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From the Editors


What Does It Mean "To Be In the World but Not of It"?
 

editorial

What does it mean to be "in the world but not of it"? Few questions have captured humanity's collective religious imagination like this one. The question of how to live a truly spiritual life in a world more often than not devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and material gain has most likely been an important theme in spiritual discourse since the first sparks of the religious impulse ignited in the human heart. Wary of the seemingly endless barrage of temptations that inevitably accompany the pursuit of fame, wealth, romance, and power, many of history's greatest sages have insisted that the only way to walk safely through this world is to relinquish all possessions, sever all ties to family and career, and take up the empty-handed life of a homeless ascetic or monk. Others, though still cautious about the temptations of the world, have encouraged a moderate engagement with the activities of worldly life, either out of obligation to society and family or as a means to test one's ability to remain unensnared by worldly attachments. And still others have created elaborate codes of conduct and ritual to sanctify life in the world, to infuse even the most seemingly mundane activities with a sense of the sacred and holy. Despite their often radical differences in approach, however, what these great teachers have all had in common is a healthy respect for the power of the things of the world to lure the serious aspirant away from the spiritual life.

But times change. And in contemporary spiritual dialogue, both within and outside of religious traditions, discussion of the challenges that worldly life presents to the seeker of enlightenment seems to have all but disappeared. While more and more people are speaking and writing about the spiritual life, the life they describe almost always implies a total immersion in the activities and duties of the world. Perhaps, as some would argue, with the advent of our modern psychological understanding of human nature, these are more enlightened times which call for a more humanistic approach. But as the East-meets-West spiritual melting pot endeavors to update the world's traditions in the light of contemporary Western values, it seems that an all-important question may be getting lost in the mix: As the most materialistic culture in the history of the world rushes to embrace the spiritual, how is it going to reckon with the challenges that engagement with the world has always presented to the serious seeker? If the dwindling populations of most monastic institutions (and the undeniable shortage of isolated caves and mountaintops) are any indication, chances are, most of us won't be renouncing the world anytime soon. But might there nonetheless be something to learn from the time-tested traditions of old that could still apply to our modern, "more enlightened" Western context? It was this question, and the countless sub-questions it invites, that inspired our inquiry for this issue.

It is hard to imagine a better starting point for an exploration of spirituality and "the world" than the teachings of history's most famous renunciate, the Buddha. As the legend goes, the former prince, who abandoned his wife and kingdom to pursue enlightenment, eventually inspired over 10,000 men and women to join him in living homeless in the forest—several hundred of whom are said to have attained enlightenment. While we had long been familiar with the Buddha's teachings and at least the rudiments of his life story, it wasn't until we began to explore what he had to say about the importance of renunciation that we began to glimpse the power and precious simplicity of the humble life to which he called his followers.

One afternoon, after reading passage after passage describing the unparalleled peace of mind and purity of heart to be found in a life unencumbered by possessions and worldly responsibilities, one of my coeditors and I suddenly found ourselves in the grips of a shared renunciate fantasy. Gazing out the window of our hilltop solarium at the lake and hills across the valley, my friend queried, "Brother, where shall we make our camp tonight? Against the shores of yonder lake or in the hills beyond?" "Perhaps the lake would be best," I replied, mesmerized by the thought of having no more pressing decision to make than that of where to rest my head, "Those houses along the far shore would likely serve us well in our morning alms round." "The lake it is," my friend concurred, his bright mustard khakis for a moment seeming to resemble the folds of a saffron robe. "But first, let us repose in this open field for a few hours of meditation before sunset. How rare it is to come upon such an unobstructed view."

I don't know who broke a grin first, but as we began to chuckle about our brief theatric interlude, it was clear that for both of us, in addition to providing a bit of comic relief, the journey had also stirred a genuine longing. In that moment, faced with the radical simplicity and singularity of a life unencumbered by worldly cares, it was hard to imagine how the spiritual life could work any other way. Suddenly it all seemed so simple.

A few days later, however, around a table in that same solarium, we began to explore the teachings of Orthodox Judaism. Through the words of great Jewish theologians like Abraham Heschel and Leo Baeck, we learned of a relationship to the world in which every aspect of worldly life—from work to family to sexuality to creative pursuits—is embraced and included on the spiritual path. Sharing their conviction that the fullness of God's vision can only be realized through active and appropriate participation in His creation, they described how an elaborate code of law, conduct and ritual elevates even the most mundane of activities into rich expressions of devotion. As the five of us were drawn ever deeper into this Hebraic vision of wholeness, we soon found ourselves overwhelmed by the seeming perfection of this all-embracing spiritual life in which one's every movement is sanctified. In the midst of that richness and fullness, which seemed at that moment so utterly complete and life-affirming, I couldn't help noticing that the lake and hills across the valley were beginning to lose their glow.

Throughout our research for this issue, we again and again found our enthusiasm flipping back and forth between those views that call us to leave the world, those that encourage us to embrace the world, and those that aim to chart a middle course between the two. In the midst of this merry-go-round of perspectives, we were soon faced with an obvious question: What about us? What is our relationship to the world? As spiritual practitioners who have abandoned our former lives to live together in a community dedicated solely to the pursuit and expression of liberation, we generally tend to think of ourselves as most closely aligned with renunciate communities like the Buddha's. We rise early in the morning for several hours of spiritual practice. We often participate in extended meditation retreats. Some of us have taken temporary vows of celibacy in order to explore more deeply our relationship to the powerful force of sexual desire. We definitely have a healthy respect for the deluding power of the world. And the very foundation of our life together is a spiritual teaching that calls for the giving up of anything that stands in the way of our liberation. On the other hand, like the Orthodox Jews, we are passionately committed to bringing the spiritual vision to bear on every aspect of human life. Many of us are in committed sexual relationships. We almost all have careers in the world. We eat well and exercise. We occasionally go out to see movies and hear live music. And all of this is part of a dynamic ongoing exploration of what it means to live a spiritual life in which no aspect of our humanity is avoided or left out. Are we world-renouncers? World-embracers? Both? While the attempt to align ourselves with a traditional spiritual category ultimately proved impossible, it did help to reveal just how complex this subject can be—particularly these days.

The inquiry contained in this issue is perhaps unique in our time. For while it dips deep into the well of traditional wisdom on a subject often lost to modern ears, it also seeks again and again to bring that wisdom to bear on the emerging questions and paradigms of the new spiritual era. Engaging in dialogue with spiritual teachers from across the ideological spectrum, we have tried to uncover the full range of complexity and subtlety involved in humanity's attempt to come to terms with the world on the spiritual path. As the extraordinary breadth of vision in the interviews on the pages ahead will reveal, creating this issue has been a truly remarkable adventure, and one that we hope will bring clarity to the way all of us view our place in both the world—and the heavens.

–Craig Hamilton


 

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