“Man meets what exists and becomes as what is over against him, always simply a single being and each thing simply as being. What exists is opened to him in happenings, and what happens affects him as what is.”Tweet
– Martin Buber
One of the central themes of the work of the Jewish mystical philosopher Martin Buber was the question of understanding our relation to God. In his most famous book, I and Thou, he makes a distinction between two different ways in which we exist in the world. The first is I-It, which involves subjective perception and experience – in our current culture, the dominant mode of being in which we experience being individuals encountering other individuals and objects outside of ourselves. The other mode of existence Buber calls I-Thou, and this idea is purely relational in a way that breaks down all quantification of and separation from the other. This is the mode of spiritual life according to Buber – it is the nature of the relationship to God. In the following excerpt from I and Thou, he outlines and contrasts both modes, expressing I-Thou in a way that evokes a vision with the potential to resonate with other mystical traditions.
To man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.
He perceives what exists round about him—simply things, and beings as things; and what happens round about him—simply events, and actions as events; things consisting of qualities, events of moments; things entered in the graph of place, events in that of time; things and events bounded by other things and events, measured by them, comparable with them: he perceives an ordered and detached world. It is to some extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organisation can be surveyed and brought out again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes. It is always there, next to your skin, if you look on it that way, cowering in your soul, if you prefer it so. It is your object, remains it as long as you wish, and remains a total stranger, within you and without. You perceive it, take it to yourself as the “truth,” and it lets itself be taken; but it does not give itself to you. Only concerning it may you make yourself “understood” with others; it is ready, though attached to everyone in a different way, to be an object common to you all. But you cannot meet others in it. You cannot hold on to life without it, its reliability sustains you; but should you die in it, your grave would be in nothingness.
“It is not outside you, it stirs in the depth of you; if you say “Soul of my soul” you have not said too much. But guard against wishing to remove it into your soul—for then you annihilate it. “
Or on the other hand, man meets what exists and becomes as what is over against him, always simply a single being and each thing simply as being. What exists is opened to him in happenings, and what happens affects him as what is. Nothing is present for him except this one being, but it implicates the whole world. Measure and comparison have disappeared; it lies with yourself how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. These meetings are not organised to make the world, but each is a sign of the world-order. They are not linked up with one another, but each assures you of your solidarity with the world. The world which appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it takes on a continually new appearance; you cannot hold it to its word. It has no density, for everything in it penetrates everything else; no duration, for it comes even when it is not summoned, and vanishes even when it is tightly held. It cannot be surveyed, and if you wish to make it capable of survey you lose it.
“You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it. But it teaches you to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them.“
It comes, and comes to bring you out; if it does not reach you, meet you, then it vanishes; but it comes back in another form. It is not outside you, it stirs in the depth of you; if you say “Soul of my soul” you have not said too much. But guard against wishing to remove it into your soul—for then you annihilate it. It is your present; only while you have it do you have the present. You can make it into an object for yourself, to experience and to use; you must continually do this—and as you do it you have no more present. Between you and it there is mutual giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives itself to you. You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it. But it teaches you to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them. Through the graciousness of its comings and the solemn sadness of its goings it leads you away to the Thou in which the parallel lines of relations meet. It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity.
Martin Buber (1978-1965)
From: I and Thou