So far in this series of essays, we’ve learned that we learn through metaphors—that our spiritual development proceeds as we understand what’s beyond the physical reality.
In other words, our spiritual development is largely contingent on the development of spiritual faculties by means of metaphorical exercises provided for our advancement. It is equally clear that to learn how to use our metaphorical classroom, we must rely on our own volition and, at least in the initial stages of our growth, participate actively, enthusiastically, and wisely in the phenomenal world.
But as we participate, we must be wary of one final and absolutely critical requisite for the proper and healthy use of our ingenious instructional device—the attribute or attitude of detachment:
Our greatest efforts must be directed towards detachment from the things of the world; we must strive to become more spiritual, more luminous, to follow the counsel of the Divine Teaching, to serve the cause of unity and true equality, to be merciful, to reflect the love of the Highest on all men, so that the light of the Spirit shall be apparent in all our deeds, to the end that all humanity shall be united, the stormy sea thereof calmed, and all rough waves disappear from off the surface of life’s ocean henceforth unruffled and peaceful. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 88.
As a quality, the term detachment denotes the capacity to use physical metaphors without becoming overly attracted to, infatuated with, or involved in the literal teaching device itself. As a process, the term implies a gradual relinquishing of our reliance on the physical world for achieving spiritual development.
Our use of physical metaphors is purposely short-lived. Like water that primes a pump, physical lessons serve to instigate the process of spiritual understanding and growth. But as our growth progresses, we should become less and less dependent on the metaphor of this physical reality in order to understand the abstraction and set ourselves in motion.
In the beginning we may well feel inseparable from the literal vehicle—our body—through which our soul finds expression. Our self-image and self-respect are usually inextricably bound up in our sense of physical well-being and our physical appearance: Do we feel okay? Do we look okay? Are we too tall, too short, too fat, or too thin? Are we sufficiently beautiful, popular, and strong?
But the Baha’i teachings admonish us to learn over time, as we mature, to relinquish our dependency on our physical selves—to detach from our physical circumstance as the primary index to our well-being. In time we come to evaluate ourselves in terms of the spiritual qualities we have attempted to express through the vehicle of the body. Over time we strive to transcend the need to relate to spiritual reality entirely through the intermediary of the phenomenal metaphor.
We are told in the holy writings of all religions that one of the most dangerous impediments to spiritual advancement is the love of self. Metaphorically, this love is expressed through excessive attachment to the vehicle for the self, the physical body. When we become obsessed with our physical appearance, we may be forgetting that our essential, lasting reality is our soul, which temporarily expresses itself through the body. If we love our physical temple for itself, or come to accept this metaphorical vehicle that is our body as being synonymous with the tenor that is our soul, we quickly lose touch with the foundational purpose which caused God to create physical reality in the first place.
To safeguard against just such a misuse, the Creator has provided us with a number of metaphorical reminders of our true nature. Clearly the most ingenious and clever of these is the aging process. The Creator has arranged our lives so that at almost the precise period in our lives when our physical self has reached its peak of perfection—age twenty or so—we are as intellectual and spiritual beings just beginning to develop. Then, as we make progress in striving for spiritual and intellectual development, our metaphorical physical self begins to age, deteriorate and disintegrate before our eyes.
Thus, if we have missed the point of our earthly assignment and have become too attached to the metaphorical vehicle that is the physical body, the divinely ordained aging process will soon teach us the truth about our reality—that our attachment is doomed.
In due time we will become detached from the metaphorical self whether we like it or not. But if we follow our lessons well in this “great workshop” that is physical reality, the deterioration of our physical selves, together with the decrease in our ability to utilize the physical classroom, will parallel a corresponding increase in our spiritual faculties. The end result of this inverse relationship will be that at the moment of transition from the terrestrial world to the “real world”—our final detachment from our worn-out metaphorical body—will occur at precisely the same instant that we no longer need it or even desire it:
The purpose underlying their revelation hath been to educate all men, that they may, at the hour of death, ascend, in the utmost purity and sanctity and with absolute detachment, to the throne of the Most High. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 157.
What will be the nature of our experience in that life after death? How will our efforts here affect our experience there?
This is naturally the most intriguing question of all. For if our purpose here is to transform ourselves in preparation for our birth into a spiritual existence, we must presume that what we do in the physical world has a direct and dramatic bearing on our success in the afterlife.