Meister Eckhart: On Detachment

The indifference with which one treats crow droppings — such an indifference to all objects of enjoyment, from the realm of Brahma down to this world, is verily called pure Vairagya. – Adi Shankara “Self-Realization”

The masters say that heaven permits no alien intrusion: no fierce assault can penetrate to do it outrage. So too the soul that is to know God must be fortified and established, so that nothing can penetrate into her, neither hope nor fear nor joy nor grief nor suffering or anything that could disturb her. Heaven is at all points equidistant from Earth; likewise the soul should be equally distant from all earthly things, no nearer to the one than to the other. Where the noble soul is, she must maintain an equal distance from all earthly things, from hope, from joy and from sorrow: whatever it is, she must rise above it. — Meister Eckhart (Vol. II, p. 167)

ON DETACHMENT

I have read many writings of pagan masters, and of the prophets, and of the Old and New Testaments, and have sought earnestly and with all diligence to discover which is the best and highest virtue whereby a man may chiefly and most firmly join himself to God, and whereby a man may become by grace what God is by nature, and whereby a man may come closest to his image when he was in God, wherein there was no difference between him and God, before God made creatures. After a thorough study of these writings I find, as well as my reason can testify or perceive, that only pure detachment surpasses all things, for all virtues have some regard to creatures, but detachment is free of all creatures.

The teachers greatly praise love; but I extol detachment above any love. First, because, at best, love constrains me to love God, but detachment compels God to love me. . . . That detachment forces God to me I can prove thus: everything wants to be in its natural place. Now God’s natural place is unity and purity, and that comes from detachment. Therefore God is bound to give Himself to a detached heart.

In the second place, I extol detachment above love because love compels me to suffer all things for God’s sake, whereas detachment makes me receptive of nothing but God. Now it far nobler to be receptive of nothing but God than to suffer all things for God, for in suffering a man has some regard for the creatures from which he receives the suffering, but detachment is quite free of all creatures. But that detachment is receptive of nothing but God I can prove this way: whatever is to be received must be taken in somewhere. Now detachment is so nearly nothing that there is no thing subtle enough to maintain itself in detachment except God alone. He is so subtle and so simple [of a single essence] that He can stay in a detached heart. Therefore detachment is receptive of nothing but God.

The masters also extol humility above many other virtues. But I extol detachment above humility for this reason: humility can exist without detachment, but perfect detachment cannot exist without perfect humility, for perfect humility ends in the destruction of self. Now detachment comes so close to nothing, that between perfect detachment and nothing, no thing can exist. Therefore perfect detachment cannot be without humility. But two virtues are always better than one.

The second reason why I praise detachment above humility is because humility means abasing oneself beneath all creatures, and in that abasement man goes out of himself into creatures, but detachment rests within itself. Now no going out can ever be so noble, but remaining within is nobler still. . . . Perfect detachment is not concerned about being above or below any creature; it does not wish to be below or above; it would stand on its own, loving none and hating none, and seeks neither equality nor inequality with any creature, nor this nor that: it wants merely to be. But to be either this or that it does not wish at all, for whoever would be this or that wants to be something, but detachment wants to be nothing. It is therefore no burden [does not impose itself] on anything.

I also praise detachment above all compassion, for compassion is nothing but a man’s going out of himself by reason of his fellow creatures’ lack, by which his heart is troubled. But detachment is free of this, stays in itself and is not troubled by any thing: for as long as any thing can trouble a man, he is not in a right state. In short, when I consider all the virtues, I find none so complete and so conformed to God as detachment.

A master called Avicenna declares that the mind of him who stands detached is of such nobility that whatever he sees is true, and whatever he desires he obtains, and whatever he commands must be obeyed. And this you must know for sure: when the free mind is quite detached, it constrains God to itself, and if it were able to stand formless and free of all accidentals, it would assume God’s proper nature. But God can give that to none but Himself, therefore God can do no more for the detached mind than give Himself to it. But the man who stands thus in utter detachment is rapt into eternity in such a way that nothing transient can move him, and that he is aware of nothing corporeal and is said to be dead to the world, for he has no taste for anything earthly. . . .

Now you may ask what this detachment is that is so noble in itself. You should know that true detachment is nothing else but a mind that stands unmoved by all accidents of joy or sorrow, honour, shame or disgrace, as a mountain of lead stands unmoved by a breath of wind. This immovable detachment brings a man into the greatest likeness to God. For the reason why God is God is because of His immovable detachment, and from this detachment He has His purity, His simplicity [singleness or indivisibility] and His immutability. Therefore, if a man is to be like God, as far as a creature can have likeness with God, this must come from detachment. This draws a man into purity, and from purity into simplicity, and from simplicity into immutability, and these things make a likeness between God and that man; and this likeness must occur through grace, for grace draws a man away from all temporal things and purges him of all that is transient. You must know, too, that to be empty of all creatures is to be full of God, and to be full of all creatures is to be empty of God.

You should also know that God has stood in this unmoved detachment from all eternity, and still so stands; and you should know further that when God created Heaven and Earth and all creatures, this affected His unmoved detachment just as little as if no creature had ever been created. I say further: all the prayers and good works that a man can do in time affect God’s detachment as little as if no prayers or good works had ever occurred in time, and God never became more ready to give or more inclined towards a man than if he had never uttered the prayer or performed the good works. I say still further: when the Son in the Godhead wanted to become man, and became man and endured martyrdom, that affected God’s unmoved detachment as little as if he had never become man. (pp. 117-121)

 

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

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