Monday, January 21, 2013

Being in the World, but not of the World

What does it mean to be in the world, but not of it? To me, it means transcendence.  To be in the world, but not of it, we must transcend the world.  The word “transcend” means to rise above; to go beyond the limits of; to overcome. Yesterday in church, on the eve of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, many of us sang, “We shall overcome.” I have a dream to overcome the world, to be in the world but not of it. 

This concept runs through all religions.  In both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, from the Abrahamic faiths to Buddhism to Taoism, everyone seeks freedom.  Anyone on a spiritual path seeks freedom from the snares of desire and material entrapments. What if our bodies and the world around us could ultimately lead us to the Divine, rather than distracting us from our spiritual goal?  We could enjoy the freedom to feel good and to do good, acting through and enjoying our physical bodies, without getting entangled and bogged down.  How do we reach such a state of detachment?

I looked up some Bible verses on this process of transcending the world, and saw that it was Jesus who said of himself and his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16).  And then I read about the process of transforming our minds, something we do through spiritual practice and study: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). 

My spiritual practice and study are not only based in the Bible and Christianity, but also in yoga. In the book, The Heart of Yoga, there is a chapter entitled, “The World Exists to Set us Free.”  The author, T.K.V. Desikachar, describes a state of being called kaivalya, which is usually translated as isolation or detachment, a state freedom from worldly entanglements.  He calls it the ultimate goal of yoga, and the “inner state of freedom that yoga strives for” (pg. 111).  Reading about kaivalya, I thought immediately of the Christian concept of being in the world but not of it.  I then made the connection with the Buddhist concept of detachment.  I also thought of the Way of the Tao, and the transcendent nature of the spiritual path of Taoism.

All of these are ideas, intellectual constructs.  How do we reach the experience of transcendence?  There are many practices prescribed in yoga, and I do some of them, but what is most helpful for me as a Christian is to look at the person of Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” so he not only talked about the Way, Jesus embodied the Way.  Jesus is the embodiment of transcendence.  He came to the world to show us how to be in it, but not of it. 

From the interfaith perspective, the truths taught by Jesus are universal.  His examples of humility, service and dying to the self are the essence of the spiritual life.  The goal of transcendence is consistent in every tradition: we must let go of earthly attachments, embrace humility, die to the egoic self and detach from the physical realm to gain mastery over it.  All paths describe the Way.  Jesus embodied it; many say that Buddha did as well, and Mohammed, and Krishna.  The distinguishing feature of Jesus’ embodiment was his literal death and resurrection.  How did he transcend the world? He died. Then he came back with complete mastery over the physical world and the body.  We are called to do the same if we follow his Way. 

Christians speak of the “sinful nature” we have as humans.  I think of it as the nature of our mind and body without the light of the soul.  This is how we speak of “sin” in yoga, though the words we use are different.  In yoga we think more in terms of obstacles to our mental clarity and spiritual connection. When we are deluded by our limited thoughts and the egoic self, our actions become unwholesome, or “sinful.”  To remedy this, we uncover the light of the soul through daily practice. 

In Christianity, we are also called to live out our faith day to day.  It is a faith of action, not simply the profession of a belief.  Our Christian faith, like all faith traditions, has transformation as an aim.  This is what it means to be born again, to become a new creature.  It is not an intellectual belief or confession of faith that saves us.  I can repeat that Jesus is my Savior until I am blue in the face, but saying it won’t transform me or anyone else.  Jesus didn’t say, “To be born again, say that I am Lord, and you’re good to go.” Instead he said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life,” and “no one comes unto the Father but by me,” (John 14:6) and I understand that to mean, “You need to get on my path and walk it yourselves if you want to transcend this world and unite with the Divine.”  As Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Yogis or whatever we are, we need to get on the path and go, not looking back.  It is not in finding the Way that we transcend; we have to be the Way, ingest the Way, incorporate the Way, embody the Way… like Jesus.  We can do that while we are alive in this world; then we will truly be in the world, but not of it.

When we begin to transcend this worldly experience, we’ll know it.  We’ll feel lighter, freer, reaching the yogic state of kaivalya; a weight will be lifted off of us: “People in kaivalya behave like normal people, but they do not carry the burden of the world on their shoulders.  They live in the world, but they are not subject to it” (id.). This may be what Jesus meant when he said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). He was probably not intimating that the effort it takes to follow his Way is easy, but instead that the fruits of that effort are lightness of being, peace of mind, and ease of existence.  When the veil is lifted, the burden is also lifted.  The heaviness of our egos, our limited selves and the constraints of the material world will no longer weigh us down once we transcend by dying to the temporal and awakening to the Eternal. 

When we are of the world, we hang onto the beliefs, behaviors and attitudes of the world, like “I, Me, Mine,” and “I am right and you are wrong.”  If we hold onto this way of thinking, we know we have not been transformed.  Many devout, religious people are living this way, simply hanging onto the old Way and repackaging it.  We can recognize this behavior in ourselves when we say things like, “ours is the only Way.”  This attitude originates from the old, egoic self, born of the world.  Jesus said we cannot come unto to the Father unless we follow his Way, integrating his Truth and imitating his Life.  He didn’t defeat death by saying, “I am the Lord.” He defeated death by dying and transcending.  The Resurrection is not about the distant hope of resurrecting in a new body after a simple, physical death.  It is about learning to do what Jesus did, and following his Way, now.  It is about letting go of old ways, now.  That is how we are born again, still living in this world, but no longer bound by it. 

I have a dream, to live in the world, transformed.  I want to be in the world but not of it.  I want to embody the Way. 

1 comment:

  1. Michelle, this is just so beautifully written. I found your article by looking for that Romans 12:2 verse to see if anyone had tied it to yoga or Buddhism. Thank you for pointing out that the transcendence originates in the mind. How easily we can overlook the limitations of our own psychology while being overwhelmed by the world and drowning in it. Namasté.