It is often said that our thoughts shape our reality, and that what we think, we become. But is there really a link between our thoughts and our reality?
Does meditating on visions of future success, for example, really do anything to address the very real obstacles that you face in your daily life?
Some people are firm believers that positive thinking works wonders, while others are more skeptical.
So often, thoughts are seen as being distinct from reality – for people on both sides of the debate. Thoughts are seen as something intangible – something belong to an internal realm. Conversely, reality is seen as being a sum of the external world that surrounds us – our physical circumstances. Like so many other dichotomies, this distinction is probably an oversimplification and, thus, not entirely helpful.
According to the Baha’i Writings, not only do our thoughts shape our external reality, but also our thoughts are our reality.
But what does this actually mean?
Thought and Reality
Abdu’l-Baha describes human thought in these words:
The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings.1
Humans – like animals – have physical bodies, which are driven by a material force. However, we are different from animals because of the power and sophistication of our thought force. Animals respond directly to their external world, driven by their instincts.
What role does the thought force play then, if humans, like animals, are endowed with a range of physical senses, which would be sufficient to make sense of and respond to our external environments?
What is the role of mental faculties such as inquiry and discernment, which help us acquire a deeper understanding of why the world is the way it is? And what is the need for imagination, which helps us conceive of alternatives to what we are seeing and experiencing in our lives?
It seems to me that animals have been endowed with a material force, which allows them to respond to and survive in their external environment, while humans have also been endowed with a thought force that helps them to transcend the limitations of their external environment. The thought force helps us navigate the vast amount of information we acquire with our physical senses to help us understand our reality – and change it.
Let me explain what I mean.
Our faculty for thought is an integral part of our spiritual nature as humans – it is what provides us with the ability to perceive truth. As a physical being, our eyes help us to see what is lies in front of us, but it is our thought that helps us to truly observe and understand what is unfolding. It is our ears that help us to hear sounds and noise, but it is our thought that helps us to listen and comprehend hidden meanings. It is our hands that help us to take and hold, but it is our thought that directs us to contemplate on what we are touching and feeling.
Thought is about the power of perception. It helps us to understand the deeper layers of everything we experience and observe in our physical worlds. And this is the key to reality.
It is only with this true, spiritual understanding of things that we are able to rise above our physical limitations and create a new, nobler reality.
Abdu’l-Baha describes the way our thoughts affect our entire state of being and existence:
If a man’s thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly; if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to centre itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material until he arrives at a state little better than that of a mere animal.2
Our physical force helps us to observe our world in a very tangible, but limited and somewhat superficial, way. Our thought force gives us the ability to apply perception and judgment to what we are observing. It is only through use of the thought force that we are able to grasp the true reality of things.
Exercising our ability for thought is part of exercising our free will. Depending on what we choose to focus our thoughts on, we make decisions that either makes us more saintly or more worldly.
The Writings show us that there are a number of ways a simple thought can have a profound impact in the physical realm of existence.
Thoughts in Action
Abdu’l-Baha talks about the power of a single thought in achieving love and unity:
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. Athought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content.
Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness.
When soldiers of the world draw their swords to kill, soldiers of God clasp each other’s hands! So may all the savagery of man disappear by the Mercy of God, working through the pure in heart and the sincere of soul. Do not think the peace of the world an ideal impossible to attain!
Nothing is impossible to the Divine Benevolence of God.
If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men.
Do not despair! Work steadily. Sincerity and love will conquer hate. How many seemingly impossible events are coming to pass in these days! Set your faces steadily towards the Light of the World. Show love to all; ‘Love is the breath of the Holy Spirit in the heart of Man’. Take courage! God never forsakes His children who strive and work and pray! Let your hearts be filled with the strenuous desire that tranquillity and harmony may encircle all this warring world. So will success crown your efforts, and with the universal brotherhood will come the Kingdom of God in peace and goodwill.3
Abdu’l-Baha’s counsel that we oppose a thought of war with a stronger thought of peace and love speaks to the power of thoughts in transcending the limitatations of our immediate reality. It is an example of how thought helps us to perceive the deeper truth of a conflict and to act in ways that can achieve more noble goals – in this example, peace and unity.
Abdu’l-Baha also spoke of the role that thoughts and ideas have in social transformation.
Every imperfect soul is self-centred 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 weal and prosperity of all lands. This is indicative of perfection.4
Manifestation of Thoughts in Action
Noble thoughts act as a catalyst for growth and progress, both individual and societal. However, Abdu’l-Baha reminds us that the thought force and the animal force are partners.
Abdu’l-Baha distinguishes between the types of thought that belong to the world of thought alone, and the type of thought that expresses itself in action.
Some men and women glory in their exalted thoughts, but if these thoughts never reach the plane of action they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds. A philosopher’s thought may, however, in the world of progress and evolution, translate itself into the actions of other people, even when they themselves are unable or unwilling to show forth their grand ideals in their own lives. To this class the majority of philosophers belong, their teachings being high above their actions. This is the difference between philosophers who are Spiritual Teachers, and those who are mere philosophers: the Spiritual Teacher is the first to follow His own teaching; He brings down into the world of action His spiritual conceptions and ideals. His Divine thoughts are made manifest to the world. His thought is Himself, from which He is inseparable. When we find a philosopher emphasizing the importance and grandeur of justice, and then encouraging a rapacious monarch in his oppression and tyranny, we quickly realize that he belongs to the first class: for he thinks heavenly thoughts and does not practise the corresponding heavenly virtues.5
The true value of thought depends on its manifestation in action. Exalted thoughts must manifest in action.
Finding the balance between using the thought force and our physical or animal force is not always easy.
On one hand, we are called to focus our thoughts on lofty and somewhat abstract spiritual principles, so that we can move beyond the limitations of our physical circumstances. And on the other hand, we are required to remain engaged in our physical worlds, finding ways to put our noble thoughts into tangible action.
Prayer and meditation, as well as reading the Writings, is an important tool in doing this. These spiritual practices strengthen our thought force, enabling us to reshape our perceptions, in spite of our physical responses to our circumstances. It is through these practices that we are able to transcend our physical limitations and act in ways that are consistent with deeper, nobler spiritual principles.
My prayer for you is that your spiritual faculties and aspirations may daily increase, and that you will never allow the material sense to veil from your eyes the glories of the Heavenly illumination.6
These are the words Abdu’l-Baha used to express his hope for humanity – that we would never be limited to experiencing the world solely through our physical senses; that we would be able to harness the power of thought to discern the true spiritual reality of things and, through our actions, exert a real influence over our environments. It is only then, with our thought and physical force being jointly exercised, that we are able to experience human existence in all its dimensions.
- Paris Talks, Abdu’l-Baha, UK Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1972 eleventh edition reprint. p. 184 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid, p.30 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Centre, 1982 lightweight edition. p.320 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, UK Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1972 eleventh edition reprint. p. 184 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]