The stage is set for the experience of manifesting ourselves as God, James began, reiterating the material from the previous day’s sessions. The sadness of our life has its roots in not knowing who we are. Our vocation is to realise and bear witness to the divine nature of the universe.
God is like a woman in labour, giving birth. We are powerless to do anything but be loved by infinite love. The question is, ‘What good does it do if we don’t realise it?’ I am it, therefore I’m at odds with myself if I don’t see it. If one person is in hell, God is in hell. The mystery of hell is love unaccepted. Let’s say you’ve hurt someone you really love and you come into their presence and they say they’ve forgiven you, yet you can’t forgive yourself – that’s love unaccepted.
The vision is a call that we may awaken to, in obediential fidelity, that we may bear witness. How illusive. We know it’s there because we’ve tasted it. It’s like a homesickness – a holy discontent – that, although uncomfortable, is the gift. The discontent impels us to touch this underlying abiding awareness.
James further explained using the following analogy…. Imagine you’ve inherited an elaborate mansion, but you don’t have the keys, so you have to sleep in a tent outside on the grounds. You’ve invited all your relatives and you say to them, ‘Would you like to see the place?’ You gather round and look in the windows, peering through to the library and the grand ballroom and you get a ladder so you can view the upper floors through the windows. Another version of the image is that you’re already in the mansion, but through some tragic mental condition, you don’t realise it. The point is that we are already in the palace of nowhere. You’ve already tasted it. So, again, the question is, why do we spend so many hours trapped on the outer circumference of the richness of the inner life we’re living, and what do we do about it?
This is when we turn to the teacher, James advises. The teacher knows what it’s like because he’s been there. He’s a seasoned seeker who says, ‘Let me show you the way.’
The final day of the retreat led us to stage three of Eckhart’s view of the spiritual journey: Breakthrough to the Godhead. James began the exploration with this quote from Eckhart:
Acting and becoming are one. God and I are one in this work: he acts and I become. Fire transforms all things it touches into its own nature. The wood does not change the fire into itself, but the fire changes the wood into itself. In the same way we are transformed into God so that we may know him as he is.
The stage is set now, so how do we do it – how do we breakthrough?
1. We detach from the illusion. We see the truth and correspondingly see that our task is to let go of the illusion (just as the alcoholic’s task is to stop drinking). Live by love. Ask, ‘What’s the most loving thing I can do right now?’ Be lovingly compassionate with yourself in moments when you can’t do it – learn to be a great lover.
2. We develop a virgin mind. Let go of images and ideas. Free yourself up from the finite nature of labels – your idea of God, the earth, each other. As you learn to love the other person, you learn to know them. Don’t trash the words, but see them as transparent metaphors for that which words can’t see. It’s a mystery. Words point to the mystery. Accept life as it is with all it’s suffering and do your best to overcome it. We’re not exempt from it. Be at peace with the hardships of your life. God is one with us in the mysteriousness of the hardship. The Buddha called it equanimity of mind. What if all your peace and inner security rested in more or less than what just is? The lack arises when we think the conditions existing are other than the conditions we need to be happy. In a state of equanimity, the peace that surpasses understanding is present. Look how far you’ve evolved – where would you be had you not experienced even the most horrendous? The new emerges out of the darkness. Knowing that this is true in your heart is the way to peace – the fruit of detachment.
Meditation practice is a way of embodying this. It’s a love-filled silence in which you practice virgin mind. You’re just a pure awareness being present in the present moment. When you inhale listen to the body teaching you how to receive the gift of life in the inhalation itself. It’s received one breath at a time. Day after day, month after month, year after year, you can experience God breathing into you and you are in wonder. You come upon a fullness. You realise it not as a theory or a poetic statement, but as reality. Meditation lays open the ground. The moment we lean into it with childlike sincerity, the more intimate our effort.
Now we’re going to move on to birth of the soul. Sitting in general loving awareness, there can come this heightened richness of oneness welling up. Ego says, ‘What was that?’ and starts to critique it. What James suggests is to just observe the ego asking its questions – that’s what the ego does. Just let it be. Allow the purity of the flow to take care of it. The ego is then left to rest in its true nature. God wants us to have a healthy ego. If it’s not healthy, we suffer and we cause others to suffer. The ego is a self-reflective bodily being in the world. The problem comes in when we think that’s all we are.
We’re at this place in the journey now of the deeply transformative process of detachment. We deepen this process in the day by day by being a loving, non-ideological person, accepting life as it is, intimate with each other’s self. Up close, live, breath by breath, with deep attentiveness to the inhalation – God giving us love one breath at a time through the generosity of the infinite. Direct realisation of all of this lays bear the ground. In this receptive stillness, we taste oneness.
Now, one must bear fruit by allowing the generosity of God to flower through your life – take it in, taste the fullness then you in turn generously respond by giving yourself back, living your life with all your heart. Find that act, that creative process. It unravels your petty preoccupation of your self-absorbed self. Give to your work, your community, each other. You’re just yourself, without pretense, without posturing, without your masks. How do we live without the masks? Of course, in our roles, there’s a certain appropriateness of behaviour required, but we take it too far. So instead, you start showing up, living your life with all your heart, one day at a time. You’re giving yourself back to God. God gives birth, detachment lays bear the gift, and we give it back by living our life fully.
‘In the inmost part, where none is at home, there that light finds satisfaction and there it is more one than it is in itself for this ground is an impartible stillness, motionless in itself, and’ by this immobility all things are moved, and all those receive life that live of themselves, being endowed with reason. (bold, James)
‘In this I believe we can see the suggestion of a truly novel form of experience. For me to thus Breakthrough to the Godhead means that somehow I must come to share in these facts of the Godhead and go beyond all distinctions: those between the powers and the spark, between creatures and God, and even the subtle distinctions between the Trinity and the Godhead. Most importantly, all creatures must come to be cognised as nondistinguished from the divine expanse which has been (since the Birth) encountered within myself. The peculiar oceanic feeling is hence encountered not only internally but externally. Eckhart is describing a coming to perceive that BY THE VERY IMMOBILITY WITHIN MYSELF “ALL THINGS ARE MOVED.”
To Breakthrough to the Godhead is apparently to directly perceive just this: all things are moved by that which I myself am. It is a coming to see and encounter all things as having God at their ontological core.’
‘Appeal could also be made to the example of music. The hearer of such melodious beauty is “all ears.” If he does not know how to reproduce inwardly, simultaneously, identically, that which his ears hear, if by distraction or incapacity he omits to accompany in himself the sounds that the senses perceive, then he does not know how to listen. Properly speaking, perfect listening implies that the distinction between the soloist, on one side, and the listener, on the other, is no longer true. Through the unique event of the song that enraptures us, one identical being accomplishes itself. Thus the fundamental determination of existence is “operative identity” or, in homage to Aristotle, “energetic identity.”
According to Eckhart, human existence seeks to fulfill itself in identity. This trait appears particularly in the most decisive acts of life: in the foundation of a family or of a community, in a dialogue that actualises two “words of existence,” or again in the acceptance of destiny. These events always unite those whom they affect. They are destined for man. It is not someone’s will that has favoured the course of things, but the course of things that favours us. We say: “It” so happened, “there were” circumstances, “there is” being. Hidden under the anonymity of these neuter forms is a power that gathers men to their fate. When anonymity befalls us, it delegates destiny to us. Such a mittance, geschick, is not a matter of the will and asceticism. One has to be very release, gelassen, to respond properly to what destiny sends.
Eckhart suggests an example to explain this: consider what happens in conversation. Through your words a clearance of understanding opens up which points towards the word of existence murmured in all that you say or do. But the event of such an opening is the work of neither you nor me. The “we” is not the achievement of the “I” or of the “you”; rather it comes to be of its own accord. When it occurs there “is” nothing else besides itself. In such moments two existences are determined as identical: identical in the gerûrke, that is, in the event.’
Eckhart is trying to help us understand modes of awareness that live within us. We have the responsibility to realise the divinity of all things. This is where the earth comes in and ecology – all are one as shown in Eckhart’s universal metaphor:
‘With the affirmation that all things are identical in God and with God, the third partner is introduced into the universal symballein; after releasement has playfully brought together man and God, the part of the world is played. Releasement is now a thought about the world. God, man, and the world are joined in the free play of identity where “God is altogether our own and where all things are our own in him.”’
‘With this free interplay detachment itself fades away. There is nothing left for man to detach himself from. He is perfectly released. The effort of detachment has overcome itself into pure releasement. As releasement loses all voluntary or ascetic connotations, the totality comes to presence. Their primitive flow from the origin renders all things, God, man, and the world, present to one another. Releasement accounts for the restorative new birth of all things to identity. The symbolic identity is thus more primitive and, as it is uncreated, more real than substantial identity. Likewise releasement is more primitive, uncreated, than detachment, whose function is to regulate man’s dealings with things, that is created substance.’
‘God gives to all things equally, and as they flow from God, they are all equal. Indeed, angels and men and creatures are equal in their primitive emanation, by which they flow from God. Someone who would get hold of things in their primitive emanation would get hold of them as they are all equal. If they are thus equal in time, they are still more so in eternity, in God. If we take a fly, In God, it is more noble in God than the highest angel is in itself. This is how all things are equal in God and are God himself.’
Imagine you’re meditating and an archangel comes to you and starts whispering the secrets of the universe in your ear. You hear the buzzing of a fly, and say to the angel, ‘Just a minute.’ You go over to the window and swat the fly. All falls silent and God says, ‘You just swatted God itself – the flyness of God.’
In God, as God, God loves everything equally. This is the essence of God – not this hubris of the ego, the human being trying to dominate nature – we are one with nature. Every religion has its own way of honouring. The sin is the irreverence, the callousness, not to separate from the cyclic interplay. Climate change, for example, is the earth speaking back to us. What matters is to see it. To be born into the biosphere, we become integral to the pattern by taking it into ourselves and giving it back in our activities and finally we give our bodies back in death.
‘I wondered recently if I should accept or desire anything from God. I shall consider this carefully, for if I accepted something from God, I would be inferior to God like a serf, and he, in giving, would be like a lord. But in eternal life, such should not be our relation.
‘Why do you love God?” – “I do not know, because of God.” – “ Why do you love the truth?” – “Because of the truth.” – “Why do you love justice?” – “Because of justice.” – “Why do you love goodness?” – “Because of goodness.” – “ Why do you live?” – “My word! I do not know! But I am happy to live.”
Eckhart prefers to live in the mutuality….
‘Therefore, I say, if a man turns away from self and from created things, then – to the extent that you do this – you will attain oneness and blessedness in your soul’s spark, which time and place never touched. This spark is opposed to all creatures; it wants nothing but God naked, just as He is. It is not satisfied with the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost, or all three Persons so far as they preserve their several properties. I declare in truth, this light would not be satisfied with the unity of the whole fertility of the divine nature. In fact I will say still more, which sounds even stranger: I declare in all truth, by the eternal and everlasting truth, that this light is not content with the simple, changeless divine being which neither gives nor takes: rather it seeks to know whence this being comes, it wants to get into its simple Ground, into the Silent Desert, into which no distinction ever peeped of Father, Son or Holy Ghost.’
In the beginning we lived out of ego as our base of operations, then we got a taste of oneness and, in the tasting, realised how claustrophobic and one dimensional ego is, and so set out on a path of detachment, birthing, and living life with all our heart. We see that when we live this way, our ground is the divine birthing of God. We’re so grateful that we are growing in the realisation, then we see that our fulfillment is really something deeper. We come home to the oceanic consciousness that we’re homesick for. The emptiness, prior to expressing itself, is calling us to itself. And we’ll only come home when we come home to that emptiness. The nothingness is pregnant with God. There is no beginning, no end, no distinction. This emptiness is ourselves and becomes the ground out of which we’re living our lives. This emptiness is the manifested form.
It makes sense that the deeper we go in this journey, the less we’re able to say in our customary language. It is no longer adequate. We almost have to use language that carries a certain lack of burden it’s not used to carrying.
To the extent you’ve experienced it, you recognise. The effectiveness of your communication is to the extent you’ve recognised it. It’s illusive. As the birth of word deepens, there comes a mysterious sense of mutuality and equality. For example, even though an ant is not at the biospheric place of consciousness emerging, the ant is no less sacred. There’s a strange kind of communal oneness that you intuit in your heart because you’ve tasted oneness. Your receptivity to the gift has been so refined that there’s a pure, empathic resonance of purity with the gift. The perceived dualism of giver and receiver is no longer. It’s no longer ‘relationship with’ – it’s oneness.
Moving on to the stage of breakthrough to the Godhead, let’s assume we are living our interpenetration of the oneness of all things, then you ask yourself, ‘Why? – Why such a wondrous interplay? Why is there something rather than nothing?’ It begins welling up from the richness, ‘What is the unmanifestation of emptiness? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there someone rather than no-one?’
The response in your heart is that there is no why. God has no intention – it’s the anarchy of the ineffable – the anarchy of emptiness that gives itself up. The rose blooms without asking why. It’s a loosely held structure that keeps breaking forth. Transcendence surpasses all set limits, playing itself out delightfully. Oneness is the freedom of this love.
Eckhart: ‘“Paul rose from the ground and with open eyes saw nothing.” I cannot see what is one. He saw nothing, that is: God. … When the soul is unified and there enters into total self-abnegation, then she finds God as in Nothing. It appeared to a man as in a dream – it was a waking dream – that he became pregnant with Nothing like a woman with child, and in that nothing God was born. He was the fruit of nothing. God was born in the Nothing. Therefore he says: “he arose from the ground with open eyes, seeing nothing.” ‘ (bold, James)
Eckhart uses the word nothingness as ‘no – thing – ness’, for example, a watch is a being in the act of being a watch; however, God is not. God is a pure ‘be ing’ being ‘be ing’. There is no thing being God. We start becoming less and less distinct.
‘It is a strange and desert place and it’s rather nameless than possessed of a name, and is more unknown than it is known. If you could naught yourself for an instant, indeed I say less than an instant, you would possess all that this is in itself. But as long as you mind yourself or anything at all, you know no more of God than my mouth knows of colour or my eye of taste … ‘
Even nothingness is a no-name name. If you can disappear from yourself as observing yourself you’ll know yourself.
EE Cummings wrote this poem about nothing in honour of Eckhart:
What Got him was Noth
What Got him was Noth
Ing & nothing’s exAct
ly what any one Living
like even a Poet)could
hardly express what
i Mean is
what knocked him over Wasn’t
(for instance)the Knowing your
dammed)life is a Flop or even
& hoped &
months & weeks & days & years
& nights &
forever)is Less Than
Nothing(which would have been
Something(what got him was nothing
Here we are stuck in ‘somethingness’ looking for emptiness….’Something’ is emptiness manifest – pregnant with God and all things, so I, prior to any expression of God, myself must have been in that emptiness as that emptiness – the unborn you that will never die. So everything the emptiness did, I did. This is even deeper than God.
Eckhart: ‘This is why I pray to God to rid me of God, for my essential being (min wesenlich wesen) is above God insofar as we comprehend God as the principle of creatures. Indeed, in God’s own being, where God is raised above all being and all distinctions, I was myself, I willed myself, and knew myself to create this man [that I am]. Therefore I am cause of myself according to my being which is eternal, but not according to my becoming which is temporal. Therefore also I am unborn, and according to my unborn being I can never die. According to my unborn being I have always been, I am now, and shall eternally remain. What I am by my [temporal] birth is to die and be annihilated, for it is mortal; therefore with time it must pass away. In my [eternal] birth all things were born, and I was cause of myself as well as of all things. If I had willed it, neither I nor any things would be. And if I myself were not, God would not be either: that God is God, of this I am a cause. If I were not, God would not be God. There is, however, no need to understand this.’
So I, willing myself into existence, non-distinct from what created me, therefore I am cause of myself according to my being which is eternal. I’m not saying we are God, I’m saying we’re nothing without God. Therefore also I am unborn and I can never die. I’ve always been, am now and shall always be. This is why a kid on a merry-go-round will, every time he goes round, wave at his parents and they’ll always wave back. God arose simultaneously with creation. God is God, of this I am the cause. If I were not, God would not be God. It’s an articulation of incomprehensible love – deep calls unto deep.
There’s a saying, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself and all the while a great form moves me across the sky.” We begin to realise we are non-distinct from the hidden emptiness moving us across the sky. In the stillness within myself all arises. The ego is the subjectivity of otherness – the breakthrough of subjectivity is oneness. All acts – dying, loving, being born – are out of my stillness. I cannot explain it. It is no longer other than.
Commentary by Shurman: ‘…to reproduce Eckhart’s experience of being, but only on one condition:“He who wants to understand my teaching of releasement must himself be perfectly released.” An attitude is required for thinking to succeed. We propose to define mysticism as this reciprocity between existence and thought: to think of being as releasement one must first of all have a released existence. This appears to be a more satisfactory approach to the phenomenon of mysticism than all definitions that derive the mystical experience from the arrival in consciousness of an all-encompassing being that submerges us.
‘Each line of Meister Eckhart testifies to uneasiness about the fundamental inadequacy of language when confronted by the joy without a cause. There are perhaps illogical murmurings which mobilize deeper forces in us than does the rigor of constructed discourse. Meister Eckhart undertakes the risk of “speculative mysticism,” explaining under philosophical guise the overwhelming closeness of the origin beyond God. That this clothing is full of holes suggest to us the fire that consumed him. The struggle for the right concept, when it has recourse to paradox, turns into combat, and, after reasonings and commentaries, at last invites silence.’
We can have this experience, but only on one condition – you must become released in order to understand releasement. You will understand this as you are this – out of the very intimacy of your presence, you are this – you’re an unfolding story. The degree of understanding is proportional to the degree of releasement.
An attitude is required for thinking to be perceived. I am that of which I speak, you speak. Together, there is a communal recognition of what no-one can grasp. This is God’s language – the reality. We are understanding it to become it. For example, compare a woman who has never had a child, but becomes an expert on motherhood through study and gives talks on the subject, with the woman who holds her newborn baby in her arms for the first time and doesn’t say a word – she can’t speak it because she is it. The living knowledge is to become what you know.
Eckhart chose the rigor of constructive discourse that transcends the discipline of language:
‘An existence that dwells in nothingness is one in which everything just begins. It abides in the origin of the Creator. In this preorginary origin, says Meister Eckhart, only silence maintains itself.
‘At the outset of his odyssey of detachment, man did not expect that much. His path appeared as one of voluntary poverty, but now it has led him into a region beyond God where he no longer recognizes himself. He feels as if he had reached that point of wandering that Japanese Zen masters depict by a canvas totally covered with black. God, man, and the world are no more, there is only the unspeakable intradivine “ebullience,” without a purpose and in which nothing lasts. But his wandering exploration of the origin has changed him. He has become playful. He asks no more for meanings and goals. As the preoriginary origin opens the play, it grants itself by “allusion,” ad-ludere. Earlier, God, man, and the world had appeared reconciled by the play of the symbolic identity of the three. Wandering identity, or dehiscence, goes a step further. The three subsist no longer, they allude to a oneness that preserved the manifold in the unity of provenance and imminence.
‘A man who has experienced this “allusion,” Meister Eckhart says, goes back to the businesses of the world: the stable or some other trade. He is no longer eager to hold God; he knows that eagerness, even mystical, makes one forgetful. Eagerness wants to get hold of God as though to envelop his head in a cloak and put him away under a bench.’
What this means, James said in jest, is that we ended up getting more than we bargained for and we’re no longer interested in lofty things.
James concluded the session by offering participants some thoughts to take home. He acknowledged that the customary way you tend to be at home is going to return. It’s normal. The idea is to go home and live the intimacy of you, knowing that you’ve been touched by divine ordinariness. Here are some thoughts to help sustain you:
1. Have a daily quiet time with no agenda, just love. Sit alone with the attitude, ‘Here I am – it’s just me.’ You’re just yourself. Have a meditation practice with no ulterior motives. Sit still with all your heart.
2. Find your teacher – the one whose words touch you, who speaks to you about what you long for. Read slowly, studying the teachings.
3. Practice devotional sincerity. Ask for the grace not to break this thread – is it possible to live this way, to cultivate this mindfulness? Have faith in boundless value. It matters how you wash up the coffee cup. Do all by being present to it. Know that love is the fullness of this. Learn to be a lover of all. Trust that where you are in your progress is the fullness of love completing itself. Befriend your fragility as a teacher. Being fully alive in the present moment is the great reward. Daily life is all there is and daily life goes on forever.
Thank you for joining us in this divinely ordinary exploration of Eckhart’s stages of the spiritual journey. How blessed we have been to have James Finley as our guide. James will be back at Findhorn 14 November, 2009.
– Mattie Porte –
Photographer: Sverre Koxvold