Recently I ran across some interesting Internet ideas.
At birth we have no knowledge and only a few instincts and reflexes to help us make our way in the world. Fortunately we aren't alone. We have parents and others who care for us, protect us and teach us.
As we grow, we slowly acquire physical and intellectual ability. We rely less upon others and more upon our own powers. But one thing typically does not change as we grow our focus remains heavily skewed toward our own selves.
When very young, we signal our personal needs through an activity that would be considered quite antisocial were we an adult: we thrash about and scream our heads off. Of course, an infant has no other means of communication, so society doesn't frown upon this kind of behavior.
Later in life, we learn to ask for what we want, although we still can be vociferous when things aren't going our way.
The same often applies to adults, except adults have more manipulation techniques at their disposal. Certainly most of us are not totally oblivious to the needs and wants of others, but at the end of the day we can be pretty selfish most of the time, so much so that society considers selfishness "normal."
The world's religions, however, do not consider selfishness "normal." They consider it an immature spiritual state that we can learn to overcome.
Selfishness leads they say to misery, abasement and even evil. Selflessness, on the other hand, brings joy, honor and goodness.
For example, Krishna is said to have taught the following:
"Devoted with a heart grown pure, restrained
"In lordly self-control, forgoing wiles
"Of song and senses, freed from love and hate,
"Dwelling 'mid solitudes, in diet spare,
"With body, speech, and will tamed to obey,
"Ever to holy meditation vowed,
"From passions liberate, quit of the Self,
"Of arrogance, impatience, anger, pride;
"Freed from surroundings, quiet, lacking nought
"Such a one grows to oneness with the Brahm;
"Such a one, growing one with Brahm, serene,
"Sorrows no more, desires no more; his soul,
"Equally loving all that lives, loves well
"Me, Who have made them, and attains to Me."
Bhagavad Gita, chapter 18, tr. Edwin Arnold
The Buddha proclaimed the conquest of self as the greatest of victories,"Victory over oneself is better than that over others. When a man has conquered himself and always acts with self-control, neither devas, spirits, Mara or Brahma can reverse the victory of a man like that." (Dhammapada, chapter 8, tr. J. Richards)
And Baha'u'llah returned time and again to this theme, using words such as these: "O son of man! If thou lovest me, turn away from thyself; and if thou seekest my pleasure, regard not thine own; that thou mayest die in me and I may eternally live in thee." (The Hidden Words).
But what does it mean to "conquer" oneself? What is this "victory over oneself?"
"Every imperfect soul is self-centered and thinketh only of his own good. But as his thoughts expand a little he will begin to think of the welfare and comfort of his family. If his ideas still more widen, his concern will be the felicity of his fellow citizens; and if still they widen, he will be thinking of the glory of his land and of his race. But when ideas and views reach the utmost degree of expansion and attain the stage of perfection, then will he be interested in the exaltation of humankind. He will then be the well-wisher of all men and the seeker of the wealth and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection." (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha).
Mystics often speak of two apparently opposite concepts, the annihilation of the self and the expansion of the self to embrace all things.
In the above passage, we see how these two concepts are in reality one and the same. As the soul progresses from imperfection to perfection, it increasingly embraces others outside of itself. Its circle grows larger and larger, until it encompasses all people. Yet in doing so, it becomes increasingly detached from its own wants and desires. It is simultaneously expanding and contracting, the former in the sense of its concerns and the latter in the sense of its personal desires, seeking to obtain victory over both.
In light of the above and many other passages from the scriptures of the world's religions, we might add that historically, religion has advanced civilizations. If we all sought to conquer ourselves before we thought about conquering others, the character of the entire world would be transformed.
Paul Gray is a member of Baha'i faith. Sunday devotions at the Ridgeway Baha'i Center on Knight Drive are at 11 a.m. Children's class is at 11:30 a.m.
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