The following is just a collection of thoughts inspired from readings in philosophy, and the Seven Valleys:
It would seem that “self” is born in the early stages of life, when we first witness our process of awareness and imagine there must be another entity, abstract and apart from the immediate experience of life, which monitors this action. Although this is merely an idea, it can seem real enough, almost as though we are driving our reality the way a camel-driver might.
Meanwhile, our only reality is our soul, which thrives on love and seeks to experience God’s love through the medium of experience. In the most advanced stages, “He will discover in all things the mysteries of Divine Revelation…”, yet this pellucid insight is obscured by the self, which by the time of adulthood has cast such a thick veil of labels and vain imaginings over the Real, that we may feel utterly remote from God at the beginning of our spiritual journey.
The self thrives on will, because the illusion that our choices affect the world is a powerful argument for the self’s reality. Never mind that between thought and action there is a gap we can neither perceive nor understand – that “there is no power or might but in God”. The self constructs for itself a throne of self-determination and actualization. While the soul dreams of nothing but the Ancient Beauty, the fantasy of the self is one of repeatedly establishing its simplistic, ideational dominion over the diverse, unfathomable nature of the real world.
The utility of self is that it causes us to experience a perception of distance from God, and this leads us to hunger for reunion. No feast is greater than the relish one experiences after a prolonged fast. In this way, the self is like a lens, bringing into bas relief the experiences of the soul, until we come to know God indirectly through the medium of what He is not, that we may more fully acknowledge Who He is.
An obedient self can assist us by applying will in directions it believes will benefit the soul. Truly, it should strive to desire no will but the Will of God. However, self is not necessary for the soul’s experience of God. I see it like a kind of womb of deeper consciousness: it abstracts us from the real world, artifically separating us from our goal, but in so doing it educates us in the ways of thirst, hunger and longing – that is, if we are finally birthed in faith, and the caul of self removed.
How can a true lover continue to exist when once the effulgent glories of the Beloved are revealed? How can the shadow endure when once the sun hath shone forth? How can a devoted heart have any being before the existence of the Object of its devotion? Nay, by the One in Whose hand is my soul! In this station, the seeker’s complete surrender and utter effacement before his Creator will be such that, were he to search the East and the West, and traverse land, sea, mountain and plain, he would find no trace of his own self or of any other soul. [Gems, pp.70-71]
The self desires power, because this alone is the foundation of its seeming existence. It seeks power through knowledge, skill, achievement, reputation, or any method which establishes it as an entity to be regarded. In a way, it strives to be a mini-God, wanting to imitate some measure of His power, wisdom, etc. Yet in the Writings there is a reiterated theme of our powerlessness, poverity, lowliness and sinfulness; and this is not a pitiful station, but part of the gift of God. Bahá’u’lláh declares: “I, therefore, beseech Thee, by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee, and which Thou hast decreed as the goal of them that have reached and attained Thy court…”
We are meant to recognize the truth of our station, and I believe self has no part in this. For if at any moment you look around at what is – without the idea of what things are, without the interposition of human conceptions and limits – all that is left, really, is mystery. Even science has admitted that it knows nothing about what the world is, only how it appears to behave with respect to the questions we ask of it. The real fabric of things is unknowable, yet our soul can have its own association. `Abdu’l-Bahá writes, in His tablet to August Forel:
The mind comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete, but the soul hath limitless manifestations of its own. The mind is circumscribed, the soul limitless. It is by the aid of such senses as those of sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch, that the mind comprehendeth, whereas the soul is free from all agencies….
We look at a teapot and say, “This is a teapot”, but in fact it is something that serves, for all intents and purposes, as a teapot. To say it “is” a teapot is where I believe the self leads us astray. There is certainly utility in the idea of a teapot, and I am not disputing this. But we cannot know the true nature of things without the soul, and to the soul, it is all a Manifestation of the Divine. It could be at once a teapot, a symbol of the divine reality, a sign, a mystic confirmation, a harbinger. We know for certain it reveals at least one of the attributes of God, and that all things are mentioned in the Book of God. What was it before? What will it be after? Aren’t these states also part of the truth of what it is? In Zen, the being of a thing is even bound up in all the things related to it, such as the teacup, the tea, the drinker and the server.
What I mean is that the self takes snapshots of the world, and then looks them over in its mental scrapbook as if truly knows the place. The soul, on the other hand, knows a thing by experiencing it. It does not want to believe in God, it wants to be with God, always, at every moment. A lover is not content with only letters; paper and ink are no substitute for her hand, her laughter. Every idea we have of God leads us astray. Blinded men, in the depths of a cave, can make no meaningful statements about light. Even if they founded their ideas on the sayings of men from the surface, they have only made sense out of words. Without sight, and a ray of the Sun to reach them, no amount of knowledge will ever bring them closer. Their souls remain trapped in their bodies as long as they dwell in that shadow-land.
But if they make their way up, and witness the light, it is not a word, or an idea, but a brightness that burns the eye with its truth. This is the difference, to me, between self and soul: the self seeks to know a thing by bringing it into its own domain; the soul knows a thing by beholding it. Thus the spiritual journey is one of seeking purity, clarity, humility, and self-honesty; it is not so much development, as devolving back to that time before the self began telling us what things were.