A deep mystical truth with a very practical meaning
By Edward Hirsch
You might have heard this phrase, and perhaps it seems obvious to you, but it might be worthwhile unpacking it a bit more. Or perhaps for you it is associated with some old Christian doctrine that you have long since rejected as part of the baggage of your upbringing. In either case, I would like to present it anew in a way that might be helpful.
The phrase is highly condensed wisdom and, as with anything of the sort, it can become something like a slogan that is either simply accepted or rejected without probing deeper. When we do probe deeper, we find it certainly is not just an empty slogan and not a mere doctrine. The word “but” connecting “in” and “not of” might seem to suggest a conflict, as if one were here but not fully here, as if perhaps one’s primary allegiance were elsewhere, as to some God up in some distant heaven.
Whatever else it might mean, I’m interested in probing deeper than the usual exoteric or surface meanings. For it is really a deep mystical truth that points to the Reality of Presence Itself, and yet it is also has a very practical meaning. I would like to address both.
The mystical or essential meaning provides a foundational reference point. The mystical points to the paradoxical nature of Spirit, Being, or Presence as completely immanent and completely transcendent. We call it a paradox because it is not a conflict (which the word “but” might indicate). The immanence is the Allness, the All-Pervading or Omnipresent nature of Being. There is no moment, no place, no matter how ordinary or private it might seem to be, that is not completely within Being, and even of Being. Otherwise, it would simply not be at all. It is not as if Being were invasive, any more than space itself were invasive by completely pervading a room, even the most guarded and sequestered.
But Being is not “of” the nature or condition of any moment or place, of any experience. Rather, everything is ultimately and fundamentally “of” the nature of Being. Being is not conditioned in any way, but in some sense takes on all conditions, or can be expressed in an infinite variety of conditions. It is like the space in a room which, like a theater stage, can be set up in any number of different ways, while none of them is intrinsic to the nature of the space itself.
So much for space. But when it comes to Being or Presence Itself, even space or time is just another condition, or apparent modification, and not intrinsic to the Being or Presence Itself, which is not spatial, not temporal, not mental, not of the nature of self. This is called the “Via Negativa,” the way of negation, “not this, not that.” It is not about renouncing, or being negative, it is simply that the Essential Nature cannot be bound by any of those conditions.
But the more intimate truth is that what is said about “Essential Nature” applies to your own nature. How could your “True Nature” be anything other than That? Let that sink in for a moment. Anything you experience, any content (or quality) of experience, is not what you are, not your Being. You are not even some “thing” that stands outside of all of that as some witness.
We’ll use this as a pivotal point to focus on the practical. Once “in but not of” is recognized as a pointer to Reality, and then your own Being, it then naturally applies to any experience. It is not a matter of “should,” but it is a pointer to what would be aligned with your True Nature. It is a spiritual practice, even a skill, the capacity to be fully present in one’s experience while recognizing that it doesn’t represent one’s deepest nature. More practically, it is the skill of being able to sense, feel, and be with one’s present experience while not getting merely lost, enmeshed, or identified with it. It is the ability to “be with” one’s experience from the “Context” of Being. This takes practice.
Edward Hirsch, M.A., teaches about the “Practice of Presence” at OLLI and offers free weekly Zoom meetings in the teachings and practices of Presence from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturdays on a drop-in basis (https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84805886301).
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