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The Origin Of ‘Mental Illness’ [Part 3]

The self’s nature is to play finite games, so we have said. Dogs bark, chickens cluck, ducks quack, and the self plays finite games. We might also add that the self is unable to do anything else, that it is unable not to play finite games, which is another way of saying that (for the self) playing finite games is compulsory. We can’t ever take a break; we have to ‘keep at it’ no matter what… What exactly does this mean, however? What exactly are finite games?’

From a psychological point of view, we can say that playing finite games means that we are acting so as to prevent our situation from ever changing in any unpredictable way. Unpredictable change is the enemy and it has to be successfully countered at every turn; all of our energy goes into the ‘perpetuating of the status quo’ therefore – we are staying in control no matter what and that’s what we want to do. We could also say that playing a finite game means that we are taking our position as being ‘the right one’, and thus all others as being wrong. My ‘position’ is my way of seeing the world and it has to be defended at all costs. No other way of seeing things has any validity of its own, I say, and so they have to be regarded as threats to ‘the one true point of view’. Playing a finite game thus means that anything which contradicts or challenges our core assumptions has to be devalidated, has to be dismissed, has to be conclusively demonstrated to be wrong. If we can do this then we are able to continue to see our viewpoint as being the only true one; if we can do this and we are succeeding in the game we’re playing, which is ‘the game of the self’. The finite game is a self therefore, and the self is a finite game.

The self has an essentially comedic nature, loathe though we are to recognise this. The self’s reluctance to recognise its own comedic nature is of course an important part of the comedy! This is an embellishment to the comedy, something that is thrown in for extra laughs (not to say that there weren’t plenty of laughs there in the first place). The comedy comes about because of the way in which what the self thinks and does seems to be highly important and significant from his own point of view, but which is not at all important, not at all significant, from outside of this arbitrary viewpoint! We are all aware of this vulnerability, we are all aware of how easily the ego can be insulted, and this is why we have to invest in strategies to insulate ourselves, in order to protect ourselves. Our main strategy is to form collectives such that what I see as being important is also what you (and everyone else in the group) sees as being important and in this there is obviously a great amount of comfort, a great amount of protection. A lone person is always highly vulnerable with regard to fun being poked at the peculiarities of their ways, or the peculiarities of their beliefs, but if it is a sizable collective of people that we are looking at then it is a very different story. There is strength in collusion, or so it seems; even a relatively small group of people who collude in a belief show very great immunity to the disbelief (or ridicule) of outsiders. How much more so, then, when it comes to a collusion made up of millions upon millions of people, such as go to make up the cultural identity of a major religion or nation. We agree with each other in terms of how we see the world not (as Kurt Vonnegut says) because we see the viewpoint in question as being objectively true (although the chances are that we will very quickly come to do so) but because there is safety in numbers. We’re looking for security, not the actual truth (whatever the hell that might be).

We can make the very same observation with regard to finite games: a finite game has this odd character to it whereby it declares a reality that very much seems to be true from the vantage point of its own perspective, but which is immediately revealed as being completely and utterly untrue from outside of this ‘perspective’ (if we can call it that). This is of course inherent in the very nature of games – a game is a situation where we take certain things very seriously indeed (absolutely seriously, in fact) that are actually – if we were to be honest about it – not important at all. To hear this about a game is of course not in the least bit surprising; it is unsurprising because we all know very well that a game is only what it is because we have agreed for it to be so. We all know that games are an exercise in ‘let’s pretend,’ in other words. What we don’t see however is that all of our definite or positive statements about the world are examples of a game since any statement that we might make about the world (or about anything) is only going to be true with respect to the viewpoint that we are assuming to make it. Any rational picture that we might have about the world is ‘only true because we want it to be true’; the universe – when it comes down to it – is always an enigma, as Umberto Eco says. The universe was always an enigma and it always will be but we can play the game that it isn’t if we want to, and when we do that then this is what we call a ‘finite game’. A finite game is a fundamentally ‘non-enigmatic situation’.

Here we have another way of explaining what it means to be ‘playing a finite game’ therefore – we can say that a finite game when we pretend that the Great Enigma which is the universe isn’t an enigma at all but – on the contrary – something that we know about and can understand perfectly well. We said a moment ago that we can, if we want to, pretend that the universe isn’t an enigma but to say this is (in one way) somewhat misleading. Whilst we do have to ‘agree’ to see things in this particular way – just as we have to agree to play any game (‘whoever plays, plays freely,’ as James Carse says) – this choice of ours immediately becomes invisible to us once we have made it. agreement arises not something that we can take back the article yet made it. The reason for this is that we can only look out at the world from anyone you viewpoint by excluding all own viewpoints – this is of course what it means to be looking at the world from a particular point of view. We agree – so to speak – that this way of looking at things is the only way and then – having done this – we have no way to know that there are any other ways. Not only have we limited ourselves, we have made ourselves unaware of having done so. We have ‘done away with the evidence’, so to speak; we’ve ‘forgotten’ the extra perspective that we used to have. This isn’t an unfamiliar idea – it’s like saying that when we learn to see the world in one way then this means that we can’t see it in any other way. Our attention has been ‘captured’ by the first viewpoint that we tried out and so it also becomes the last viewpoint too, despite the fact that there are infinitely more ways to see the world if only we could let go of ‘what we think we know’. Carlos Castaneda (The Eagle’s Gift. (1981, P 273-4) gives a very strong version of this idea which accords ‘The Wheel of Time’ –

Florinda assured me that that very night, while we sat in formation, they had their last chance to help me and the apprentices to face the wheel of time. She said that the wheel of time is like a state of heightened awareness which is part of the other self, as the left side awareness is part of the self of everyday life, and that it could physically be described as a tunnel of infinite length and width; a tunnel with reflective furrows. Every furrow is infinite, and there are infinite numbers of them. Living creatures are compulsorily made, by the force of life, to gaze into one furrow. To gaze into it means to be trapped by it, to live in that furrow.

We started off by saying that all the self can do is play finite games; we also said that it has to play finite games, that it is subject to an absolute compulsion to do so. Another way to put this would be to say that all the self can ever do is repeat what it has already done, over and over again, and that this is the compulsion that enslaves it. It is compelled to repeat itself, and it feels satisfaction when it does so. According to Carlos Castaneda we are compelled to ‘stare into the furrow’ and as a result of this staring into the furrow becomes the whole world, limited and unrepresentative of the whole as it is. Thermodynamically speaking, we could equivalently say that it is entropy which is trapping us, entropy meaning information that is inaccessible to us, information that is being irreversibly lost when the open-ended field of possibilities collapsed into a single determinate reality (a dull or opaque concrete reality from which there is no escape). Diverse multiple possibilities congeal or coagulate into ‘just the one possibility’, which – if only we could see it – isn’t actually any sort of possibility at all because we can’t extract one possibility from the living, breathing Universal Flux without engineering our own downfall, since to be trapped in this static abstraction of the Flux is to be trapped in a joke we cannot see as such. Saying that ‘the self is compelled to play a finite game and that this is all it can ever do’ is still missing the point somewhat however – it would be better to say that the self is compelled to play the finite game it is playing because it IS that game. It would be better to say that the self is a finite game and that every finite game is a self up  – this is the clearest way of making the point! We ourselves are the trap; ‘you yourselves are the impoverishment’, as Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas.

This brings us back to the question of what it means to be unwell in terms of what we call ‘mental health’. There are of course lots and lots of things we could say on this subject but the most essential thing we can say is that what wellness in a mental health sense always comes down to is ‘being alienated from reality without knowing that we are’ or ‘being alienated from our actual true nature without knowing that we are’ (both of which come down to exactly the same thing). The point of everything we have so far said is precisely that we lose all connection with anything real when we are engaged in playing a finite game; we lose all connection with ‘the real’ in a very thoroughgoing way and the reason for this is that reality has been replaced by a polarity. Polarity is nothing if not easy to understand: there is a ‘plus’ and there is a ‘minus’ and all we can ever do is go from one to the other, over and over again. This simple oscillatory activity substitutes itself for everything else, therefore. The problem with this scheme of things – existentially speaking – is of course that neither ‘positive’ nor ‘negative’ actually exist – we only think that they do. We very much think that they do – so much so that we see our whole lives in terms of ‘getting better’ or getting worse’ (or ‘doing well’ versus ‘doing badly’) even though existence itself has nothing whatsoever to do with either ‘getting better’ or getting worse’ (i.e. moving towards one pole or moving towards the other). Existence itself has nothing to do with swinging between positive and minus, one pole or the other; this is merely the abstract framework that we impose upon the world for our own entertainment.

Finite games equal polarity and polarity equals a finite game. In a polarity all we can ever do is oscillate between ‘plus’ and ‘minus’ and in a finite game all we can ever do a shuttle back and forth endlessly between ‘winning’ on the one hand and ‘losing’ on the other. This is a profoundly hollow experience however– it is profoundly hollow because all we’re ever doing is chasing after our own projections. Another angle we can take on this is to say that positive and negative are co-dependent phenomena – when we believe in ‘the illusion of positive’ this automatically creates ‘the illusion of negative’, we might say. From the perspective of positive there seems to be negative and from the perspective of negative there seems to be positive! When we are standing on a ‘Minus Square’ in the game then this gives rise to the projected value of the ‘Plus Square’ and so straightaway this means it makes it seem like a very good idea to move from the former to the latter. This seems like a very good idea indeed and we anticipate that we will feel one hell of a lot better if we do this, and it is this perception (along with the motivation which it engenders) that goes to create the game. Moving from the [+] Square to the [-] Square isn’t a real thing however; it isn’t a real thing because the ‘Plus Square’ is merely a conditioned hallucination caused by our standing on the ‘Minus Square’. Loses are losers because they believe there is such a thing as ‘winning’; if they didn’t believe that there is such a thing as ‘winning’ then they wouldn’t be losers!

The movement from negative to positive isn’t a real thing because we’re never moving from the same spot; this type of ‘movement’ isn’t a real thing and yet the only possible good feeling we can ever get in a game is the good feeling that we get from either winning or thinking that we are going to win! The only type of good feeling we could ever get in a game is the type of good feeling that relates to winning – what other type of good feeling could there be? It’s either that or nothing and the point here is that ‘winning’ – as we keep saying – is an unreal thing! So – at the risk of labouring the point – what we have here is the situation where the only thing we have to keep us going is the anticipation of the glory winning, and the wonderful good feeling that this will bring, and winning isn’t a real thing. This is why we can say – without any fear of contradiction – that a game (any game) is at all times a totally sterile situation. This doesn’t of course mean that ‘we should never play games’ – but it does mean however is that we shouldn’t turn the whole of life into a finite game. We shouldn’t turn the whole of our life into a finite game because if we do this then there isn’t going to be any meaning in our life! There will still be ‘the meaning of winning’ (or ‘trying to win’, or ‘trying to do better’); there will still be polar meaning – which is the meaning that comes out of the tension between the two opposites – but the snag here – as we have said – is that this is only ‘the illusion of meaning’. This ‘phantom appearance of meaning’ keeps us running around the hamster wheel very nicely, but it certainly doesn’t do anything else for us other than keeping us running around and around in brisk circles. If ‘circular motion’ were all that mattered in life therefore, everything would then be perfect!

When we are playing a finite game what this means is that we are operating on the basis of a system of motivation that derives from ‘a polarity which we ourselves have projected’ and saying that ‘we ourselves have projected it’ means that the polarity isn’t inherent in the actual reality of our situation, but rather it means that we have had to create it ourselves; we have ‘assumed a framework’ in other words and this framework exists outside of reality, in some kind of fanciful ‘abstract realm’. Nothing exists outside of reality however, obviously enough, and this is why the abstract realm is a quintessentially unreal one. We can therefore call this projected world ‘a system of extrinsic meaning’ and state that nothing we do when we are operating on the basis of this system (or rather when we are being operated by it!) has anything to do with real world. Why would it, after all? Why or how would polarity have anything to do with reality? We can of course define a finite game by saying that it is but happens when we project a framework of meaning and then act as if as if this framework were the only thing that matters. That is a perfectly good way to define a finite game, but this is only half the story, however. The FG – we might say – has two sides or two aspects to it – on the one hand there is the game (or the rules making up the game) and on the other hand there is the player of the game, i.e. one who is faithfully obeying the rules of the game. We feel ourselves of course to be different from the game (which is to say, we feel that we are ‘the one playing it’, which is a perception that allows us to feel that we are ‘free or autonomous within the game’, but this is  not the case. We are totally defined by the game and can have no existence outside of it. We – as we perceive ourselves to be – are ‘constructs of the game’.

What this means is utterly astonishing and not at all anything we could we would ever suspect: because we are wholly and exclusively defined by the game (since to obey rules is to be defined by them) and because the game – being a polarity – is at all times wholly unreal, so too are we. To say this is not to be making some kind of philosophical assertion with regard to ‘everything being unreal’, or anything like that; what we are saying is that ‘the polarity is unreal’, or that ‘finite games are unreal’, and this can hardly be disputed! If all finite games are unreal (which they have to be because they are closed systems, because they ‘don’t partake in the wider reality’, and if we are wholly defined by the games that we are playing then we too – as we understand ourselves to be – must be perfectly and immaculately unreal. That’s what we’re doing here – we’re making ourselves unreal! The only way that we could partake in reality would be if we went beyond the game, beyond the machine, beyond the narrow understanding of ‘who we are’ that the game (or ‘the machine’) gives us (which is the same thing as ‘embarking on the Hero’s Journey’) but this just happens to be the one thing we don’t want to do! We are therefore, as finite game players, ‘perfectly unreal’ and constantly accelerations to protect and we are constantly acting so as to protect this in reality and ‘safeguard it from harm’. We are lovers of fantasy, lovers of delusion – ‘unreality is good; reality is bad’ is our unspoken motto. Reality is the ‘error’ that we want to avoid at all costs; we have to avoid it because we have turned our backs on the Hero’s Journey, because we are – when it comes down to it – ‘afraid of life’.

This safeguarding might be ‘good for the game’, but it surely isn’t any good for us. It isn’t any good for us because by committing ourselves (as we do commit ourselves) to safeguarding the integrity of the game, we deny ourselves any chance of there being any genuine meaning in our lives and meaning – as Victor Frankel  indicates – just happens to be the one thing that we can’t really do without. It might seem to the casual observer that we can do without it, and that we are doing a fine job of ‘doing without it’, but in the end can’t, and this shows itself in various ways.

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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