Gelassenheit (releasement) in Meister Eckhart

Gelassenheit mean "releasement" or "letting go." The term is an old one in German intellectual history, from the theologizing of Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) to the religious thought of Reform Anabaptists and early modern mystics, to its 20th-century revival in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger acknowledged that his use of Gelassenheit was inspired by Eckhart. Threads back to Eckhart's themes of will and detachment are discernable in Heidegger's later thought, culminating in his own concept of  Gelassenheit. Further, these themes have special relevance in Eastern thought as well, where interest in both Eckhart and phenomenology is keen. The following essay explores Meister Eckhart's concept of Gelassenheit in his mystical thought.

The Will in Eckhart

The status of the human will has been an important psychological and theological concern for Christianity since its inception, usually contrasted with identification of (and with) the will of God, from Paul to Augustine. In both his scholastic (Latin) and vernacular (German) works, Meister Eckhart emphasizes this conformity of human will to God's will. "A good man ought so to conform his will to the divine will that he should will whatever God wills," he typically states.

For God's will is necessarily good, and we must necessarily accept and be ready for everything that is God's will, Eckhart maintains. Quoting Seneca, Eckhart writes: "The good man, insofar as he is good, becomes possessed of all the properties of goodness itself."

This state of will is the poverty of spirit in the Gospel (Mt. 5, 23), Eckhart says, essentially a poverty of will.

If a man is to become poor in his will, he must want and desire as little as he wanted and desired when he did not exist. And in this way a man is poor who wants nothing. ... So long as a man has this as his will, that he wants to fulfill God's dearest will, he has not the poverty about which we want to talk.

This necessary conformity to God's will pushes theology to new conceptualizations in Eckhart. Thus he says that if God wills that we sin or that we suffer, we should not will that we had not committed sin or had not suffered. Rather, our will must be no will at all. "The just have no will at all," he states. "What God wills is all the same to them, however great distress that may be."

In the context of identifying with God's will, Eckhart almost defines virtues as external to and prior to God insofar as for the just or virtuous:

The pursuit of justice is so imperative that if God were not just, they [the just] would not give a fig for God.

This justice is more important than life itself. But, asks Eckhart: "What is life? God's being is my life. If my life is God's being, then God's existence must be my existence and God's is-ness [Isticheit] is my is-ness, neither less nor more."

This latter sentence was among the statements held against Eckhart by the ecclesiastical authorities at Cologne. However provocative, the passage was translated into a meaning not maintained by Eckhart, who is here speaking of identity with God's being and not divinization of the human being. Nevertheless, the momentum of Eckhart's thought is clear: he intends to explore the ramifications of an absolute identification with God's will and its practical effects on diurnal life. Out of this comes releasement or Gelassenheit.

Releasement as non-willing

Initially, releasement for Eckhart signifies a notion of will, a not-willing, which detaches or cuts off the individual from the worldly will. While the quietism of not-willing attracted many Christian thinkers and Reform spiritual figures, the concept became a second stage of the will, called by Heidegger "deferred-willing," where the concept remained a negation. Some Reform figures embraced a notion of will that including acceptance of suffering and martyrdom, a trajectory that waned, however, with passing centuries.

"Deferred-willing" is a passive acquiescence or active subordination of will to that of another. In historical Christianity, this subordination is to God. But to Eckhart it was not to God, as popularly understood, as will be seen.

A third stage of the will is called "covert-willing" by Heidegger. Covert-willing involves a feigned negation, a pragmatic deference for the sake of survival and the preservation of thought and expression, concealing the full expression of the will from authorities and even (psychologically) from the self. This may have been the pragmatism of some medieval mystics and thinkers couching their ideas in abstruse language or obscure analogies and images.

Eckhart never clearly wrote as covert-willing, convinced of the defensibility of his writing. "I can be in error," he once declared, "but I cannot be a heretic, because the first belongs to the intellect, the second to the will."

Eckhart explored the fullest sense of non-willing, the sense of either grudging or content obedience as insufficient for grasping the content of God's will. Rather, there must be cessation of self-will, what Eckhart calls an "empty spirit."

An empty spirit is one that is confused by nothing, attached to nothing, has not attached its best to nay fixed way o acting, and has no concern whatever in anything for its own gain, for it is sunk deep down into God's dearest will and has forsaken its own. A man can never perform any work, however humble, without it gaining strength and power from this.

Eckhart refutes the idea that releasement involves impractical external changes. Objections will be made, he says, such as,

"I wish that it were so with me!" Or, "I should like to be poor," or else, "Things will never go right for me till I am in this place or that, or until I act one way or another." "I must go and live in a strange land or in a hermitage, or in a cloister." In fact, this is all about yourself, and nothing else at all. This is just self-will, only you do not know it or it does not seem so to you ...

He goes on to advise how to begin working on the will.

Make a start with yourself, and abandon yourself. Truly, if you do not begin by getting away from yourself, wherever you run to , you will find obstacles and trouble wherever it may be. People who seek peace in external things -- be it in places or ways of life or people or activities or solitude or poverty or degradation -- however great such a thing may be or whatever it may be, still it is all nothing and gives no peace.

Eckhart paraphrases Gregory the Great:

If anyone willingly gives up something little, that is not all which he has given up, but he has forsaken everything which worldly men can gain and what they can even long for. Whoever has renounced his own will and has himself renounced everything, as truly as if he had possessed it as his own, to dispose of as he would.

Eckhart reasserts the initial status of poverty of spirit equaling poverty of will or negation of will. He adds to this formula the terms of practice, citing the Gospel injunction of Jesus: "Whoever wishes to come after me, let him deny himself." Adds Eckhart, one should take that injunction "as a beginning. Everything depends on that. Take a look at yourself, and wherever you find yourself, deny yourself. That is best of all."

Meister Eckhart outlines the benefits of "self-abandonment," arguing that people tend to identify themselves by doing rather than being, and that this attitude extends to religious practices. With releasement of will, however, all works can be holy, even sleeping and eating, for example, as well as keeping vigil (and, presumably, the pious actions long defined as holy). "Take good heed," he asserts. "We ought to do everything we can to be good; it does not matter so much what we may do, or what kinds of works ours may be. What matters is the ground on which the works are built." This sentiment recalls the famous dictum of the Platonist St. Augustine: "Love God and do what you will."

The ground referred to here by Eckhart is the basis of his mature theologizing, wherein releasement is no longer just a precondition to deference or even to union with God's will but is the approach to the very nature of divinity, to the Godhead which is behind God. This is the meaning behind the otherwise merely controversial paradoxes about God permitting us to sin or God as being identical to our human will. The following passages from Sermon 52 set the stage for the self to break through the facade of what we conceive of as God.

So I say that one should be so poor [in spirit, that is, in will] that he should not be or have any place in which God could work. When one clings to place, he clings to distinction. Therefore I pray God that he may make me free of "God," for my real being is above God if we take "God" to be the beginning of created things.

Here is the first paradox concerning God: that our willing should be such a non-willing that there is no place for the conventional projection of God as satisfying our selfish desires, however lofty we imagine them to be. We must get "above God."

Eckhart continues:

For in the same being of God where God is above being and above distinction, there I myself was, there I willed myself and committed myself to create this being who I am. Therefore I am the cause of myself in the order of my being, which is eternal and not in the order of my becoming, which is temporal. And therefore I am unborn, and in the manner in which I am unborn I can never die. In my unborn manner I have been eternally, and am now, and shall eternally remain.

Eckhart states that we, as much as God, originate from this great ground transcending being and distinction. We are co-creators of our selves with God in terms of that which is eternal, though not in terms of that which is mortal and destined to die. Eckhart's reference to an unborn is uncannily echoed by the Zen Buddhist commentator Bankei in 17th century Japan.

The assertion by Eckhart that we are created in the same fullness of God's emanation of the divine substance as the Son and Spirit -- thus concluding the identity of human and divine in substance, even in this narrow regard -- is widely restated in the works of Eckhart and the basis of his view of the Son being born in the human soul. These notions were roundly condemned as suspect of heresy by ecclesiastical authorities of his day. Yet Eckhart was not finished with the ramifications of his idea when he goes further to state that "God's breaking through is nobler than his flowing out."


Flowing out is emanation. To Christian Platonism, as far back as Origen, emanation equals creation. Creation is less "noble" insofar as it constitutes a secondary emanation, the first being the Son and Spirit from the Father. Creation is less noble also insofar as it makes a self-referential point for grounding God, literally trapping God in time and space, in a specific functionality. Thus God's emanation becomes as important as his being. Human beings, as part of this emanation, share intimately in this revealing of God, to the degree, says Eckhart, that God (not Godhead) depends on us for his existence.

If I did not exist, "God" would also not exist. That God is "God," of that I am a cause; if I did not exist, God, too, would not be "God."

But the breaking through is our return to God, the potential of which is revealed by the Logos and the Spirit. This revealing gives the human soul the invitation to reverse the outward flow and penetrate through God to the Godhead.

Hence, the cessation of will (poverty of will) discards self and conventional understanding, for we no longer cling to anything, even to conventional understandings of God. For the ground of being is the trajectory of Eckhart's mysticism. Here individual acts such as humility or love are not sufficient for the detachment necessary, a thorough detachment from creatures and creation. The will must be both empty and free. It must be empty in the sense of detachment and receptivity to breaking through. It must be free in the sense of being free from the God of creation, then free to reintegrate itself for the breaking-through to Godhead.

In the breaking-through, when I come to be free of will, of myself and of God's will and of all his works and of God himself, then I am above all created things, and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and eternally. Then I receive an impulse, I receive such riches that God, as he is "God," and as he performs all his divine works, cannot suffice for me; for in this breaking-through I perceive that God and I are one. Then I am what I was, and then I neither diminish nor increase, for I am then an immovable cause that moves all things. Here God finds no place in man, for with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain. Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find.

An important aspect of mysticism, Christian or otherwise, is the realization that once the self is within the ground of being, within originary nothingness, then activities of this world require no justification or external rationale. They are the product of releasement from things. Return from the breaking-through is releasement towards things (but not returning for things). Genuine mysticism begins in detachment and releasement, and culminates in ecstatic communion, but then returns as or becomes enlightened activity, activity informed by a dynamic nothingness rather than an artificially static tolerance for living.


This "return" identifies detachment as the greatest virtue:

I find no other virtue better than a pure detachment from all things, because all other virtues have some regard for created things, but detachment is free from all created things.

Eckhart includes love, humility, and mercy below the status of detachment as virtues. Detachment transcends horizontal relations to objects and people and reaches to God. Yet detachment is subtle: "There is nothing so subtle that it can be apprehended by detachment, except God alone." And detachment can apprehend nothing except God. Eckhart sees nothing between detachment and God or even between detachment and nothingness. Then what exactly is detachment? Eckhart elaborates:

True detachment is nothing else than for the spirit to stand as immovable against whatever may chance to it of joy and sorrow, honor, shame and disgrace, as a mountain of lead stands before a little breath of wind.

Eckhart states that God is what he is because of his immovable detachment, and from detachment derives his purity, simplicity, and unchangeability. Yet detachment brings a person into "the greatest equality with God." Detachment does so insofar as one can approach God. For only detachment engenders the same three virtues of purity, simplicity, and unchangeability in a human being. "To be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things is to be empty of God."

God enters the self to the degree that the self has released the will, and releasement makes detachment pure, as Eckhart explains:

Detachment is the best of all [virtues], for it purifies the soul and cleanses the conscience and enkindles the heart and awakens the spirit and stimulates our longing and shows us where God is and separates us from created things and unites us with God.

Ultimately, daily living in the ground of being becomes sufficient for our diurnal existence and works. Eckhart recognizes this in his radical reinterpretation of the Gospel story of Martha and Mary. Where usually Martha is portrayed as the active and Mary as the contemplative, Eckhart sees Martha as being at the stage of trying to negate the will but yet "troubled by many things." Mary, on the other hand, is attempting the deferred willing that gives birth to divinity in the soul. However, what will Martha's labors look like after the breaking-through, after the transgression of the domain of the will? It will look like nothing less than the same as the active stage in external appearance -- but with a subtle difference. Now all of Martha's work will be fixed in the purity  and simplicity of the Godhead, and Mary will be the one left working futilely to approximate the conventional God but not the Godhead.

Observes Eckhart:

If anyone were to ask a truthful man who works out of his own ground: "Why are you performing your works?" and if he were to give a straight answer, he would say nothing else than: "I work, therefore I work."

Or, we can quote, with Heidegger, the celebrated aphorism of Angelus Silesius: "The rose is without why, it blooms because it blooms ..."


Gelessenheit in Meister Eckhart is intimately bound with the concept of will and detachment. These virtues work to break through the conventions of theology and go behind and beyond to the Godhead. While most mysticisms through the world project this trajectory, Meister Eckhart's control of theology and a philosophical method for defining the techniques of virtues employed in the mystic ascent rightly make him the most important mystic figure of the Western world.


Among the English translations of Meister Eckhart, the most reliable are:
Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Translation and introduction by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, preface by Huston Smith. New York: Paulist Press, c1981 and Meister Eckhart: Selections From His Essential Writings. Edited by Emilie Griffin, foreword by John O’Donohue, translation by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn. San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. Forthcoming is
The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart. Translated by M.O'C. Walshe, with an introduction by Bernard McGinn. New York: Crossroad / Herder and Herder, 2008.