Four Meditations on Seeing, by David Appelbaum

Encaustic icon of Christ, sixth century. St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Encaustic icon of Christ, sixth century. St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

with reference to Meister Eckhart

THE MYSTERY OF SEEING

This is what Meister Eckhart brings for our edification. There is no skill or method to attain the act of seeing, even though the means may have value in themselves. The student of seeing has to unlock the mystery first, Eckhart tells us, and it begins—here, now—with the question of who is seeing. Until the question is raised to a new pitch, the intensity needed to undergo the mystery will be wanting.

The gateway is to be found in the releasement from what Eckhart calls the “me and mine,” the ego and its collection of things that define its territory. As soon as one relaxes and becomes human, endowed with a sensitivity to what is real, the peculiar role assigned to humanity in creation presents itself. It is here that Eckhart ties cleansing the eye of vision to a view of the cosmos, the starry heavens above and here below. The divine and the human, God and myself. Seeing must travel the breadth of the relation.

The turning point of Eckhart’s thought has to do with transformation. The potentiality of the human being is very high. Angels are envious of the place given to us to occupy, he says. To open the doors of perception and to release vision from its hidden attachments: that is the path that his thought traces. It is a path of knowing, gnosis, where the act of thinking and the act of being are one and the same. His gnosis is special because of the clarity and simplicity of sight, and also for its specifics. It tells us that our deep identifications revolve around erroneous representations of reality. Without knowing it, we hold a mistaken world view inherited from our upbringing. It is up to us to radically change these habitual modes of reception.

In the still deep moment of meditation, one comes to the ground of intelligence. This, higher mind, the spark or scintilla of the soul, is where thought is void of object. Dwelling in this releasement, there is witness to the unfolding creative process, which, in Eckhart’s Christology, pours forth from the Father, creator God, to his Son, the intelligible presence to this world. It means, in strict terms, being present to how the world emerges from nothing, and is nothing in relation to the creator, the All.

SEEING IS A PATH

Seeing is a pathway to liberation, both the greater and the lesser. This thought we owe to Eckhart. Furthermore, the pathway is there to be discovered. In this moment, thought opens the infinitude of its potential to yield a taste of another way of being. It would be in the freedom of hope that one is able to go forward without a map or preconception. “Without a why,” Eckhart says. Seeing is that look forward.

He reminds us of the extreme diligence needed for the task. The path is not ready-made, waiting there ahead of one’s arrival. Seeing unveils it. When it is actualized, seeing is both means and end, as well as the pathway itself. Extreme diligence: the rhetoric seems to suggest a rigid application of attention, like pouring over a ledger. Eckhart is careful to state that the work of seeing—both seeing’s work and work’s seeing—is more of an undoing of blockages and freeing the attention. A vision is constricted because it is riddled by negation. “When a pickpocket looks at a saint, he sees pockets.” The path is therefore one of “negating negation,” unbinding the attachments that constitute one’s preferences, desires, or inclinations. A person refuses the “me and mine” and lets go. The discovery of “not this, not that,” that I am not who I take myself to be, follows the seeing. Repeating the recognition over a lifetime defines a path.

Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart

LETTING GO REQUIRES A WHOLE NEW WAY OF THINKING

AND A NEW LANGUAGE. It is a challenge to understand what needs release and what needs to be released. On the one hand, “it just happens,” and on the other, the greatest rigor cannot be avoided. One must remember the moment, as Dogen the Zen master put it (at about the same time in the late Middle Ages as the Rhineland mystic). Eckhart says it in a similar thought. One must agree to the flow, as it rushes forth from the unmanifest, and be buoyant enough to keep up with its unfolding. Nothing can snag or delay the person awakened to the simple matter of rising to this life. The repetition of seeing involves living life as a seer who is purified by the seeing.

Why purified? This is an important question. Seeing is purification. Each moment that an active vision takes place, the work gifted to human beings from above is engaged. This means, seeing occurs in deep releasement. One has let go of self-image and faces without excuses the question of his or her existence. There the first light of seeing dawns. Once contamination by the ego has been undone, life can be embraced as it comes to be its becoming. In this, there is real freedom, which is the aim of all teachings.

There is a work meant for a human being, the species homo sapiens. It involves relating to the higher part of the mind and trusting the intelligence of letting go. This is a movement toward bearing witness to the formless void—which is the Godhead, in Eckhart’s language, into which even God cannot enter until he surrenders his powers and possessions. There is this astounding thought: God too must work at releasement in order to see reality. Here, Eckhart will tell us, lies the height of seeing, when the eye through which I see is the same eye through which God sees. The human being and the deity share an identical effort. Seeing is witness for the sake of that highest purpose. What is that? It is to provide a lens onto reality through which the Creator can see the creation. That we actually share in the common work of keeping the universe lighted within the absolute blackness of empty space

THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS IN THE PROCESS OF LETTING GO

This means, coming out of hiding and into the light. Reality is guided by the movement of epiphany. This is the thought of the hadith, “God is a hidden treasure wanting to be known.” The unveiling of reality coincides with letting the blocks and limits go, holding back no longer. Presence appears from absence and disappears back into it. This is marked by an outbreak of meaninglessness—for Eckhart, the call from on high to be empty of all knowledge. For him, emptiness is the coming of an ever-present relaxation. Nothing happens, yet everything does. This is how Meister Eckhart’s universe works.

It is with this common cosmic process that we join whenever we are gifted with seeing. In the same instant, we are given to see who we are and what we serve. ♦

From Parabola Volume 38, No. 4, “Liberation and Letting Go,” Winter 2013-2014. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.