On obedience, attention, and freedom

It’s snowing, a lot, everywhere, so this morning I was reading Meister Eckhart, the thirteenth-century German mystic (obviously). In the first installment of his Talks of Instruction, titled, “On True Obedience” he says this:

True and perfect obedience is a virtue above all virtues, and there is no work however great it may be, that can take place or be performed without this virtue, and even the very least of works, whether it be saying or listening to Mass, praying, meditating, or whatever you can think of, is more usefully done when it is performed in true obedience. Take any work you wish, however minor it may be, true obedience will make it nobler and better for you. Obedience always brings out the very best in all things. Indeed obedience never undermines or forgets those things which we do out of true obedience, for it never neglects what is good. Obedience need never be anxious, for there is no form of goodness which it does not possess in itself.

He sure says “obedience” a lot. I actually can’t believe I’m beginning this phase of my writing, bringing my Buddhist and Christian heritage to bear on contemporary spiritual matters in a secular setting, with this. Obedience has so many negative overtones, is so resonant with the many abuses of religious power, captures so many of the critiques that we apply to religion, and is so at odds with our sense of individual autonomy — that to take that word and talk about it’s value for secular life seems like a non-starter. Obedience is spiritual poison for many. Obedience offered to what turns out to be an unworthy authority causes real harm, and the transgression lies with those authorities that valorize obedience, not those who seek refuge in obedience.

But this is what I read, so this is where I start.

Let me take a liberty with Eckhart’s words, to open a space so we might approach his meaning. In the passage he doesn’t define obedience. Instead, what he does is talk about the arena where obedience is appropriately applied: in work.

A further liberty: Eckhart is talking about spiritual practice when he talks about ‘work’. His examples are prayer, Mass, meditation. My translator here indicates that the German word werk that Eckhart uses can also apply to activity, as in the verb werken. Not just the kind of work that hopefully everyone is taking a break from today, as the snow blows New York City over, but the work of washing dishes and watering plants, of answering emails and paying the bills. Chopping wood and carrying water, Zen says. Work is the activity of our everyday lives. To somehow let this kind of work live in close relation to spiritual practice is helpful and not contradictory. They’re cut from the same cloth.

Eckhart’s message here is: in work, the fruits of obedience are seen. Every kind of work is made better by this obedience, no valuable work can be truly separate from it, and it seems that every kind of good outcome is already contained within obedience. In obedience, everything is achieved already — so there’s nothing to be anxious about.

Hm! What can it be? This thing that we can bring to our work that fulfills our work as soon as we bring it? If you could put it in a bottle and sell it, you’d make a fortune. WAIT — is it coffee? Coffee makes us work better, right? I like this idea: in every brewed cup of coffee, there is the seed of all-our-work-is-done-already. That’s how we drink coffee: somewhere in this cup is the end of work! The faster I drink the more the endedness of work I’ll have! But, no, Eckhart says that bit about “nothing to be anxious about”. Coffee definitely doesn’t do that.

Maybe it’s beer — no, probably not beer.

What is this quality that brings everything to fulfillment, because nothing is left out of it? Eckhart says, obedience to God. Let’s unpack that.

Now, forget the word obedience for a second. Replace it with “quality x” or “special sauce” or “a pinch of salt” or some such in your mind — some phrase that means “the thing that brings the whole together”. Now, when this special sauce is present in your work, any of your work, your work is better as a result — indeed it brings out the best of work, truly brings your work to its culmination, even as you’re doing it. It realizes your work, though it doesn’t finish it.

What should we call this?

Is it intelligence, natural or educated? No, we can think of lots of work that don’t require book learnin’. And it seems that intelligence is more of a helper to work than a realizer of work. Is it imagination? We can see the fulfillment of our work, but this doesn’t bring that about — its sort of a precursor to work. Is it creativity, that Prized Quality for entrepreneurship and startups, etc.? Well, you’re not always creating for some kinds of work, are you? Sometimes you just have to do the thing. No innovation, no disruption. I have to vacuum and then send emails. What’s creative about vacuuming and then sending emails?

I’ve heard broader definitions of creativity that have more to do with authenticity. To do work authentically — that’s getting close to something. But what would it mean to do work inauthentically? It’s working without actually doing the work. It’s like, kinda-doing-it. What would make you only-kinda-doing work?

If you weren’t paying attention, that’s how.

Attention is a big part (maybe the whole part) of spiritual practice — meditation, or prayer, or Mass, all of them are bound by a certain orientation of attention to Something Alive that is both within and without. Eckhart suggests this in saying: “When we go out of ourselves through obedience…then God must enter into us; for when someone wills nothing for themselves, then God must will on their behalf just as he does for himself.” This quality of obedience is a going out of ourselves, such that what was outside of us is now also inside of us. With this quality, the inward and the outward become, somehow, undifferentiated, because what’s gone out has made space for what’s coming in. Thus obedience.

But isn’t this also attention? In giving attention, in attending to, we make space for something outside to come well within our little sphere of being. We forgot ourselves in our work. Reading a book, sweeping the floor, listening to a friend about their good or bad day, making a spreadsheet — as soon as we make space for whatever-it-is to come in, as soon as we give our attention over to it, all that’s left is doing the work. And in that spirit the work is fulfilled, even if not yet completed. This is not about deadlines and Getting It Done, it’s about the Doing. There’s a fullness to becoming not-separate-from a spreadsheet. We needn’t be anxious about the spreadsheet being done soon enough. Once we allow that spreadsheet in, it’s wholeness is there already. There’s no form of goodness, not even a beautiful and orderly spreadsheet, that attention does not possess in itself. Thus attention.

Eckhart again: “In true obedience there should be no ‘I want this or that to happen’ or ‘I want this or that thing’ but only a pure going out of what is our own.” Once we’ve purely gone out of what’s our own and given our attention to spreadsheeting, there’s no thought of finishing the spreadsheet. There’s just spreadsheeting.

He calls this obedience. We can call it attention. They share this common quality of emptying oneself and letting the outside in. Let’s think of them as spiritual analogues.

Eckhart talks about obedience to God — I’m talking about obedience to a spreadsheet. Given the way obedience can be abused by those who are obeyed, I think it might be helpful to open up this idea of obedience to obeying spreadsheets, and whatever else we’re doing our work with. Obedience then is not a hateful destruction of the self, a self-degradation, because look at what we’re obeying: a spreadsheet! (We can all agree that people can degrade themselves to making a spreadsheet — and we can all agree its a bad idea.)

We’re giving our attention and opening space to bring what seems outside into our selves.

Once we see this relationship between obedience and attention, we can further explore how we’ve let the spiritual action of obedience slip into our common parlance: through mindfulness. What is mindfulness if not obedience to what’s going on around you right now? This also helps draw out what some see as a more menacing aspect of the mindfulness zeitgeist of the last few years. If mindfulness is being offered as a means of maximizing profits by making workers more focused and aware, or in a further extreme, is offered as training to soldiers to make them most effective in their work — well, I ask, to what are they offering their obedience? Remember that obedience in the religious sense is offered to an entity that at least on paper is committed to love, mercy, compassion, and the healing of broken people in a broken world. What kind of obedience is given when mindfulness is used to break bodies and break the world?

On the other hand, whatever Eckhart’s obedience is, it is intimately related to freedom — in his second talk, “On the most powerful prayer of all and the finest work,” he says:

The most powerful form of prayer, and the one which can virtually gain all things and which is the worthiest work of all, is that which flows from a free mind. The freer the mind is, the more powerful and worthy, the more useful praiseworthy and perfect the prayer and the work become. A free mind can achieve all things. But what is a free mind?

A free mind is one which is untroubled and unfettered by anything, which has not bound its best part to any particular manner of being or devotion and which does not seek its own interest in anything but is always immersed in God’s most precious will, having gone out of what is its own.

There’s that “going out of self” again — in this case applied to religious devotion, but not separate from the spreadsheets that apparently I care for so much.

Freedom by going out of the self. Where have I heard that before? Ah!

To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.

That’s Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen school of Buddhism, in his text Genjo Koan. In forgetting the self we are actualized by All of the Things. When actualized like this, even the idea enlightenment slips away! And there you are. There’s just that, right there, nothing missing, and the mind is “untroubled and unfettered by anything,” like Eckhart says.

Likewise, there’s no trace of “doing a spreadsheet” when paying attention to it, when you’re really doing the spreadsheet — there’s just the rhythm of keyboard keys and mouse clicks around a gently glowing grid. And I suspect for Eckhart there’s no thought of prayer or God when obedience to God is full. There’s just the sound of prayer and the scent of incense.

Now, while there’s still light — go and (safely) obey the snow!

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