Meister Eckhart & Detachment: Contemplative Knowledge

Discussing Meister Eckhart’s ‘detachment,’ which inspired Heidegger and has parallels with ’emptiness’ in Zen, and contemplative knowledge.

I. Overview of Contemplative Aims of the Program

I emphasize the role of the Western contemplative tradition in informing the aims and goals of this program. The work of Meister Eckhart can help us to better understand Martin Heidegger’s description of the poetic disposition. The ‘mindfulness’ and ‘holistic’ thinking that I describe are not the same as that described by those same terms in the ‘mindfulness’ and self-help New Age and corporate movements.

II. Detachment in connection with Meister Eckhart’s ‘spiritual poverty’

This discussion concerns the second aspect of Meister Eckhart’s ‘spiritual poverty.’ For a discussion of the first aspect, please listen to the previous episode.

The ‘poor man’ (referring to the Beatitudes) knows nothing. Therefore, one must get away from grasping at things conceptually as a form of knowledge. This form of knowledge cannot approach the limitless God.

Getting away from such grasping will require, for Eckhart, what he terms ‘detachment.’ Or in the modern German rendition of Eckhart’s original term, Abgeschiedenheit. This is an inner disposition, not a description of an external seclusion.

Meister Eckhart places ‘detachment’ even love as a virtue.  Detachment is the highest virtue because it makes us open to union with God. Luke 10:38-42 provides an example for Meister Eckhart of the importance of detachment. Moreoever, love and knowledge flow from God to one who is in a disposition of detachment.

III. Similarity between Detachment in Meister Eckhart and Emptiness in Zen

Detachment means quieting the grasping mind from its form of knowledge through concepts.

Much like the description of emptiness in Soto Zen, detachment does not involve a ‘gaining idea.’ Detachment aims at a union with God in a way that other forms of prayer, etc., do not because it is nondual in approach. One can interpret detachment as similar to the Zen saying that “form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.”

In detachment, the mind is free of creatures constraints and is constrained only to God.

In Eckhart’s formation of detachment, one rids one’s mind of “creatures” in the sense of all thoughts that have come to pass as a result of living in this created existence. This includes all created concepts, since they are not only limiting, but also present the world to us in such a way that we cannot see God appear as God.

Furthermore, if we change ‘God’ to ‘Being,’ and talk about the technological way of revealing the world to us by means of calculative thinking, with the only way out being a contemplative waiting for a god or Being to show itself, the connection to Heidegger seems rather striking, does it not?

IV. Contemplative Knowledge and Prayer for Meister Eckhart

For Meister Eckhart, emptying oneself of concepts is to open oneself to the unlimited God, and to union with God. Additionally, we might say, in somewhat Heideggerian and also Buddhist terms, that God is nothing, as in God is no thing.

We can now better understand the reference that I made in some earlier episodes a few months ago to Meister Eckhart’s controversial prayer, I pray to God to rid me of God. I hold myself open in the contemplation of God as “no thing,” so that I might overcome the calculative thinking that reveals God to me as a limited concept or thing. God, as Eckhart says in many talks, is neither a this nor that.

Finally, Meister Eckhart goes on to explain his notion of prayer further in his talk of detachment. Prayer is not to ask for something from God, but to actually bring oneself into union with God. It is, therefore, to surrender all of one thoughts and desires. Prayer is to abandon to open one’s heart to God by emptying it to creatures. It comes from conceptual knowledge not of things, but of God through contemplative knowledge as not a this or that.


Publicly available electronic version of English translation of Meister Eckhart, translated by Evans, published in 1924

“How a Week of Trying to be Mindful Left Me More Stressed,” Rachel Hosie, The Independent, 8 November 2017

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