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Our fast-paced, high-tech modern life makes it tough to maintain a consistent spiritual practice—we’re all so busy navigating the material world that we can easily short-change the spiritual one.
Everyone knows that having a healthy balance between the material and the spiritual makes people happier, better human beings—so how can we alter the unbalanced dynamic we face in our daily lives? The Baha’i teachings have a clear recommendation for everyone—the gradual awakening and nourishment of the soul through a regular practice of fasting, meditation and prayer.
You’ve heard the old cliché “Use it or lose it”? Well, this sort of systematic, daily spiritual practice recommended by the Baha’i teachings has the same kind of effect on the soul that regular daily exercise has on the body.
Studies have shown that playing a sport or working out at the gym or taking a brisk walk or lifting weights doesn’t do much good as a hit-or-miss, occasional practice—but as part of a regular ongoing fitness program, those things can make a significant difference in your health and your sense of well-being. The key: consistency.
The Baha’i teachings tell us that in the same way, a regular commitment to annual fasting along with mindful daily meditation and prayer provides the best possible benefit for your soul. In a talk he gave in Paris in the early part of the 20th Century, Abdu’l-Baha said to the Baha’is that:
That “firm foundation,” Abdu’l-Baha pointed out, includes the outward actions of showing kindness to all and selflessly serving humanity—but it also requires the inward adoption of a consistent spiritual practice:
To be humble in your attitude towards God, to be constant in prayer to Him, so as to grow daily nearer to God. … To be detached from all that is not God, attracted by the Heavenly Breath—a divine soul … – Ibid., p. 74.
Maybe this explains part of the reason Baha’u’llah ordained a daily obligatory prayer for all Baha’is, and also enacted the annual 19-day Baha’i Fast—to establish a baseline spiritual discipline in each person that will help us develop our souls over time:
I pray to God that daily ye may advance in spirituality, that God’s love may be more and more manifested in you, that the thoughts of your hearts may be purified, and that your faces may be ever turned towards Him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 75.
I pray in your behalf that your hearts may be enlightened with the light of the love of God; that your minds may develop daily; that your spirits may become aglow with the fire and illumination of His glad tidings, until these divine foundations may become established throughout the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 66.
When you exercise your body daily, your muscles grow stronger. When you exercise your mind every day, you grow more knowledgeable and intelligent. In the same way, when you exercise your soul on a daily basis, your spiritual capacity grows. You become a deeper and more insightful person; you increase your empathy and love for others; you strengthen your ability to withstand the tests and troubles of life; you enhance your powers of awareness and perception. All of this starts to happen when you develop a regular practice of sustained mindfulness, which opens the door to a connection between our souls and their Creator:
… prayer and fasting is the cause of awakening and mindfulness and conducive to protection and preservation from tests …. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 368.
Praise be to God, thy heart is engaged in the commemoration of God, thy soul is gladdened by the glad tidings of God and thou art absorbed in prayer. The state of prayer is the best of conditions, for man is then associating with God. Prayer verily bestoweth life, particularly when offered in private and at times, such as midnight, when freed from daily cares.
Those souls that, in this day, enter the divine kingdom and attain everlasting life, although materially dwelling on earth, yet in reality soar in the realm of heaven. Their bodies may linger on earth but their spirits travel in the immensity of space. For as thoughts widen and become illumined, they acquire the power of flight and transport man to the kingdom of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 202.
Would you like to give it a try? You don’t have to be a Baha’i, or have any special inclinations or qualifications—simply set aside a regular time for reflection, meditation and prayer each day. Don’t overdo it—the Baha’i writings say that prayer should never be too lengthy, burdensome or oppressive. Instead, it should lighten and enlighten the soul:
The highest and most elevating state is the state of prayer. Prayer is communion with God. … Its efficacy is conditional upon the freedom of the heart from extraneous suggestions and mundane thoughts. The worshipper must pray with a detached spirit, unconditional surrender of the will, concentrated attention and a magnetic spiritual passion. His innermost being must be stirred with the ethereal breeze of holiness. If the mirror of his life is polished from the dross of all desires the heavenly pictures and star-like images of the kingdom of God will become fully reflected therein. Then he will be given power to translate these celestial forms into his own daily life and the lives of many thousands. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 433.
You can try fasting yourself, too—it’s simple, free, and there are no strings attached. You may find that trying the Baha’i practice of fasting, prayer and meditation allows you to “translate the celestial forms” into your own daily life. For many, many people around the world the Baha’i Fast and the regular prayer and meditation that go along with it have become “a cause of awakening and mindfulness.”
Ultimately, these three spiritual practices—fasting, prayer and meditation—offer Baha’is and others the opportunity to connect with the Creator and, at the same time, come to know themselves:
Glory be to Thee, O Lord my God! These are the days whereon Thou hast bidden all men to observe the fast, that through it they may purify their souls and rid themselves of all attachment to anyone but Thee, and that out of their hearts may ascend that which will be worthy of the court of Thy majesty and may well beseem the seat of the revelation of Thy oneness. Grant, O my Lord, that this fast may become a river of life-giving waters and may yield the virtue wherewith Thou hast endowed it. – Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, pp. 250-251.