By Linda O’Neil
Mental health advocate and member of the Ottawa Baha’i Community
How many Bahá’ís have been fortunate enough to have never experienced a “spiritual slump”, at least for a short time? Who among us has never felt “consumed” by “remoteness” from our Creator? Whose heart has never been “melted” by “the flames of separation”? Who has not felt the sting of recognition, while reciting the Long Obligatory Prayer, of the words: “My back is bowed by the burden of my sins and my heedlessness hath destroyed me”? If we are not expected to experience an occasional period of feeling spiritually down, why are Bahá’í prayer books full of prayers for assistance, tests and difficulties, forgiveness, spiritual development, and transformation?
What is a “slump”? In sports jargon, a slump is a period of poor playing, often losing, by a team or individual athlete; more generally it can be defined as a time of marked or sustained decline. I think of a spiritual slump as being a low period in one’s spiritual life or sense of Bahá’í identity, which could last anywhere from a few days to several years. Some people explain it as a period of feeling distant from God, having difficulty praying or reading the Writings, attending Bahá’í events, or following Bahá’í teachings. Others describe it as a time of doubt or spiritual questioning. Still others characterize a spiritual slum as a period during which their sense of faith has become weak or weakened.
As a result of tests or crises
A spiritual slump may arise from day-to-day events and manifest itself in some form of spiritual discomfort. Personal problems or worries, particularly major life changes such as divorce, loss of a loved one, moving to a new country, having one’s children leave home, living with ongoing illness or disability, etc., could all bring on a spiritual slump. Such major events can throw us into a crisis of identity or conviction, make us feel unable to rise to the challenges of life, or even weaken our trust in God if the test seems too great to bear. In most such situations it is possible to regain one’s equilibrium and perspective before too long, but if a crisis state lasts for quite some time and life becomes more and more difficult, it may be wise to consult a medical professional or therapist. Depression and anxiety are not in themselves spiritual problems, but these medical/emotional conditions can, in fact, make us feel spiritually weak. In such cases appropriate treatment or exploration should be added to our prayers.
Personal spiritual issues
A spiritual slump can also result from a variety of spiritual issues or circumstances. We may be faced with a question or situation that truly tests our faith, makes us “angry” at God, or creates doubts we don’t know how to resolve. We may be unable to accept the wisdom of a Bahá’í law or teaching, or feel estranged from the Bahá’í community because of the actions or attitudes of individual Bahá’ís, or because we disagree with a decision of the Spiritual Assembly. Or we might drift away from, or never feel fully integrated into, the Bahá’í community because we’ve been unable to attend Feasts, Holy Days, firesides or social events for a period of time. We might feel bereft because we’ve lost a close Bahá’í friend, or feel lonely in a new community where we don’t yet know anyone
Gradually falling away
Sometimes a spiritual slump is not caused by any specific event that can be pinpointed, but manifests itself as a gradual (and certainly not irreversible) falling away from certain aspects of the Covenant. We may hardly notice it at first, but little by little find ourselves falling into a pattern of not praying or reading the Writings, or feeling excessively ashamed, discouraged, or even wanting to withdraw from participation in the community if we fail to follow a Bahá’í law or live up to a Bahá’í standard.
Whatever the reason for a temporary spiritual decline, blaming ourselves or feeling overly discouraged will not help us get over it faster. There are many simple things that will help. The following are some personal suggestions of someone who has had her share of slumps – and helped her friends get through them – while managing to survive and grow as a Bahá’í nonetheless.
Some strategies for getting out of a slump…
Accept the situation and accept yourself
Recognize and accept a spiritual slump for what it is – something that may happen to anyone occasionally. Avoid self-judgment. Remember that even the most accomplished athletes who train and play constantly can experience a slump in performance. So too can a normally “spiritually together” person. Remember that the Guardian spoke of the “cesspool of materialism” in which we live and of the “mental tests” to be faced by believers in the West.
Share, don’t isolate
Confide in a Bahá’í friend or acquaintance, or someone you feel you could relate to, about how you’re feeling. Most likely you’ll quickly discover you’re not alone in your experience. If your Spiritual Assembly has a Counselling Committee, it likely has extensive experience in helping Bahá’ís in such situations and confidentially is assured. Remember that consultation and sharing are not the same as “confessing”, which we are told to avoid.
Draw from experience
Try to recall things that helped you deal with spiritual difficulties in the past and try them again: for instance, confiding in a special friend, saying a specific prayer, reading a particular book, being involved in a particular Bahá’í activity, etc.
If you are unable to pray
Ask others to pray for you till you are able to do it yourself. This is especially important in cases of an extended period of “feeling low” when prayer, reading the Writings, and participating in community events may be difficult or impossible until a certain degree of improvement has occurred. Invite a friend over to say prayers or read the Writings with you, or find some recorded ones you can listen to, since it may be easier to than say or read them yourself. There is so much Baha’i music now that can really lift one’s spirits. In the Hidden Words, Bahá’u’lláh acknowledges that our hearts may sometimes be “lifeless”; at these times I believe we should rely on our spiritual friends. If you can pray a little, try starting with a short prayer, preferably one that’s been memorized, or one that gave comfort or inspiration in the past, and “work up” from there. Don’t forget that prayers can have an effect even if we don’t feel their impact at first.
Learn to pray more deeply or effectively
Rough times are one of the primary opportunities to learn how to really pray. Try using one or more specific prayers on a continuous basis until recognizable assistance is received. If you always use the Bahá’í prayers, you may want to try adding some personal prayers in your own words as well. If you have always prayed from the heart and sometimes find it difficult to use Baha’i prayers, it is possible to develop a love for the Bahá’í prayers by gradually increasing their use. Or use a personal prayer from the heart as a preamble to a Bahá’í prayer; some Bahá’ís find this provides a greater focus.
We are fortunate to have so many powerful prayers in the words of the Manifestations, such as the Long Healing Prayer, the Tablet of Ahmad, the Fire Tablet, and the Remover of Difficulties, to resolve difficult situations, and we can ask friends to read these if we find it difficult. There is also the “the Dynamics of Prayer” for drawing inspiration and solving problems, which was recorded to Ruth Moffat as suggested by Shoghi Effendi (see Principles of Bahá’í Administration, 1950, p.90, Ruth J. Moffat’s Du’á, On Wings of Prayer, 1994, p.27, or the small Malaysian prayer book. If you have difficulty remembering to say the Obligatory Prayers at a particular time, a watch with an alarm provides a simple solution.
If you find the Bahá’í Writings difficult to read or study
Find something “easier” than Baha’u’llah’s major works to start with, such as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s writings, a compilation of shorter quotations such as Daily Readings, the Divine Art of Living, small compilations, etc. You can also make your own compilation of passages that confirm your faith or give you a sense of joy. This can also be done with affirmations (short, memorable sentences or phrases). Some of my favourites include: “Thou art my lamp and my light is in thee”, “Thou disappointest no one who hath sought Thee, nor dost Thou keep back from Thee anyone who has desired Thee,” and “He hath chosen from the whole world the hearts of His servants…”
If you you’re having trouble meditating or don’t know how to
Try reading the Bahá’í compilation entitled “Prayer, Meditation and the Devotional Attitude” or section XL in Lights of Guidance, or try non-Bahá’í sources to explore various approaches and techniques.
If you feel shy or uncomfortable attending Bahá’í gatherings
Ask someone to give you a lift and to sit with you. Most Bahá’ís would be delighted to do so.
If you need forgiveness
Start by simply examining your conscience and recognizing your error, and then ask God for forgiveness and assistance in changing your attitude or behaviour. There is a wonderful specific prayer for forgiveness in the Ninth Glad Tidings (Bisharat) found in the Tablets of Baha’u’llah (p.24) or Bahá’í World Faith, (p.193). The Bahá’í Writings acknowledge but do not excessively dwell on the “sinfulness” of the human being. The concept of “sin” certainly exists, but “error” and “weakness” seem to be just as often mentioned. The term “guilt” hardly appears at all (at least in English translations to date), while “regret”, “shame” and “remorse”, the spiritual conditions that enable us to root out our weaknesses, are more often referred to. The use of these terms encourages me to believe that God is both merciful and understanding and that forgiveness and transformation are within the reach of every soul. In one prayer for forgiveness, Baha’u’llah says, “Glorified art Thou, O Lord. Thou forgivest at all times the sins of such among Thy servants as implore Thy pardon.” If God is willing to forgive us unconditionally, should we not also forgive ourselves once we have resolved to change? Would it be spiritually fitting for us to hold back from ourselves what God so readily bestows on us?
Bringing oneself to account
I am certain that this spiritual discipline (“Bring thyself to account each day ere thou are summoned to be reckoning”, Arabic Hidden Words No. 31) is not intended to be an exercise in self condemnation, yet I know too many Bahá’ís who seem to regard it as such. If a material accounting consists of listing one’s income as well as expenditures, one’s assets as well as liabilities, shouldn’t a spiritual accounting recognize one’s strengths and efforts as well as weaknesses and failures? I would suggest that we be especially kind to ourselves if “taking account” when feeling spiritually low, a time when it is so easy to be overly self-critical. For example, would it not be more helpful and encouraging to say to oneself, “I said my Noonday Prayer five times this week, which is an improvement over last week – I’m determined to try harder next week,” rather than, “I missed my Noonday Prayer twice this week. I’ll never be a good Bahá’í!” Another example – a mother bringing herself to account over having an argument could also give herself credit for how it was resolved – “I got into another argument with my daughter today, which I wish hadn’t happened. But we got past it sooner than usual and were able to “agree to disagree”. I guess I’m becoming more detached and my listening skills are improving.”
Do your best, don’t be a perfectionist, be kind to yourself
Baha’u’llah cares about each individual soul and its efforts to progress and be pleasing to Him. I doubt very much that He compares us to others and we shouldn’t do this either. (This doesn’t mean we can’t “vie for excellence”, but it’s hard to do this while in a spiritual slump!). Don’t expect yourself to be able to operate at your highest level at all times. Your best “performance” on a bad day (poor physical, emotional or spiritual health, too many conflicting demands, tired and stressed out, etc.) will never approach what you can achieve or demonstrate under ideal circumstances. Again, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep striving or aiming high, but our spiritual expectations of ourselves should not be so lofty that our efforts are doomed to failure, robbing us of self esteem and the nobility the Creator has bestowed on each of us.