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We often feel frustrated by our failures on the path to do what we know is right, accomplish what we set out to do, and become our true selves. Is it hopeless to even try to change?
In man there are two natures; his spiritual or higher nature and his material or lower nature. In one he approaches God, in the other he lives for the world alone. Signs of both these natures are to be found in men. In his material aspect he expresses untruth, cruelty and injustice; all these are the outcome of his lower nature. The attributes of his Divine nature are shown forth in love, mercy, kindness, truth and justice, one and all being expressions of his higher nature.
The lower self, the animal in us, is solely governed by survival, the pursuit of pleasure, and the prevention of pain. The higher self is our divine nature, governed by love and attraction to God. The life of the higher self constitutes our true purpose in life: to move closer to God and to become more God-like.
But this is no easy task because our lower and higher selves conflict with each other. Often, the lower self has a stronger pull over us.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt makes a similar point in his book, “The Happiness Hypothesis.” Throughout the book he uses Buddha’s analogy of a wild elephant, which represents the mind overrun with thoughts, and the trainer who tries to tame the mind. Haidt extends this analogy and equates the elephant with our automatic and emotional reactions, and the trainer with our rationality, which seeks to control or override those behaviors. This analogy can also help us understand how to struggle with our lower natures in our quest for spiritual transformation.
The Baha’i Faith, like many other religions and philosophies, emphasizes the importance of transforming or transcending our baser nature. But this is no easy task. Haidt points out that our emotional and automatic reactions are incredibly strong: “Reason and emotion must work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work.” Are we forever at the mercy of the wild elephant within?
According to Haidt and contemporary psychology, while the trainer cannot instantaneously control the elephant, he or she can gradually retrain it. Two ways especially relate to the Baha’i approach to spiritual transformation: meditation and cognitive therapy.
Meditation trains us to focus our attention on something so that our automatic thoughts no longer enslave us. We might focus our attention on our breath or on sacred words, and by doing so develop concentration and awareness, thus training the wild elephant instead of trying to fight it.
Meditation is an important practice in Baha’i spirituality. Abdul-Baha explained its significance:
Baha’u’llah says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate … You cannot apply the name ‘man’ to any being void of this faculty of meditation; without it he would be a mere animal, lower than the beasts.
The way that Haidt and Abdul-Baha describe meditation is very similar: it happens with silent focus and it enables us to gain control of our animal nature. Interestingly, while some faiths use a specific meditation technique, no particular method is prescribed in the Baha’i Faith, so each believer is free to choose whichever method works best for them.
Another method to tame the inner elephant is cognitive therapy, which aims at challenging our irrational beliefs and replacing them with more rational ones.
Haidt explains that, “cognitive therapy works because it teaches the rider how to train the elephant rather than how to defeat it directly in an argument.”
From a Baha’i perspective, this could be done through daily reflection on the word of God and on our own behavior, so that these truths — rather than irrational thoughts — guide our thoughts and actions.
Training In Action
These two methods show that the fight against our lower selves isn’t necessarily won head-on. The trainer cannot simply command the elephant to do his or her will, but must train it to do so. Cognitive therapy does this with the use of conscious, rational thought, and deliberate action; meditation does this with non-analytical awareness.
So, what would this look like in practice?
Well, imagine that a person has trouble maintaining their cool at work meetings. They might constantly get worked up and express frustration by yelling at their colleagues. Through cognitive therapy they can consciously reflect on the irrational thought process that leads them to act in this way, and replace those thoughts with more rational ones. For instance, they might discover that underneath their reactions is the belief that they are always right, and others don’t have the right to a different opinion. This is highly irrational, since no one is always right and everyone has the right to their own opinion. By adopting a more rational mindset, they can consciously attempt to respond in a more measured way.
At the same time, they could try to maintain a regular meditation practice of 15 to 20 minutes a day, which by itself has been proven to generate more emotional stability in people. They could also practice mindfulness during meetings, focusing on others and their own feelings. That way, they will be more conscious of their own feelings of frustration building before they get to the boiling point when they unleash words with no control.
But while we may set our thoughts on spiritual ideals and try to stay loving with everyone, act kind in all situations, and forgive even the gravest ill-treatment, we will not effortlessly and instantaneously transform. As Haidt says, “You need a method for taming the elephant, for changing your mind gradually.”
For me, “gradually” is the key word here. Despite our best intentions, we are imperfect beings, and that means that the path towards perfection can only take place step by step. Abdu’l-Baha emphasized that embodying our spiritual selves must be done “little by little, day by day,” and he encouraged us to “strive that [our] actions day by day may be beautiful prayers.”
If we slowly train the inner elephant, it will gradually do the bidding of our higher selves. We will become more and more loving, generous, and forgiving, while developing the plethora of other potential attributes we all possess within.