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The Leadened Soul
The Material World is a Breeze
True detachment is nothing else than for the spirit to stand as immovable against whatever may chance it of joy and sorrow, honor, shame and disgrace, as a mountain of lead stands before a little breath of wind. This immovable detachment brings a man into the greatest equality with God, because God has it from his immovable detachment that he is God, and it is from his detachment that he has his purity and his simplicity and his unchangeability…[Detachment] draws a man into purity, and from purity into simplicity, and from simplicity into unchangeability, and this things produce an equality between God and the man, and the equality must come about in grace, for it is grace that draws a man away from all temporal things, and makes him pure of all transient things. And you must know that to be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things to be empty of God.
-On Detachment, Meister Eckhart Von Hochheim, c. 1260-1328)
The brilliant tattooer and artist Ed Hardy once noted that tattooing immediately conjures up the image of death. It’s not the skulls, or the daggers, or potentially grotesque or violent images that get etched into the skin portraying death that does it. Instead, the image of death happens before the tattooer even fires up the machine or puts ink to a stencil to transfer onto your body. It happens when the customer, sometimes over a period of hours and sometimes in a split second, considers the fact that this marking will be on them permanently, and what the word “permanently” means in context. You will die. And when you die, this portrait of your mother, or this dagger, or this baby’s footprint will go with you on your dermis, the ink and blood and skin all rotting into the soil as one substance to help power the colorful existence of the grass and the flowers that give meaning to the planet.
Permanence is a misnomer. Hardy quipped that when someone would ask him what a tattoo would look like when the customer aged, he would ask how well they think the rest of their body is going to age. Usually the tattoo stays about as aesthetically appealing as the rest of the folded, wrinkled mess of extra flesh that we carry long after our supplest age. At least your wrinkles will have character to them before becoming yet another pile of fat and goo distributed in the ecosystem with the rest of them. Inherent in Hardy’s observation is the principle of measured detachment, something that has been present in scripture since the Vedic texts and Hindu, Jainst, and Buddhist thought. It’s present in most scriptures to remind people that the world and / or God is indifferent to your individual desires. The customer isn’t worried about the tattoo “aging well,” they’re worried about an imaginary future where someone judges their tattoo, or they’re worried about changing tastes and feeling like they no longer care for the sentiment tattooed years prior. The customer is preparing for an impermanent world that uniquely exists in their mind. That is a patently difficult way to live your life, anticipating changes that may never occur based on inputs you uniquely derive from stimulus around you.
Unfortunately, this is broadly how all of culture operates in the 21st century. Whether it’s due to the Internet, or the News Cycles, or the Collapse, or any other given variable, we have turned into a probabilistic society. We are a nation of gamblers, hedging against the inevitable backlash for the last 100 years of folly. At some point, these places that we’ve been destroying from the West are going to want to balance the scales, so to speak. In retrospect, it’s rather easy to argue that 9/11 was our generation’s spectacle of blowback from 2,000+ years of genocide; it’s comforting to frame it against the Cold War, but the real timeline of this war of the mind makes folly of any analysis that only extends back a few decades. Many of the transgressions we’ll be forced to pay penance for were not our mistakes, but those of our Fathers’. However, our continued engagement with the same fantasy world they built is a bit of a bugaboo when trying to skirt accountability. Like the customer at the tattoo shop, we are spending time imagining potential outcomes based on our desires for growth, for change, for a new world aside from the New World. But the world doesn’t care. God doesn’t care. China, Africa, much of Russia etc. are not interested in what the West wants the world to look like, outside of their respective state apparatuses trying to outmaneuver the United States without drawing bloodthirsty hordes and death by drone for its citizenry. These states are also engaged in levels of hypocrisy in the form of human rights atrocity as they seek to build Utopia.
We’re born losers. Best case scenario: you’re gonna die. Worst case scenario: you’re gonna die miserable. But how can one even try to find joy in a world that is increasingly joyless? How do you make your way back to a clean mind after inheriting the filth of everyone else’s opinions? The answer is in the same philosophy that leads under the needle for that tattoo even after you’ve considered its relative permanence: detachment. Detachment is the most beautiful state of mind one can inhabit. Detachment is the path to salvation.
The concept of detachment was important to Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic from 13th century Germany serving in the Dominican Order, an 800 year old French Catholic institution. Eckhart was eventually deemed a heretic by the Pope, and he’s still not necessarily a welcome name in the Catholic Church. However, his teachings are now far less controversial and he has an active fanbase advocating on his behalf, including the still-active Dominican Order.
One of Eckhart’s most fascinating sermons is on that of detachment, of which the Meister was quite a fan. The quote that starts this post off is a culmination of a few paragraphs establishing his definition of detachment in relation to the faith, but it’s important to expound on Eckhart’s thinking instead of merely summarizing so that we can frame it in our own modern language. Like the Buddha, Eckhart was not preaching for the complete removal of oneself from the material world but for the opposite: an acceptance of one’s temporal existence in the material world, and a detachment from one’s conception of why things are the way they are. In Buddhism, I have often heard this framed from the atheist or agnostic perspective: whether God exists or not, you have things to do and people who rely on you, and failing them causes suffering. Eckhart’s vision of detachment wasn’t especially different, albeit corralled by the Christian framework instead. By valuing detachment over everything, including love, one puts himself on equivalent footing with God. Why? Because look around you. If a God exists (which Eckhart clearly believed), reasonable people would have to agree that God is indifferent to whims or desires.
By putting detachment first, Eckhart argues, you are giving power to your soul to remain pure, unbent by the temptation of material satisfaction. He uses the allegory of your soul as a stout mountain of lead against soft breezes of the judgment of others. Detachment allows one to go with the flow in Eastern sensibility, or to become one with the Holy Spirit in the Christian framing of the world. But, Eckhart is clear in his work that he means this in the metaphysical sense rather than the material. Detachment is not about becoming indifferent to what happens around you, but to become indifferent to its influence on your principles.
Eckhart’s vision has resonated with me recently as I navigate my own crisis of faith in the wake of yet another failure to oppose fascism by America’s only potential opposition to fascism. Roe v Wade is rightfully the headliner but it’s been a barrage over the past week; the country is no longer the same, and the likelihood we can reverse course in a decade or less seems far fetched. The short term is about slowing the fascists down until long term solutions can get put into place. But how? It is now abundantly clear to anyone with a realistic sensibility of the past 40 years of American politics that the Democratic Party as it exists will never succeed in stopping the country from sliding rightward for more than 4-6 years at a time, let alone move it leftward. Discussing elections in November is folly. Based on current polling, the Democrats are likely to be creamed such that the last two years of Biden’s term are practically lame duck years (and it’s as if the first two were a cakewalk), clearing the path for Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis or some other kind of sewer creature to carry 2024. People are extremely upset about Roe, such that it’s currently hard to say how much that may impact the vote. If it doesn’t, the preceding bleakness might even be selling short our obstacles.
Thus, I’ve come to believe I need to detach myself from the idea that any of that matters. This isn’t the same as advocating for giving up, or even suggesting abstinence from voting. But, in the spirit of Eckhart’s metaphysical detachment, I’m detaching myself from the illusion that electing Democrats is going to accomplish anything. I’m not ruling it out, but at some point you have to invoke the definition of madness. They’re losers. They lose all the time. They are incredibly bad at anything aside from growing wealthy. So, vote in November, participate in your traditional orthodoxy, but don’t let the false promises of campaign scripture guide you towards expectations of different outcomes from the same results. Relying on the state is not going to work.
As Eckhart wrote, detaching yourself from the world allows God to find you. Similarly, once you detach yourself from the fantasy of something that is clearly not working as advertised, you can dedicate time and devotion to things that do. In my own personal faith, I think that this is the kind of thing that one has to determine at an individual level and to make suggestions is to either risk sanctimony or sound naive. I will note that my personal bias has been to turn towards my neighbors. Maybe that’s because of Fred Rogers, or maybe it’s just because of some psychological / chemical explanation, but it feels like our tendency towards individualism is starting to consume our ability to reason.
This isn’t a message of nihilism, but one of hope: grounding myself in the history of my community and my faith has reminded me that this is not new, allowing me to detach from a harmful belief in the state. As the United States abandons those who need abortion and transgender people en masse, while continuing to do nothing to address the ongoing atrocities committed by police and mass shooters alike, it’s comforting to be surrounded by artifacts that remind you we’ve been here before and that the Holy Spirit will always prevail. When I walk my dogs every day, I pass one of these artifacts: the Bigham House in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s on Mount Washington, which today is a relatively eclectic mix–it had its racist-even-for-Pittsburgh period in the 20th century that littered it with gated communities, juxtaposed with blocks of old yinzer houses and touristy businesses that take advantage of the people who flock to the best view in the country. It’s a shame, really, because people mostly think of the lavish and tasteless houses instead of a notable stop on the Underground Railroad.
Back in the 19th century, before it got mined as Coal Hill and eventually turned into Middle Management Paradise, Mount Washington had a sage named Thomas Bigham who was renowned for his wit and memory. Slaves that were escaping to Canada would come through the Bigham House, and the folklore is that if slave catchers were alerted and descended upon the house, members of the community would surround it until Bigham was able to lawyer his way out of it (or someone with a gun intervened; this was Appalachia, after all).
I don’t mean to use this parable as a way of whitewashing Pittsburgh’s extremely complicated and ugly history with race. It has the same stains as the others, first of the indigenous and then of the enslaved or otherwise subjugated. But in Bigham’s story I am reminded that the slave catchers were the ones that were following the rules. And as people hold out hope from election to election, it is important to remember that the state tends to lag behind the needs of its most vulnerable. People like Bigham have always needed to exist to rally the mobs to protect the oppressed until the rest of the world advanced its thinking enough to stop, or at least slow down. Abortion will be illegal in many places in America. That is going to happen, and electing someone in November will be nothing more than a temporary comfort in an increasingly cruel part of the world. Women will need abortionists with funding and training that can operate outside of the law. Given the rise in violence at Pride events and the legislation in states like Texas, transgender people will need shelter that is off the books so that agents of the state do not find them. They are not going to receive any of these things from any of the politicians that are seeking another couple years of stock tips and book deals.
If you feel compelled to continue voting and organizing for these people–if you find meaning in it–then that’s the right path. What I’m advocating for is more an acknowledgment of their relative impotence in the short term; a detachment from the idea that this November is going to do anything other than hopefully create a shiver of something that reverberates through enough iterations to be meaningful in forty years. Over the past few weeks, much of the political class has been salivating over the January 6th trial, and with good reason. It’s compelling television, and it’s been very damning for Donald Trump–such that fantasies of him not being able to run for president in 2024 are at least plausible if not quite likely. But there are now a few hundred more Trump copycats who will win elections, even more waiting in the wings. It’s enough to make you wonder if one has to detach themselves altogether from the idea that these institutions will ever work. In fact, if one detaches themselves from the idea that they were ever designed to work in the first place–something that is indeed quite questionable, when considering that much of American history is 250 years of Anglicized technocrats trying to stave off the illiterate hordes–one can completely rid themselves of the burden of believing that we need to “fix” our country. Our country as we like to imagine it has never existed. It can, though, in theory.
Detachment and Christ’s remark about the blessedness of the meek go hand in hand: those who seek power confuse what is often selfish striving for charity, while the meek tend the gardens in the community. There are hints of Eckhart’s view of detachment and meekness in The Second Coming, when Yeats is describing the center falling apart and the bloody tide of anarchy:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And in the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps the most beautiful of the non-canonical gospels, Christ Himself remarks on detachment from the world around you. In conjunction with much of the scripture in the rest of the Gospel of Thomas–Christ’s remarks on abandoning the teachings of the Father and accepting one’s True Father–this feels compatible with the Buddha’s observations about the material world:
“Jesus said: He who has known the world has found a corpse; and he who has found a corpse, the world is not worthy of him.”
In the Vedic texts and in surviving Hindu, Jainist, and Buddhist tradition there is the concept of Sadhana, an active practice to achieve detachment from worldly concerns. Yoga, tantric practice, a daily spiritual ritual of any kind that involves the suppression or destruction of the ego. Because that’s all it is. Your fears and ideas are your specific vision for what should happen, but the Holy Spirit’s manifestation on Earth needs to catch up with where it moves you in your mind–and if the Holy Spirit moves on from it, you need to walk that path alone.
Which brings us back to the tattoo gun, and the inevitable consideration of the permanence / impermanence of flesh in between walking in and going under the needle. That’s detachment, at a certain level: a decision to abandon external impressions or cultural mores in favor of participation in a tradition that extends beyond you. Hardy’s observation about customer consideration is more of an allegory now than anything, as tattooing itself is becoming more acceptable in mainstream American culture. But like the tradition itself, there’s an underlying aspect to it that will always remain subterranean or a bit like forbidden knowledge. Something personal and sacred, brushing up against the profane in the way that God seems to have intended, based on how those experiences make us feel.
The essence of American tattooing, Thom DeVita, is perhaps my favorite sage of detachment; the ultimate example of lefthand path thinking. When people used to ask DeVita when he started tattooing, he would ask them when New York City made it illegal (the practice was banned from November 1, 1961 until 1997). When someone would pipe up with the answer, DeVita would say, “well, I guess it was the day after that.” Some people take him literally, but DeVita never told the truth about Himself to people he didn’t know. He was trying to get people to think about their own path, and whether or not that was the path they were walking.
Casey Taylor is a writer manufactured in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia.