In the absolute unrelieved blankness of the blank world everything is of course totally blank, but we are not allowed to say that, or in any way infer it. That is bad form, that is just not the way things are done. It is proscribed, prohibited, it is not permitted. What we do, therefore, is to avoid going anywhere near this key fact, and creating an entire logically-consistent world based on the scrupulous avoiding of this all-important fact.
This creation of a non-blank world out of the blankness of the blank world is little short of an outright miracle, and we achieve this ‘miracle’ in a very curious way. What we do is to ‘dress up’ specific bits or portions of the general blankness – we talk them up, build them up, put a spin on them so that instead of looking as blank as everything else in the blank world they appear to be pretty fancy, pretty special, pretty interesting. What we produce is something that doesn’t look blank at all, something that looks just like the genuine goods, a real worthwhile article of one sort or another.
Putting a positive spin on selected bits of the greater blankness is what gets the ball rolling, this is what gets the show on the road. It is this key step that kicks everything off. Once we have produced these apparently non-blank portions of the general all-pervading blankness the game is up and running and from this point on there is literally no looking back. Having successfully produced what looks like ‘the genuine goods’ we can use this manufactured value as the basis for a whole range of different games, different entertainments. The most obvious game would be to busy ourselves trying to get hold of this especially valued element, the element of the ubiquitous blankness that has been successfully ‘spun’ to make it look ‘non-blank’. We can plot for it, scheme for it, compete for it, fight for it, dream of it, hope for it, lay elaborate plans for what we’re we will do when we finally get it, and so on…
And if I do obtain the prize then I can then justifiably launch into a big round of celebrations – I can feel triumphant and jubilant and go around the place playing the part of the victor to whom belongs the spoils. I can go over the fact that I am in possession of the prize over and over again, like a cow chewing the cud, so as to prolong – as Krishnamurti says – the pleasure for as long as I possibly can. In addition, I also have the possibility of very satisfactorily preoccupying myself by constructing fortifications and defences around what I have obtained to make sure nothing bad can happen to it. I can develop it, optimize it, build upon it.
And then, even after the moment of glory as past, I can still get some value out of it because I can go over it and over it, I can rehash it, I can relive it again and again in my memory, I can bask in the glory of it, I can get all nostalgic about it and tell everyone how the world will never see the like of those days again, etc, etc.
So even with this one very basic way of relating to the manufactured value a whole compelling world of self-distraction opens up for us. And all of the above-mentioned business is only one half of the possible range of what is available to us with regard to this basic range of possible ‘desire and possession-type scenarios’. We still have the negative side of the story to consider – instead of preoccupying myself with thoughts of how good it is going to be to acquire the valued outcome, what I will do with it when I obtain it, and so on, I can go into the exact opposite scenario and absorb myself with thoughts of how I may not be able to get the result I want. I can consider all the multitudinous ways things might go wrong, how terrible it would be if I failed to acquire the ‘good’ outcome and obtained the ‘bad’ outcome instead.
And then – moving on from the realm of anticipation (which is a world in itself) into the situation where the game plays out and I really do fail instead of winning, then I have the possibility of going around feeling thoroughly bad about the fact. Instead of positively gloating on my prize, I gloat in a negative way upon my failure: I go over the disappointing drama of what has happened over and over again and preoccupy myself this way instead. I consider the fact of how unlucky I was, how terrible or how unfair it was that things worked out the way they did. I berate or lament my unhappy fate and create a story based on loss and failure instead of possession and success.
The negative scenarios are every bit as rich a source of distraction as the positive ones when it comes down to it – there is just as much mileage to be out of failure as there is to be had out of success, the only difference is that instead of being pleasant or pleasurable in nature, it is of course unpleasant and painful.
So far we have only touched upon the most basic or obvious game, both in its positive and negative aspects, the positive aspect being ‘pleasurable anticipation’ and the negative being ‘anticipation that is disagreeable in its nature to the exact same extent that positive anticipation is agreeable’. Curiously, we value the positive type of anticipation and try our best to encourage and cultivate it (referring to it by such terms as optimism, positive thinking and ‘believing in your dreams’) and yet have no regard at all for the latter (which we call pessimism, negative thinking, and anxiety) and try to cure ourselves of it in whatever way we can. The one thing even our most erudite professors of psychology fail to see (because – very obviously – we as a culture don’t want to see it) is that if we wish to play the ‘anticipation game’ – which we undoubtedly do – we have to put up with both sides of the coin, not just the one we like. After all, if we want to play a game, any game, this entails having a hearty dread of losing to the exact same extent that we being happily excited by the prospect of winning – we can’t have the one thing without the other.
The aspect of the game that we like and value and the aspect of the game we don’t like and place no value on at all are both equally ‘the game’ and so if I ‘play to win’, then it must also be true that I am ‘playing to lose’, even though I am averse to seeing this truth. As Alan Watts says, the conflict in the game is only superficial, and hides a deeper agreement. Really, we value positive and negative equally because both are equally valuable in terms of their potential for ‘self-distraction’.
In the negative scenario, instead of hanging out in the euphoria realm (into which I am welcomed with fanfare and jubilation when the desired outcome is obtained) I am consigned to the dysphoria realm, which is where I have to go when I fail to obtain the specially-valued outcome. Both the euphoria and the dysphoria are the inevitable consequences of the fact that I have blithely labelled such-and-such an outcome as being great and fantastic and amazingly wonderful – because I have labelled the outcome in this way it stands to reason that when I obtain it that is great, and because it is great, it stands to reason that I get to feel very good indeed about it. I’m over the moon. I’m on top of the world…
Contrariwise, it makes sense that if don’t obtain the outcome that I have labelled as being ‘of surpassing value’ then that is a thoroughly rotten state of affairs and so I am bound to feel correspondingly bad instead of good. But the point is that this all comes down to labelling – as Shakespeare says, “There’s nothing good nor bad, but thinking makes it so.” As soon as we label, as soon as we put a spin on the bit of blankness that we want to be special, then we call into existence the two Kingdoms – the Kingdom of Euphoria and the Kingdom of Dysphoria, in equal measure. How else could it be? What else could we possibly expect?
These two kingdoms – in exactly equal measure as we have said – go to make up the Distraction Realm that I have created to facilitate my escape from the unrelieved blankness of the Blank World. The thing about distraction is that I am making something be true (or important) because I want it to be; something or other something or other is true only because we have said it shall be true, true only because we want it to be true. What we’re talking about here therefore is – not to put too fine a point on it – cheating, i,e, the world I have created for myself is essentially unreal. This essential unreality shows itself in the fact that the euphoric pay-off is exactly counterbalanced by the dysphoric cost so that the net gain is at all times zero. We couldn’t really expect this to come out any other way – cheating always come to nothing in the end, by its very nature.
On the one hand we have the bit of blankness that we have put a positive spin on, which is the ‘especially good’ bit of blankness, and this is what kicked off the whole game so successfully. But as we have just said it is impossible to put a positive spin on something without at one and the same time putting a negative spin on something else. For example, if I look up to some people then I have to look down on others – that is how ‘looking up’ works, it has to involve ‘looking down’ in equal measure. If some people are important, then others must unimportant. If some people are cool, others are uncool. If I say that some things are beautiful, then other things must be ugly, or as it is said in the Tao Te Ching – “When the world knows beauty as beauty, then ugliness arises.”
So what this means is that we have a world containing bits of blankness that have been specially ‘dressed up’ (or ‘talked up’) so that they appear to us to be valuable and desirable, along with bits of blankness that have had negative spin put on them so that they seem to us to be ‘bad’ and undesirable, and the whole game is to get as much of the former, and little of the latter, as we can. This keeps us very busy and so we don’t have to ever consider the fact that the world we live in is actually entirely and irredeemably blank (which is to say meaningless). We have cleverly separated the blankness into two components – [+] blankness and [-] blankness and thus we have created the possibility of believing wholeheartedly in the absurd illusion that it is possible to play the game in such a way that we can get to have the positive sort of blankness without the negative sort.
This illusion is the basis for lots and lots of busyness (or lots and lots of ‘purposefulness’) and the fact that this busyness is ultimately futile, the fact that it doesn’t ever get us anywhere doesn’t matter in the slightest as far as the goal of ‘keeping ourselves effectively distracted’ is concerned.
As well as positive and negative anticipation, we also spoke about ‘positive and negative gloating’, the former being where we count all the things that have gone right for us, and the latter being where we count all the things that have gone wrong. Reviewing and recapitulating how we have obtained what has been designated a ‘success’ in the game produces a very enjoyable euphoric state of mind, whilst repeatedly going over how we have somehow ‘failed’ naturally produced a punishingly dysphoric state of mind. In everyday parlance, we talk about ‘being in a good mood’ as opposed to ‘being in a bad mood’ (or being ‘down in the dumps’), and – as always – we value and try to maximize the frequency of the former occurrence whilst heartily disliking (and trying to eradicate or minimize) the incidence of the latter. Also ‘as always’, we completely fail to see – because we don’t want to see – that it is quite impossible to on the one hand feel good about winning without also feeling bad to the same extent about losing. The two extreme poles of this game (the game that we all play) are not culturally validated or seen as normal – extreme euphoria is known as manic elation and extreme dysphoria is known as clinical depression.
Culturally validated or not however, both the extreme high or elation and the extreme low of despair are legitimate experiences within the game, corresponding as they do the logical experiential extremes of winning and losing, which are seen in their more moderate – and therefore more familiar – manifestations as being perfectly normal. Both elation and despair are legitimate results of playing ‘the game of rationality’ (the ‘game of the rational or goal-orientated mind’) which has nowhere else to go other than towards the PLUS pole or the MINUS pole. The whole of rational life is no more than a perennially vibration or oscillation between these two poles, these two extremes or WIN or LOSE, HIT or MISS, RIGHT or WRONG. Either I obtain my goal and I feel satisfied, or I fail to obtain it and feel dissatisfied – what other possibilities exist within ‘the realm of purposefulness’? Or, from the point of view of logic or rationality, we could say that no possibilities exist other than RIGHT and WRONG, YES and NO – either a particular statement (i.e. a particular ‘description of the world’) falls into one category or it falls into the other; there are simply no other possibilities within the polar world of YES/NO logic.
We could also say that both elation and depression are the legitimate or logical consequences of playing ‘the game of the concrete or literal self’ – which is the self (we might say) that unreflectively assumes itself to ‘the whole of everything’, the ‘alpha and the omega’, or ‘the only thing that matters’. If I want to play the game of the concrete self, then I have to put up with the perennial oscillation between the two poles of elation and despair, both of which are equally ‘humourless’ states, as well as being equally ‘deluded’ since it is abundantly clear to anyone who reflects on the matter that the likes and the dislikes of the concrete self or ego are not of ‘absolute importance’ at all, despite its unshakeable conviction to the contrary.
Insomuch as I am playing the game of the concrete or unrelativized self (i.e. ‘the self which has no perspective on its own likes and dislikes’) I am effectively trapped within the continuum that exists between the two poles of SUCCESS versus FAILURE, WINNING versus LOSING. There is no other place for me to be! Insomuch as I am making the assumption that my way of looking at the world is the only right way, and that what matters to me matters absolutely, then I have to exist at some point on the ‘continuum of selfishness’’ that has ELATION and DEPRESSION as its two experiential poles.
The games of ‘positive versus negative anticipation’ and ‘positive versus negative gloating’ are only two out of a number of other possibilities, however. There are lots of ‘distraction-games’ out there for me to pick if I choose. There is also the anger game, which is where I fixate upon the idea that someone or something has prevented me from obtaining the outcome that I rightfully deserve to have, and then as a result of thinking this proceed to lash out with the full force of all my righteous indignation at whoever or whatever it is. This lashing out may take the form of physical or verbal action, but most essentially it involves just going around in circles thinking the same old things over and over again, and fuming away to myself as I do so. Grouchiness, grumpiness, cantankerousness, sourness and bitterness are less intense – but generally longer-lasting – versions of the game, all of these miserable mind states perpetually revolving around the basic idea that I haven’t got what I should have and that someone else (perhaps life itself) is to blame.
Envy is another game that we use to keep ourselves tied-up in tight mental knots. Here I go along with the basic idea that someone else has got the good stuff that I myself would so love to have, and I keep going over the thought of how great that must feel for them and how horribly rotten it feels for me. As is the case for anger, although not at all pleasant to be in, this state of mind is hugely absorbing of our attention, and so as a result it is an excellent distraction from anything else apart from itself. Like anger, envy is a compulsive game where we are compelled to keep on going over the same old terrain over and over again, and suffering acutely in the process. We are allowed only to think in tight loops, about the same basic point over and over again ad infinitum, and so because we are kept on such a very short mental leash, there is zero chance of our ever concerning ourselves with the bigger picture of what might be going on in the world.
Jealousy is a closely related game in that I am fixated upon the notion that the good stuff which I have in name (which I supposedly have) is in fact, unknown to myself, being enjoyed by someone else who is getting all the pleasure that ought by rights to be mine. The awareness of this possibility torments me no end and so I am compelled to go over it in my mind, trying to work out whether it is really going on or not, looking for evidence and involving myself in a non-terminating intrigue trying to get to the bottom of what I think is going on.
Clearly, all of the above compulsive distractions – greed, anxiety (or ‘insecurity’), anger, envy, and jealousy – can work very well together and do not need to be considered in isolation from each other. It is no coincidence that the world of unbridled gung-ho consumerism which we have collectively opted to live in utilizes all of these motivational forces in order to keep us busy and keep us buying, and prevent us from ever thinking about the bigger picture. The social system taken as a whole is a composite of all of these games, along with one other game that we have not so far mentioned, which is the game which is based upon – as Chogyam Trungpa puts it – intelligent stupidity.
The game of ‘intelligent stupidity’ is where we act dumb so as to get away with something that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to get away with. This is a much less dramatic type of a game than the others that we have so far mentioned, but one that is no less compulsive (and therefore attention-absorbing) in nature. The point of all these attention-absorbing games is to create structure and regulated activity around a core nucleus of some nominal (or ‘assumed’) value. In the game of ‘being stupid in an intelligent way’ what we do is to enshrine this nominal or assumed value (i.e. value that is value because we have said that it is) in such a way that no one would ever dare to question it and then erect a whole heap of dogmas and rituals around that value – beliefs and behavioural routines that supposedly exist in honour of the enshrined and unquestionable value, but which actually exist only for their own sake.
This structure (or ‘prescribed pattern of behaviour’) is valuable to us because it gives us something to do, ‘something to be getting on with’, and as long as we have ‘something to be getting on with’ we don’t have to think about anything else. We are kept effectively unconscious. If any awkward questions arise as to why we have to spend so much of our time enacting the prescribed patterns then the finger of officialdom (which is the collective mind, or ‘the mind of the game’) immediately points to the enshrined value and we are told (in no uncertain terms) that we have to keep on adhering to the given structure because of that supreme and unquestionable value. In this way the pattern – profoundly sterile and meaningless though it may be – is unfailingly validated. Just as we can’t question the enshrined nominal value, neither can we lightly shuck the onerous duty of following the arbitrary patterns that have been laid down for us to follow.
The first example of this sort of thing that comes to mind is perhaps the Church, which validates its existence (the existence of all its offices and officers and properties and doctrines and dogmas and rituals) by pointing to God Himself. This however is only one of the more shamelessly blatant manifestations of the game – the whole of society is based on exactly this principle, the principle of validating a whole rag-bag heap of ridiculously arbitrary cognitive and behavioural routines on the grounds that it, in some way, serves the common good. Social game roles are an excellent example of how this works – being a ‘king’ or a ‘duke’ or a ‘mayor’ or a ‘judge’ or a ‘policeman’ or a ‘social security officer’ are all roles that are validated by the social system (which ostensibly exists for the public good, as we have said) and so the roles in question become effectively reified.
‘Reified’ means that they get turned into actual real things’, when the truth of the matter is that they aren’t real at all, but only arbitrary conventions –acts that we put on, but just as easily could ‘not put on’. Once reified however, we have to take the acts very seriously – we can’t turn around with a laugh or a smile and say “You’re not really a king or a duke or a mayor or a judge or a policeman or whatever” because everybody involved has completely lost sight of the fact that all these game-roles are ‘made-up’ and not real. It is the fact that the game roles have been effectively reified therefore that creates the ‘unquestionable structure’ because we are now placed in a position where we have to do what these dignitaries or officials require us to do. We have to do what the established pattern (i.e. the game) wants us to do.
This compulsivity is in fact the key ingredient in all games, across the board. The point is that we have to do whatever it is that the rules of the game say we have to do and so there is absolutely no ‘reflectiveness’ involved. We have to go around the pre-ordained merry-go-round of it all and – as a result of the lack of freedom in this regard – we are restricted to walking only on the path that has been marked out for us to walk upon. If we walk only on this path then it stands to reason that we can’t walk anywhere else, and so we won’t be aware of anything that we’re not supposed to be aware of. All games are – in this basic sense – instances of ‘intelligent stupidity’ because all games are ways in which we contrive to not know about something that – secretly – we don’t want to know about.
The actual details or nature of the game that we are playing are entirely irrelevant – the only thing that is relevant is that we shall not see that the world we are living in is a profoundly blank world, a world in which nothing ever happens and nothing ever can happen. We keep ourselves chasing after some bits of supposedly desirable blankness and trying our damnedest to keep away from other supposedly undesirable bits and this quintessentially futile but nevertheless highly pressurized activity keeps us safe from seeing that we’re not actually getting anywhere and that the whole thing is an insanely pointless exercise.
We put ourselves through hell trying our damnedest to achieve an outcome that is identical to the outcome that we are doing our damnedest to avoid! This is worse than Shakespeare’s ‘tale told by an idiot’ – this is a tale told by a madman.
In the clearest terms, the game that we are playing is the game of polarity. We are playing the game that UP is not equal to DOWN, that YES is not equal to NO, that POSITIVE is not equal to NEGATIVE. This is the game upon which rationality is founded, the game of ‘ignoring paradoxicality’. In reality, as any half-decent philosopher would tell you, ALL definite statements are paradoxical. UP means DOWN, [+] means [-] and YES means NO.
This outrageous paradoxicality is really just a way of ‘stating the obvious’ – the ‘obvious’ here being that nothing meaningful can be said within the framework of the continuum of logic. The only way that something meaningful could be said within the context of the logical continuum would be if we could have a positive statement that is not exactly counterbalanced by the corresponding negative statement, and that is a definite impossibility! That would be like putting a dent in a sheet of metal and somehow ending up with an indent on one side but no corresponding ‘out-dent’ on the other side. That would be like – as Alan Watts says – there being a transaction in which there is ‘buying’ but no ‘selling’, or ‘selling’ but no ‘buying’. That would like drawing a line on a sheet of paper that has an ‘inside’ but no ‘outside’…
Who would be foolish enough to believe that such a thing could be possible? Who would be foolish enough to believe that there could be such a thing as ‘a non-paradoxical definite statement’? The answer to this question is of course that we all would be foolish enough – that we ALL are foolish enough. That is exactly what we believe. This is what the game requires us to believe.
At this point it becomes clear what ‘the blank world’ is that we have been talking about all this time. The blank world is ‘the world of rationality’, the world that is produced by the rational mind, the world which is – perversely – the only world we ever take seriously…
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.