Woman looking at her reflectionFor Baha’is, reality connects directly to how we think – our thoughts have the power to make us feel positive or negative about ourselves.

Whether our thoughts focus on the world around us or on ourselves, everyone occasionally mistakes perception for reality. For this reason the Baha’i teachings say that we must investigate reality for ourselves, rather than just blindly accepting the opinions of others.

Maturing at a young age, I found myself receiving unwanted attention from boys. This confused me — was I attractive as a physical or as a spiritual person? Raised in a Baha’i household, I knew that humans are more than just physical beings – instead, the throne of our inner reality means that as spiritual beings we occupy physical bodies on this plane of existence. And the nature of this plane of existence is change. As we are confronted by and react to change in our daily lives and over time, aging and decay must inevitably overtake our physical forms.

Baby girl seeing herself in mirrorAs a young woman, contending with my own body image issues while seeing myself as a spiritual being occupying a physical ‘throne,’ meant that what many young males desired from me conflicted with how I felt on the inside. So romantically speaking, I would often feel that the efforts of occasional boyfriends to know me were superficial. These encounters meant that trying to value myself as more than a physical being brought me growing pains as I emerged into womanhood.

We all have had or have our own body image issues that are unique to us whether it is comparing ourselves to a friend who has longer legs, rounder buttocks, flatter tummies, bigger biceps, more hair, etc. Whatever affects physical perceptions of ourselves, most of us will suffer the ‘disconnect’ between how we appear and who we truly are. No matter what the reality is to our loved ones, it’s what we feel and think inside that reflects healthy or unhealthy attitudes.

As a holistic and fitness expert, I have had clients as well as friends over the years who were beautiful inside as well as outside, and yet had severe body image issues. Such was their negative self-perception that at times they wouldn’t even leave home to socialize. ‘I am too fat or unattractive for anyone to like me,’ they might say to themselves. Curiously, over time I observed how their negative self-image would translate into their actually appearing unattractive. Which takes us back to how we perceive reality – Abdu’l-Baha assures us that our true self exists inside, not outside:

The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings. If a man’s thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly; if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to centre itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material until he arrives at a state little better than that of a mere animal. – Paris Talks, pp. 17

Man weighing himselfProfessionally, I not only try to keep my clients physically fit, but help them connect mind, body and spirit for optimum physical and spiritual health. If necessary one exercise I recommend focuses on helping them change how they think of themselves in the mirror. The exercise requires that they see and feel thankful for some likeable quality about themselves, and then just walk away before allowing negative self-deprecating thoughts to creep in. You might be surprised how many people don’t like looking at themselves in a mirror. This exercise helps to create a more positive body image laced with kindness, praise and love.

As I’ve matured I have realized certain truths about body image issues: my own negativity usually meant something else was bothering me; that I needed to deal with some other spiritual or emotional issue I was avoiding. So the physical intertwines with the spiritual. In reality:

No matter how handsome and perfect the body may be, if it is deprived of the spirit and its animus, it is dead. But when that same body is affiliated with the spirit and expressing life, perfection and virtue become realized in it. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 303.

As we voyage through this material realm of constant change, responding to reality instead of conjecture enhances spiritual maturity. Each of us contains greatness, driven from the inner spirit and reflected in our physical being. As we age and gradually lose the flower of youth, we can carry ourselves with dignity until the day that we shed this ‘throne’ for that placeless abode where the inner temple eternally dwells.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

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