without having your understanding up to them, you will misuse them. You will use them too selfishly and they’ll boomerang and hurt you, your growth, and the powers, causing you to lose the powers. This happens to all psychic people who develop beyond their level of understanding. So I suggest that you develop your understanding until all the powers naturally open up to you, and then if you choose to use them, you’ll use them rightly and you won’t be hurt. (p. 178)

Paramanand Saraswati, author of an English-language biography of Swami Trailanga (2013), had this to say on the subject:

These powers are called the Ashtasiddhis. However, these are not the primary mission of any real spiritual aspirant. To reach the altar of God is the only mission to accomplish, and along this path the acquisition of Ashtasiddhi happens by divine grace. But it is also evident that spiritual aspirants can sometimes deviate from the right path. Quite frequently these aspirants become proud having acquired a few of the siddhis and thus ruin themselves.

When someone acquires divine power of such kind because of intense spiritual austerities and then becomes proud over possessing such abilities, then all such blessings that he received inevitably become useless and bring about their downfall. These persons are usually reborn in rich families or an abode of a yogi, where, in a new body, they resume their unfinished spiritual quest.

Supernormal abilities can never harm anyone but the one attempting to use them. The meaning of “the elbow does not bend backwards” is that these abilities fail in the presence of self-will. The person is only a channel for the Supreme Will. Hawaiian and Tibetan sorcerers believed they could harm or kill their enemies at a distance, but in reality the enemy perceived the intended harm and performed the action on himself. The principle of mutuality between assailant and victim is confirmed in the investigations of Alexandra David-Neel (1931):

Taking with him the object which is to be animated – let us say a knife destined to kill someone – the ngagspa shuts himself in seclusion for a period that may last over several months. During that time he sits, concentrating his thoughts on the knife in front of him and endeavouring to transfer to the inanimate object his will to kill the particular individual whose death has been planned. . . . Certain lamas and a few Bön-pos have told me that it is a mistake to believe . . . that the knife becomes animated and kills the man. It is the man, they said, who acts on auto-suggestion as a result of the sorcerer’s concentration of thought. Though the ngagspa only aims at animating the knife, the man against whom the rites are performed is closely associated in his mind with the idea of the weapon. And so, as that man may be a fit receiver of the occult “waves” generated by the sorcerer (while the knife is not), he falls unconsciously under their influence. Then, when touching the prepared knife, the view and touch of the latter put into motion the suggestion existing, unknown to him, in the man’s mind, and he stabs himself. (Chapter VIII: Psychic Phenomena in Tibet)

This, of course, is sorcery, which is the attainment by long discipline of a small degree of control over matter. It has nothing to do with emancipation.

From “The Talks of Instruction,” translated by M. O’C Walshe

You should be unattached in your works. But for an unpractised man it is an uncommon thing to reach the point where no crowd and no task hinders him. It calls for diligent application, so that God is ever present to him and shines before him completely unveiled at all times and in all company. Skilful diligence is required for this, and in particular two things. One is that a man has shut himself off well inwardly, so that his mind is on its guard against the images without, that they remain without and do not unfittingly keep company and walk with him, and that they find no resting-place in him. The second is that he should not let himself be caught up by his internal imagery, whether it be in the form of pictures or lofty thoughts or outward impressions or whatever is present to his mind; nor [should he let himself] be distracted nor dissipate himself in their multiplicity. A man should train and bend all his powers to this and keep his inner self present to him.

Now you might say a man must turn outwards if he is to do external works, for no task can be done but according to its own form. That is true. But the externality of form is nothing external for the practised man, for to the inward-turned man all things have an inward divinity. This above all is necessary: that a man should train and practise his mind well and bring it to God, and then he will always have divinity within. Nothing is so proper to the intellect, nor so present and near as God. It never turns in any other direction. It does not turn to creatures unless subjected to violence and injustice, whereby it is quite broken and perverted. If it is thus spoilt in a young person, or whoever it may be, it must be very diligently trained, and it is necessary to do all in one’s power to bring the intellect back and train it. For, however proper and natural God is to it, once it gets turned away and is settled among creatures and caught up in them and accustomed to this state, it becomes so weakened in this part and lacking in self-control, so hindered in its noble striving, that all a man’s efforts are insufficient to draw it back fully. Even though he makes every effort, he requires constant watchfulness.

Above all things a man must see to it that he trains himself strictly and well. If an untrained, unpractised man wanted to conduct himself and behave like a trained man, he would destroy himself and nothing would ever come of him. Once a man has first quite weaned himself of all things and become a stranger to them, then he can faithfully perform all his tasks, and delight in them or leave them alone without hindrance. But whatever a man loves or takes pleasure in and willfully follows, whether it be food or drink or anything else, this cannot be maintained without harm in an untrained man. A man must train himself not to seek his own in anything, but to find and take God in all things. For God does not give, and has never given any gift which a man might take and rest content with it. All the gifts He has ever given in heaven and on earth, He gave that He might find one gift–Himself. With all these gifts He wishes to prepare us for that gift which is Himself; and all the works God ever wrought in heaven or on earth He wrought for the sake of working one work–to hallow Himself that He might hallow us. Therefore I say, in all gifts and in all works we must learn to regard God; we should be satisfied with nothing and stop nowhere. There is no manner of standing still for us in this life, and never has been for any man, however advanced he might be. Above all things, a man must ever be directed towards God’s gifts, and ever anew.

I will speak briefly of one who greatly wished to receive something from our Lord. I said she was not yet ready, and if God gave her the gift while she was unready, it would perish. A question: ‘Why was she not ready? She had a good will, and you say that that can do all things, and it contains all things and all perfection.’ That is true; but there are two different meanings of ‘will’: the one is an accidental and non-essential will [i.e., without ‘essence’], and the other is a decisive will, a creative and a trained will. Of course it is not sufficient for a man’s mind to be detached for one split second, just when he wants to link up with God, but one must have a well-trained detachment before and after. Then one can receive great things from God, and [receive] God in those things. But if one is not ready, the gift is spoilt and God [creative power] with the gift. That is why God cannot always give us things as we ask for them. It is not due to a lack on His part, for He is a thousand times more eager to give to us than we are to receive. But we do Him violence and wrong in hindering His natural work by our unreadiness.

A man must learn to give up self in all gifts, and keep or seek nothing for himself, not profit or enjoyment or inwardness or sweetness or reward or heaven or own-will. Where God finds His own will, there He gives Himself and bestows Himself in it with all that He is. And the more we die to our own, the more truly we come to be in that. Therefore it is not enough for Him that we give up self and all we have and can do just once, but we must constantly renew ourselves and so make ourselves simple and free in all things. (Vol. III, pp. 45-48).

M. O’C. Walshe (1987). Meister Eckhart: Sermons & Treatises Volume III. UK: Element Books Limited.

David-Neel, Alexandra (1937). Magic and Mystery in Tibet. London: Penguin Books. (https://www.theosophy.world/sites/default/files/ebooks/magic-and-mystery-in-tibet1931.pdf)

Levenson, Lester (1993). Keys to the Ultimate Freedom: Thoughts and Talks on Personal Transformation. Phoenix, Arizona: Sedona Institute. ISBN 0-915721-03-1

Saraswati, Paramanand (2013). Trailanga Swami and Shankari Mataji. Kolkata: Amar Nath Poddar.

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