When Abdu’l-Baha was asked how we could acquire perfections in the face of life’s obstacles, he gave what is my all time favourite Baha’i quote: “Little by little, day by day”. The standards that we strive towards as Baha’is are high. Mightily so. It’s all too easy to feel like a spiritual dwarf in the face of such a high bar. But as always Abdu’l-Baha has given us a most practical answer to the most staggering of questions. And in that answer is a powerful tool for sculpting oneself to become the Baha’i you want to be: Habit.
Life is Full of Habits
A habit is a memorised solution that makes life more efficient. Built through frequency and repetition, habits are basically learnt behaviours, that create automatic responses to situations.
When you were young your parents probably drummed into you that you had to brush your teeth before bed. Through repetition this behaviour becomes more or less ingrained in all of us from an early age. Our parents gift us with this habit because it protects us from health issues later in life. But there is nothing inherently instinctive about brushing one’s teeth. It’s something we have to learn to do.
Habits are not in and of themselves good or bad. They are simply patterns or modes of behaviour that we teach ourselves and learn from others. There are however patterns of behaviour with ‘bad’ and ‘good’ effects. Typically a habit takes time to develop, and often requires a conscious effort. However you can almost unwittingly ‘pick up’ habits too. Swearing is a good example of a habit I’ve personally found contagious, and which takes deliberate effort on my part to avoid acquiring.
Both Thoughts and Actions Can be Habits
Typically we think of actions as habits: Brushing your teeth, smoking, biting your nails, saying please and thank you, and so on. But thought patterns are habits too.
In a recent talk about Abdu’l-Baha by Tom Price, he speaks about finding and seeing virtues in everyone you meet. As Tom explains, this is the way to ‘find God’ in people, and thereby to love everyone. You can think of this behaviour as a habitual one. In other words, you need to get in the habit of doing this with everyone you meet. Unlike the habits mentioned previously, this isn’t a physical action, it’s a thought pattern that you form.
Prejudices are another type of habitual thought pattern. They are assumptions that you make about other people that you do often unconsciously and on auto-pilot. The thought pattern of prejudice is not innate, it’s in part learned from others and in part from experiences that have been incorrectly abstracted by your brain to create assumptions. Making such prejudiced assumptions is an example of a very destructive habit, that we have to work to shed.
The Cumulative Effect of Habits
There’s an old saying about saving money that goes ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’ The essence of this proverb is that small things add up to big things. And nowhere is this more important than in habitual thoughts and actions.
A habit is by definition something you do over and over again. This means they can have substantial long term effects. These can be positive (healthy teeth!) or negative (bad teeth!) depending on the habit.
When you think of an individual thought or action, it can seem no more important than a penny. What difference does it really make if you brush your teeth tonight, or look for the good in a person, or smoke one more cigarette? But piled one on top of another, these things all add up.
Whenever you consider a habit, you should ask yourself what is the consequence of this habit if practiced over a lifetime? What benefit could you reap if you had a particular habit? What adverse effect might you have if you don’t give up a different one?
It’s not hard to see that there are many things that we do, or should do, as Baha’is that can be thought of as habits. Some examples are obligatory prayer, reading the Writings morning and evening, teaching, practicing each of the many virtues, participating in nineteen day feasts, and so on.
One of the most useful habits to have in order to develop oneself is the habit of daily reflection. In the Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah writes:
O SON OF BEING! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds.
One reason this habit is so powerful is that reflection offers an opportunity to check in on any habits you are working on. For example if you are working on being more generous, it’s an opportunity to ask yourself ‘Was I generous today?’
The habit of daily reflection is a great starting point for using habits to develop yourself as a Baha’i. Get this one going and you can move mountains.
Baha’i Community Habits
An interesting aspect of the Baha’i Community is that we have habits that go beyond the individual. In fact the Universal House of Justice has been giving us habits to adopt as a community for quite some time.
There are many behaviours and ways of thinking that we have been developing as a community, such as taking a humble posture of learning, an unashamed faith in Baha’u’llah, practising accompaniment and encouragement, engaging in regular core activities and so on.
What is most interesting in all this is that it’s clear that to reap the benefits of a habit you don’t necessarily need to understand it completely. Just as a child brushing their teeth doesn’t fully understand the implications, at times we have not grasped the full magnitude of benefits inherent in the Universal House of Justice’s plans.
Like habits of the individual, community habits take effort, time and discipline to develop. And like our own personal habits, eventually these communal behaviours can become powerfully ingrained in our culture, helping us transform our communities.
The Power and Ability to Change
With some reflection, we can all think of things we’d like to change, be they negative habits we’d like to lose, or positive ones we hope to gain. But if change was as easy as wish, then life would be robbed of meaning. Change only comes with exertion and effort. Through the application of will comes reward. Baha’u’llah writes that:
Success or failure, gain or loss, must, therefore depend upon man’s own exertions. The more he striveth, the greater will be his progress.
Moreover we know that it is *never* too late to change, or to take action. In fact one of the fundamental tenets of religion is that we can all change, and that God and our faith will support us to do so.
On this the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, writes:
Our past is not the thing that matters so much in this world as what we intend to do with our future. The inestimable value of religion is that when a man is vitally connected with it, through a real and living belief in it and in the Prophet Who brought it, he receives a strength greater than his own which helps him to develop his good characteristics and overcome his bad ones. The whole purpose of religion is to change not only our thoughts but our acts; when we believe in God and His Prophet and His Teachings, we find we are growing, even though we perhaps thought ourselves incapable of growth and change!