The Ground of the Soul in Meister Eckhart’s Theology

One of my favorite mystics is Meister Eckhart. His sermons are very authentic and hit home, and one can tell that he speaks from direct experience rather than religious commitment or intellectual speculation. It’s said that Eckhart is a man “from whom God hid nothing.”

A key concept in Eckhart’s portrayal of the truth and the nature of reality is the notion of Ground for which he refuses to give a definition, and that is for very good reasons: the Ground, being the source and origin of reality, is for logical and ontological reasons an undefined thing because it’s precisely that in relation to which everything else is defined and on which everything else stands. In other words, that which has a definition is something that stands on other concepts, on the other, and therefore it is an unground.

The Ground is that placeless place where no word and no image can enter

The same transcendental relationship appears in both mathematics and logic. In geometry, we have the fundamental entity called “point” which remains, and must remain, undefined because all other geometrical figures depend on it for their definitions and constructions. That is, there is nothing more fundamental, i.e. grounding, than the point. In logic, Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems are similar examples that imply all inferential systems (systems of definitions) are incomplete in themselves and, for operational reasons, require a ground that transcends the system. These two examples from geometry and logic are only intellectual counterparts, and mere analogies, to the experiential Ground in Eckhart’s philosophy. They are by no means proofs. Nothing is more off-putting than the religious man’s desperate use of empirical/analytical sciences to prove realities of spiritual nature. Such proofs don’t make humans spiritual; it’s only direct experience that fulfills the heart and at once relieves us of the constant need for proof and validation.

Back to the Ground. Refusing to define the Ground, Eckhart still doesn’t cease to talk about it. One of his most telling statements about the Ground, and the most bothersome for closed-minded religious authorities, is that “the Ground of god and the soul are the same.” Man has the same essence as god. If man is stripped off of all of his exterior and relative coatings, and if god too is stripped off of all of its exterior and relative coatings, we will be left with one and the same thing, the one indivisible and ineffable Ground which is a no-thing, and in Eckharts philosophy not even a being or Being itself, but rather Beyond-Being. There was no problem with the first part of this condition; it was the second part about god that really annoyed the authorities of his time.

Summarizing the above: for the Ground to be realized by the soul, both man and god must die to their relative existence. God, as the creator or as the good or the sovereign, or as the bearer of any qualities be it love, grace, etc., is equally a hinderance to ultimate spiritual realization and unity as a man’s ego is. Speaking in psychoanalytical terms, god as portrayed in outward religion is as good or as evil as a man’s ego. God is nothing but the ego’s projection of a perfect image of itself outside of itself and onto a transcendent plane. Insofar as god exists for man, man is kept hidden from the true God, the Ground, which is beyond good and evil, beyond Being.

As long as the soul has God, knows God and is aware of God, she is far from God. The greatest honor the soul can pay to God is to leave God to himself and to be free of him.

Meister Eckhart

According to Eckhart: relative to the Ground, both creaturely being and creaturely god (god as creator and ego-image) are literally and absolutely nothing: they have no absolute reality or being at all. If man’s being depends on god, god’s being is equally dependent on man. The two are only in relative being insofar as they are holding each other in thought. The being of one defines and determines the being of the other. The necessary condition for spiritual realization is the cessation of this relationship, for only when the mutual dependence of god on man and man on god is dropped, the true God and the True man are realized, and realized to be one and the same Ground that can’t be spoken of in anyway but can be experienced in a new sense of experience.

Eckhart’s another word to clarify the distinction between the relative, creator god, and the true God or the Ground is Godhead. Godhead is the Ground, and man and the Godhead are the same in their true essence: beyond-Being.

God and Godhead are as different as heaven and earth…. God becomes and unbecomes. God works, the Godhead does not work: there is nothing for it to do, there is no activity in it. It never peeped at any work.

Meister Eckhart

Eckhart’s goal in his sermons is not to set up a philosophical or theological system but rather to guide the spiritual seeker in the right direction, in the direction of realizing the Ground than merely seeking to please god or perform pious actions for the sake of grace or some goal/reward in mind, be it union with god or drawing its love and attention. According to Eckhart, the soul will not be satisfied with god but only with the Godhead which is its own ground. The soul seeks to ground itself, to find its Ground; and god insofar as it is the object of love, worship, or adoration, is an unground and therefore an inadequate goal for man’s search for final fulfillment.

God, inasmuch as He is “God,” is not the supreme goal of creatures…. If a fly had reason and could intellectually plumb the eternal abysm of God’s being out of which it came, we would have to say that God, with all that makes Him “God” would be unable a to fulfill and satisfy that fly!

Meister Eckhart

The ultimate means of moving toward and realizing the Ground, a nondual experience that Eckhart calls The Birth or The Breakthrough, is detachment which is regarded as the highest virtue according to Eckhart. However, detachment by no means is about external renunciation and abandoning of the world, for that may even strengthen one’s attachment to the ego or spiritual expectations. Detachment is an attitude of the soul rather than an action, or inaction, of the external man. To exercise detachment, one doesn’t cease activity but rather acts without being attached to that activity, and this is nothing but a reenactment in the world and by man of the state of the Unmoved Mover.

So, it’s not that the exercise of detachment adds merit or virtue and is conducive to union by grace or some other mysterious reason. By exercising detachment, one is in fact imitating the state of unmoved mover, and it is the persistent imitation of that state that produces its realization. Basically, you fake it till you make it, and there’s nothing mystical about this. A person may transgress all virtues in one moment and then realize the Ground in the next. It’s not transgression that keeps us from seeing the Ground; it’s rather our identification and obsession with our transgressions that constitutes the blinding attachment and the subsequent fall. Man falls not for what he does but for his incessant preoccupation with what he did.

Man falls not for what he does but for incessant preoccupation with what he did

True and effective detachment is about dropping the mental strings attached to our external activities. And this is done simply by staying present to what is, for the essence of man which is the essence of god, which is the beyond-Being Ground, is right here and right now: it is the eternal, living present. So, any person without regard for all the actions and thoughts in all moments prior to now, is capable of transcendent realization and union with the Godhead. What keeps us from seeing The Truth is our stories and interpretations about it. Once we cease looking in the direction of this self-created drama, truth will shine on its own accord and without the need for our effort. It’s quite often our own efforts, and more so our spiritual efforts, that muddle the waters of Beyond-Being and keep our true essence hidden from view.

4 thoughts on “The Ground of the Soul in Meister Eckhart’s Theology

  1. Wow. Pranam Narayana. You are realised soul is proved in this post. You need courage to publish this simple ways and methods of achieving or finding Ground written by some great man. You have been posting your approach to truth . After seriously digesting your earlier posts and grace of Guru’s teaching I could really prostrate before Meister Eckhart.
    Thanks very much.

    Liked by 1 person

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