We start off in life with what looks like a wide, wide road ahead of us – a road that branches off in all directions, a road that could potentially lead us anywhere at all. As we make our way down this road however it closes in on us more and more until before very long all we’re left with is the one very narrow track that has been allotted to us, a track that only takes us in the one direction, whether we happen to like it or not. This process is called ‘becoming an adult’.
In one way it is true that a huge field of possibilities lies ahead of us when we start off in life. Of course this is true – life itself lies ahead of us! The road we’re on is as wide as life itself and there’s no telling where it will lead us. Something happens to narrow the possibilities that are available to us however, without us ever realizing that any ‘narrowing of possibilities’ is happening to us. This is what we might call ‘the imperceptible erosion of life’. We all know that this process happens, even if – naturally enough – we may not want to focus on it too much. We instinctively know that life shouldn’t be like this – that it shouldn’t be a ‘narrowing down of possibilities’ – and yet somehow it is. Entropy sets in, and makes the pattern of our life ever more predictable.
In one way this is a perfectly natural process – entropy isn’t something that human beings invented, after all. This ‘narrowing down’ occurs as a result of us getting trapped in our own habits, our own opinions, our own beliefs about ourselves and the world. We cherish these opinions and beliefs of ours, and yet at the same time they strangle us slowly but surely. The sense of security they engender blinds us to the fact that we are fashioning our own prison, brick by brick. We can call this a ‘natural process’ because it happens as a result of our own doing therefore – no one forces us to build a prison cell of belief for ourselves. We are our own very willing jailers. We get trapped in our own mental habits, which solidify around us and block out the wider view. In The Dawn of Tantra (1975) Guenther and Trungpa speak of this process as ‘going astray’ or ‘falling into error’ –
The process of transformation which we have described is one of growing narrowness and frozenness. We are somehow tied down to our senses, to the ordinary mode of perception. We dimly feel that something else might have been possible. If we try to express this situation in traditional religious terms, we might say that man is a fallen being. But here he has not fallen because he has sinned or transgressed some commandment coming from outside him, but by the very fact that he has moved in a certain direction. This is technically know in Buddhism as bhranti in Sanskrit and ‘Khrul-pa in Tibetan, and is usually translated as “error”.
In another way however we could say that this ‘narrowing down’ (or ‘going astray’) process also has an external component – an aspect to it which is ‘artificial’ or ‘unnatural’ in the sense that it is ‘imposed on us from the outside’. This aspect of the narrowing-down process is enforced upon us by an external agency, independently of what we may want, and this ‘external agency’ is more generally known simply as society. The social world – inevitably – has some kind of an idea regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’ and it pushes us in this direction. Society doesn’t just have ‘some kind of an idea’, it has a very clear and precise idea! This is essentially what society is – it is a set of templates, a set of ideas regarding ‘who we should be’ and ‘how we should live life’. What else would society be, after all?
Even though it is obvious enough in one way that society ‘externally determines us’, in another way it is not so obvious at all. When we start off in our adult life and we are looking at the social world and all that it offers us we have the impression of there being many diverse possibilities being dangled in front of us. The choices we are faced we are too many, if anything! We are if anything bewildered by the sheer range of possibilities and the road ahead of us seems very broad, at this stage. There is a sneaky trick being played on us here though – this is the so-called ‘salesman trick,’ described here by Douglas Flemons (1991) –
As any good hypnotist, magician, or comedian knows, the offer or availability of freely choosing between alternatives at a given contextual level brings the particularities of choice into the foreground of conscious awareness. This necessarily relegates to the background (i.e. out of awareness and out of the realm of conscious choice) the higher-level context or premise determining the range and meaning of the offered alternatives. The presence of choice (between particularities) at one level masks – and in some sense precludes – choice (between premises) at a more encompassing level.
We feel so empowered by all the apparent choices that are being offered to us that we completely fail to see that whatever option it is we end up going for, we’re always going to end up with the same old thing. The ‘same old thing’ that we’re talking about here is ‘the socialized life’, which always means going down predetermined tracks, tracks that have been ‘decided in advance’ for us. It doesn’t matter what role we take up, it’s still something that is being imposed upon us from the outside. We’re conforming to the template that’s been provided for us by society no matter what choices we make; we may think that we’re in the driving seat but really it’s the other way around, society is controlling us.
A good way to think about this is in terms of ‘playing a game’ – there can be lots of roles that can be played in the game but it is nevertheless always the same old game. On the level of ‘what roles shall I select’ there can be tremendous choice, but all of these so-called ‘choices’ come down to the same thing – we are choosing to play the game. All the apparent choices (and all the excitement that comes with that apparent freedom) boil down to just the one choice. We are again victims of ‘the salesman trick’. So what’s wrong with this, we might ask? What’s wrong with choosing to play the game, if we want to?
The answer to this question is ‘nothing at all’ – if we actually know that this is what we’re doing, that is. This is where the trick comes in though – we’re never told that there is anything else. We’re never given the option of ‘not playing the game’, in other words, and this is a very big deception. It’s not just ‘a very big deception’ either – it’s the ultimate deception. It’s the archetypal deception. This is the deception that was played upon Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, the deception that is inherent in the concept of the Matrix. In the ancient Gnostic myth, it is the deception that is the Demiurge employs to trap and imprison the soul-sparks of mankind in the False Creation.
It’s fine to choose to play a game if we know that this is what the choice is, in other words, but if we don’t know that it is only a game (if this hasn’t ever been explained to us) then what exactly does this mean for us? If we are being offered a substitute version of reality (a ‘Toontown version’ which is incomparably narrower than the genuine thing) and we don’t know that we have been tricked in this way (‘tricked out of our birthright’, so to speak) then how are we to feel about this? Is there any way that we are actually going to feel OK about being tricked like this, if we knew? Are we really going to feel OK about spending our lives in some two-dimensional sterile Toontown, and missing out thereby on the true reality itself?