Going Beyond The Game

‘Therapy’ is one thing, whilst ‘living our life consciously, just as it is’ is quite another. Therapy implies fixing – it’s hard not to use the word and yet not mean that we want to ‘do something about ourselves’. The whole point of therapy is that we aren’t happy with ourselves the way we are and we want to do something about it. One definition of counselling that has been used (just to give one typical example) is that if we engage in it we can make ‘meaningful and permanent changes’ to our lives. Simply living our lives consciously (which means something to the effect of ‘not looking the other way when something we don’t want to see happens’) has nothing to do with effecting change, either of a temporary or permanent nature. It just means being with ourselves during our day-to-day lives, and this is a very different kettle of fish. If we really do want to change ourselves then this business of ‘simply being aware of ourselves’ is not by any means an attractive prospect. It is in fact the complete opposite of an attractive prospect!


There is a good reason why becoming conscious of one’s own life as it is without putting any kind of a spin on it is deeply unattractive to us. Stuff doesn’t come any more unattractive. One is that we are bound in his case to see all the things about ourselves that we don’t like, which is what Jung referred to as being aware of the shadow – there’s nothing guaranteed to put us off as much as the prospect of seeing stuff about us that we would rather keep hidden. The shadow – as Jung says – is ultimately repellent – we’d do anything rather than see it. We will do the most extraordinary things rather than see it.There’s another reason too, which is not quite as straightforward to understand, and that has to do with the over-throwing of our most prized assumptions about life. We could phrase what we are talking about here in terms of ‘living your own life consciously instead of unconsciously’ which has a nice ring to it. If we did phrase it in such a way this would however be entirely misleading since the more consciously I live my life the more clearly I start to see that the life in question (the life that is supposedly ‘being lived’) isn’t actually mine!


There are two possibly ways we could take this dawning revelation, each being the ‘mirror-image’ of the other, so to speak. One way would be to find this insight tremendously interesting, tremendously exciting so that we want to go into it further and see where this particular road leads to, whilst the other way would be to find the whole thing deeply disturbing and unwelcome and – on this account – want to back away from it as fast as possible and go back to what we know and are comfortable with (which is the perception of this life being solely my life). If I start to perceive that the life I am living isn’t really mine at all and I am attached to the idea that it is, then this perception will of course be very unwelcome to me. If I am attached to the idea that this familiar and comfortable sense of self is a real thing and not a construct then any awareness that falsifies this sense will manifest purely as fear, purely as threat, and I will resist it with everything that I’ve got.


But the reason we resist the awareness that ‘I am not this self’ (and that as a consequence ‘this is not my life’) is simply because of fear, not because there is anything genuinely interesting or worthwhile about the familiar and comfortable belief in the concrete self and its viewpoint. We’re not ‘upholding a positive value’, we’re simply hiding from a challenging truth. The safe and familiar viewpoint of the everyday self is – when it comes down to it – unrelentingly tedious. We may not want to admit this to ourselves, but it is nevertheless true. Honesty would show it to be true every time. This business of seeing everything from that narrow, limited, eternally fixed viewpoint seems, at the start, to have great possibilities in it but this perception of possibilities is entirely illusory. The self can be pleased with what is happening or it can be displeased, but this polarity (i.e. the polarity of ‘like versus dislike’) represents the limit of what is possible for it.


From the narrow perspective of the self if something happens that is advantageous to me, that is to my considerable benefit, then this is the best possible outcome. Things don’t get any better than this. I am frankly not interested in anything that goes beyond this! ‘Beyond my own advantage’ doesn’t exist as far as I am concerned. And yet the thing is that we are not this limited little self – we are much, much more than that. The self is not who we genuinely are – as contradictory as that may sound – it’s just a sterile little that we’re caught up in. It’s just a sterile little game that we keep playing over and over again because it has this terrible hypnotic power over us. We play it compulsively, we play it because we can’t not play it. We play the game of the self because the game has total power over us, just as a hypnotist has power over his victim…


Given that we are so much more than this little self to be constrained in the game of good and bad, win and lose, pleasure and pain is incredibly tedious. How can it not be tedious? The game of self is INFINITELY tedious – if we could see it with unfettered consciousness we would see that it is a horror. The game of self is a living death. It is the tomb of life. The process of life is therefore the process of going beyond this game; if we don’t go beyond the game of good and bad, win and lose, pleasure and pain then the impulse of life has been thwarted and our suffering and frustration will grow as a result. In this case we can say that life has not kicked in yet; we can say that life has not even begun yet because life is a reaching out beyond the self and its tedious games, not the state of permanent fascination with them…


Life has only one direction – we might say – and that is the direction of moving beyond the self. The other direction – the trying of trying ever harder to successfully act out the narrow agenda of the self – isn’t a direction at all. It isn’t a direction at all because it doesn’t lead us anywhere, because it doesn’t take us anywhere. The self and its sterile game of ‘advantage versus disadvantage’ is not anywhere. It’s not anywhere because [1] This is self is not who we are, and so it is always taking us away from who we are, and [2] it doesn’t actually exist in the first place!


So of course the direction of moving beyond the self is tremendously interesting and tremendously exciting – this is the direction of life itself. This is the greatest adventure there is; this is the ONLY adventure there is! The only adventure worthy of the name is the adventure of leaving the self behind – anything else is merely distraction. Anything else is merely entertainment for the self. The repetitively tiresome antics of the self do not constitute an adventure – they constitute the avoidance of the adventure.


Moving in the direction of discovering that it is not ‘me’ who is living this life corresponds we might say to what Joseph Campbell calls ‘The Hero’s Journey’. The Hero’s Journey is when we move beyond our self-imposed limits, it is – according to Joseph Campbell – when we ‘leave the playpen’ and move out into the real world. Only a hero can make this journey become moving beyond the limits of the known is a hugely challenging thing – we need everything we’ve got to go on this journey, we need all of our resources as human beings. We can’t simply ‘do it on automatic’ in the same way that we do everything else. We can’t do it by following orders, we can’t do it in our sleep. Anthony De Mello is talking about the same thing when we says that when we go to see a psychotherapist this isn’t because we want to grow or change (or ‘wake up‘), it’s because we want to have our toys fixed so that we can go back to playing with them. We want to go back to the game; we want to go back to the play-pen where we feel safe. The play-pen has a terrible fascination, a terrible power over us…


The point we were making a moment ago was that anything which isn’t a ‘going beyond the self’ is an avoidance tactic, is a red-herring, is a decoy with which to divert ourselves. ‘Refusal of the call converts the adventure into its negative’ says Joseph Campbell and it is by utilizing distractions or red herring that we facilitate ourselves in avoiding the call to adventure. Society specializes in the provision of such distractions, such red herrings – distractions and red herrings are its ‘stock in trade’! The ‘collective of us’ – which we call society or ‘the social system’ – has nothing at all to do with our emergence as truly autonomous individuals; it stunts and represses our growth as the true individuals we are at every opportunity. It might seem strange (or hard to believe) that society should be opposed to our growth; we naturally assume it to be for our ‘common good’, as the expression has it. Society is however like a parent who provides us with food and shelter, but who refuses to allow our growth. They might say, “Aren’t I looking after you?” but being a parent involves more than just providing food, clothing and somewhere to sleep; it involves fostering independence of thought, it involves fostering autonomy – not making your charges into your slaves.


There really is no other way that what Jung calls ‘collective thinking’ can work – collective thinking necessarily works on generic lines and the generic is always inimical to the individual, to the unique. Society (like all groups, like all ‘collectives’) is an equilibrium system and as such it values only the equilibrium. All mechanical or rule-based systems only ‘care’ about one thing and that is that the rules are obeyed. The inbuilt tendency of the group to inhibit the psychological growth of the people making up the group is a very well known phenomenon. What psychotherapist has not seen her clients’ growth and mental health being compromised by either family or peer-group or society in general? The social group – if we may consider it as an entity in its own right, which is what it functions as – values only its own stability, it values only it own continuation, its own pointless perpetuity. If the group were to be favourably disposed to the psychological growth of its members then this would be the same thing as it being ‘favourably disposed to its own dissolution’. This is just not going to happen – the true individual may sacrifice himself or herself, but the collective never will.


If we think in terms of a large organization, in which there are always rules and regulations for everything, we can easily appreciate that it is no good you or me deciding that there is a better way to do things, and as a result disregarding the protocols that are already in existence. As far as the organization is concerned, this is simply ‘non-compliance’.  It is simply ‘an error in the system’ and as such it has to be corrected – one simply can’t exist as an individual in an organization, in a collective. It’s either ‘the organization’s way or the highway’. Collective thinking rules supreme – one just doesn’t ‘go against the group mind’! Even if it were possible (which in theory it may be) to make changes by going through the correct channels no radical change will ever be approved, only those changes that fit in with the over-all aim of the system. The system may be optimized, but it will never be meaningfully changed from within!


All human collectives actively block and repress ‘the Hero’s Journey’, therefore. You can’t be a hero if you’re owned by the system! The group of people (most of us) who agree to stay within the bounds of the world-view that has been provided for us by the group mind is the group of people who have tacitly agreed to allow themselves to be distracted or diverted from this Journey. Personal growth ends, individuality dies stillborn, and all in the name of our ‘allegiance to the common good’, all in the name of what is laughably called ‘being responsible’. We get to feel that we are being ‘responsible adults’ and we get to live the safe, predictable life that has been mapped out for us, but only at the price of the loss of our true individuality (which equals ‘our inner death’) – which clearly does not bode well for the future of the collective!


Society sneakily ‘blocks our growth’ by putting us under constant pressure to improve or develop ourselves. This is done in an apparently empowering way but what society really means when it talks about self-development or self-improvement is self-development or self-improvement in its terms. We are to get better at playing the game which it has given us to play; we are to get better at playing the game which is it. Really, we are being encouraged the whole time to adapt ourselves to the machine and this – of course – necessarily means becoming more and more ‘machine-like’ ourselves! The collective thinking that we have been talking about is the machine; the group-mind is the machine-mind. Naturally the group-mind is a machine because it is all about following rules and regulations and that’s what a machine is. That’s what a machine is – it’s a ‘rule-based system’. We’re a machine when we follow the rules rather than our own intuition. We are obliged to keep trying to better ourselves in line with the current trends, we are obliged to keep up our personal development even though this so-called ‘personal development’ actually has nothing whatsoever to do with who we really are! We’re ‘progressing within a dream’…


In short, the social system offers us the means of maintaining, promoting, upgrading and accessorizing the ‘self-construct’, which is the denial of our true, undefined (or unregulated) nature. Society is a machine and so is the everyday mind – both are based on precedent, both are based on rules, both function on the basis of fear (which is to say, ‘the automatic avoidance of the new’). So here we are caught between the two tyrants of the thinking mind and rule-based society (both of which being aspects of the same thing, as David Bohm says) and somehow we have to find our own way. Our way is not the machine’s way, our way is not society’s way. And as difficult as it is, this is the task that lies before us. This is the Hero’s Journey. Living one’s own life (and not some idea of what it ought to be) is the Hero’s Journey, and if we find the courage to take this journey we discover that the one who we thought was having the life in question, or living the life in question isn’t actually who we are at all.


Living one’s life consciously is no easy matter, even though it is at the same time the most natural and straightforward thing in the world. The curious thing is though that life isn’t something we have to ‘do’, it’s not a duty or ‘responsibility’ (in the way that we have been persuaded or bullied to understand it to be). The curious thing is that we don’t live life! Nobody lives life, strangely enough. On the contrary, life lives itself through us, if we let it…