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‘Game Failure’

Life is an ongoing movement into the unknown and no matter how many times this might occur to us, it’s never going to seem commonplace. No matter how many times we say this it is never going to become a tired old cliché. How can contemplating the quintessential truth that life is a movement into the unknown ever fail to thrill and amaze us? No one can become blasé or cynical about this.



The observation that life is a movement into the unknown is only half the story however – there is another side to this too. The ‘other side’ to this statement is that we are all very much afraid of this essential movement and – because of our fear – we exist in denial of it. When we exist in denial of the ongoing movement into the unknown then life – of course – takes on a very different character. Instead of experiencing ourselves as ‘moving into the unknown’ we experience ourselves as ‘moving from one known to another’ and this – needless to say – is a different kettle of fish entirely.



It is very possible – more than just possible – for the ‘movement’ from a known origin to a known destination to grow stale, to grow wearisome to us. One known is pretty much the same as any other after all – the flavour (insofar as ‘the known’ might be said to have one) is the same across the board. This is like saying that all thoughts have the same flavour or that all concepts have the same flavour – no matter what thoughts we might have and no matter what concepts we might entertain they are all coming out of the very same factory, they are all coming out of the thinking mind.



When we are seeing everything from the POV of the thinking mind then there can seem to be great diversity within the realm that is created by thought, they can appear to be a tremendous difference between one concept and another, one goal and another idea in another. Crucially, there appears to be a vast and all-important difference between the situation of us ‘achieving a goal’ and us ‘not achieving a goal’. There is such an apparently wide-ranging diversity here that the realm of thought (or ‘the domain of all our possible ideas about reality’) can constitute the whole world for us. It generally does constitute the whole world for us – it constitutes the whole world for us because we don’t need anything else! Such is the apparent unending diversity in our thoughts that we very rarely feel confined by them, we very rarely feel that we are ‘missing out’ on anything else, anything bigger or more interesting.



It is our taking for granted of ‘thought’s basic assumptions’ that turns our mental projections into ‘an actual pragmatic world’ therefore – this is the mechanism that causes us to mistake the apparent diversity of the thought-created world for genuine diversity; this is how come we can live our lives within the Domain of the Known and yet at the same time not feel that we are missing out on anything, which we absolutely are! It is our taking for granted of thought’s basic assumptions that causes us to perceive ‘the movement from a known origin to an known destination’ as actual movement; it is our identification with the thinking mind that causes us to perceive the transition from ‘not having yet attained the goal’ to ‘having successfully attained it’ to seem as important as it does – it is this perception that causes us to experience euphoria when we obtain our goals, and so the experiencing of this euphoria is also totally dependent upon us ‘identifying with the thinking mind’. ‘No identification’ equals ‘no euphoria’.



Identification with the thought makes the radical unknown into ‘a non-existent thing’ therefore – there is no longer such a thing as the radical unknown and we never remark upon its absence either. We never remark upon its absence because we have no way of conceiving that they ever could be such a thing as it; the radical unknown is a ‘non-thing’ and who goes around noting ‘the absence of non-things’, things that we could never have expected suspected the existence of in the first place? Not if we lived for a hundred years would we start to wonder about the absence of the radical unknown. Having made this point, we are also bound to consider how astonishing it is that there could be such a situation as the way of living that contains absolutely no trace of the unknown and no trace of our awareness of its lack. If we were to suddenly remember that there is this thing called ‘the radical unknown’ then we would be utterly amazed and utterly flabbergasted that we could ever have forgotten it and yet if we don’t remember then we won’t miss it at all. We will carry on as if there never was such a thing, as if there ‘never was such a thing and never could be’.



Having said this however it also seems to be the case that we do in some sort of a way miss the radical unknown, but without knowing what it is that we are missing. When the game is working perfectly – the game or pretence that there is no radical unknown anywhere – then ‘the illusion is complete’. Saying that ‘the illusion is complete’ means that we really do believe that ‘the movement from one known to another’ is a genuine form of movement, a genuine form of change. We really do believe that we’re getting somewhere and this is why we are able to obtain the powerful ‘hit’ of euphoria that we do obtain when we reach whatever goal state it is that we are chasing after. The trivial movement from one known to another somehow subsumes the actual movement of life (which is as we have said ‘the movement into the unknown’) and so it becomes it, in a kind of a way. Life becomes trivialized. The journey from A to B (the ‘journey’ from one compartment of the thinking mind to another compartment) actually becomes ‘the journey of life itself’. And yet – despite the fact that the movement from A to B, the movement from one thought to another, has effectively substituted itself for the non-trivial journey from one unknown to another, this movement isn’t ‘life’ at all but something very different indeed. This movement isn’t life – it is ‘predetermined change’. What kind of a thing is ‘predetermined change’ when it’s at home, we might ask ourselves? All we need to know about predetermined (or linear) change is that it is ‘change’ that is somehow unpacked from a static formula, unpacked from a single frozen moment of time. If we know this then we also know that the so-called ‘change’ actually IS that formula, actually IS that frozen moment of time. Any appearance of change that we might perceive to be going on is therefore never going to be any more than just that – ‘an appearance’!



When the ‘appearance of change’ completely convinces then the game is intact – the integrity of the illusion has not been compromised and so there is no way in a million years that we are ever going to suspect that the illusion is an illusion. We couldn’t get our heads around the idea that the illusion is an illusion even if we tried (and we won’t try anyway because the suggestion would be quite meaningless to us in the first place). Somehow – and this is an entirely fantastical thing – we have gotten rid of life itself without being any the wiser that we have done so! We only know the trivial version of life and that does us fine. This ridiculous situation can’t last forever however – there is such a thing as ‘the integrity of the game being compromised’ and when this happens all sorts of problems (problems whose exist whose existence we have never up to this point suspected) start popping up and confounding us in our day-to-day lives. The most obvious way in which the integrity of the game can begin to fail is by the goals that we are constantly orientating ourselves to and striving towards somehow ceasing to effectively motivate us in the way that they always have done. We start to ‘lose our appetite for our favourite dish’, as Gurdjieff says. The goals themselves cease to hold the promise that they used to hold and – even if achieved – fail to deliver the punch of euphoria that they always used to deliver. Quite possibly we may get no satisfaction, no sense of achievement from them at all. What is happening here therefore is that the ‘trivial journey’ from point A to point B no longer effectively substitute itself for life itself. This petty business of ‘progressing’ or ‘achieving our goals’ is no longer substituting itself for genuine life. The petty tasks and routines of our lives no longer seem to be meaningful and fresh to us in the way that they used to and – on the contrary – they start to become utterly intolerable to us.



This is one way in which ‘the integrity of the game can fail’ and it is a more far-reaching failure than it might at first sound to be; it is a more far-reaching failure than it might seem to be because it is through the illusion of ‘positive change’ that we construct our sense of identity, our sense of ‘conditioned existence’. The perception that ‘real progress’ is in some way being made is what allows us to experience euphoria and the reason it allows us to experience euphoria is because of the perception that there is someone down who is making the progress – the ‘progress’ is only important because of the one who making it after all! This might sound as if we’re just playing around with words but we aren’t – this thing that we call ‘progress’ is a projection of the self; it is ‘the self as it likes to see itself’ (i.e. as being involved in ‘meaningful change’ or ‘change in a positive direction’). The complimentary type of projection is the projection of ‘reverse progress’ being made, change that is meaningful, but in a dysphoria-producing rather than a euphoria-producing way. This negative type of psychological projection is of course just as affirming for the self as the positive type – doing badly reaffirms the existence of the self just as much as doing well does. These are the only two ways in which the self can see itself – either in terms of how well it is doing or in terms of how badly! The self always succeeds to the same extent that it fails therefore; it is made up of euphoria to the very same extent that it is made up of dysphoria. The type of ‘failure’ that we are discussing here (which is the failure of the integrity of the game that is unconsciously being played) isn’t ‘failure to make progress’, but rather it is a failure for the goals to which we are either progressing (or not progressing) to seem meaningful to us. The game itself is failing us, in other words. The mechanism by which I create both negative and positive projections is failing me and this means that I can no longer ‘construct myself’. When the game fails then the reality the one who is playing the game also fails; the fond perception that I have of myself as a genuine or authentic person (and not just a poor sad empty ego) loses its power to convince and as a result I start to feel like a sham.



The other key way that the integrity of the game which we have been playing without admitting that we are playing can fail is through us losing confidence in our own ability to obey the rules that make the game up. This too is far more fundamental that it might at first sound – when we do have this type of confidence then we don’t even know that we have it. ‘The confidence to play the game’ is invisible to us because it is always taken so much for granted. When we do have this basic confidence then none of our attention goes into noticing the fact that we are following the rules – instead, it all goes into playing the game instead. All of our attention goes into playing the game and this is like driving a car with a manual gear shift and never having to pay attention to what our feet are doing or to how we are moving the gear stick. All we need to think about is driving the car. Were we to unaccountably forget how to change gears or forget where our feet should be then this gives rise to a type of anxiety which will fundamentally affect our ability to drive the car (as we all know). In exactly the same way therefore, when we lose confidence in our ability to follow the unstated rules that make up the game, then this totally banjaxes our ability to play the game; our attention is where it shouldn’t be – the ‘following of the unstated rules’ is supposed to be happening unconsciously not consciously. We’re supposed to take these rules totally for granted – they are not something that we’re supposed to be looking at. We are ‘doubting our very basis’ and that is a fatal error as far as playing the game is concerned…



In this type of ‘game failure’ it is not the goals of everyday life that are now meaningless but rather it is the case that we are afflicted with fundamental doubt with regard to our ability to bring those goals about. We are afflicted with fundamental doubt with regard to either ‘bringing about the desired outcome’, or ‘avoiding the unwanted outcome’ (both of which of course equal ‘playing the game’). The first type of ‘game failure’ corresponds to what we call depression, whilst the second matches what we refer to as anxiety, and both of these conditions have the same capacity to bring everyday life to an abrupt halt. In the case of depression we no longer believe in the game and so we no longer believe in ourselves, whilst in the case of anxiety is not that the game itself is in doubt so much as our ability to play it, and because it happens to be the case that outside of our ability (or otherwise) to play the game we don’t actually have any sense of ourselves (because our existence is perceived entirely through the medium of the game and what it says is true) this again means that we are ‘doubting ourselves’ in a fundamental way – the ‘integrity of the ego self’ has been breached in both cases, in other words.



Of anxiety and depression, depression is the more fundamental therefore. Anxiety punctures the functional integrity of the game-playing self because we are now thinking too much about the fact that we are playing the game (and how able or otherwise we are to be playing it. This doesn’t mean that we consciously realize that we’re ‘playing a game’ because we don’t – we are we might say semi-consciously aware of a level of game-playing that the other players aren’t, but we don’t properly realize what it is that we are aware of – we’re not seeing things clearly enough for that because we’re under far too much pressure to ‘make things right again’. This is particularly easy to see in the case of social anxiety because the only way to play the social game in a fluent way is do so unconsciously, without having our attention on the gear shifts that we are required to be making in the course of social interaction. The same is true, if less obviously so, in generalised anxiety – this business of living and getting by in life isn’t as straightforward as we naively took it to be before we started looking at it too closely. Just because a certain thing used to work for us that doesn’t mean that it always will; the universe isn’t as safely predictable as we might have taken it to be – we have now learned that even the most trusted procedure or mechanism can let us down, and this is something that non-anxious people just don’t get. In the case of anxiety we are afflicted with fundamental doubt with regard to our ability to move by design from point A to point B and this banjaxes the game because that’s what the game is! In the case of depression we can no longer believe that there is anything worthwhile or meaningful about this movement (we are glimpsing the essential sterility of the movement from one known position to another, in other words) and this jinxes the game even more – the integrity of the game relies upon there being ‘an all-important difference’ between the known point of origin and the known destination, whilst the truth is there never was and never shall be any such difference. Point B is the tautological extension of point A.



To see this truth is a profoundly disagreeable thing for the game-playing self; the paradox here is however is that were we to be ‘cured’ (so to speak) of the depression or anxiety that has afflicted us so cruelly then we would go right back to believing in the meaningfulness of positive movement (or in the capacity of the concrete ego-identity to ever change) and this is the real disaster. All we have done in this case – assuming that it actually is possible for anxiety or depression to be straightforwardly ‘cured’ in this way, which is in itself questionable – is to ‘postpone the day of reckoning’, which is always a dubious kind of victory. We have succeeded in this case in ‘re-trivializing life’. We have succeeded in perpetuating the cherished illusion that ‘sterile change isn’t sterile’ a bit longer, but how is this supposed to be ‘a good thing’?









Author: Nick Williams

Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.
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