The Secret of Life: Seeing in Symbols

If you search online for the topic “the secret of life,” you’ll find a hundred books with that title and a thousand explanations from various bloggers and writers – but not much that’s really useful in reality.

Here, from the Baha’i teachings, you’ll hopefully find the secret of life you can really use.

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Those profound teachings offer a surprising answer to our many questions about the secret of life. In a talk he gave in New York during his trip to America in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha said: “All the texts and teachings of the holy Testaments have intrinsic spiritual meanings. They are not to be taken literally.

This relatively simple anti-literalism advice, the Baha’i teachings say, extends to all things, if we will only:

Meditate profoundly, that the secret of things unseen may be revealed unto you, that you may inhale the sweetness of a spiritual and imperishable fragrance, and that you may acknowledge the truth that from time immemorial even unto eternity the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns.

This deep wisdom and clear advice, from Baha’u’llah’s Book of Certitude, allows us a glimpse of the “secret of things unseen.” It tells us how to react and relate to life’s tests and trials – by doing our best to comprehend what we can’t perceive in this material world, and instead relying on the symbols those physical realities represent. In his writings, Abdu’l-Baha said that this literal versus symbolic dichotomy is present everywhere:

Grieve thou not over the troubles and hardships of this nether world, nor be thou glad in times of ease and comfort, for both shall pass away. This present life is even as a swelling wave, or a mirage, or drifting shadows. Could ever a distorted image on the desert serve as refreshing waters? No, by the Lord of Lords! Never can reality and the mere semblance of reality be one, and wide is the difference between fancy and fact, between truth and the phantom thereof.

Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place is only its shadow stretching out. A shadow hath no life of its own; its existence is only a fantasy, and nothing more; it is but images reflected in water, and seeming as pictures to the eye.

We live in the physical world, and sometimes it seems that material things represent the sole reality. But the Baha’i teachings point out that the opposite is true: the physical objects we see every day are impermanent and fleeting, and only the spiritual realities last indefinitely.

This means that everything in the material world – our possessions, our surroundings, even our bodies themselves – exist to serve as symbols of eternal spiritual truths. As always, the lesser realities stand for the greater ones.

Even as we encounter life’s hard obstacles – when we have problems with our jobs, our finances, our health, our relationships, our frame of mind – these tough trials and tests have a spiritual purpose, according to the Baha’i teachings. They are meant to teach us to transcend the physical and focus on our spiritual lives. 

The Baha’i teachings encourage everyone to lift their eyes from the present to the future, and to see beyond the temporal to the symbolic, as Abdu’l-Baha repeatedly said in his speeches and talks in the West:

  • The outer edifice is a symbol of the inner.
  • The outer sun is a sign or symbol of the inner and ideal Sun of Truth, the Word of God.
  • Temples are symbols of the reality and divinity of God – the collective center of mankind.
  • Be not satisfied with words, but seek to understand the spiritual meanings hidden in the heart of the words.
  • God has never created an evil spirit; all such ideas and nomenclature are symbols expressing the mere human or earthly nature of man.
  • … the Revelations of St. John are not to be taken literally, but spiritually. These are the mysteries of God. It is not the reading of the words that profits you; it is the understanding of their meanings.
  • As to the record in the Bible concerning Adam’s entering paradise, His eating from the tree and His expulsion through the temptation of Satan: These are all symbols beneath which there are wonderful and divine meanings not to be calculated in years, dates and measurement of time. Likewise, the statement that God created the heaven and the earth in six days is symbolic.

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If you look around you and begin to consider what you observe in this light, you’ll start to see in symbols and to joyously understand the deeper meanings of life:

… no comfort is greater and no happiness is sweeter than spiritual comprehension of the divine teachings. If a man understands the real meaning of a poet’s verses such as those of Shakespeare, he is pleased and rejoiced. How much greater his joy and pleasure when he perceives the reality of the Holy Scriptures and becomes informed of the mysteries of the Kingdom!

When the symbols of life start to become apparent – when you look beyond the obvious and begin to see life’s true purpose and goal – you’ll reach for true knowledge and wisdom. As Baha’u’llah wrote, you’ll uncover the secret of life by understanding that God has fashioned two realities – the ephemeral, symbolic material world and its eternal counterpart:

Every created thing in the whole universe is but a door leading into His knowledge, a sign of His sovereignty, a revelation of His names, a symbol of His majesty, a token of His power, a means of admittance into His straight Path ….

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