Do you ever think “I really need more spirituality in my life?” You’re not alone—just about everyone feels that way, at some point in their development. But how, and where, do you find it?
In recent years, a whole mega-industry has grown up around that question. Loosely called the self-help, self improvement or personal growth market, it has a huge number of books, recordings, videos, gurus, speakers, life coaches, authors, apps, motivational courses, seminars and even infomercials dedicated to making life better, more intentional and ultimately more spiritual.
This “un-churched” drive to increase the receptivity and strength of our spirits represents a fairly new phenomenon. Driven primarily by the rapidly accelerating flight of people from organized religion, the self improvement field has begun to take the place of traditional modes of worship for many. Instead of going to a church or a mosque or a synagogue or an ashram, people increasingly turn to other, less conventional sources of spiritual wisdom.
However, the self help industry has a secret, and since I published self help books for several years, I’m happy to reveal it. The best of these sources of self help advice—books, speakers, seminars and such—often rely on the ancient wisdom of native and indigenous peoples and the profound spiritual teachings of the world’s great Faiths. Very few new ideas fuel the self help movement—instead, it subsists on recycled concepts from various religious sources.
Just read, watch or listen to any of the better self help sources, and you’ll likely see it. The moral, philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of almost all of them come directly from religion. They probably don’t come from the religion you or your culture knows best—that would be too obvious—but instead from the wisdom and the spiritual teachings of native and indigenous peoples, or the Hindu or Buddhist traditions, or religious thinkers from a past century. Of course, the new age self help tropes and truisms can offer us some insight and inner awareness—but that insight generally draws its original inspiration from the prophets and founders of the Faiths we’ve forgotten.
The early Christian Gnostics, for example, have inspired many self help purveyors. Zoroastrian beliefs from ancient Persia provide a well of inspiration for others. The poetic spiritual musings of Rumi and his fellow Sufi Muslims have generated countless self help books, talks, retreats and seminars. The various schools of Buddhist thought and practice inform much of new age thinking, which translates into a vast array of material suitable for life-changing advice and spiritual counsel. Originally, though, all of those profound insights arose out of the teachings of Christ, Zoroaster, Muhammad and Buddha.
The Baha’i teachings view these beings—the teachers, prophets and messengers who founded those venerable traditions and gave them their lasting power—as “the expounders of divine common sense,” who expanded our vision and our collective consciousness:
When a great force is liberated by the entrance of a divine being into the world arena, it must of necessity express itself through the vehicle of a human temple, and the objective expression of this force manifests itself in thoughts of different grades and degrees according to the capacity of the people. The master-teachers are the expounders of divine common sense which is the pathway to a knowledge of universal law, the result of which will be a harmonious humanity. Man confines his consciousness to this material plane. This new force will liberate him and he will become conscious of many planes and of the ultimate oneness of them all. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 8.
In the past, the writings and the insights of those master-teachers used to be relatively inaccessible to the majority of humanity. That fact gave rise to a priestly class, a group of clergy or wise ones in every spiritual tradition who studied and could transmit their wisdom to the mass of the people and to succeeding generations. Passed down through oral histories and through laboriously hand-copied manuscripts, that ancient wisdom still has much to teach us, if we would make the effort to access and understand it.
Baha’is believe this timeless wisdom continues to flourish as a result of a powerful concept called progressive revelation—which means that all of these prophets, master-teachers and messengers came from the same divine Source, and brought the same essential message:
All created forms are progressive in their planes, or kingdoms of existence, under the stimulus of the power or spirit of life. The universal energy is dynamic. Nothing is stationary in the material world of outer phenomena or in the inner world of intellect and consciousness.
Religion is the outer expression of the divine reality. Therefore, it must be living, vitalized, moving and progressive. If it be without motion and nonprogressive, it is without the divine life; it is dead. The divine institutes are continuously active and evolutionary; therefore, the revelation of them must be progressive and continuous. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 140.
Just as the human body does, then, the human soul grows and develops—it progresses through the planes of existence. Like the individual soul, religion also must grow and develop or die. That’s why, the Baha’i writings tell us, we have witnessed a continuous, progressive system of spiritual messengers throughout the course of human history:
God hath sent down His Messengers to succeed to Moses and Jesus, and He will continue to do so till ‘the end that hath no end’; so that His grace may, from the heaven of Divine bounty, be continually vouchsafed to mankind. – Baha’u’llah, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 116.
The Baha’i teachings recommend that when we seek truth, when we try to grow the spiritual capacity of our individual souls, we have to find ways to simultaneously free ourselves from prejudice, so we can recognize that truth in whatever form it appears:
No one truth can contradict another truth. Light is good in whatsoever lamp it is burning! A rose is beautiful in whatsoever garden it may bloom! A star has the same radiance if it shines from the East or from the West. Be free from prejudice, so will you love the Sun of Truth from whatsoever point in the horizon it may arise! You will realize that if the Divine light of truth shone in Jesus Christ it also shone in Moses and in Buddha. The earnest seeker will arrive at this truth. This is what is meant by the “Search after Truth.”
It means, also, that we must be willing to clear away all that we have previously learned, all that would clog our steps on the way to truth; we must not shrink if necessary from beginning our education all over again. We must not allow our love for any one religion or any one personality to so blind our eyes that we become fettered by superstition! When we are freed from all these bonds, seeking with liberated minds, then shall we be able to arrive at our goal.
“Seek the truth, the truth shall make you free.” So shall we see the truth in all religions, for truth is in all and truth is one! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 137.
As we all grow up, we learn, whether from our families or our cultures, some of those venerable spiritual truths. Often, though, our upbringing limits our spiritual education to one tradition, or at most just a few of them. If we remove the prejudices we might have in regard to that childhood training, and widen the scope of our learning, the Baha’i teachings say, it will nourish our souls with the combined wisdom of all of the progressive principles of the prophets.
So how can we grow our souls? We can strive to find truth, and then, the Baha’i teachings say, we can elevate our faith in the Creator from the weak traditional variety of belief to a belief expressed in real practice and actions. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and the exemplar of the Baha’i life for all Baha’is, said:
How can one increase in faith? You must strive. A child does not know, in learning he obtains knowledge. Search for Truth.
There are three kinds of Faith: first, that which is from tradition and birth. For example: a child is born of Muhammadan parents, he is a Muhammadan. This faith is weak traditional faith: second, that which comes from Knowledge, and is the faith of understanding. This is good, but there is a better, the faith of practice. This is real faith.
We hear there is an invention, we believe it is good; then we come and see it. We hear that there is wealth, we see it; we work hard for it, and become rich ourselves and so help others. We know and we see the Light, we go close to it, are warmed by it, and reflect its rays on others; this is real faith, and thus we receive power to become the eternal sons of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, pp. 64-65.