This text centres around the term “Gelassenheit”, presenting 1) how Meister Eckhart, its progenitor, understood the term; 2) how it was adopted and adapted by Martin Heidegger; and 3) how it ties into the act of being released or letting go – specifically focusing on how releasement is understood in Heidegger’s texts and how we can cultivate it. Due to the inseparable nature of the act of being released and the state of Gelassenheit, these directions resist being disentangled, flowing throughout the text as if in a dance.
German roots of the term
We start this section with a historical overview of the term Gelassenheit and its coinage by Meister Eckhart in the thirteenth century. The word has later gained familiarity and has been brought to the greater English philosophical public through the use of the term as it was employed by Heidegger.
In German, it originates from the perfect participle of lassen, which means “to let (something happen)”, “to allow”, or “to leave (something be)”. Gelassenheit has thus often been translated as “serenity”, “letting be”, “abandonment”, “detachment”, but by far the most widespread (and deemed most appropriate by scholars; Schürmann, 2001) is the term “releasement”.
In medieval Germany, mystics used the term to “refer to an emptying of the ‘creaturely’ in order to be filled with the grace of God” (Davis, 2007, p. xxv). Or in Johannes Tauler’s words, Gelassenheit is an incidence of “the will-lessness (ger. Willenslosigkeit) that prepares one to sink back into the ground of the divine Will” (Ritter, 1974, in Davis, 2007, p. xxv-xxvi).
Other traditional connotations of Gelassenheit, which are later absorbed into Heidegger’s thought, are a “releasement from willfulness” and its usage as rest (ger. Ruhe) “within movement or an inner calm in the very midst of activity” (ibid., p. xxvii).
(Piet Mondrian, Dune Landscape, 1911, source: WikiArt)
Meister Eckhart’s conception of Gelassenheit
Meister Eckhart’s way of thinking is not one that we would normally term as a ‘conventional philosophy’. As Moore (2019) points out, it is built upon a mystical foundation of feeling and being, relying more on a meaning that needs to be taken in, as unseen and undisclosed: “its meaning seems to remain as hidden as the hiddenness to which the term is supposed to point: mysticism, from the Greek muein, to initiate into a mystery before which you must close your eyes and shut your mouth. If you wish to speak of it, merely murmur and mumble” (Moore, 2019, p. xvii). In an attempt to translate the mysterious murmurs into (at least partly) graspable concepts, we will look at Meister Eckhart’s sermons and some interpretations in more detail in what follows.
In his treatise “On Detachment” Eckhart (2009, p. 19) asks “What, then, is the essential prerequisite for the birth of Christ in my soul?”, immediately following with the answer “it is detachment, self-abandonment” (ger. Gelassenheit, abgescheidenheit). Building on this, Davis (2007, p. xxvii) points out the double meaning of Gelassenheit for Meister Eckhart, the German word “lassen: verlassen (to abandon or leave behind) and überlassen (to defer or ‘give over to’)”. It is only through the act of detachment, abandoning (ger. Ablassen) and giving oneself up, that the human being can come in contact with a divine perspective, i.e., “can open oneself up to receive the grace of God” (ibid., p. xxviii).
What then are the specific characteristics of the act of detachment, of coming in contact with a divine perspective? To find more clarity, let’s look at Eckhart’s own description of the notion of detachment:
“Now you may ask what detachment is since it is in itself so excellent. Here you should know that true detachment is nothing else than for the spirit to stand as immovable against whatever may chance to it of joy and sorrow, honour, shame and disgrace, as a mountain of lead stands before a little breath of wind. This immovable detachment brings a person into the greatest equality with God, because God has it from immovable detachment that he is God and it is from his detachment that he has his purity and his simplicity and unchangeability. You must know that 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.” (Eckhart, 1981, p. 288)
What is meant by ‘true detachment’ is a profound releasement of oneself from all assumptions, beliefs, judgement, affections etc. In short, it is a releasement from all attachment to oneself, others, and the world.
Only through this act can the mind empty itself and by that become more open and ready to receive (Eckhart, 2009). In the same frame of reference, Eckhart also quotes St. Augustine, who says: “The soul has a secret entrance to the divine nature, when all things become nothing for it.”. Eckhart expands upon this quote by noting that the “entrance is nothing but pure detachment” (Eckhart, 2009, p. 573).
Pure detachment is said to be ‘free from all created things’ (Eckhart, 1981, p. 285) or as Eckhart further observes in his treatise ‘On Detachment’ (Eckhart, 2009, p. 49): “what the active intellect does for the natural man, that and far more God does for one with detachment: He takes away the active intellect from him and, installing Himself in its stead, He Himself undertakes all that the active intellect ought to be doing.”
Or as Eckhart himself discloses at the end of Sermon 11 (Eckhart, 1986, p. 270): “The eye in which I see God is the same eye in which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye and one seeing, one knowing and one loving.”
Radler (2006, p. 113) clarifies this quote as an “illustration of the fusion of identities and the ensuing transparency, which occurs via detachment”. Moreover, she highlights how detachment presents itself for Eckhart and conducts itself into a form of practice through the attainment of “radical inner poverty through detachment” (Radler, 2006, p. 114).
This type of pursuit ends up bearing “external fruits in an active life of pure love, and all external acts and practices […] Detachment is, hence, fulfilled in imitation of Christ’s earthly life and becomes a spiritual exercise in the truest form.” (ibid.).
(Wang Wei, Cascade, 8th century, source: WikiArt)
Martin Heidegger’s conception of Gelassenheit
Meister Eckhart’s influence and some parallels between the two thinkers
Let us now turn to Heidegger’s use of the term Gelassenheit, which he adopts from Eckhart and reframes according to his own philosophical thinking. As Davis (2007) points out, Heidegger never clearly elucidates his thought’s relation to Christianity in general, or to Eckhart’s philosophical-mystical works in particular. In his texts he “rejects mysticism as a mere counter-image (ger. Gegenbild) of metaphysics” (Davis, 2007, p. 122) and attempts to distance himself from Christian thoughtHeidegger’s distancing from Christian thought can also be found in his relation to Kierkegaard’s philosophical work, namely the copious use of some of Kierkegaard’s concepts, all the while … Continue reading.
As we already saw indicated in the previous chapter, there are parallels between the works and thought of Meister Eckhart and Heidegger. One of these is definitely the similarity in their vocabulary, specifically the use of the following German terms: “abgrunt/Abgrund, gelâzenheit/Gelassenheit, abegescheidenheit/Abgeschiedenheit, wesüng/Wesung” (Moore, 2019, p. 3).
Moreover, there is a similarity in their descriptions of “the spark of the soul and Dasein, the Godhead and Sein” (ibid.) and philosophical thinking concerning the “verbal character of being, life without why, truth as deeper than correspondence; from their critiques to their contributions” (ibid.).
Other interesting parallels, pertaining specifically to the use and understanding of the term Gelassenheit, are to be found between the two thinkers. Heidegger’s use of the term shares a three part frame, similar to that found in Meister Eckhart’s: 1) “a releasement from willful subjectivity”, letting itself into 2) “a correspondence with the address of being (and to an openness for its mystery of self-concealment)”; and lastly 3) “back into an engagement with letting things be” (David, 2007, p. xxviii).
This three-part structure is Heidegger’s attempt to take a step back from the activity of willing. It is not meant as a step back into a postponed or stalled act of willing, but instead a step towards a releasement and letting-oneself rest in the act of non-willing.
For Heidegger, Gelassenheit is one of the main characteristics through which he attempts to think non-willing, or as Davis (2007) puts it “non-willing(ly)”. In German, the term translates as Nicht-Wollen, and is used by Heidegger to denote two meanings: 1) “willingly to renounce willing” and 2) “what remains strictly outside any kind of will” (Davis, 2007, p. 15).
Returning now to the relation between Meister Eckhart’s and Heidegger’s thought, Schürmann (1973, p. 96) points out a couple of instances in Heidegger’s development of his own philosophical thought, which bear witness to the influence of Meister Eckhart. These are: “Being that lets beings be (ger. Gelassenheit); the thinging of the thing (ger. Ding) understood as the nearing of the world; man’s essence (ger. Wesen) needed by Being to uphold its truth; thinking as thanking (ger. Gedang); the unspoken speech (ger. ungesprochene Sprache) that bestows a world; and last but not least, life without why (ger. ohne Warum)”.
Furthermore, Schürmann (1973, p. 96) points out that Heidegger considers Eckhart a “critical interpreter of the history of Being”. ‘History of Being’ is not meant as a look into the history of philosophy, but rather as a task for a “listener to releasement that grants beings forth to their beingness and Being itself to our thought” (ibid.).
In this text, our primary focus is “being that lets being be (namely, Gelassenheit)”. In what follows, we dive deeper into this explication through Heidegger’s own development of the term.
(Li Chevalier, Voice of silence, 2006, source: WikiArt)
Martin Heidegger: Gelassenheit as an essence of meditative thinking
The main work in which Heidegger grapples with the notion of Gelassenheit is Discourse on Thinking (A translation of Gelassenheit; 1966), more specifically the section titled ‘Conversation On A Country Path About Thinking’, in which he attempts to explicate the understanding through three viewpoints: that of a Researcher, a Sage, and a Scholar. In the book, Heidegger employs different ways of allowing the reader to come into a more intimate contact with releasement or letting-be through the use of dialogue, poetry, oxymoron, intriguing translation and so on. By doing this he attempts to “disrupt our reliance on metaphysics (including that of his own earlier thought) and to encourage us to own up to the event of being as letting-be.” (Moore, 2019, p. xvii).
The notion of Gelassenheit is the work that most clearly depicts Heidegger’s later understanding of ‘letting be’, pouring into his later work and building the foundation for the understanding of how “the essence of the human being is best understood as Gelassenheit” (Moore, 2019, p. xvi). Furthermore, “on the basis of a conception of being itself as a form of Gelassenheit […] the essence of the human being can be characterized as Gelassenheit. Yet this may become manifest only insofar as the human being lets being prevail as letting-be” (ibid.).
Gelassenheit (or releasement) is introduced as an essence of meditative thinking, which is neither passive nor active. To better exemplify the characteristics of meditative thinking, he contrasts it with calculative thinking, describing the former as “thinking which contemplates the meaning which reigns in everything that is” (Heidegger, 1966, p. 46), and the latter as “characterized by human methods of approaching things” (ibid., p. 24).
Calculative thinking is the mode of thinking that “has come to dominate the planet and is often taken to be the only legitimate way in which to relate to things. Indeed, it imposes not just how to relate to things, but what they fundamentally are. It holds that what is, is what can appear as calculable, orderable, and, ultimately, manipulable” (Moore, 2019, p. 126). To clarify, this mode of thinking is indeed necessary and has its advantages, but Heidegger’s main concern is that it would prevail over other modes of thinking, ending up as the sole way of relating to things.
Contrary to calculative thinking, meditative thinking (or meditative contemplation) is understood as a form of receptivity and attentive waiting, while at the same time remaining open to what is (by contrast, not limiting oneself or determining one’s expectations to what one ought to be open to, ought to receive, ought to wait for etc.). It is a dwelling in openness.
Heidegger describes it as the type of thinking that “contemplates the sense that prevails (ger. waltet) in everything that is” (Moore, 2019, p. 127). One could argue that this is a type of passivity, but Heidegger is strong in his claim that meditative thinking is a form of action, albeit not an “active” mode of action. It is (also) not complete passivity, such as “letting self-will go in favour of divine willThis comment might at first glance point towards opposing standpoints between Heidegger and Eckhart, but this difference is misleading, as Eckhart himself does not consider detachment to be a … Continue reading” (Heidegger, 1966, p. 62).
(John Henry Twachtman, Edge of the Emerald Pool, Yellowstone, 1895, source: WikiArt)
Taking a step further; Levin (1999) takes Heidegger’s understanding and advocates for a restoration of our ‘primordial experiences’ of being. In what follows, let’s look at an excerpt from the text:
“At the level of intentionality, this Befindlichkeit is primordially passive – more passive than passive, as Levinas would say. It is a bodily felt responsiveness that is called forth, solicited, in an immemorial time of origin prior to all reflective awareness, all forms of intentionality that express the ego-logical will. It is an attunement (Stimmung), an enjoinment (Fuge, Fügung), that reflection experiences as always already in effect, the arkhe of an immemorial ‘dispensation’ (Geschick) ruling over our embodiment and laying down the existential coordinates of our ontological disposition as being bodily related to, and called into question by, the presencing (unconcealment) of being” (Levin, 1999, p. 130–32).
A similar call for the necessity of a path that would restore the primordial bodily responsiveness, which is neither passive nor active, is already found in Levin’s previous book, in which he claims that “Gelassenheit is not willful; but it is a style of agency: it is not passivity, but rather a mode of comportment different from that which takes place according to the tensions in the opposition between activity and passivity” (Levin, 1988, p. 247). It is an altogether distinct way of thinking, which is a bodily primordiality, or an “embodied pre-ontological understanding” in Davis’ (2007, p. 310) words. This understanding is something that attunes us to our being and is not at all a “simple regression to childhood or to the pre-modern, but rather a phenomenological and hermeneutical step back that critically and creatively steps forward” (ibid.).
This open expanse is further characterised as a region (also termed “that-which-regions”) that gathers “each to each and each to all into an abiding, while resting in itself” (Heidegger, 1966, p.66).
A more concise and to the point description of that-which-regions is presented as “an abiding expanse which, gathering all, opens itself, so that in it openness is halted and held, letting everything merge in its own resting” (ibid.). This abiding in the space of expanse and allowing the expanse to come, open itself up, is at once an act of waiting, resting (in oneself and in the world), letting-be, releasement, and dwelling in openness.
For Heidegger, Gelassenheit holds within itself two main attributes: a) a releasement toward things and b) an openness to mystery. Releasement is one of the main aspects of what is our true nature. This nature by default also includes openness, and through this openness allows us to have an instantaneous and uninterrupted connection to Being. Releasement must therefore include openness and allow openness to come into being, allowing the being to open itself (to mystery) through releasement.
Releasement can be further separated into two elements: releasement from, and releasement to (this can also be thought of as ‘authentic releasement’). It is important to point out that meditative thinking is “not a simple opening to Being, as the nature of authentic releasement (or releasement to) might suggest, for it involves a resolve in regard to Being” (Heidegger, 1966, p. 26). Rather, it is in meditative contemplation that we are open to Being, and in the steadfastness of being open, are exposed to it (i.e., Being). What reveals Being, is therefore, as Heidegger would say, an “in-dwelling” in Being itself.
(Leon Dabo, Fog and Mist, 1926, source: WikiArt)
The acts of waiting and rest in releasement and openness
We can now turn towards the two main acts of awareness that constitute the state of Gelassenheit: waiting and rest. The act of waiting is described by Heidegger (1966, p. 68-69) through the dialogue as follows:
“Waiting, but never awaiting. […] Waiting lets go of re-presenting; waiting lets re-presenting entirely alone. […] In waiting we leave open what we are waiting for. […] Waiting releases itself into openness, into the expanse of distance, in whose nearness it finds the abiding in which it remains. But remaining is a returning. […] Openness itself would be that for which we could do nothing but wait. […] Openness itself is that-which-regions. […] Into which we are released by way of waiting, when we think. […] Then thinking would be coming-into-the-nearness of distance.”
The key takeaways are that a) waiting has no object (i.e., waiting for something to happen), but is open ended – it is a gesture of (open) awareness, characterised by its openness towards the world; and b) this type of waiting does not end – it is a mode of being open, an attitude defined by remaining in a state of openness, all the while honing the state of staying (or rather, resting) in awaiting.
Let us now turn to the role of rest in releasement and openness. In this, our undertaking is an echo of the Scientist asking: “But where do things rest? What does resting consist of?” This question is met with the Teacher’s claim that “They rest in the return to the abiding of the expanse of their self-belonging” (Heidegger, 1966, p. 67). Moreover, Heidegger (1966, p. 70) discloses releasement as akin to rest, or in his words: “something like rest”. Another excerpt that lets us think about what rest is, is: “How movement comes from rest and remains let into rest suddenly becomes clearer to me. Then releasement would be not only a path but a movement” (ibid.).
We could understand rest as a releasement of all intentional threads which link us to re-presenting, as akin to waiting, while not re-presenting, and allowing oneself to drift into releasement. Rest as “movement comes from rest and remains let into rest” (ibid.).
On this point, it is interesting to ask (this time, echoing the question of the Scholar; Heidegger, 1966, p. 67): “But in this return, which after all is movement, can there be rest?” To this inquiry, the Teacher replies with the following wisdom: “Indeed there can, if rest is the seat and the reign of all movement” (ibid.).
From this we can understand that rest is the place where movement comes from. It is always a resting in itself. It is itself a movement, yet a movement that is the prerequisite for all other movement. We could even call it a primordial movement, which is at once an openness, “an expanse and an abiding. It abides into the expanse of resting. It expands into the abiding of what has freely turned toward itself” (Heidegger, 1966, p. 66).
The present text has been a brief excursion into the term Gelassenheit, as conceptualised by Eckhart and Heidegger. To conclude and sum up our enterprise, I would like to bring our attention to the five main aspects of Gelassenheit. These are the following (Moore, 2019, p. 135):
“1. allowing (ger. Zulassen) or occasioning (ger. Veranlassen);
2. ceasing (ger. Ablassen), letting loose (ger. Loslassen), or letting go (ger. Fahrenlassen);
3. letting oneself into, engage in, or become involved with (ger. Sicheinlassen);
4. letting prevail (ger. Waltenlassen); and
5. remaining released or delivered over to (ger. Überlassenbleiben)”.
As Heidegger sees it, we are always already on our way towards Gelassenheit, in an openness towards it, but not fully arriving. A similar idea is found in Eckhart’s understanding of the Godhead or divine will, as he does not take God (or divine will) to be something separate from ourselves. Rather, Eckhart understands we have to be “gelâzen in order to understand that letting-be characterizes the oneness of the Godhead and the ground of the soul” (Moore, 2019, p. 138). Both Heidegger and Eckhart are in agreement that releasement is the essential ground for this type of contemplation.
The meditative thinking, we have been focusing on in this text can often be hard to come into contact with, to begin to wrap our heads around it. It is the type of thinking that calls us back to our most primordial way of being, to rest within ourselves and feel our being emerging with every breath. To feel ourselves into the space around us, without grasping for it, but to allow ourselves to fall back into it. Resting in it. Waiting in it.
In their unique ways, both authors argue for a honing of the skill of releasement and letting ourselves rest in the open expanse. As Davis (2007, p. xxix) eloquently puts it, “our Dasein is not yet ‘there’ […] we have not yet properly made the leap (back) into the Da of Sein”. But if we wait and rest in the open expanse long enough, we will be able to truly feel the heart of contemplative thinking and Being showing glimpses of itself to us.
Davis, B. W. (2007). Heidegger and the will: On the way to Gelassenheit. Northwestern University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1966). Discourse on thinking. Harper & Row Publishers, New York.
Levin, D. M. (1988). The opening of vision: Nihilism and the postmodern situation. Routledge.
Levin, D. M. (1999). The ontological dimension of embodiment: Heidegger’s thinking of being. In D. Welton (Ed.), The body: Classic and contemporary readings (p. 122–149). Oxford: Blackwell.
Moore, I. A. (2019). Eckhart, Heidegger, and the imperative of releasement. SUNY Press.
Radler, C. (2006). Losing the self: Detachment in Meister Eckhart and its significance for Buddhist-Christian dialogue. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 111-117.
Schürmann, R. (1973). Heidegger and Meister Eckhart on releasement. Research in Phenomenology, 95-119.
Schürmann, R. (2001). Wandering joy. Meister Eckhart’s mystical philosophy. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books.
|↑1||Heidegger’s distancing from Christian thought can also be found in his relation to Kierkegaard’s philosophical work, namely the copious use of some of Kierkegaard’s concepts, all the while mentioning the philosopher only in passing.|
|↑2||This comment might at first glance point towards opposing standpoints between Heidegger and Eckhart, but this difference is misleading, as Eckhart himself does not consider detachment to be a complete passivity, neither does he argue for divine will as something separate from ourselves.|