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Does pursuing things out in the world to find that missing piece in our lives – a better job, a nicer car, a bigger house, the latest phone – ever really work? Or do those things always fail to give us peace?
From a Baha’i perspective, there is nothing wrong with pursuing our own happiness or reaping the material benefits of life in this wonderful world we live in. But Baha’u’llah tells us that the real gifts are within us:
O My servants! Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things, and would gain a true knowledge of your own selves — a knowledge which is the same as the comprehension of Mine own Being. Ye would find yourselves independent of all else but Me, and would perceive, with your inner and outer eye, and as manifest as the revelation of My effulgent Name, the seas of My loving-kindness and bounty moving within you.
This powerful quotation offers us a promise. Although we may not know it right now, our souls contain wonders and bounties, waiting to be unveiled. Not only that, these spiritual bounties allow us to know ourselves and thereby begin to comprehend our Creator. Right now these bounties might be hidden, but if we follow Baha’u’llah’s advice, we can experience these gifts within. So, what do we need to do?
Overall, we need to rid ourselves of our attachment to the things of the world. Yes, we can appreciate them and even own them, but here’s the thing: ideally, we will pursue them without clinging to them. That might sound impossible, but according to the sages of the ages, it is not.
We can enjoy many of the things of this world without clinging to them: going down a water-slide, watching a movie, driving a rental car, the list goes on. We can enjoy these fleeting experiences, and then continue with our lives. The issue usually comes with other things, more “permanent” things like houses and jobs. We think these things are going to last forever, even though deep down we know they can’t.
Nonetheless, we still suffer the consequences of demanding permanence in a fleeting, impermanent world.
To help us detach ourselves from the world and attain the bounties within, the Baha’i teachings outline some of the barriers that can stand in our way: idle fancies, evil passions, insincerity and blindness of heart. Let’s have a look at each barrier and see how to overcome them.
Our idle fancies represent likings or attractions which have no real purpose. The danger with these preferences is that they seem quite harmless, so harmless that we often barely notice we have them. Yet while they are subtle, they have the power to take us off course, away from what is important in life. Baha’u’llah wrote: “Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion.”
My seemingly innocent morning coffee has provided me with an example. At a glance, it doesn’t seem that harmful – having a cup of coffee in the morning. However, sometimes I can be a little too fixated on it, so I might rush my prayers and readings in order to have breakfast and a coffee, instead of mindfully and prayerfully devoting my attention towards God. Does this mean that I shouldn’t have coffee in the morning? Not necessarily. If I can keep my focus on my prayers and readings without getting distracted by coffee, then it is no longer an idle fancy. (At least that’s what I tell myself!)
So to counteract idle fancies, we can remain focused on our purpose in life and develop the awareness and self-control needed to spot idle fancies and keep our eyes focused on the road ahead.
In a way these are similar to fancies; however, they are more obvious to spot yet more difficult to thwart. While fancies are subtle, desires are intense. They overcome our whole being and spur us on towards the object of our desires.
Not all desires are evil. The desire to help other people is clearly good. So, what makes a desire evil? We could say that desires are evil if they harm ourselves or others. Baha’u’llah wrote: “So long as one’s nature yieldeth unto evil passions, crime and transgression will prevail.”
The desire for power can end in bloody tyranny, whereas the desire to govern justly can result in social good. The desire for money alone can make a person ignore all their values to profit only themselves, whereas the desire to share one’s wealth with others is generous. The desire for sensual pleasure without restraint can end tragically, whereas the pleasure that comes from a loving relationship can be nourishing.
To counteract our evil desires we can focus on loving God, serving others and being virtuous. We can develop self-control as well as pursuing our truest and noblest desires.
Insincerity leads to dishonesty or even an inauthentic life. We say things that we do not mean; we offer things that we do not want to give; we do things “for others” when we are just doing them for ourselves. This amounts to falseness. Baha’u’llah wrote:
We ask thee to reflect upon that which hath been revealed, and to be fair and just in thy speech, that perchance the splendors of the daystar of truthfulness and sincerity may shine forth, and may deliver thee from the darkness of ignorance, and illumine the world with the light of knowledge.
In practice insincerity might look like this: you have guests at your home, and you offer them something to eat. They accept, and you think to yourself, “How rude! What do they think, I’m a restaurant or something? If they were hungry, why didn’t they eat before they came to my place?” This person is clearly getting worked up, but he or she has forgotten one simple thing: they offered the guests something to eat; the guests didn’t ask for it. Clearly the host’s offer was not sincere, but rather a mere formality.
To counter insincerity, we need to act with honesty and authenticity. We need to be real. We need to say how we feel, offer only what we are willing to give, and act for the benefits of others.
Blindness of Heart
We see with our eyes, but in a sense, the heart has eyes too. The heart, the center of human intuition, has its own way of knowing things. In fact, many of our decisions are not made by the mind, but instead the promptings of the heart. We frequently defer to our intuitive hunches to guide our actions. However, sometimes we don’t heed its warnings by surrounding ourselves with people who drag us down or pursuing paths that take us away from our life’s true purpose. This is blindness of heart.
So, what makes us unable to see our heart’s intuitions? It could be blind adherence to traditions, or sheepishly following our peers. It could be a sole fixation on rationality to the exclusion of feelings. It might be an obsession with desires that make us ignore every other dimension of our lives and selves.
To counteract this blindness we need to listen to our heart, follow our intuition, and cling to the things we know deep down are important. We need to check our rational decisions with our inner voice and vice versa.
Our idle fancies, evil passions, insincerity, and blindness of heart can stand between us and our Creator. If we overcome these four barriers, we will unwrap the greatest gift within: the bounties and wonders of God.