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We all want love. That universal human need makes a big demand on every soul: forgetting yourself and truly, selflessly loving others.
When we walk the valley of spiritual search, every seeker pursues that heroic inner quest alone. Only independent individuals can navigate the initial reflection, contemplation and self-awareness that a spiritual path requires.
Moving beyond those solitary first stages of growth and maturation, though, demands a widening of focus, a drive to engage with others, and the realization of our mutual human interdependence. It requires the recognition and the continuing spiritual practice of self-sacrifice, self-abnegation and self-transcendence. Most importantly, it asks us to develop a pure heart:
With inward and outward eyes he witnesseth the mysteries of resurrection in the realms of creation and the souls of men, and with a pure heart apprehendeth the divine wisdom in the endless Manifestations of God. In the ocean he findeth a drop, in a drop he beholdeth the secrets of the sea. – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 12.
This ladder of spiritual development Baha’u’llah describes in The Four Valleys recognizes that we socialize as we grow, and that such growth demands a higher and higher degree of socialization as we relate in a more profound way to our fellow beings. The fetus in the womb requires an increasing level of sophistication and development at each stage of its growth, and the human soul does the same, yearning to transcend the womb-like confines of the self and stretch itself out into love for a wider world.
If you look around, you’ll see this pattern of maturation everywhere. Children make friendships when they learn to reciprocate kindness and transcend narrow self-interest; then pass into adolescence and learn the give-and-take of relationships; then move slowly into adulthood and find a permanent partner, learning to love and be lovable; and then bear and raise children, who eventually become responsible for the direction and training of new people.
At each stage in this universal life pattern our other-directedness increases. Our capacity for love grows as the importance of the self gradually wanes. Life itself teaches us, little by little, that we can and should transcend the self. Healthy human beings learn to subordinate and outgrow selfish needs and interests, as the needs of others increase in importance, and then fully develop their capacity for love.
If you’re worried about losing your self, don’t be. The self, like the seed, doesn’t disappear at this stage, it simply takes its proper place in relation to other, more important meanings. Like a child’s tricycle, the self doesn’t wear out or become unusable, it just becomes a bit elementary and confining. When this happens, we increasingly find life’s meaning in the crucible of our relationships, and the self begins to diminish in influence.
This slow process from selfish to selfless takes place almost imperceptibly over time, a gradual evolution in the arc of a life. The needs of others don’t suddenly become more important than our own—instead the process happens by degrees, sometimes in fits and starts. Trying to rush your way along this path defeats the purpose. Superficial, hypocritical development in this area—a “fake it ’til you feel it” approach—will just drive out the authentic love a growing spirit needs. Only the solid, spiritual work of real, searching, inner change can bear fruit on this plane of development.
Don’t be fooled—no normative schedule for this development exists. Books and therapists and self-help gurus who promise an age-related or decade-oriented or phase-specific path of predictable spiritual passages or stages fail to fully understand the complexity of our human growth patterns. Actual life does not proceed according to any set schedule. You may find that some walk the valleys and stages of the seeker’s path quite slowly, while others run; that one person begins at fourteen and another at forty-one or sixty-four; that no pre-determined time or age to reach one developmental stage or another holds true for everyone: “Growth and maturity are in intellect and understanding, and not in age and duration of life.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 142. You do not reach any stage of spiritual development at some pre-ordained time of life:
… the growth and development of all beings proceeds by gradual degrees. This is the universal and divinely ordained law and the natural order. The seed does not suddenly become the tree; the embryo does not at once become the man; the mineral substance does not in a moment become the stone: No, all these grow and develop gradually until they attain the limit of perfection. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 229.
But when you do enter the third valley of spiritual development, something extremely beautiful begins to occur: the solitary seeker starts to give way to the engaging, loving altruist, and a community of mature relationships begins to develop and flourish. This pattern forms the classic, timeless path of healthy human maturation and spiritual development–from dependence to independence to interdependence.
Independence replaces dependence as the child grows through adolescence and into early adulthood, but full spiritual stature requires yet another leap—from independence to interdependence. As the human being grows and the soul develops and expands, love for others and then finally selfless, altruistic dedication to the well-being of others emerges:
I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one … In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 31.
Every spiritually-based practice and all of our lasting wisdom traditions teach this profound truth. The prophets and messengers of the world’s great Faiths each appeared to progressively proclaim this truth to all human beings–that we are one interdependent species with one shared destiny.
One of the signs of passing youth is the birth of a sense of fellowship with other human beings as we take our place among them. -Virginia Woolf
We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness. – Thich Nhat Hanh
The purpose of the creation of man is the attainment of the supreme virtues of humanity … The purpose of man’s creation is, therefore, unity and harmony, not discord and separateness. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 4.