Self-will gets in the Way

“People often say, “We have goodwill.” Theirs is not God’s will, though; they want to have their own way and dictate to God to do so and so. That is not goodwill. We must find out from God what his will is. Broadly speaking, what God wills is that we should give up willing…

There is no making of a proper man without surrender of the will. In fact, unless we give up our will without reserve, we cannot work with God at all. But suppose it came about that we did give up our own will altogether and had the heart to rid ourselves of every single thing inside and out for God, then we would have accomplished everything, and not before.  Of such people few are to be found. Knowingly or unknowingly they want something definite, some experience of higher things. They are set on this condition or that boon. It is nothing whatever but self-will. Abandon to God altogether your self and all things without any qualms as to what he will do with his own…

There is no true and perfect will until, entering wholly into God’s will, a man has no will of his own.”

Meister Eckhart

It’s been a long time since I read any of Eckhart, but I opened him today to this section and it reminded me immediately of my recent reading of Wang Bi’s commentary on the Daodejing or Laozi:

An attitude [corresponding to] the capacity of the hollow is the only means to follow the Way.
Hollow means empty. Only having taken being empty as [one’s] capacity will one then be able to act in accordance with the Way.

That’s just one line, but if I quote more of it I’ll never get to bed tonight.  The Way is “empty” yet it guides and nourishes things according to their nature. For humans to return to the Way, we should likewise empty ourselves and be without contrived action; then we will act in accordance with our nature.

The difficulty of this is hard to overstate, but is most evident when, as Eckhart notes, we set ourselves on particular conditions, paying lip-service to the Way or the divine Will, whilst clinging nonetheless to our own will.

There needs to be an element of trust that in abandoning self-will and the outcomes or ideals we covet, we are in fact abandoning obstacles to the fulfillment of our nature.  Sometimes the goals we have in mind are simply wrong for us – they will not bring the satisfaction they seem to promise. But even when the goals are good, noble, and true, we still miss out on the higher goal of surrender.

I suspect this might be the meaning of “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Likewise “the man of highest virtue never acts, yet nothing is left undone.”

But that can mean embracing the reality of circumstances that seem to deny your deepest hopes and dreams; worse – it means dragging your deepest hopes and dreams into the light of a faith that will feel too cold and too harsh for the delicate fantasies of your self-will.

There are undoubtedly consolations to be had after the fact, but this is beside the point; the point is that no matter how good and alluring our dreams and desires may be, if we cannot abandon them for the sake of the divine will, the Way, then we are merely clinging to burdens of our own creation.

 

Desire and the Dao

It appears that many Westerners become interested in Daoism because it is not overtly moralistic. To me, Daoist themes offer a spiritual method that outwardly corresponds to a moral system, yet does so according to its own internal logic. In other words, a Daoist’s conduct ought to correspond to the moral order, but not because he is trying to make his conduct correspond to the moral order.

Western morality is often depicted as moralistic, depending on fear of rule-breaking and in many cases supported by a divine-command metaethic.  If you break the rules, God will condemn you; you are a bad person because you broke the rules; humanity is pathetic and miserable because collectively we broke some long-forgotten rule.

This is not the definitive or most satisfying interpretation from the Western tradition, in fact it appears to be the simplest, lowest-common-denominator interpretation.  I find Daoism refreshing because it is as far away as one might get from a moralistic position while still recognising an objective metaphysical and metaethical reality.

That which was the beginning of all things under heaven
We may speak of as the “mother” of all things.
He who apprehends the mother
Thereby knows the sons.
And he who has known the sons,
Will hold all the tighter to the mother,
And to the end of his days suffer no harm;
“Block the passages, shut the doors,
And till the end your strength shall not fail.
Open up the passages, increase your doings,
And till your last day no help shall come to you.”
As good sight means seeing what is very small
So strength means holding on to what is weak.
He who having used the outer-light can return to the innerlight
Is thereby preserved from all harm.
This is called resorting to the always-so.

Daodejing 52

Wang Bi, the 3rd Century AD Neo-Daoist commentator identifies explains “Block the passages, shut the doors” in terms of desire, specifically the desires for things that pull us away from the “mother” or “root” and toward the “sons” or “branches”.

In other words, desire for things takes us away from the Dao and we cannot help but deteriorate morally, spiritually, and even physically as a result.

To put it in a Christian context, keeping the Ten Commandments is important, but underlying the Ten Commandments is a deeper reality of human desire. That’s why in the New Testament Jesus lifts the bar dramatically by stating that being angry with someone or looking lustfully at someone is tantamount to murder or adultery in one’s heart.

If we are only interested in not breaking the rules, then this internalisation of moral laws sets the bar impossibly high. But if we look at it in terms of actually wanting to be close to God, then it becomes clear that a “rules” mentality is insufficient, and that we must look at the deeper question of desire.

A serious athlete doesn’t regard his coach’s comments and instructions as punishments or arbitrary rules, but as valuable advice and correction. He understands that the coach is there to help him advance and achieve a greater performance.

I think that in the spiritual life moralism must likewise give way to the understanding that our interior orientation is vital to our relationship with God, and that the things which detract from our relationship are the seeds of what we know of as vices and eventually the breach of moral laws.

In Daoist terms, desire pulls us from the way, it depletes our virtue (de), and robs us of the profound peace that is ours in the Dao. Put simply, the cultivation of desire is obviously an inferior and self-defeating path.