The body is great at telling us when something isn’t functioning. Aches, pains, rashes, lumps… all of these tell us that something is wrong with the body and we need to find out what it is. The symptoms are signs leading to a deeper underlying problem. But we don’t just have a body; we also have a soul. In fact, we are souls living with a body. So, if there are signs in the body of good and bad health, are there similar signs in the soul?
The perplexing thing about the soul is that it is so elusive and mysterious. We cannot see or touch it. Baha’u’llah says of the soul:
Verily I say, the human soul is exalted above all egress and regress. It is still, and yet it soareth; it moveth, and yet it is still. ((Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p.161))
He also explains that the soul is not affected by physical sickness:
Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments.1
But can the soul itself be sick?
One of the fundamental concepts in the Baha’i Teachings is that humans were created in the image of God, which means that we all have qualities of God latent within us, ready to be developed. These Godly-qualities are the array of virtues like kindness, love and forgiveness. And it is by developing these attributes that we draw closer to God. We could say then that these positive qualities are the signs of a healthy soul. Someone who lives an honest, kind and generous life of sincere service has a healthy soul, a soul that is getting in great shape for its coming life in the spiritual world. On the other hand, a person who lies, cheats, and hurts others has an unhealthy soul that is trapped in the world of the self. And the unhappiness that comes from this is a sign that the soul is sick. So, we could say that each virtue has its antithesis: kindness – cruelty, generosity – greed, love – hate.
Not only do these spiritual diseases affect the soul, they also affect the body:
Jealousy consumeth the body and anger doth burn the liver: avoid these two as you would a lion.2
One of the problems many people have with modern Western medicine is that it often doesn’t search for the cause but just treats the symptoms. The implications of this are cases where someone is leading a very unhealthy lifestyle and just wants a quick fix to alleviate their symptoms so that they can continue living their chosen lifestyle. But they are neglecting to learn from the symptoms. The symptoms could be there to teach the person that there is something wrong with the way they live and they need to change it. The same, we could say, is true with the soul. When we feel angry, jealous, or unhappy, I believe we are experiencing the symptoms of the soul. Just like physical symptoms, these are not to simply be covered over, or removed without examining if there is a fundamental cause. As with the body, we can deal superficially with the symptoms of the soul with drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, excessive materialism, backbiting and gossip.
What we need to do is pay attention to these signs of the soul, as unpleasant as they are. This requires a lot of honesty, courage and humility. If we are feeling guilty about something that we did or failed to do, we need to take an honest look at ourselves to determine if it was our failure. But this means being willing to experience the pangs of guilt. And if we do have the courage to feel this guilt, we also have to go the distance and see what this guilt can teach us. When I feel guilty about something, I often find myself trying to rationalise my way out of it, and justify my actions, when in many cases I simply need to admit my mistakes to myself, learn from them, and move on.
I think that we have to be grateful for the way that God has created us in relation to our purpose in life. He created us to draw closer to Him through purifying ourselves: “Rejoice in the gladness of thine heart, that thou mayest be worthy to meet Me and to mirror forth My beauty.”3 Drawing closer to God is the greatest joy. Whenever we move away from God, we receive feedback or signs telling us that we are drifting from our purpose. But we have to pay attention within ourselves. If we remove ourselves from God and don’t look within ourselves, we may not see these symptoms and so the sickness of our soul will remain hidden. I think that is why daily prayer and reflection are so vital.