Be in the world but not of it (1)

(Photo by the author)

There is a famous phrase, attributed to the Sufi tradition:

Be in the world but not of it…

The sentiment refers to how an individual views their life, and also how they orientate themselves to their experiences. We seldom view experiences as being a living dimension of life. We view them as random events; our task being to navigate around them well – not to absorb them and find their deeper character.

The very idea of events having a character, even something to teach us from a spiritual perspective, is not a normal part of our average day. And yet the orientation to events can be the key to a deeper life as long as the experience is used to reinforce the knowledge of our self.

Dramatically, the self as we know it is the result of a withdrawal from the inner reality of who we are when we enter this life.

The infant is filled with the knowledge and company of an inner presence, often referred to as Essence. This is its true and original self. Primary characteristics of this state, such as love, truth and acceptance, are bundled together into one undifferentiated experience of the world.

The infant has to ‘unlearn’ its self-evident identity and accept (by tuition) that it is separated from its world and that this ‘container of experience’ will be its home … gradually surrendering the memory of the wonderful inner states of Essence to the subconscious, where they haunt our dreams and desires.

Life takes us, increasingly, into a world defined by adults. The closest of these – our parents or guardians – impart to us our worldview, and also define how we should protect our-selves. All of this is kindly, but delivers us as young adults into a world that is alien to the remaining glimpses of a former state which has an energetic and ‘clear’ nature, and possesses a state of calm and belonging that refreshes us in a way that we find hard to define using the words and concepts of the newly-formed adult nature.

The Essence of the person is still there. Ignored and often given a sense of being abandoned. It needs to protect itself – and its true identity – and so it assembles a series of notions about itself, harvesting vivid experiences, and forming a new and ‘adult set of identifications. 

All of this melds together as the personality, which now sits as the ‘front’ to the world.

We couldn’t survive without the personality. It is an important part of our development as an adult human. But this suit of armour is not who we are.

Life continues to maturity and offers its challenges and its rewards of success, companionship, sex, friendship and family. Few, if any, of these touch the inner realms, though we may take pride in the discipline and energy used to hold together a stable and responsible existence.

The heart of the problem is that the personality is entirely based on pieces of our personal history, and so is a creature of the past, unused to really ‘being there’ in the present. We exist, biologically, in the now, but greet it, mentally and emotionally, with the ‘filters’ of our past perception. For those who develop mystically, the fresh air of a true relationship between our real identity and the world of experience becomes a driving hunger.

Typically, somewhere in the middle of life, we begin to yearn for the ‘feeling’ of that dimly remembered inner state. Increasingly, people use techniques such as mediation to get back in touch with that ‘inner glow’ of simply being; holding back the incessant demands of ‘doing’ in their normal life.

Our starting phrase: ‘Be in the world but not of it’ offers a parallel way to meditation; one not based on withdrawal from the world to a meditative state, but upon a different engagement with the world of our experiences. This is not to say anything is lacking in a meditation practice; quite the opposite. The two complement each other, but both can be combined to energise and redirect our lives in different directions and with new energies.

Together, they can also change our ideas of identity – who we are… 

Early in what has become a true search, we begin to see that the world is actually the same from the perception of personality and the withdrawn essence. But the way the world is seen – the lenses of perception – are different.

When we discover that this is true – feeling that surge of rightness from within, we finally have a opportunity to change our orientation to life so that we are ‘in the world but not of it’

(We need to re-energise our quest for that deeply personal sense of self, beyond the personality.) 

Ironically, the personality; the egoic self, can assist us in this quest. Since this ‘outer’ shell of self is synthesised from the real essence which it protects, we can find pointers in our personality to our authentic essence, its power and its love – our real nature, now seen with adult discrimination … and hence a power of doing.

We will examine this transformative journey in Part Two.

©Stephen Tanham 2023

Stephen Tanham is a writer-photographer, mystical teacher and Director of the Silent Eye, a correspondence-based journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being. and

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