What is winning and what is losing? What does it mean to be a success and what does it mean to be a failure? Usually – almost always – we are in far too much of a hurry to ask these questions. We are in too much of a hurry to win rather than lose, too much of a hurry to succeed rather than fail. That’s ‘the name of the game’, as they say.
As is the case with all games, unreflective action is the thing – we struggle to get it right and not get it wrong, without ever looking into the all-important question of why the one thing would be ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’. We never ask what should be the ‘all-important question’. The point of the game however is not to test the validity of the framework which we are operating within, or query the meaningfulness of our goals – if we did that then there would be no more game. The whole point of playing a game is to accept the framework unreflectively, to take it for granted that the goals are meaningful and see where this exercise gets us. We proceed on the given basis and that is what makes it possible to play the game, as we all know.
The thing about being a winner or loser, a success or a failure, is that we can’t for the life of us see that this is only a game! In everyday life, when I feel myself to be a success’ I feel very good and other people will envy me my success and want to be like me. When I perceive myself to be a loser or a failure then I will feel very bad in myself and other people will be glad not to follow my example – they will be happy not to be me. We look up to people who are designated as successes and down on those who are regarded as failures and this – whether we want to admit it or not – is what society is all about.
When we feel ourselves very strongly to be ‘failures’ in our lives this constitutes intense suffering and there is no way that we perceive this suffering to be merely ‘part of the game we’re playing’. There is absolutely no way in which we perceive ‘being a failure’ or ‘being a loser’ as merely being designations in the game, something that only makes sense within the context of the game that’s been playing. If we did, then we wouldn’t of course be feeling so bad. It’s precisely the fact that we don’t know that we are playing a game that makes the pain we are in so cruel. What is essentially happening here is that we have taken the game of society (for the game of ‘the social value system’) so very seriously that it is causing us great suffering. This is a type of sickness therefore.
In the same way, when we go around feeling good about ourselves because we have a high status in terms of the social hierarchy then we are basing this good feeling on an illusion. This too is a sickness, and it’s a sickness that we ‘enjoy suffering from’, so to speak. We think that we are enjoying it, at any rate, even though enjoyment that is based on an illusion can’t be worth very much really! It’s all just fantasy currency after all, just like the pretend-money in a game of monopoly. When we feel good about ourselves because of an illusory value system this isn’t just an empty hollow good feeling, a good feeling that has no basis or substance at all, it is also something that prevents us feeling good in a real way. When an illusion thrives, the real gets neglected.
When we feel bad because we have not made of ourselves what society says we should have, then this is clearly an affliction, this is clearly not a healthy situation. I might be feeling bad because of an illusory value system, but the fact that I am feeling bad is real all the same. So the curious thing about this social game that we are playing without knowing it is that when we ‘win’ this is bad for mental health, and when we ‘lose’ then this is bad for our mental health too! Both possibilities equal suffering – the suffering of not being true to who we really are, the suffering that comes when we neglect the truth in favour of an illusion. We make a big deal of ‘mental health’, and go on about it the whole time, but the unpalatable truth is that our collective way of life is itself a harmful or life-denying illusion!
To be mentally healthy – we might say – is to realise that being a success is just empty as being a failure, and that to believe in either label is to bring unnecessary suffering upon ourselves. One way we have a meaningless good feeling that effectively cuts us off from our true nature, the other way we have a meaningless bad feeling that just as effectively alienates us from who we truly are. When we realise this however what is more than likely to happen is that we will ‘redefine the rules of the game that we are playing’ and start playing for ‘spiritual development’ instead of ‘social status’ and ‘material gain’, which were the old milestones. This is what Sogyal Trungpa calls spiritual materialism and this is really just another (improved) way of trying to be ‘winners’ rather than ‘losers’.
When we play the game of ‘spiritual materialism’ then being a winner basically means ‘becoming more spiritual’, which is the greatest joke ever. We really do want this advancement for ourselves and we think that we will be better off in a real way when this happens. Straightaway therefore, we have the same old entrapping polarity of ‘gain versus lose’, ‘succeed versus pain’, ‘right versus wrong’. What does it mean to be a success rather than a failure in this new context, however? What does it mean to be ‘a winner’ within the terms of this particular game? To be a ‘winner’ – no matter what game we might be playing, no matter what goal we might be chasing – always implies ‘being a loser’; we could therefore say that ‘being a winner’ is defined in terms of ‘not being a loser’. This is a very strange tautological definition therefore – if I am a winner then that means that I’m not a loser and if I am a loser then that means that I am not a winner!
This may seem like mere verbal trickery but is much more than this. If we can understand this point then that immediately takes us to the very root of this whole issue. The point is that ‘being a winner’ (or ‘being a success’, or whatever) is merely a label, and all labels are by their nature ‘self-contradictory’, just as all ‘judgements’ or ‘definite statements’ are self-contradictory. This – in essence – means that they don’t actually have any reality to them. Labels or definite statements are so very superficial, so very ‘skinny’ that nothing at all separates the positive statement or the positive definition from its negative counterpart! As we have just said, ‘being a winner only makes sense in terms of ‘not being the loser’ and vice versa. A winner is a loser and a loser is a winner, therefore.
To feel good about being the one and bad about being the other is therefore quite absurd; to spend all our time chasing success and fleeing from the spectre of failure is ‘a theatre of the absurd’. This goes much deeper than we might imagine – when we ask ‘what does it mean to be a winner?’ or ‘what does it mean to be a loser?’ the answer is plain, if we want to see it. It means being a label, being a concept, being a ‘two-dimensional mental construct’. But more than this, we can apply this insight to the question of ‘what does it mean to be a self?’ The concept commonly known as the self only ever has two possibilities open to it – the possibility of doing well and the possibility of doing badly, the possibility of getting it right and the possibility of getting it wrong, the possibility of pleasure and the possibility of pain. The everyday oh-so-familiar sense of self is a polarity, in other words and it can never be more than a polarity. We don’t perceive it as such but such it is; the self is a polarity and polarity is a trap for consciousness.
To say that the self is a polarity might sound a bit odd but on reflection it is undeniable. The self gets to be the self via the all-important boundary that separates it from everything that is not it (which is to say, ‘the rest of the world’). This is a ‘co-dependent pair of opposites’ just as <winner/loser> or <up/down> is. As we have just said, each opposite is defined by saying that it is not the other, which is a closed loop of meaning. In the case of the boundary that separates ‘me’ from ‘the other’, ‘me’ is ‘me’ because it is not ‘the other’ and ‘the other’ is ‘the other’ because it is not ‘me’, and this is, as we have said, a tautological (or ‘empty’) definition. ‘Self’ and ‘other’ can only be defined in terms of each other and means that the two definitions don’t actually mean anything. It’s a game, a ‘closed loop of meaning,’ and yet we have been tricked into believing that it is real. Our sickness is therefore (as we have said) the sickness of believing that a game is not a game…