|by Richard Lang
If I knew myself as intimately as I ought, I should have perfect knowledge
of all creatures.
Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1328)
As we grow in self-awareness, as we come to know ourselves better as people, so we gain more insight into others. Being honest with oneself sheds light not only on one's own human nature, with its highways and byways, its light and shadow, but on the inner workings of others too. Though we are all unique people, we all partake of one human nature. And as we come to understand ourselves more deeply, hopefully self-acceptance grows too, and compassion - towards ourselves and towards others.
And yet, however much we observe ourselves, we will never arrive at perfect knowledge of ourselves, never mind others. The human psyche is an endless labyrinth, and until our dying day will forever be revealing new aspects. We can come to some understanding of the vast world that we are, but the circle of our knowledge is limited. The light shines, but the surrounding darkness is infinite.
So what did that great mediaeval theologian and mystic Meister Eckhart mean when he said that if he knew himself as intimately as he ought, then he would have perfect knowledge of all creatures? All creatures he says - not just human ones.
Eckhart was speaking about a kind of knowledge deeper than psychological knowledge. This is knowledge of spirit. Where do we find spirit? Well, nearer to you than your psyche, nearer than any thought or feeling or image, is spirit. Spirit is awareness, the still centre at the heart of you, nearer to you than your breathing. Knowledge of This, of who you really are, is knowledge of yourself as no-thing, as utter simplicity, as silence, as stillness. And such knowledge of yourself is perfect knowledge. Seeing This, there is no more to see, nothing more to know, nowhere else to go. You are home.
But why should this give you perfect knowledge of other creatures? Because this Simplicity is also the innermost nature of all creatures. To see into your own no-thingness is to see into the no-thingness of all. No-thing cannot be divided, named, possessed, exist in one place and not in another. The no-thingness where you are is one and the same in all creatures everywhere. When you see into your own being you realise this is so. It is self-evident. And though you now 'know yourself', this knowing is an unknowing. It is a letting go into a mystery.
And so I find that the deepest barrier between myself and others disappears. Though I know others from a distance and only myself from inside, my own knowledge of who I really am opens the door to the innermost being of others too. Where before I was outside, now am I inside. In this moment of seeing, of knowing, the illusion of distance dissolves. Awake to being no-thing, to being the Godhead within all beings, I find all beings are within me. Now I know them as they really are - I know them as myself.
Such knowledge shines light on one's human nature. The light and shadow of the psyche are revealed more clearly. Looking consciously from the no-thingness that I am into the constantly changing landscape of my self, it is less necessary to pretend that this self is perfect. Manifestly it is not. The self I thought I was, but now see is not my truest and deepest identity - this self is made of limitations. I am more likely to see and accept these limitations when I am centred in who I really am than when I am identifying narrowly with my human self. The pressure to be perfect is reduced, for now I see where perfection alone lies - in God. With this comes more room for understanding, for accepting my own humanity, and more room for compassion. Noticing my fears and anxieties, I realise this is part of being human. What did I expect?
Overlooking my true nature, I become pre-occupied with my self - with my happiness, my security, my past, my future. This distorts my view of myself and obscures my view of the world. I feel self-critical, unhappy with myself, alienated. I feel as though I am standing on shifting sand, lost, not knowing who or what I can trust. The world is a dull and dreary, meaningless and dangerous place. But then something changes. Awakening to who I really am a veil drops and the mist of obsessive self-consciousness begins to melt. The world now reveals itself in all its freshness and glory and brilliance. Sounds become clearer, colours spring more vividly into awareness - not always, but so much more so than before. With this awakening my sense of being a stranger in the world is gradually replaced by the feeling of being at home in the world - for I see now that the world is at home in me. And I begin to recognise that the Godhead within is steady as a rock, ever available and trustworthy. It will always guide me, always give me what I really need.
I imagine Eckhart walking in a crowded mediaeval market-place, awake to his spaciousness, his no-thingness - wide-open for the people and the stalls. Empty in himself he contains this throng, faceless for himself he finds every face to be his own, awake to the stillness at the heart of himself he revels in the busy life around him, that moves through him. Someone calls out and their voice lingers for a moment in the Silence, then vanishes. Suddenly Eckhart stops and stands still, the sun warming his face. "All this life is within me!" he whispers to himself. "All this life abides within the Godhead here at the heart of my being. That little boy playing there plays here in the space of God. I, Meister Eckhart, do not live at the centre of this spacious emptiness - only God lives here. To know This is to know who all these people really are. Even the stones over there are really This." Touching a profound peace within himself, and a love that embraces everyone and everything, he takes a deep breath. "What a mystery all this is," he thinks. "How did all this come to be? How did God, from which all this flows, come into being?" As the questions form in his mind, Eckhart knows it is actually the One asking, and that there are no answers. A boy calls out across the market place, a swallow swoops low over the buildings in the summer sun.
Then Eckhart notices two people arguing over money, and the scene unexpectedly reminds him of an experience from his own past - a moment when he also argued with someone, when he was himself selfish and mean. An old and familiar self-critical voice awakens in his ear, a feeling of self-contempt and shame passes over him. For a moment he is that. His heart becomes heavier. But then with a start he awakens again - awakens to the truth of who he really is. He sees that this shadow from the past has arisen within the spaciousness of his true Self, that this voice of criticism and self-doubt has spoken in the undefinable silence of being. He realises he is holding his breath, and he breathes, he lets go. From this true inner freedom, from this lightness of God's being, he now sees that shadow differently, hears that voice differently. They no longer define him. The victory of spirit over all limitations inspires and lifts his heart. And what did he expect of his human nature after all? he thinks to himself. Like all things it is made of light and shadow. Now, seeing the two people still arguing, he sees himself in both of them.
The clock in the marketplace strikes the hour and Eckhart, grateful again for the complete availability of the Godhead whenever it is needed, whatever one's mood or circumstance, goes on his way.