In the West, we aspire for many things. A young child aspires to grow up to be an astronaut, doctor, lawyer, or a professional athlete. A mother aspires to raise her children to be strong contributing members of society. A student aspires to make the best grades. A newlywed aspires to be a loving and supportive spouse. A chef aspires to make a mouth-watering and delectable meal. An artist aspires to convey profound beauty and truth. Aspiration plays a significant part in the life of every human being, irrespective of their age, gender, race and education. Although our aspirations may be characterized as diverse and varied, the act of aspiring itself is coupled with the singular belief: the closer we come to realizing our aspirations, the happier we will be. A young child, nurturing mother, diligent student, eager newlywed, innovative chef and inspired artist may aspire for very different things, but all are united in their expectation that the achievement of their aspirations will lead them to greater planes of fulfillment and happiness.
In His brief but profound talk regarding the spiritual aspirations of the West, Abdu’l-Bahá provides invaluable insight into the universal, yet frequently misdirected, process of defining aspirations and finding true happiness. Despite the fact that this talk was delivered over a hundred years ago, it is equally pertinent today as we collectively struggle with issues of spiritual development and growth. When reading this talk, I could not help but think about how practically Abdu’l-Bahá has framed such a seemingly abstract and complicated topic. It reads like a roadmap or guide for the realization of spiritual aspirations.
Abdu’l-Bahá begins the talk by addressing the importance of how we perceive ourselves. When expounding upon the various ways that human beings perceive themselves, Abdu’l-Bahá notes that in contrast to those who view themselves as a slightly higher form within the animal kingdom, “man’s ambition should soar above this—he should ever look higher than himself, ever upward and onward.” He makes it clear that in order to initiate the process of spiritual progress, one must first humble himself and come to the very personal and intimate realization that he or she is in fact a spiritual being and is not confined to the physical realm. He goes on to say that man should, “contemplate the glorious affiliation between their spirit and that of God.”
Implicit in the word “aspiration” is the recognition that there is something beyond the individual that is worthy of aspiring towards. This recognition alone is not sufficient to ensure that spiritual aspirations will lead to progress, but should be joined by an accompanying desire to act. Once an individual recognizes his or her spirituality this initiates a journey in which Abdu’l-Bahá remarks, “Man is always progressing. His circle of knowledge is ever widening”. He further emphasizes that God has not left us alone, and notes that, “the power of intellect is one of God’s greatest gifts to men.” He states that “[the] development of man’s faculties becomes more and more rapid as time goes on.” Through the progressive nature of learning and through God’s gift of intellect, man is able to build upon his learning. This learning is cumulative and cannot be realized in isolation. We are constantly advancing and working in cooperation to attain higher degrees of spirituality.
A final point that Abdu’l-Bahá makes is regarding the characteristic of true happiness. Abdu’l-Bahá states that “man is, in reality, a spiritual being, and only when he lives in the spirit is he truly happy.” A striking feature of this definition of true happiness is that it is everlasting. Unlike many of the transient things that we aspire to in the West today, once we focus towards spiritual aspirations we no longer find ourselves captive to the effects of a turbulent and unpredictable material world; the spirit is everlasting.