Let’s say, just for the sake of discussion, that you want a different life—you’re unhappy, and you need a change.
What’s the very first step you’d take to make that change happen?
Obviously, you’d do the first thing anyone who wants change does—you would begin by imagining a different future. You’d ask yourself: What if I lived there? What if I had that job? What if I really pursued my dreams?
Now step back from that prospective, future-oriented thought process for a moment, and ask: when I pose a serious question in my mind, who am I posing it to? Am I asking myself, or my self?
It’s not just you—we’re all built that way. It’s as if we sometimes have two voices inside our hearts and heads. One poses the questions, and the other answers. One voice asks and the other one considers and responds.
Psychologists call this phenomenon “inner speech,” “internal dialogue” or “benign psycho-intuition.” It often goes like this: you’re at the grocery store, and you know you’ve forgotten something, so you’re thinking hard about it. One inner voice says “I know I’m forgetting something! What is it?” You consider the question for a few moments, and then the other voice answers “Bread! That’s it!”
If you’ve had this experience, don’t worry—it’s completely normal. You’re not psychotic, and you don’t have a multiple personality disorder. We all do this. Our inner speech goes on constantly. As we consider the future, whether short-term or long-term, we often engage in an internal dialogue. Kids do it when they ponder a course of action they’re not sure of: “Should I steal this cookie out of Mom’s cookie jar? Yes—it’ll taste so good! No! it’s wrong to steal!”
It’s a fundamental human attribute, this benign psycho-intuition, and it can tell us a great deal about ourselves. Some call that inner voice the conscience, or intuition, or insight. The Baha’i teachings call it the higher self or the soul:
There is no doubt that the forces of the higher worlds interplay with the forces of this plane. The heart of man is open to inspiration; this is spiritual communication. As in a dream one talks with a friend while the mouth is silent, so is it in the conversation of the spirit. A man may converse with the ego within him saying: “May I do this? Would it be advisable for me to do this work?” Such as this is conversation with the higher self.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 179.
Since we all have these internal conversations with our higher selves, what can the conversation itself teach us?
First and foremost, the Baha’i teachings say, this inner conversation teaches us that we each possess a distinct power, greater than the usual faculty of thought. We all have minds that can think—but we also have souls we can turn to for wisdom and insight. When we ask our higher self a question, we expect more than simple understanding or analysis—we expect to draw on something wiser, more profound and more future-oriented. That power, Abdu’l-Baha said, is one of the greatest proofs of the existence of an inner human spirit:
When you wish to reflect upon or consider a matter, you consult something within you. You say, shall I do it, or shall I not do it? Is it better to make this journey or abandon it? Whom do you consult? Who is within you deciding this question? Surely there is a distinct power, an intelligent ego. Were it not distinct from your ego, you would not be consulting it. It is greater than the faculty of thought. It is your spirit which teaches you, which advises and decides upon matters. Who is it that interrogates? Who is it that answers? There is no doubt that it is the spirit and that there is no change or transformation in it, for it is not a composition of elements, and anything that is not composed of elements is eternal. Change and transformation are peculiarities of composition. There is no change and transformation in the spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 242-243.
Even when the brain itself atrophies or deteriorates, neuroscientists tell us, our human spirits persist. With dementia, with Alzheimer’s, even with traumatic brain injuries, that inner spirit remains. If you’ve ever interacted with anyone who had those challenges, you know from experience that the deepest part of the human spirit is unaffected by even those terrible conditions. The soul continues, and the Baha’i teachings say that proves its eternal existence:
As we have shown that there is a spirit and that this spirit is permanent and everlasting, we must strive to learn of it. May you become informed of its power, hasten to render it divine, to have it become sanctified and holy and make it the very light of the world illumining the East and the West. – Ibid.