[Note: This is a chapter from a currently-unpublished book I’m (slowly) writing on meditation and mindfulness.]
As a spiritual being, one possible way to think of life here on Earth is as a “game” that serves as a training ground for the soul. It’s a game like other games, so it has many levels, and they get harder and harder as you progress. So in this case, the better you become at the game of spirituality — The Soul Game — the harder the levels become.
To help set some rules for the game, let’s say that it has fifty levels. The first time you play the game you’re born here on Earth in Level 1. Hopefully you score some points and move up, so maybe by the time it’s “game over” for your first lifetime, you’ve passed Level 9 and you’re playing on Level 10. Maybe you get a brief break in between lifetimes — The Tibetan Book of the Dead apparently says you get 49 days — but the next time you’re born you start right where you left off, at Level 10.
This brings me to a very important rule: Once you start playing the Soul Game, you’re strapped in for eternity. (That was clearly mentioned on page 52 of the End User License Agreement.) Once you’re in the game there are only two ways out:
You reach Level 50. When you get to Level 50, you win, your soul has reached its maximum potential. You’re an enlightened being and you’re free to move on.
You play so badly that you drop down below Level 1. Maybe there’s a Level 0, but at some point if you keep going backwards you’re kicked out of The Soul Game and forced to play The Hell Game. I have no idea if it’s possible to ever get out the The Hell Game, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to want to be there for all of eternity.
Those are the basic rules. I’ll explain more as we go on.
So, when your soul is ready to play the game, you put a few tokens in the slot, press a button, and you’re conceived as a newborn baby, a little avatar here on Earth.
If this is the first time you’re playing the game you start at Level 1, but if you’ve played before you may be at Level 2, Level 10, etc. Remember that these are levels of increasing difficulty, so Level 1 is a basic starter life, but if you’re born into Level 10, the game is immediately harder.
When you’re born, you’re a helpless baby, so there’s not much you can do to the outside world other than poop and cry, but a lot can happen to you. You may have wonderful parents who care and nurture you; you may be put up for adoption or put in a foster home; or like a friend I met in Alaska, your mother may be a drug addict and you have no idea who your father is. (She was definitely not beginning the game at Level 1.) These are just some of the situations souls are born into, depending on their game level.
As you age the game continues, and you become a more active participant in it. You interact with your family, your family gets bigger as you meet relatives and family friends, and you begin to interact with other children in your neighborhood, school, or foster home.
All during this time the game level you were born into impacts you. For instance, I was born a white male in Chicago, Illinois; financially my family was lower middle-class; and when I was young I was bigger than most other children. People tell me that I was shy when I was young, but was I naturally shy, or was it because I had a domineering father and a mother suffering with mental illness? Or was I shy because of faint memories of having played this game before? We all know of stories of people at a young age having fears, such as a fear of drowning, so perhaps, just perhaps, these are echoes from previous lives.
The important point is that your social interactions are influenced by your family, your DNA — including your natural IQ and physical appearance — your neighborhood, and even the time in which you were born.
As a small example of what I mean, when I was a young boy, every time I got a radio as a gift I took it apart. I’d take a little part to my dad and ask, “Dad, what’s this?”
He’d reply, “I don’t know, where’d you get it?”
“From inside my radio.”
“Does your radio work?”
“Well, it must be important.”
The point of this story is not to demean my father, but to say that if he knew about electronics, or a friend or neighbor knew about electronics, my life might have taken a different trajectory. Things like this seem small, but can have a tremendous influence on the arc of your life, and in my game this is how things were. In fact, perhaps a test at my game level was to see if I could overcome my shyness to find a friend at school I could share this interest with, like the Ham Radio kids in Stranger Things. (I didn’t.)
Getting back to your interactions with others ... the key for the Soul Game is, how do you handle these interactions? Are you kind to others? How do you respond when they’re unkind to you?
As you read those questions, did interactions come to mind that you handled well ... or not so well?
As you become a teenager the challenges become more complex. From what little I know, girls seem to think and worry a lot. Meanwhile, boys often don’t think much at all. (I assume that you get extra points for playing the Soul Game as a girl.)
As the testosterone and estrogen kick in, the challenges become more complex:
- A boy likes a girl, but she doesn’t like him
- A boy likes a girl, and she does like him
- A boy likes a girl, but she can’t decide between him and another boy, and the other boy wants to fight you
All the while, you’re just trying to get through high school, wishing the zits and insecurities would go away, and grownups keep asking what you want to be when you grow up.
A key is that all of these things are tests and challenges within the game, just like bumpers and potholes and cliffs and flying saucers that shoot at you while you try to get to the finish line. In the Soul Game, if you continually respond with lovingkindness, you gain points and move up levels. But if you act with ego and pride, the opposite happens and you lose points and go backwards, losing levels.
This brings us to an important point: The basic game goes from Level 1 to Level 50, but it’s really a little more complex than that. If you’re at Level 1 and you do things to lose points, you’ll eventually find that the Soul Game comes with a built-in ejection seat. You’re kicked out the Soul Game and injected into a new game: The Hell Game. And good luck with that because I don’t know if there’s any way out of that one.
(Technically, if this is your first time playing the Soul Game you may only drop from Level 1 to Level 0, depending on the infractions you committed. But at this point we’re getting deep into the rule book, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to have to rely on a judge’s interpretation of the deeper rules.)
While I’m talking about game levels, this is a good time to remember the saying, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle.” That saying makes a lot of sense now, doesn’t it? If you’re born at Level 1 you’re not going to have a lot of problems, but if you’re bombarded by a ton of challenges, guess what? That’s good news — it means that you’re already playing the game at a high level!
A key point here is that if you think your life is hard, don’t wallow in self-pity. Self-pity is a personal foul that only results in the loss of points. Just imagine, if self-pity causes you to lose points and fall down levels, you’re only going to have to work harder to get back to the level you’re already at.
Instead — snap out of it! Look around and you’ll probably see millions of people who have it harder than you: helpless children born into horrible poverty or with terminal disease; people forced to fight in wars who then lose body parts and watch as friends are killed. Realize that you’re born into a hard level for a reason. Be grateful to be at a hard level, find support, have courage, and fight.
While I’m talking about religious phrases, another great one is, “Judge not, that ye not be judged.” You know what happens you judge other people and their situations? You lose points! You lose points, fall down to lower levels, and therefore harm your own soul.
A fun antidote to judging other people is to be mindful and notice how many times every day you judge other people. It goes like this:
- You say something bad about someone else, a judgmental thought.
- A moment later you’re mindful of your actions, and realize what you just said.
- You think, “Holy crap, I can’t believe I just judged someone else ... again. That’s like the tenth time today. I am totally losing points.”
When you’re mindful, you will eventually catch yourself before you say things.
Somewhere during all of this you become self-aware, and at some point you realize that your parents aren’t perfect. This may happen when you realize that your dad has affairs with women who aren’t your mom, or when you realize that your mother is abusive and mean. You don’t want to say it out loud, but it occurs to you that your parents are playing the game at a lower level than you’re currently playing it at. This thought naturally bothers you.
There are two things going on here. First, your parents are playing the game at their own level. Depending on your situation they may be playing it at a higher or lower level than you, but whatever level they’re at, that’s their problem, their karma, the result of how they’ve played the game since they first entered it.
Second, they’re a challenge for you, just like a bumper or pothole or flying saucers shooting at you. If they’re at a higher level than you, they may be playing a role of a Helper, but if they’re playing at a lower level, they’re a test, and the challenge for you is how you handle this test — an extremely personal test.
During this process of becoming self-aware you will realize that your family is very wealthy, very poor, or somewhere in between. This too is a test: how do you deal with this situation? If your family is poor, what do you do? Do you help out in any way you can? Do you steal to get what you want? If your family is wealthy, do you help out the poor, or do you feel that you’re special because you were born into a wealthy family. This is another test for your soul.
For example, if you feel grateful that you were born into a wealthy family and use that fortunate position to help other souls, you’re passing this test, gaining points, and moving up levels. But if you think you’re special because you were born into a wealthy family, you’re only fueling your ego, pride, and desires, so guess what? You’re not handling this well, you lose points, and fall back levels.
From a rebirth perspective, the wealth of your family can be a major challenge in the game. For instance, if you’re born into poverty you might be coming into the world at Level 49, because the purpose of the game levels getting harder is to see how your soul behaves in the most difficult circumstances. So being born in the worst of circumstances may well be Level 49.
Conversely, being born into a wealthy family, that’s a low-level test. I’ll call it a Level 2 test, because everything is going to be as easy as it will ever be: you’ll have a nice home, healthy food, safe surroundings, the best schools, the best healthcare, etc. When you’re poor you’ll have to work all the time, so there’s little free time for soul-nourishing things like prayer, meditation, yoga, volunteering to help others, or even vacations. But when you’re born into a wealthy family, there’s plenty of time and opportunity to do all of these things to improve your soul. As usual, the test is in how you handle the situations you’re put into.
As life continues you won’t know if you’re gaining or losing points, but if you pay attention you’ll occasionally see the hint of a scoreboard:
- Your child looks at you with love ... or fear
- People go out of their way to thank you for something you’ve done
- A once-scared dog you adopted happily greets you with a wagging tail and joy in their eyes when you come home from work
As you age inside the game simulator, the challenges continue:
- You have a parent or grandparent who is old and frail and unable to care for themselves. What do you do when this happens?
- You own a business and have a choice: Should you be ruthless and try to make as much money as you can, or do you take care of your employees and contribute to your community?
- Your spouse is stricken with a serious illness. Do you stay, or run?
- You’re married to a terrific spouse, and then one day you run into someone else you like, maybe the proverbial neighbor’s wife. Or maybe your spouse has this problem. How do you handle it?
When you think of life as a game for training your soul, in that last situation you can imagine that a referee comes running into your face, blows their whistle, and yells, “Personal foul: Coveting your neighbor’s wife. That’s a fifteen-yard penalty.” Or in this case, a major loss of points and a setback of many levels.
If you constantly handle your challenges with lovingkindness, you may move up many levels and find yourself feeling like a spiritual success. This is usually when you get punched in the gut, because that feeling comes from the game challenges known as pride and ego.
For instance, you may think you have great peace of mind and you’re doing good things for other souls, and then the person who becomes the President of the United States is one of those Level 2 people, born into a wealthy family and not handling it well. So they have a tremendous ego and desires, and everyone can see that they’re clearly moving backwards from Level 2, but they’re also in a position of extreme power. The test for you is how you handle this.
One way of thinking is to hope that for the good of the world that this person chokes on a Big Mac and keels over. I used to think that way, and sometimes I still do. But if you think of life in terms of being a game for the development of your soul, you realize that this sort of thinking only hurts your score: you lose points and fall back to lower levels. So clearly thinking this way is bad for you.
It took me a long time to realize this, but wishing bad for someone else — regardless of how low-level that person is — only harms your soul. This becomes clear when you realize that it reduces your score and drops you down to lower levels. The only way you’re going to move back up to higher levels and eventually get to Level 50 is by acknowledging your feelings and finding a way to handle this situation in a more soul-nourishing way.
There are at least two ways to handle this situation that are truly good for your soul (and game score). First, I think the Christian way is to pray for that person, their soul, and in this case, the United States as a nation and the world in general. You might pray that this person finds wisdom and compassion, and that God helps everyone navigate through these difficult times. You might also pray that this situation opens the eyes of those souls who have become apathetic — the zombie souls who were just aimlessly wandering around in the Soul Game with no purpose — and that it opens their eyes to see things they really care about, whether that’s the future of planet Earth, race relations, income equality, caring for teachers and soldiers, peace with other countries, etc.
Praying is a soul-nourishing practice for many people. But these days even the Dalai Lama acknowledges that prayer alone is not enough, that people must take action. I’ll come back to this point in a few moments.
A second approach is more of a Zen Buddhist point of view, and it involves intense meditation, and training your mind. Here the goal is to get to Level 50 as fast as possible to achieve personal enlightenment. In theory, once you get to that point you’ll see the world differently and you’ll be better equipped to help with problems here.
One problem with this approach is that it may take many years — or many lifetimes — to achieve enlightenment, and the problem is here and now. Over the years this has led to a “Buddhist Activist” approach, fostered by the Dalai Lama, and pioneered by people like Bernie Glassman in New York City. Thanks to teachers like this, this approach is more common now, so you can meditate hard, seek enlightenment, and also be actively involved in your community.
Before I change topics, I’ll add just a bit more. It’s important to know that in Buddhist theology that when a practitioner reaches Level 50, they have two choices. The first is that they are no longer in this world. An old saying is that “they are in this world, but not of this world.” Either way, they made it to Level 50, so it’s Game Over, they won, and they’re free to exit the Soul Game.
The second Buddhist choice is the path of the Bodhisattva. This is a person who gets to Level 50 and wins the game, but instead of saying, “See y’all later,” they instead make the choice, “Rather than leave this world I’m going to stay right here and help as many other people as I can get to Level 50.” This is like the first climber who reaches the mountain peak, and rather than stop to look at the beautiful view, they turn around to help their fellow climbers reach the peak. This is the Bodhisattva path, and it’s a choice, one of great love, sacrifice, and service.
It can’t be stressed enough that people of all beliefs can pray, meditate, and practice lovingkindness to continue to gain game points and increase their level, AND they can also actively fight crime and corruption at the same time. As I learned through running my own company, being kind and compassionate has nothing to do with being a doormat for other people to wipe their feet on. You can stand your ground in a firm but kind manner.
For instance, if politicians aren’t doing what’s right for the people, it’s perfectly acceptable to resist them, as long as the way you resist them doesn’t reduce your game score. This involves things like peaceful resistance, protesting, writing your congressmen (and women), helping volunteers and paying lobbyists who have the time to fight for your causes, working to elect more enlightened people, even lawsuits, anything that’s done in a way that doesn’t reduce your game score (i.e., does not harm your soul).
As you continue to play the Soul Game another thing you’ll find is that there are other players within the game that are trying to help you get to Level 50. These people come in two varieties, gurus and teachers.
Gurus are the people like Jesus and Bodhisattvas, people who passed Level 50 and remain in this world to help the rest of us get there. These people are insanely rare. A simple rule is that if someone claims to be a guru, they’re not.
Instead, all of the other beings that try to help you get to Level 50 are teachers. These are priests and other spiritual people who have studied, prayed, and meditated, and generally understand the roadmap. If you ask them, “Excuse me, can you tell me how to find Level 50,” they’ll say, “Sure, what you want to do is take a left at the next stop sign, then go three blocks ...”
While these people can point you in the direction of Level 50, for various reasons they haven’t gotten there yet themselves. They may have attachments they can’t get let go of, or they may be battling addictions or fighting any number of other battles within themselves. One of their problems may be that they’ve seen the path and they know that it’s difficult, and they’re not yet ready to fight that fight.
My own experience has been that I battle my internal demons, I’m not strong enough, it wears me out, so I take a break. Then I go back and battle them again when I’m strong. Years ago I stopped fighting one time and thought, “Geez, this is like fighting a war. I’m going to take a break now, and I won’t come back until I’m ready to fight World War III.” Like a Star Wars sequel, some years later I find myself fighting World War V. So I fight, recover, fight, recover.
Getting back to these teachers — they’re human, they’re fighting their own demons, and they make mistakes. BUT, while they’re fighting their problems and working through their karma, they’re still teachers, they can still tell you to take a left at the next stop sign. And the thing is, despite their frailties, they must be somewhere past Level 1 because they have a strong desire to help others find their way to Level 50.
As Carlos Santana says, all of these helpers that try to help you get to Level 50 are angels, and that’s a wonderful thing. But where there are angels there are also demons, in this case people who for various reasons have lost their way and are in the territory below Level 0, somewhere underground, if you prefer. You’ll meet these demons at all stages of the game, and the closer you get to Level 50, the harder they’ll work to find your remaining weaknesses.
Buddhists have a concept of a temptress-demon named Mara, and the closer you get to Level 50 the more you’ll get to know her. In my deepest levels of practice the things she throws at me are sex, anyone threatening anyone else, concern for loved ones, and the inability to have forgiveness for certain people. When I’m strong and have things under control and demons try to come after me, I smile, shake my finger like Dikembe Mutombo, and say, “Mara, you sneaky little devil, that was a nice try.” And then on the times she does get me I yell “Mara!” in the same way that Captain Kirk yells, “Khan!” If nothing else, it helps to give the demons a name.
So that’s the game. What’s left to say?
The first thing to say is that the Soul Game is just a model, a way of thinking. For example, if you go to business school they teach you various business models. If you become a doctor or a lawyer, that’s known as a service business where you charge by the hour. You’ll never make a billion dollars, but you’ll make a very nice living. Another business model is to make one thing and then sell it millions or billions of times. That’s McDonalds, and Apple and Microsoft. Just like those models, the Soul Game is a model to help explain spiritual life here on Earth. But remember, it’s just a model.
Second, there’s a trick to the game: Just like when you’re truly immersed in any game you’re playing, you can’t think, “I’m going to help this little old lady across the street and gain 1,000 points.” Instead you have to instinctively know the rules of the game, and then play it as hard as you can. Then you help the little old lady across the road without thinking.
One day when Ram Dass was with his teacher, a guy known as the Maharaj-ji, someone asked the Maharaj-ji, “I’m a Christian, how should I meditate?” The Maharaj-ji answered, “Meditate the way Christ did, he lost himself in love.” So help that little old lady across the street because you have lost yourself in love.
(If for some reason that’s not enough, Ram Dass has another saying: “Treat everyone you meet as God in drag.”)
Third, while striving to gain points for the sake of gaining points is bad for your soul, I do think it’s helpful to think, “If I root for the President to choke on a Big Mac, I will lose points, and in the end that only harms my soul.” I personally find that to be of seeing my own angst, and then preventing hatred from harming my soul.
A final “trick” to the game is that you must have a firm resolve to play it until the end of eternity. You must be willing to play it forever if that’s what it takes for you to reach Level 50. Zen Master Seung Sahn says, “Only go straight — don’t know. Keep a mind which is clear like space, try, try, try for 10,000 years.” This means two things: lose yourself in the game — lose yourself in love, and also have the resolve to show lovingkindness for eternity.
It’s important to have this resolve for eternity, not just for your own soul, but for the sake of all beings. Since the dawn of time new souls are always entering the game, and just as there have been evil-doers and people giving into temptation since the beginning of time, they may always be there in the future. And the doers of evil who are in positions of power — those people who are racking up tremendously low negative scores — their souls will be the hardest to save.
They all need your help.
So know what’s good for your soul, immerse yourself in the game, be a helper, and play it from the heart, without thinking.
People who know me know that I often have lucid dreams, and in the case of this story, I found myself writing it while asleep, early on the morning of April 5, 2019. When I became lucid in the dream I was already working on the story, so I continued to work on it while I was asleep, and then I decided to wake myself up, make a pot of coffee, and type it up. This was just after 4:30am.
Also, please note that I don’t yet have permission for the images used in this post. Hopefully I can find the people who originally created them and keep them here. (The first “Level 1” image comes from the parking garage at Boulder Community Hospital. I took that one.)