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Many with spiritual beliefs feel they understand why we are on this planet and what occurs after we die – believing that the body releases the soul, which then takes flight to its natural, eternal existence.
What happens to our souls in the hereafter depends on what it does here, according to many holy scriptures, such as the Bible, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad Gita and the Baha’i writings.
Universally, those holy books tell us, we all have many hurdles to overcome in this world – all of which will benefit us in the next one. So what is the major hurdle those profound spiritual teachings identify?
Simply, they ask us not to be possessed by the vanities of the physical world – to practice detachment and severance in our lives.
What is severance? It’s often defined as being disengaged and unfeeling, to have no emotional involvement. How can we live without any engagement in everyday activities such as study, work, teaching, or eating? Without enthusiasm, it’s hard to be successful in whatever tasks we undertake. If God created this planet for our benefit and put us here to live out a part of our existence, why would He ask us to be detached from this world? On its face, this sounds confusing and contradictory.
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The Baha’i teachings offer us an answer. Abdu’l-Baha precisely defined severance and detachment by saying:
Detachment does not consist in setting fire to one’s house, or becoming bankrupt or throwing one’s fortune out of the window, or even giving away all of one’s possessions. Detachment consists in refraining from letting our possessions possess us.
He warns us here, subtly, that this world is full of distractions – and that our spiritual development is so important that it will not only affect our lives here but also in the hereafter.
As in any important endeavor, in order to achieve a cherished goal, the mind must maintain a clear focus. This is doubly true for our spiritual aspirations. If we do not keep the target in mind, less important and ultimately trivial matters can easily derail our lives.
To better understand these distractions, let’s consider a hypothetical example: Scott O’Neil got straight A’s at Pearson High School. Very popular among his peers, he was elected president of Student Council for two consecutive years and was later admitted to the Princeton Engineering School with a scholarship. With his parents’ hearts overflowing with pride, Scott left his home in rural Wisconsin, confident that he would make his loved ones and admirers even more proud. He settled into campus life and quickly made several friends. Scott quickly recognized that he had something new in his life: a freedom he had never felt before. With no parents to watch over him and supervise, he could study whenever he wanted to and do whatever he wanted. In fact, Scott did very little studying and spent most of his time with his new girlfriend and hanging out at the local bar (resulting in many hangovers). Scott also started experimenting with drugs. He always told himself, “I can change any time I want.” He started missing assignment deadlines, which he rationalized by telling himself, “I know I can catch up.” But he couldn’t. In fact, he ended the school year with an embarrassing grade average, far below his capabilities. He lost his scholarship and was forced to return home to take up work at his uncle’s butcher shop.
This story is fiction, but similar stories play out in real life every day.
Our friend Scott just needed a little detachment, which is often misunderstood. It does not mean that you don’t care about anything, you don’t take responsibility for anything, or that you ignore the needs and feelings of others.
According to Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, this world and all it contains is meant for us to enjoy. At the same time, our souls been given a sacred responsibility to approach their Creator by developing spiritual qualities. The “world” from which we must become detached consists of those things that cause us to forget the real purpose of life. After all, no one lives on this plane of existence forever. Sooner or later we are all compelled to leave it, and once we enter the next realm, we will become fully aware of our spiritual condition and of what our life here accomplished. It can be a scary thought. As we have seen before, we need to achieve a balance by walking the physical path with an eye toward heaven, as Abdu’l-Baha said in a speech he gave in Paris in 1911:
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.
How do we know when our inner balance has tipped too much towards the things of this world? I think emotion is a good barometer, as this very real story reveals.
Darius the First was a much-respected king of ancient Persia. Unlike his predecessors, his popularity grew because of his spiritual qualities. He fashioned a society based on justice, kindness, and generosity. Darius was fascinated by, and perhaps even secretly envied, the lifestyle of the dervish. Dervishes were known for renouncing the material world and roaming the countryside, spending every waking moment in devotion and praise of God. A dervish’s possessions usually included only his clothes and a basket in which to carry a few small belongings often given to him by well-wishers. Darius was so attracted to this simple spiritual lifestyle that he invited a well-known dervish to his palace.
When the dervish arrived, the king sat at his feet and requested that he expound upon detachment. The dervish was delighted by the king’s interest. He stayed in Darius’ palace for a few days and, whenever the king had time, the dervish would teach him about the virtues of a detached life. On the third day, after careful consideration of all he had learned, the king decided to leave the palace, his family, and all the comforts known to him in order that he might join the dervish.
The next day, dressed in the garb of a poor man, the king left behind his worldly possessions and walked in the company of the dervish. By dusk they had already traveled far. When it came time for them to retire for the night, the dervish realized he had left his basket at the palace. Looking very disturbed he said, “I beg you, we have to go back to get my basket!” The king replied, “We can manage without the basket. Some generous soul will give us one.” The dervish looked very determined, and exclaimed, “I cannot continue without the basket!”
Shocked by the attitude and behavior of the dervish, the king exclaimed, “I, a king, have abandoned my palace, wealth, and power. You, who preach the virtues of detachment, have been tested by this virtue and failed because you are attached to this world — to a small basket.”
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On this theme, Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
All calamities and afflictions have been created for man so that he may spurn this mortal world – a world to which he is much attached. When he experienceth severe trials and hardships, then his nature will recoil and he will desire the eternal realm – a realm which is sanctified from all afflictions and calamities. Such is the case with the man who is wise. He shall never drink from a cup which is at the end distasteful, but, on the contrary, he will seek the cup of pure and limpid water.
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