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I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the [death] camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him. – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
The denizens of the world are confined in the prison of nature — a prison that is continuous and eternal. If thou art at present restrained within the limits of a temporary prison, be not grieved at this; my hope is that thou mayest be emancipated from the prison of nature and may attain unto the court of everlasting life. Pray to God day and night and beg forgiveness and pardon. The omnipotence of God shall solve every difficulty. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 116.
We’re all prisoners—of nature.
In the touching letter above, which Abdu’l-Baha wrote to a prisoner and a spiritual seeker, we get a mystical description of the larger prison we each inhabit.
Nature incarcerates us in our bodies, making every one of us prisoners of heredity and time and circumstance. We don’t choose our parents, our siblings, our families, our upbringing, our backgrounds, our early nutrition, our birthplace or our initial education. We have absolutely no control over any of those things—which means we all live restricted lives as inmates of a highly restrictive world. We’re bound by the physical laws of the universe and the legal authority of our societies. We have cultural norms and limitations we can’t escape. We’re deeply constrained by all those things, but we’re most constrained by the ticking clock in our genes, which determines how long our physical bodies will hold out against the passage of the years. Like a wick in a candle, we can only burn for so long. In many ways, that means our bodies serve as the jailers of our minds and souls—ironically, our cells are our cells.
This prison of nature only offers us one escape—death. Sounds like a bad jailhouse movie, right?
If we look at the end of our physical existence as the complete cessation of all consciousness and life, then our imprisonment here in this world doesn’t seem quite as restrictive—after all, if you’re in a prison and you don’t think you’ll ever get out, you begin to see it as your only possible existence.
But if we believe in an existence that goes on after this one, an eternal continuation of the consciousness our minds and souls developed here during our material phase of existence, then the body and the space it inhabits on Earth truly does begin to seem like a cage—the prison of self:
How can we escape? How can we free ourselves, as Baha’u’llah advises, from the shackles and chains of this world?
The great mystics and philosophers and the prophets and founders of the world’s religions all say that one thing and one thing alone allows us to escape the prison of self—transcendence:
That celestial reality… delivers man from the material world. Its power causes man to escape from nature’s world. Escaping, he will find an illuminating reality, transcending the limited reality of man and causing him to attain to the infinitude of God, abstracting him from the world of superstitions and imaginations, and submerging him in the sea of the rays of the Sun of Reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 51.
Transcending this physical world means fully inhabiting the spiritual reality while our bodies still live and breathe here in this plane of existence. Rather than allowing our hearts to attach themselves to our possessions, to our money, to our careers and our outward appearances, we transcend the temporary and connect to the continuous, never-ending world of the spirit:
Today, humanity is bowed down with trouble, sorrow and grief, no one escapes; the world is wet with tears; but, thank God, the remedy is at our doors. Let us turn our hearts away from the world of matter and live in the spiritual world! It alone can give us freedom! – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 111.
If we allow ourselves to focus solely on our instincts and our own well-being, the Baha’i teachings say, we become imprisoned by them, exchanging that which lasts for that which we cannot keep:
What are the animals’ propensities? To eat, drink, wander about and sleep. The thoughts, the minds of the animals are confined to these. They are captives in the bonds of these desires. Man becomes a prisoner and slave to them when his ultimate desire is no higher than his welfare in this world of the senses. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 184.
Escaping from the prison of self means following a spiritual path:
…when man does not open his mind and heart to the blessing of the spirit, but turns his soul towards the material side, towards the bodily part of his nature, then is he fallen from his high place and he becomes inferior to the inhabitants of the lower animal kingdom. In this case the man is in a sorry plight! For if the spiritual qualities of the soul, open to the breath of the Divine Spirit, are never used, they become atrophied, enfeebled, and at last incapable; whilst the soul’s material qualities alone being exercised, they become terribly powerful — and the unhappy, misguided man, becomes more savage, more unjust, more vile, more cruel, more malevolent than the lower animals themselves. All his aspirations and desires being strengthened by the lower side of the soul’s nature, he becomes more and more brutal, until his whole being is in no way superior to that of the beasts that perish. Men such as this, plan to work evil, to hurt and to destroy; they are entirely without the spirit of Divine compassion, for the celestial quality of the soul has been dominated by that of the material. If, on the contrary, the spiritual nature of the soul has been so strengthened that it holds the material side in subjection, then does the man approach the Divine; his humanity becomes so glorified that the virtues of the Celestial Assembly are manifested in him; he radiates the Mercy of God, he stimulates the spiritual progress of mankind, for he becomes a lamp to show light on their path. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 97-98.
Next: The Faith of the Prisoners