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We all look both ways before crossing the road. We try to save, instead of wasting our money. When someone we love dies, we mourn. Life is very real. We don’t treat it like a game at all. One false move and it’s all over. But should we take life this seriously?
According to Abdu’l-Baha,
this present life is even as a swelling wave, or a mirage, or drifting shadows. 1
This sounds similar to other forms of spirituality that talk of the world as an illusion. According to this view, everything we see around us does not actually exist. But I don’t think this is what Abdu’l-Baha is saying. He compares life to a wave or mirage or shadow – that is, life is even as or like these things. Life is not literally a shadow, and much less an illusion. He explains that
the existence of beings in comparison with the existence of God is but illusion and nothingness. 2
However, there is another subtle but profound difference: an illusion is not real, a shadow is. Though a shadow pales in comparison to that which it is a shadow of, it does, nonetheless, exist. Though it lacks the three dimensions and vibrant colours of the object it shadows, its two dimensional silhouettes are here in the world. And this has an impact on how we treat this world.
If we see the world as a complete illusion, then we may think that nothing we do has any sense. We may think that there are no meaningful consequences to our actions or any pressing need to engage in any activity at all. The task of life then becomes simply seeing through this illusion. But if we see the world as a shadow, while we try to see the Truth that exists beyond the world of shadows, we realise that at this time, we are living in this world. So while we attempt to spiritually transcend it, we also participate in it with an awareness of its limitations.
There is a story of Baha’u’llah that illustrates this awareness of life’s lightness of being:
When Baha’u’llah was a boy He attended a puppet show about a king and his kingdom. Baha’u’llah explained that “When the royal audience was ended, the curtain was drawn, and, after some twenty minutes, a man emerged from behind the tent carrying a box under his arm.
‘What is this box,’ I asked him, ‘and what was the nature of this display?’
‘All this lavish display and these elaborate devices,’ he replied, ‘the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box.’
I swear by My Lord Who, through a single word of His Mouth, hath brought into being all created things! Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle. They have never been, nor will they ever be, of any weight and consequence, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed.” 3
So we learn that life is like a puppet show. All the things that we aspire to and even fear are just characters or props that are part of this show. They have no intrinsic value and are not worth pursuing or fleeing.
It is clear that all of us need to live with this awareness so that we do not become consumed in a pursuit of money, fame or pleasure. Yes, we can partake of the things of this world but as long as they do not stand between us and God. When we get caught up in life and forgetful of God, we are taking the puppet show as real. We still need to play our part in this cosmic drama. But we need to do so with a consciousness that it is just a show: real, but not as real as Ultimate Reality.
The same analogous relation exists between board games and life. They are just games. But when we play them we play to win. Even a simple board game can get heated as family members vie against each other. This is when they forget that it is just a game. They get fired up and confrontational and play as though the game were real life. Then there is the opposite: when someone playing the game is not really playing at all. They are not even trying – just sitting there and going through the motions. They are “playing” with the view that the game is completely meaningless. But there are also those who are earnestly playing the game with an awareness that it is just a game. They have a detached yet determined approach.
So this, I think, is the approach to take to life itself. Seeing the world as just an illusion can lead to a life of seclusion or apathy. But to see life as a reflection of the Spiritual Realm gives us the appreciation of its divine nature but also the detachment to not get caught up in it. We can live life like it is a game. Not a game to simply amuse us: a game that we do our best at with a constant consciousness that it is a game. Actually, it is the ultimate game: a game created by the all-knowing God for our spiritual training.
If we do not engage in the game wholeheartedly, then we lose our chance to win the tokens that are our currency in the next world. Those “tokens” are the virtues that we acquire by participating in the game of life. We acquire them as we face the challenges in life. It is not so important what happens to us, but how we react and learn. We cannot play with poor sportsmanship. If we just stop caring, and then stop trying, we have also missed the point. The point is to keep playing and trying to use each opportunity as a chance to move higher up the spiritual ladder.
But the important thing here is that we are not competing against one another. Though we play this game of life with others, and need to, we are only ever competing against ourselves. We look back and look forward from where we used to be to where we are and where we want to be. We reflect on our coursings through this world and assess how well we have met life’s challenges and challenge ourselves to climb higher to our soul’s advantage.
- Abdu’l-Baha, Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 320
- Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 319
- Baha’u’llah, Summons of the Lord of Hosts, pp. 167
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