—Meister Eckhart, sermon 17
What does self-remembering mean?
The self, experienced from our perspective, is a complex object. Any opinion that the self can be “observed” in a context that limits it to the status off what can be observed is already insufficient; in reality, the self expands to fill the available space, when considered from this angle. So there is no theoretical or practical limit to what can be observed; and conventional imagination is unable to grasp both the scale and scope of the matter.
I think the first time I had an inkling of this was at the age of nine when I first saw Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights; and although it’s impossible to comprehend the vast nature of the teaching which that painting attempts to impart, it implants a seed. It is, in its own way, the late medieval version of Gurdjieff’s All and Everything; our psyches embody not only the possible, but the impossible, and the soul has no definable boundaries from within which we can accurately measure its nature. Certainly not, in any event, from within; yet in the practice of self-observation and self-remembering, that is where it’s proposed we begin.
Eckhart’s contention, then, that we should “give up self” implies an abandonment of our attempts to measure that which cannot be measured; his exhortation here is very nearly Buddhist in its scope, and seems to fly in the face of the whole idea of self-remembering.
Having spent the greater part of a lifetime engaged in a discipline which is, in large part, based on this selfsame activity, the practical experiences by now outweigh the philosophical conundrums; and the question still remains. There is an apparently inexhaustible reservoir of advice and direction from which folks pump “self-remembering help” materials for the public; and it is burned like so much fossil fuel, filling the atmosphere of the inner planet with spiritual smog. Perhaps it is more in the naming of things than the doing of them that the devil collects his dues; for the moment we name what we do, we presume some mastery over it, whereas it would seem the whole point of self-observation is, in the end, to see that we do not have any mastery.
In this way, perhaps the living of life with an inner eye turned towards it ought to remain nameless; and in this sense we ought to forget about both self-remembering and self-forgetting. A presence that accepts the material of life as it flows inwards does not need definitions of the mind; it creates its own parameters which are composed more of wordless feelings and sensations than of the words that capture them.
Reading Jeanne Salzmann’s comments about imagination of self (The Reality of Being, # 72) it’s possible to intimate how much imagination plays a role in this situation; and in the contact of that compound essay, especially its last few lines, perhaps we catch a glimpse of Eckhart’s direction:
“The imagined "I," my imagination of "I," will continue to be reinforced even in the most unconscious layers of myself. I must honestly accept that I really do not know this. Only in accepting this as a fact will I become interested and truly wish to know it. Then my thoughts, feelings and actions will no longer be objects for me to look at with indifference. They are me, expressions of my self, which I alone am here to understand. If I wish to understand them, I must live with them, not as a spectator but with affection, and without judging or excusing them. It is necessary to live with my thoughts, feelings and actions, to suffer them, from moment to moment.”
To live with and to suffer is to sense and to feel; not to think over. It is the immediacy of the inner action that connects us to a greater sense of being, not the intellectual inferences.
Earlier in the passage Salzmann says,
“But today the controlling influence is the idea of myself, and this imagined "I" desires, fights, compares and judges all the time. It wants to be the first, it wants to be recognized, admired and respected, and make its force and power felt. This complex entity has been formed over centuries by the psychological structure of society.”
We don’t really see it, but it is this exact entity that thinks it can observe; this entity which thinks it can see, and remember.
And it’s this particular “self” which Eckhart refers to when he speaks of abandoning the self.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.