The Praxis of Detachment

Eckhart writes in a treatise On Detachment and on Possessing God:

I was asked, ‘Some people shun all company and always want to be alone; their peace depends on it, and on being in church. Was that the best thing? ‘And I said, ‘No! ‘Now see why. He who is in a right state, is always in a right state wherever he is, and with everybody. But if a man is in a wrong state, he is so everywhere and with anybody. But if a man is in a right state, in truth he has God with him. Now if a man truly has God with him, God is with him everywhere, in the street or among people just as much as in church or in the desert or in a cell. If he possesses God truly and solely, such a man cannot be disturbed by anybody. Why? He has only God, thinks only of God, and all things are for him nothing but God.

There is great wisdom inherent in this because it matters not where you are or what you are doing if the Recollective Resolve places the Unborn above all things becomes a primary motivation. Yet, in order for this to become effective one must place detachment (Abgeschiedenheit) above all else—to be completely free and detached from all dharmatas.

In the journey toward union, the soul must carefully release itself from all its attachments and detach itself from all its possessiveness. Eckhart’s existential letting-go and letting-be imply the profoundest respect for existence itself as well as recognition of the ontological interconnectedness of all life. One of the foremost representatives of the apophatic tradition, Eckhart hooks up the praxis of apophasis to the notion of detachment, the stripping away of all layers in order to disclose Ultimate Reality. Apophasis provides a sound and necessary critique of the theistic concept of God as well as of self. For the possessiveness of the no-self also includes possessiveness of “God,” since “God” is ultimately a projection of the human being’s wishes, desires, and needs, and, thus, is an idol. The best way to honor “God” is, thus, to dive into “a-theism” and not to have a “God,” that is, to let God be nothing and exist in the same nothingness…

The human being must, therefore, dialectically move beyond both cataphatic and apophatic theology into the negation of the negation, which is the highest form of affirmation of transparent existence itself.

Eckhart’s notion of detachment unearths the apophatic and kenotic veins of his mysticism. Through detachment, the human being changes its perspective from a human to a divine perspective. Echoing Mahayana Buddhist thought, the Dominican Master maintains that such a human being wants nothing, knows nothing, and has nothing, and becomes as free as when it did not exist. Consequently, detachment, for Eckhart, implies a refusal to limit being and reality, as well as an affirmation of boundless openness. Indeed, a detached human being removes layer after layer of its constructed pseudo-self until it uncovers the true core of itself, that is, the transcendent nothingness which is also God, and only then can it become this same transcendent nothingness. At the end of sermon 12, we find one of Eckhart’s most well-known illustrations of the fusion of identities and the ensuing transparency, which occurs via detachment: “The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye and one seeing, one knowing and one loving.” (Charlotte Radler: Losing the Self: Detachment in Meister Eckhart and Its Significance for Buddhist-Christian Dialogue.)

Perhaps above all else Meister Eckhart was a dialectical technician. And it is through dialectics that he balances out both human and divine attributes into one glorious process of conjunction bearing both apophatic and cataphatic traits.

Detachment, for Eckhart, is not a static concept, but rather a dynamic, apophatic, kenotic, and dialectical activity. Hence, when I refer to detachment as praxis, I mean to suggest, as Eckhart himself does, that it is best understood as a process, a dialectical expedition between always and not-yet.

According to the Dominican Master, dialectics encapsulates the entire ontological structure comprised by the poles of indistinction and distinction and communicates a constant and simultaneous motion between transcendence and immanence, sameness and otherness. Detachment also lays bare the apophatic vein of Eckhart’s mysticism: it implies a removal, reduction, or abstraction, literally, a cutting away of all that is extraneous for the sake of the one thing alone that is: God. For Eckhart, only by detaching can the human being discover his or her true identity and live fully and authentically. (Charlotte Radler, Living From the Divine Ground: Meister Eckhart’s Praxis of Detachment.)

Dialectically opposed to detachment are the avenues in which we find ourselves attached to all manner of defiled dharmatas. Incessantly attached to images regardless of their forms inflicts mind in a stupefied fashion and implants obstacles that damage positive receptivity. Similar to when Mañjuśrī found himself stuck between two iron mountains, one attached to thingness is wedged between a “before” and “after,” or caught between past and future. Whereas in detachment one abides in this present “nowness”. In this sense one is always practicing life out of their groundedness—never being swayed in either direction.  A perfect example of this is the Martha and Mary story from scripture. Usually the emphasis has always been placed upon Mary who represents the contemplative lifestyle while Martha is relegated to the active life. Eckhart turns this account upside down.

Eckhart’s remarkable and subversive reading of the Mary and Martha story in (vernacular) sermon 86 discloses the liberation to, not from, quotidian activities. His exegetical imagination breaks in dramatic fashion with the preceding tradition, which often privileged the contemplative life over the active life. He inverts the classic interpretation of the Mary and Martha story, in which Mary (traditionally the model for the contemplative life) rather than Martha (traditionally the model for the active life) is normally portrayed as the example to be emulated. In the Meister’s sermon, Martha, not Mary, is hailed as the example to follow. For Eckhart, Martha better exemplifies spiritual maturity, since Martha, perfectly detached and acting out of a well-exercised ground (einwol geüebeter grunt), actually practiced life and by doing so she attained the most noble knowing. Since Martha through the praxis of detachment was “substantial” (weselich) and grounded in her being, her ordinary activity could neither uproot nor hinder nor invade her, but would just lead her to blessedness. According to Eckhart, Mary, who sat blissfully by Christ’s feet without exercising any activity, was absorbed by the desire to satisfy her soul. Martha feared that Mary would remain stuck in and addicted to this pleasant feeling. In her learning-process, he suggests, Mary would first have to become a Martha, acting out of her ground and gaining substantial life-experience, in order to fulfill her potentiality and truly be Mary rather than just by name. Eckhart’s appeal to Mary to be Mary truly should be seen as a general call to all of humanity to truly be rather than merely to exist nominally.

Eckhart’s inversion of the traditional Mary-Martha topos in (vernacular) sermon 86 should not therefore be construed as giving preference to the active life over the contemplative life. Instead, it poignantly illustrates the “living union” and harmonious continuity between the active and the contemplative life in Eckhart’s mysticism. Disavowing the kind of simple dichotomy between the inner and outer life that has long pressed Christian thought, Eckhart’s writings reveal the interconnectedness between deep-rooted interiority and praxis.

In fact, according to Eckhart, detached existence, joyously overflowing and abounding from the inner divine source, is spiritual exercise. (Radler, ibid)

As we can infer, Martha better illustrates spiritual maturity, because Martha, perfectly detached and acting out of her ground, actually LIVED the WHOLE life and in doing so attained a form of Noble Wisdom that is analogous to the detachment of the Bodhisattva ideal itself. You see, Eckhart played no favorites, even if Mary spent all of her time at the feet of Jesus. Even detachment from Jesus himself is what is needed here.

Through detachment, he claims, a human being’s life changes from a scattered and disconnected existence to a focused and deliberate existence centered in the “ground.” If a person begins to realize true detachment and becomes wholly concentrated on God, says Eckhart, he or she could step on a stone and it would be a more divine work than to take the body of Christ. (Radler, ibid)

You can see the ramifications that ensued between Eckhart and those ecclesiastical authorities—because Detachment outstrips Holy Communion itself. Yet, in Eckhart’s mysticism any religious trappings must be jettisoned in favor of the far greater realization that the Godhead’s Absolute Nothingness is the God beyond God.

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