By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
08 Mar 2018
Reading Meister Eckhart on Spiritual Life
Meister Eckhart was one of the greatest sages of the world who had a troubled relationship with the Christian Church for supposed heresies. When we closely examine his doctrine and try to live his sermons one finds that what distinguished him from most of his contemporaries is commitment to non-dual or Unitarian paradigm that in the Islamic world has been defining feature of great current of Sufism.
What is in Eckhart that he influenced some of the most important modern thinkers including Heidegger? What is in him that his writings are compared to Upanishads by none other than AKC? What is in him that it was said about him that God hid nothing from him? What is in him that he has been subject of numerous illuminating comparative studies including the one with such spiritual giants as Sankara and Ibn Arabi (one may see Reza Shah Kazmi’s work on the same). For me Eckhart is, along with certain Muslim metaphysicians and sages, the best antidote to nihilism and scepticism in the secular age. No informed atheist can resist his beauty and profundity.
Those who suffer allergic reactions on mentioning God or religion or Spirit need to engage and dismiss the best representatives of respective religious traditions such as Sankara, Lao-tzu, Confucius, Nagarjuna, Ghazzali, Ibn Arabi, Abhinavgupta and Eckhart to be respectfully heard and cross check if they are not suffering from any autoimmune disorder. I think dismissing them is like dismissing existence or challenge of Everest. These men are Everests of spirituality and divine wisdom that one is summoned to take note, to assimilate and there is hardly any room for such questions that ordinarily obsess theists and atheists like existence of God.
Iqbal avoided the binary of theism and atheism by pointing out that the real issue is of fidelity to oneself/Self and not to belief in a proposition that God exists. It is beyond dispute that we exist and what is at stake is who is this in us that says I and who thirsts for perfection, seeks goodness, cries for justice, treasures beauty and truth that traditionally were summed up in one word God. All humans, including atheists, want to quench genuine spiritual thirst. The question is thus of our spiritual health and not of what appear to many today as obscure theological notions. Something is demanded from every human being – irrespective of his religious affiliation or beliefs – and it is sages who remind us of this. Let us evaluate our spiritual health by turning to the test/mirror provided by great spiritual masters such as Eckhart.
Let Me Quote From Eckhart:
'I will give you a rule, which is the keystone of all that I have ever said, which comprises all truth that can be spoken of or lived. 'It often happens that what seems trivial to us is greater in God's sight than what looms large in our eyes. Therefore we should accept all things equally from God, not ever looking and wondering which is greater, or higher, or better. We should just follow where God points out for us, that is, what we are inclined to and to which we are most often directed, and where our bent is. If a man were to follow that path, God would give him the most in the least, and would not fail him.'..God is in all modes, and equal in all modes, for him who can take Him equally. People often wonder whether their inclinations come from God or not, and this is how to find out: if a man finds it within himself to be willing above all things to obey God's will in all things, provided he knew or recognized it, then he may know that whatever he is inclined to, or is most frequently directed to, is indeed from God.'
Eckhart is not much pleased with our hankering after special ways and obsession with this or that path, but identifies the noblest and best thing with coming to such equality, such calm and certainty that one could “find God and enjoy Him in any way and in all things, without having to wait for anything or chase after anything”: that would delight me. For this, and to this end all works are done, and every work helps toward this. If anything does not help toward this, you should let it go.”
I have hardly met anyone who has not scores of complaints against God or himself or who doesn’t secretly feel advising God in this or that matter and that shows there are so few healthy people around. Eckhart explains why our complaints and advices are pointless:“God gives every man according to what is best and most fitting for him. If you want to make a coat for a man you have to make it to his measure; what fits one would not fit another at all. So we measure each one to see what fits him. Thus God gives to every man the best according as He perceives what is most necessary for him. Indeed, anyone who has full trust in God in this regard receives and gets as much from the smallest gift as from the greatest.”
Few people have the courage or understanding to follow their hearts as advised by poets and sages as they don’t know that this corresponds to God’s plan for us. Fewer succeed in fighting their negative self image without succumbing to complacency or pride: “You may say, 'I fear I am not earnest enough and don't try as hard as I could.' You should regret this and endure it with patience; regard it as discipline and be at peace. God gladly endures shame and misfortune and willingly forgoes His praise and service that those who love Him and belong to Him may be at peace. Why should we then not be at peace, whatever He gives us or whatever we lack?” For Eckhart “As long as anything can trouble a man, he is not in a right state” as he fails the test of detachment. Eckhart quotes Muslim sage Ibn Sina who 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.”
Most people go to mosques or turn to religion to seek what they call peace or take God as a consolation and despair when He seems to be uninterested in their projects. However, Eckhart would warn: “But some people want to see God with their own eyes as they see a cow, and they want to love God as they love a cow. You love a cow for her milk and her cheese and your own profit. That is what all those men do who love God for outward wealth or inward consolation – and they do not truly love God, they love their own profit. I truly assert that anything you put in the forefront of your mind, if it is not God in Himself, is – however good it may be – a hindrance to your gaining the highest truth.”
So many people think they sincerely seek Him but He doesn’t turn up. Eckhart has a classic refutation of this posture: “You need not seek Him here or there, He is no further than the door of your heart; there He stands patiently awaiting whoever is ready to open up and let Him in. No need to call to Him from afar: He can hardly wait for you to open up. He longs for you a thousand times more than you long for Him: the opening and the entering are a single act.” As long there remains something of ours that is not at ease with the way things are/God will – ego – we don’t seek God but project of ego.
Eckhart also explains how we are all led to God – in fact we are already in the loving embrace of God – and thus there is no room for despair: “God is love, and in fact so loveable that all creatures seek to love His loveableness, whether they know it or not, or whether they wish to or not. So much is God love, and so loveable, that everything that can love must love Him, whether it will or no. There is no creature so worthless that it could love anything evil; for whatever one loves must either seem good or be good. Now if we gather up all the good that all creatures can do-that is pure badness compared with God. St. Augustine says, 'Love what you can gain with love, and keep that which can satisfy your soul.'”
Now this concluding chilling passage should end all babble of those who accuse God of injustice as the question for Eckhart is how truly we are set on justice and not justice of some super being.
“The just are so set on justice that if God were not just they would not care a bean for God…To the just man nothing gives more pain or distress than when, counter to justice, he loses his equanimity in all things. How so? If one thing can cheer you and another depress, you are not just: if you are happy at one time you should be happy at all times. If you are happier at one moment than another, that is not just. The true lover of justice is so established in what he loves that it is his very being: nothing can drag him from it, and he cares for nothing else.”