The Judeo-Christian bible makes multiple references to the concept of “being in the world, but not of it.” How can this be achieved, and what does it imply about responsibility to the world around us? From the perspective of “The Work,” as practiced by followers of G.I. Gurdjieff, how can this be understood?
As I experience it, “being in the world, but not of it” does not eliminate my responsibility in the ‘world’ outside my body. The questions are, what do I identify as the ‘real’ world, and what do I identify as my ‘Self?’ If I use my inner eye, I see two worlds: the one outside my body, and the one inside my heart and mind, all with their values and demands. Where do I locate my ‘world’ inside my body, heart, and mind, or outside in the material world of the outer senses?
If I become more aware inside my heart and mind, I begin to notice at least one additional level or ‘world.’ I see and feel the beliefs, concerns, reactions of my personality, and self-image. If I am practicing non-identification at that moment, I can also watch and feel the interaction between the personality and ego manifestations, and the incoming impressions entering in from the outer ‘world.’ The location from which I am practicing non-identification lies in the realm of the values and wishes of The Work. These motivating wishes and efforts feel of a higher quality than the wishes and values of my personality or ego and their needs for approval and safety.
Which then do I believe is more real, more solid, closer to the feel of Truth? Which do I sense is closer to my real ‘Self?’ Thus, three levels (worlds) emerge the physical level shown to me by my sense organs, the ordinary psychological level that is concerned with the comfort and survival of my self-image and what people think about me, and a level that is interested in doing the work to realize the potential freedom from the concerns of my ego.
In this Work, we are trying to find a way between yes/ no, either/or, black/white, like and dislike. All three of these ‘worlds’ or levels have their own relative reality. But we are cautioned by biblical sources that we “can’t serve two masters.” If I am awake enough in a moment to see the different possibilities offered, I must choose which possibility I will surrender to, or allow, in that moment, since I only have that moment in which to work. I have to choose which one I will try to follow while simultaneously recognizing that the other alternative possibilities exist at their own level and have legitimacy within their own level.
In Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff offers a parable about five sacred strivings as the foundation for transformation of one’s Being: “ to have in their ordinary being-existence everything satisfying and really necessary for their planetary body,  to have a constant and unflagging instinctive need for self-perfection in the sense of being,  to have the conscious striving to know ever more and more concerning the laws of World-creation and World-maintenance,  to have the striving from the beginning of their existence to pay for their arising and their individuality as quickly as possible, in order afterward to be free to lighten as much as possible the Sorrow of our Common Father,  the striving always to assist the most rapid perfecting of other beings, both those similar to oneself and those of other forms, up…to the degree of self-individuality.” These five strivings are not either/or choices. Each one rests upon the one before.
In the Christian tradition, a suggestion to this question is expressed in these words: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God that which belongs to God.” This philosophy eliminates the either/or, bipolar, choice between the outer and inner worlds by suggesting the effort to “Love God and your neighbor as yourself;” to give to each level what that level legitimately requires. Since ‘as above, so below,’ then ‘All is One,’ regardless of level–all the levels make a Whole.
Gurdjieff also makes reference to multiple variations of the Golden Rule. He places a sign over the entrance to Purgatory which reads, “Only-He-May-Enter-Here-Who-Puts-Himself-In-The-Position-Of-The-Other-Results-Of-My-Labors” or proclaims “the ninth commandment of our Creator, namely: do unto another’s as you would do unto your own” or “the eighteenth personal commandment of our Common Creator which declared: love everything that breathes.”
It is a question of ‘identification’ in Gurdjieff’s definition of the term. He refers to the psychological, emotional state that appears when my attention becomes totally merged with a conditioned reaction, and I lose track of being grounded in my body in the moment, leading to lack of awareness of other possibilities. I literally lose track of myself, forget that I am the actor and author of my manifestations and reactions. Any awareness of myself disappears, and there is only awareness of the reaction, followed by justification. When I react in this way to the ‘world’ outside myself through the filter of the inner world of thought, emotion, and sensation, the possibility of being aware of ‘myself’ in the moment of reaction disappears.
I can fulfill my responsibilities to the outside world’s ‘body’ of relationships, without identification, without placing them on my inner altar as something sacred to my sense of myself. These responsibilities can then be seen as part of my stewardship to the ‘world’ outside. Then I attend to them as a servant of the Work, or God, but not to gain anything for my ego out in the world. Here another biblical suggestion appears, the recommendation to pray in private and silence, not before people. We are also told by Judeo-Christian biblical sources to pray for peace in heaven, not rewards or recognition from the world outside. All meditative practices stress the essential importance of meditating for its ‘own’ sake and not for ‘results.’ To be pure, my inner efforts must be for my own experience and must not be used as a stepping-stone for recognition. This would feed the ego part of me, which performs for the world of Caesar (outside) rather than the deeper level beyond the realm of personality.
We can experience a sense of ‘I’ inside ourselves when we separate out the sensation of our body, and then experience, for a moment, the location of our sense of ‘self’ as being inside the body, while the body itself is experienced as part of the ‘world’ outside. This can give a taste of the body itself as ‘being in the world.’ Its materiality can be experienced in contrast to the ephemeral nature of my feelings and thoughts. The personality and ego are identified with the body and the world and do not see themselves as ‘something mysterious, ephemeral, watching.’ Since we identify the locus of self in the personality and ego, and since those psychological functions are dedicated to their image and comfort in the outside world, we get confused by the question of how to be in the world but not of it. We think we must literally give up the outside world. Gurdjieff’s system does not require physical retreat from the material world.
What I must give up is my identification of my sense of self as located in my personality or ego. When I can begin to feel my Self deeper (higher) in the direction of ‘That Which Sees’ and silently witnesses without judgment, then the apparent paradox disappears. Being “in the world, but not of it” is not a question of how, but rather a question of Being. There is more than learning how not to identify myself with the world of the senses. I must also learn how not to identify ‘myself’ with the level of my personality and ego’s thoughts and reactions.
To withdraw the sense of ‘myself’ from both the outer (material) world and the adjacent inner world (personality), which is always in reaction to it, brings attention to the third, interior location, which can watch the world of the personality and its attachment to the material world. Now I am ‘in’ (aware of and in relation with), but not ‘of’ (identified with) either world. In this ‘innermost’ world, there is only the experience of “I AM” as separate from all that is perceived beyond Itself. When I have the experience, I understand the deeper Truth.