I like things that support my body: chairs, floors, beds. I like it when my body is resting. Being still is nice. I like being still. If I want something I can think about it and imagine various ways to get it. If what I want to do is nothing but stay still and rest, I'm lucky, I'm already there, I've already reached my goal and can consider my condition a huge success. If I want to go to Paris I can imagine Paris, and that has its conveniences, not the least of which is not having to get on a jet and watch three or four movies, and then shuffle awkwardly down a narrow aisle to get off the plane after the plane lands to go stand in a line and wait for a customs official to wave me through into France, into Paris, but it will not be the same as being in Paris. There are limits to the imagination.
I’ve done a nice job, I think, imagining my trip to Paris, but it wasn’t the same thing as being in Paris, not at all. I didn’t feel my feet on the sidewalks of Paris or feel the air of Paris on my skin or hear the sound of Parisians talking or taste a waffle stuffed with crème brulée at the Bouillon Racine. I can imagine these things but I can’t actually experience these things, not physically. Nevertheless, the ability to imagine these things, to think about them, is a way to unfold them in my mind, to bring them into being, albeit a phantasmal form of being, a perambulation of brain waves based on my memories of Paris.
Better yet, forget Paris. Imagine a mood of pure receptivity, a zone between yes and no, a region which is both an expanse and an abiding, an openness to the mystery of existence, not a place or a city or a landscape but a “regioning,” a coming forth.
I like that word, existence. It’s a word with a lot of resonance, a lot of reach. It comes from Latin ‘existere,’ which means “to step out, to stand forth, emerge.” That’s it. That’s all it really means. But over the years it’s accumulated a lot more layers, stratum, lamina, fold.
All words are palimpsests, but existence grumbles in the corner like an old man wearing a hat with tassels. I think of Rembrandt’s philosopher sitting by a window photosynthesizing the golden light of 16th century Holland.
Existence, for Heidegger, is the ground of presence. It is a mode of being in the world. It is being true to life rather than self, which is really just an epiphenomenon of life, a goofy byproduct that clamors for attention, silly thing that it is. Existence is the brute fact of being. It’s a walk on a country path, the odor of earth after a downpour. The opening out of a solitude released from the noises and distractions of everyday life. Unadorned consciousness. Naked awareness. Existence is lived in orientation towards death. It is lived out of a sense of urgency. It is a preparedness for death. It is an acknowledgement of the finitude that informs our understanding of time. It is a deeply sensitive and welcoming disposition.
Heidegger called it Gelassenheit. Gelassenheit is a German word that means ‘serenity,’ but Heidegger had something much bigger in mind. Heidegger used the term in an essay titled “Towards an Explication of Gelassenheit: From a Conversation on a Country Path about Thinking.” He used the term to refer to a state of openness, meditative thinking. He believed that it plays an important role in contemporary life. You really don’t see people appearing to do it much anymore. Mostly what I see when I’m outside on the city streets are people staring into handheld devices, pocket computers, as if in a trance, barely paying any attention at all to their surroundings. I don’t own a pocket computer so I when I’m outside running or walking I do meditative thinking. What else can you do in your head? I can’t actually be in my head, even though it does feel like that, like I’m a captain of a ship in a wheelhouse.
I don’t even know for sure that I’m in my mind when it feels like I’m in my head. There are nerves throughout the body, including the intestines, so thinking involves the whole body. According to Erica and Justin Sonnenburg, the nervous system of our gastrointestinal tract is often referred to as our body’s second brain. “There are hundreds of millions of neurons connecting the brain to the enteric nervous system,” they say,
… the part of the nervous system that is tasked with controlling the gastrointestinal system. This vast web of connections monitors the entire digestive tract from the esophagus to the anus. The enteric nervous system is so extensive that it can operate as an independent entity without input from our central nervous system, although they are in regular communication. While our “second” brain cannot compose a symphony or paint a masterpiece the way the brain in our skull can, it does perform an important role in managing the workings of our inner tube. The network of neurons in the gut is as plentiful and complex as the network of neurons in our spinal cord, which may seem overly complex just to keep track of digestion. Why is our gut the only organ in our body that needs its own “brain”? Is it just to manage the process of digestion? Or could it be that one job of our second brain is to listen in on the trillions of microbes residing in the gut?
But that would be Eingewide (guts, viscera, entrails, bowels, innards, etc.) not Gelassenheit. This isn’t to say Gelassenheit doesn’t go on in the gut, I think it does, but it’s preferable, for the sake of simplicity, to stay focused on Gelassenheit.
You could say Ich fühle es in meinen Eingeweiden, which means “I feel it in my guts,” and would be fun to say if I spoke German, but I don’t, so I’m going to leave it alone, and let it digest on its own.
What Heidegger means by Gelassenheit is complicated. Heidegger borrowed the word from Meister Eckhart, a 13th century German theologian who was particularly enthusiastic about detachment: “When I preach,” he proclaimed, “I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature.”
Gelassenheit means releasement. More specifically, Gelassenheit zu den Dingen: releasement toward things. It’s a litle counterintuitive. When we think of release we think of release from something, something restraining us, jail, for instance, or (as in the case of Engelbert Humperdinck) a romance gone sour: “Please release me, let me go, for I don’t love you anymore.” Release toward something is a very interesting kind of release. That’s the opposite kind of release. It suggests a desire for contact, but something held us back. Something prevented us from moving toward the thing, event, object, phenomenon that aroused our interest. A guard, maybe, that kept us from going backstage to meet the Freytag-Loringhovens, a rock group I just made up.
Releasement might best be described as an attitude, a state of mind, a disposition of receptivity and openness, a field of maximal awareness, thinking which is open to its content. Heidegger contrasts meditative thinking, the kind of thinking that leads us into a field of intense awareness, with the calculative thinking associated with science and technology. He strongly endorses obtaining a mental state that is non-dualistic, that negotiates the field of technology without being mired in it, trapped. Releasement makes the free air of the heavens available, the open realm of the spirit. It is therefore in conflict with calculative thinking, but there is a between-state, a region between the calculative and meditative where it is possible to maintain an attitude of openness. “Meditative thinking,” he avers, “demands of us not to cling one-sidedly to a single idea, nor to run down a one-track course of ideas. Meditative thinking demands of us that we engage ourselves with what at first sight does not go together at all.”
Incongruity is stimulating and tonic. It nourishes our sense of the uncanny. For this reason, Heidegger also values anxiety. Anxiety is the sign that the world of familiarity has slipped away and what we find in its place is the uncanny. Mystery, enigma, inscrutability.
Without releasement, without meditative thinking, without this capacity for incongruity and transcendence, we become infatuated with calculative thinking, we get mired in the quantitative, we lose the qualitative, and nature “becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.” (Heidegger, page 50, Discourse on Thinking).
The transition from willing into releasement is where things get tricky. If you can’t will releasement into your being, what do you do? How do you get there? Heidegger describes it as both a region and horizon. But there’s no map in Heidegger’s glove compartment.
“The nature of releasement is hidden,” he says.
Hidden in what? Open, and the hidden appears. This is what Heidegger calls “Divine-Presencing-in-the-World.” Achtsamkeit (attentiveness) is crucial. Attentiveness teaches the eyes the philosopher’s gaze. The uncanny lurks among the known. The unknown of the known aches to unfold the map of itself. What falls away is where I have to go.