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What Does It Mean to Be In the World But Not of It?

A Report from The Trenches
by Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen

A few months ago, one of my students asked to meet with me. He is a stage actor who has recently become a movie star. He told me that he had been offered a significant role in a big Shakespeare theater production and said that, because of its high visibility, this part would definitely lead to many important contacts. The reason that he wanted to speak to me was that over the last few years he had mainly been making movies and had had plenty of down time, which he had used to immerse himself in the spiritual life. But he wondered, if he was to take this part, whether the inevitable intensity and busyness would threaten the new-found, liberating depth and clarity that he had come to treasure more than anything else. I said simply, "Let's find out!" We did.

Several months into the run of the play, he said he was beginning to "lose perspective." He went on to describe how he was being attracted by the "world." "It's a very compelling environment for the ego," he said. "In the theater, unlike in film, there is an immediate response from the audience. I mean, every night people are waiting outside for me to sign my name on little bits of paper. My ego gets really puffed up and it feels good. You know, many famous, powerful, and influential people are coming to see this play. And when I become aware that they're in the audience, I always find myself getting distracted. I want to impress them so they will come see me backstage, and as a result I always end up compromising my performance. After the show, if no one's waiting for me, I'm very disappointed. The truth is, something dark and distasteful has entered my being—I feel a hunger growing in me for more and more power. Power in the world."

"You know, it's crazy," he went on to say, "when I come in on Monday, after spending all of Sunday doing spiritual practice with my friends, my colleagues tell me, 'You're glowing—what happened to you?' and when I say, 'I'm happy!' they never know what to say."

I became a spiritual teacher in 1986. And I knew then that if I was in any way attached to the world and what it represented, I would never be in a position to truly be able to help others to free themselves from the chains of ignorance, selfishness, and attachment.

As time passed, I traveled around the world and spread the compelling message of liberation here and now. Many who spent time with me discovered a liberating depth and clarity in which the experience of profound freedom was not only an idea but a living reality. In those days, I never presumed that the people who were listening to me would have to give up the world and what it represented in the same way that I had had to. At that time I was convinced that, for most, the spiritual experience would be enough. More than enough to liberate their minds from the empty promise of fulfillment that the "world" holds out to all but the wisest among us. But I was wrong. I saw one person after another who, in spite of having recognized in the spiritual experience that deep and abiding happiness can only be found within, would fall prey again and again to the seductive illusion that lasting happiness can be found in the world. Even though they had recognized that the promise of the world was just an illusion, a mirage, ultimately empty of any real substance, most were, in the end, still unable to resist its powerful allure. It was only then that I began to understand what many of the greatest masters have told us throughout the ages. To be free, to be truly free in this world, we have to give everything for that freedom. One iota less than everything will never be enough because of the overwhelming power of the mind's ability, in the blink of an eye, to create an entire universe of apparent meaning where none actually exists. The only way any of us can protect ourselves from being seduced by this greatest of illusions is to ensure that any and all fears and desires based on the ego's unquenchable thirst for power have been given up, renounced, or transcended. Only when our quest for liberation is embraced without any conditions whatsoever will it become possible for us to be FREE. Free means free from illusions. It is then that we will be, for the first time, undistracted, completely available, fully present, here and now in this world.

A Buddhist teacher was once asked if it was really necessary to renounce the world in order to become liberated. And his response was, "Even the Buddha had to renounce the world!" If, like the Buddha, we are sincere in our desire to liberate ourselves from the chains of ignorance, selfishness, and attachment, it is always dangerous to under estimate the enormous promise that the world represents for the human ego. Indeed, its profoundly compelling nature can instantly bury our precious desire for liberation. If, like my student, we have already embarked on the spiritual path and yet still continue to seek for happiness, contentment, and fulfillment outside of our very own Self, then it is inevitable that in spite of our spiritual efforts, we will remain, as he is, painfully trapped in the grip of the world's allure.


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This article is from
Our "In the World But Not Of It" Issue