Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nothingness and helplessness

Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff frequently told his pupils that they needed to acquire a sense of their own nothingness.

This is not a sense one acquires early in life; no matter what one comes to, it is a process measured in many decades; and even then, it is generally theoretical. The feeling aspect of the process—the one whereby one recognizes how absolutely helpless one is, not in the mind, but in the feelings themselves—does not yield readily. We're too hard; and if there is one thing I am convinced of, it is my own effectiveness.

This takes on perverse dimensions, because even in a confession of my ineffectiveness, I still ascribe agency to myself. If I am ineffective, it's just as much my own action as if I am effective; in blaming, I take ownership, I still identify. So both inner and outer failure, and inner and outer blame, become a form of inverse egoism. I don't see this; and without a doubt I am in love with my own perceived effectiveness, Whether it is the effectiveness of the via positiva— a positive attitude in which I can do – or the via negativa—a negative attitude which I cannot — in both cases, my agency is the active principle. When I am ineffective, I am effectively ineffective.

 Perhaps this dilemma is at the root of Meister Eckhart’s sermon 87, in which he preaches the complete extinction of everything that I am, including any propositions I have about God. The sermon is an excellent one; and it certainly urges us to move into indescribable territory, although it does so — as such missives always do — in the firm grip of an explicit irony. After all, strictly following the instructions of his sermon, both the describable and the indescribable must cease to exist in us, along with everything else. The sermon contains, in other words, the seeds of its own negation through transcendence.

This raises the question, of course, of whether transcendence can even exist under such circumstances, since it presumes a negation of immanence, which ought to be dismissed a priori, rather than invoked as a starting point from which to transcend. According to Eckhart, everything must go – the bathwater, the baby, and the river and the womb that they came from. 

While there is a certain intimate truth to this that (in a continuing and perpetual irony) demands description as indescribable, the fact is that on all other territory — and there is a wide swath of it between here and Eckhart’s landing place (well, in point of fact, lack of landing place)—we find ourselves in all the places where the indescribable simply leaks through and acquires descriptions. 

The proposition that one transcends even the understanding of God working in or through one in the midst of absolute transcendence presumes that prior to the moment of absolute transcendence, nothing of it is knowable or can be known. I think we can allow ourselves to be located on more digestible and understandable territory, since even Eckhart himself advises at the beginning of the sermon that few will ever properly understand it.

 Eckardt’s exhortation to transcend the created and all creatures beggars the question. Creation and creatures must have purpose within the presence of God, or they could not and would not exist; thus, the complete extinction of creation and creatures from the point of view that looks towards God becomes a form of senselessness. Indeed, Eckardt seems to advocate this senselessness, in some senses (if you will allow the pun); yet within the actual state of unknowing everything, forgetting everything, losing everything, and becoming nothing, presence is still absolute, despite the fact that the word is essentially useless.

 Presence of God itself is, in other words, paradoxical; and if there were one word that could be used to define what “I” am in the light of this revelation, it would be helplessness, because to be helpless is to have no recourse whatsoever, whether it be recourse towards what is or recourse towards what is not. One is suspended; and in that suspension, presence appears.

 I would argue with Eckhart here. God is not so entirely intangible as he would have it; and even the loftiest discourses are, in the end, fragmentary when it comes to such questions. He has, perhaps, succumbed to a temptation to overcomplicate the question of sensing God's presence...

 which ought to be quite a simple thing, after all.


1 comment:

  1. Orthodox Christians, following the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, distinguish the essence and the energies of the God. The energies can be experienced; the essence cannot. I find that distinction helpful.


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