Let us suppose – just for the sake of it – that there was a sort of a toy that you could play with, over and over again, for as long as you wanted to. A toy that never wears out, and that always works as well as the very first time you played with it. Only this isn’t a physical toy (because all physical things do wear out), but a mental one.
This toy has two positions, or two valences, along with the dual possibility of being either in one of these positions or the other. One of these possible positions repels you unutterably whilst the other attracts you more intensely than you could ever have believed possible.
So how do you play the game? The answer is immensely simple and stupendously, ridiculously easy to grasp. How you play the game is (of course!) by moving from the position that repels you, and which – quite frankly – engenders within you severe and unremitting pain, to the position that attracts you, and provides you with great pleasure. The task of actually moving from Position A to Position B is a demanding one however and requires your undivided attention – when you attend to this task it absorbs you completely. It engrosses you so that it becomes your whole world. When you are working at this task you can think of nothing else, except for the joy that will be yours when you succeed, the joy that comes when you finally make it to Position B.
Sometimes it works the other way too, and instead of dreaming happily about the joy that awaits you upon the successful completion of the task, you become convinced that you never will succeed and you brood darkly upon this idea instead. You dwell on the idea that you will never make it to Position B. You might then give up trying altogether, and sit there in darkness, consumed with hopelessness and despair. At other times you might still keep on trying, hoping against hope that you will succeed, but have to fight constantly against nagging doubts – troubling, crippling doubts about your ability to obtain the goal that you desire so much.
These are some of the different ways in which the game can be played, some more fun than others, and some – to be quite frank about it – no fun at all. The task itself may become highly sophisticated, involving many sub-tasks. Each sub-task may in turn consist of a myriad even smaller modules, each one of these being made up of many hundreds of annoyingly tricky and intricate details that each need to be correctly attended to. No matter how convoluted and intricate the task however it all comes down to the same thing. It all comes down to getting from the position which you don’t like to the one that you do like. The euphoric rush that is obtained when you do finally manage to overcome all the many difficulties (when you finally get there) is astonishing. It is absolutely immense.
As we were saying, even thinking about the successful resolution of the task brings tremendous pleasure. But then again – as we were also saying – if you start to lose confidence in yourself and doubt therefore your ability to win out over all the difficulties, and get from A to B, then worry and anxiety can quite easily eat you up. It can gobble you up completely until there’s nothing left of you but a quivering mess.
Once the dark shadow of possible failure falls over you this can change the nature of the game entirely. The prospect of failure can hypnotize you, transfix you, overwhelm you. Icy fingers of sheer dread will clutch at your innards, squeezing remorselessly, squeezing the very life out of you. Your ability to play is then compromised and you will be permanently stuck – unable even to carry out the simplest little step because of the self-doubt that has you paralysed. All you can do is look enviously at all the other players as they make their way triumphantly towards the successful conclusion of the game. As they finally succeed where you cannot, and reap the reward that you will never ever get to enjoy.
This game isn’t designed to be played just once but many times. It is designed to be played over and over and over again. The way this works is again extremely simple – the two valences, the two positions of YES and NO, GOOD and BAD, WIN and LOSE, are completely reversible. They are reversible in such a way that the much coveted GOOD position, after a short while, will revert back to the highly undesirable BAD position, which means of course that the game – the cycle – has to start all over again. It’s no good asking how this happens, that’s just the way of it. That’s the way of the game, the age-old principle.
Once the reversal happens, once Position B switches back to Position A, then the player is forced to start playing again. You will have no choice in the matter because the game sets you up in such a way that you just can’t abide the rotten pain-generating position. As soon as the pain – that old negative motivator – kicks in you have no choice but to work as hard as ever you can to get away from it. And of course there’s always the carrot, the lure, the good old positive motivator which kicks in at the same time – the hopeful prospect of succeeding at the game and reaching the wonderful pleasure-generating position.
So when the set-up ‘reverses’ on you and after all your hard work you find that you’ve gone right back to square one then the thing to do of course is to start playing the game all over again. From scratch. The game resets, it goes right back to the beginning and you have to go through exactly the same thing all over again. And then again, and again, and again…
The important thing to understand about all this is that you will very quickly get totally caught up in playing with this toy because just so long as you are playing then when you are in Position A you will want more than anything else in the world to be in Position B, but then when you get to Position B this leads right back to Position A (i.e. Position B sneakily transforms into Position A when you get there because, secretly, it was Position A all along…) and so you have to start again. There isn’t any way to get off the merry-go-round. There isn’t an exit, there isn’t a ‘stop’ button, there isn’t a let-out clause.
And what is more, not only is there not a way to get off the merry-go-round, there is no way of knowing from within the game that it actually is a merry-go-round. The game has a hypnotic quality that is totally overwhelming, like all good games do, like all addictions do. You get drawn into it, you get seduced by it, you caught up with it. And as you get sucked into it more and more (as you will) you loose track of yourself entirely…
Even if there was a move within the game that you could make to quit the game you wouldn’t want to because – in your crazed, hypnotized state, you are convinced that you are on the very point of winning. You are convinced that you are only the very point of achieving the goal of reaching a Position B that will not this time immediately revert back to Position A.
This time it will be different, you know, and no power on earth is sufficient to drag you from the game. Not when you have made such a big investment in it. Not when you are so very, very, close…
Only the point is that it isn’t you thinking that at all, it’s the game thinking it through you because the game has got into you. The game has got into your head. The game has become you, it has replaced your real thoughts with its thoughts and you cannot tell the difference because – as we have said- this is the sort of game that you really can lose yourself in. That is a very special property of the game, the defining property of the game.
At first when we were talking about this toy, this marvellous Mind Toy, it may have sounded quite fun. “Yes,” you might have thought to yourself, “I wouldn’t mind playing that game.” Now, I expect you are having second thoughts. Probably it doesn’t sound like quite so much fun after all. It probably doesn’t sound like such a good idea at all. If you’re sharp enough (if you’re not already a prisoner of some deadly, dualistic mind game), you might even realize that it’s the worst idea ever.
So if you come across a game like this, think twice before pressing the PLAY button. If you come across the deadly Mind Toy lying around somewhere, looking perfectly harmless, inviting and enticing you to play it – whatever you do, don’t pick it up….!
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.