When you search for something new—a new belief system, a new set of values or new moral principles—you feed a powerful hunger in yourself and in the world.
This kind of dynamic spiritual search generally involves an ever-widening embrace of greater and greater realities. It means, too, that you’ve outgrown your old values, and have realized your spiritual hunger for new ones.
The psychologist and philosopher Abraham Maslow characterized this process of seeking a new inner reality as climbing an ascending “hierarchy of needs,” reflecting our growing human desire for ever-wider and more profound realizations and connections in each distinct stage of life.
The Baha’i teachings recommend that everyone satisfy this inner hunger by embarking on a spiritual search. First, that search requires that we separate truth from superstition:
If a man would succeed in his search after truth, he must, in the first place, shut his eyes to all the traditional superstitions of the past. …
We should, therefore, detach ourselves from the external forms and practices of religion. We must realize that these forms and practices, however beautiful, are but garments clothing the warm heart and the living limbs of Divine truth. We must abandon the prejudices of tradition if we would succeed in finding the truth …
Each person who embarks on a path of inner moral and spiritual growth participates in this step-by-step process of becoming our true selves, said the psychologist Rollo May:
Every organism has one and only one central need in life, to fulfill its own potentialities. The acorn becomes an oak, the puppy becomes a dog and makes the fond and loyal relations with its human masters which befit the dog; and this is all that is required of the oak tree and the dog. But the human being’s task in fulfilling his nature is much more difficult, for he must do it in self-consciousness. That is, his development is never automatic but must be to some extent chosen and affirmed by himself. … The basic step in achieving inward freedom is ‘choosing one’s self.’ This strange-sounding phrase of Kierkegaard’s means to affirm one’s responsibility for one’s self and one’s existence. It is the attitude which is opposite to blind momentum or routine existence: it is an attitude of aliveness and decisiveness. – Man’s Search for Himself, pp. 93, 95.
Just as our bodies need food and water, our inner nature longs to nourish and fulfill its spiritual potential. Spiritual search, when it nourishes inner growth and maturity, stimulates the human spirit, feeding our natural hunger for meaning. When our search answers the clamor of our inner capacities, then a path of spiritual discovery opens in front of us. But if we can’t summon the courage to walk the path, and if we allow our routine existence to take over, our anxieties mount and we gradually start to feel unfulfilled and empty. Refusing the call of our own spiritual reality, we exist with an unmet promise, which inevitably produces anxiety and fear. The educational philosopher Daniel Jordan wrote about this kind of anxiety and its positive potential:
The only successful way to deal with anxiety is to treat that energy as a gift and find a concrete goal for it which will serve the more basic goal or purpose of developing capacities for loving and knowing. Determining what that goal should be in specific terms is perhaps the most universally creative act of man. It entails assuming a risk and stepping into the unknown, bearing the burden of doubt, yet always hopeful of discovering some new capacity … Being attracted to that unknown in ourselves is faith; being able to utilize the energy from anxiety by formulating a goal and taking steps toward it is courage. Thus faith, doubt, anxiety and courage are all basic aspects of the process of transformation—the release of potential. – Becoming Your True Self, World Order, Volume 3, No. 1, p. 50.
So if capacities become needs, as Maslow declared; and attraction to the unknown inner self defines faith, as Jordan concluded, then finding and knowing ourselves represents an absolute necessity—the fundamental first requirement of every fully alive soul. Just as our stomachs hunger, so too do our souls:
We must care for man’s two natures; for as the material man makes certain demands for food and raiment and if not looked after suffers, even so his spiritual reality suffers without care. This is why the divine messengers come to the rescue—to care for the reality, that man’s thoughts may unfold and his aims become realized, that he many inherit a new field of progress… – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 96.
We feed our soul’s spiritual hunger by searching out and finding meaning in the world. The anthropologist Margaret Mead defined humans as “meaning-making animals.” In other words, we need more than simple food, clothing and shelter—we need, deep in our souls, to find the answers to life’s biggest and most profound questions:
Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled within the seeker’s heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being. At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpet-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul, and the spirit from the slumber of negligence. Then will the manifold favours and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 195.