Baha’u’llah defines detachment in a couple of places. The succinct version comes in Words of Wisdom: “The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand as witness before Him.” (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh) A longer explanation appears in Commentary on ‘He who knows his self knows his Lord’:
“ Thou hast inquired about detachment. It is well known to thee that by detachment is intended the detachment of the soul from all else but God. That is, it consisteth in soaring up to an eternal station, wherein nothing that can be seen between heaven and earth deterreth the seeker from the Absolute Truth. In other words, he is not veiled from divine love or from busying himself with the mention of God by the love of any other thing or by his immersion therein. …  By detachment is not meant giving away and depleting all one’s wealth. Rather, it denotes turning unto God and supplicating Him.”Commentary on ‘He who knows his self knows his Lord’, paragraphs 6 and 7
I think that, through these two passages, it is clear what Baha’u’llah means when he talks about detachment. He is referring to forgetting everything but God.
Now, here’s the key thing about this, as I see it: these definitions make it crystal clear that detachment does not mean detaching from one’s authentic self. In other words, Baha’u’llah’s injunction that we must be detached is not a requirement that we ruthlessly cut ourselves off from what we love and what we truly feel and what we believe to be true because these are all somehow our evil desires. Thirty-five years ago, when I had not been Baha’i for very long, I was devoted to doing my bit for the community. I was on the local assembly and gave all my spare hours to its service. I did this to the detriment of my daughter and my health. I thought that was detachment. I put aside things I loved and valued, thinking I was doing the right thing. The other thing I neglected was my devotional life. With all that I was doing, I didn’t have much mental and inner space for devotions as well. I suffered burn out and had to resign my duties on the assembly. I was viewed with a critical eye for having let everyone down.
Looking back, I see that it was all wrong. It wasn’t detachment at all. What had actually happened was that I was sucked into a vortex of activity that spun the life out of me. The situation was actually abusive. It impacted on my mental health. The community culture encouraged, and relied on, a person to sacrifice their authentic self. This was seen as selfless service. Who I truly was and my genuine needs were not valued. Many years ago, I read on social media a Baha’i man complaining bitterly that he had so much to do each day that he did not have even 10 minutes to spend in devotions.
Forty years later, and I see this situation completely differently. Here’s the deal now. Devotions are front and centre of my life. I take all the time I need each day to talk to Baha’u’llah: read his writings and pray to him. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of this. I believe that this is detachment. Putting devotions first. Baha’u’llah says in AHW 16: “O son of light! Forget all save Me and commune with My spirit. This is of the essence of My command, therefore turn unto it.” Because, all power rests in the hands of Baha’u’llah. We can achieve nothing in the world without his permission and assistance. All effort and activity in the world is useless unless it is done in the context of our personal connection to him. Try forging ahead without it, and you’re not only wasting your time – you really are in the realm of your own desires. The point in life isn’t to turn yourself inside out trying change the world under your own steam; the point in life is to detach from the world and connect to Baha’u’llah, and through his divine blessings influence the world through the authentic self.