Theatrical Happiness

The basic idea that we are going to be considering here is the idea that ‘restriction-we-cannot-see-as-such’ (i.e. the rational mind, otherwise known as the system of thought) contains within it both the seeds of anxiety and depression, as well as all the many other shades and variations of neurotic torment that exist in-between. In fact saying this is not making the point strongly enough – what we ought to say, just so that there will not be any chance of misunderstanding, is that the system of thought equals anxiety and depression, and all that exists in-between. To be even more precise, what we ought to say is this:


The system of thought equals 50% successful repression of anxiety and depression, and 50% unsuccessful repression of anxiety and depression.


Restriction-which-we cannot-see-as-such is a game, it is a game because whilst we are most definitely contained within a logically consistent mini-version of reality, we are completely unable to see this fact. There are lots of ways of defining ‘a game’ but in this context it makes sense to say that a game is a way of pretending that we can get something for nothing.


The way we work this is by dwelling one-sidedly upon the positive gain that we make (i.e. the success phase), and ignoring the corresponding loss that we make (the loser phase). In terms of society as a whole, the game works because we focus on the euphoric side of the show, and turn a blind eye to the dysphoric side. This one-sided attention (which comes down to the absurdity of looking one way but not the other) can be understood in terms of ‘being careful never to look behind the scenes of the carnival, lest we see the grubby business that has to go on in order to sustain the show’. Similarly, the game can be seen in terms of the quaintly old-fashioned conspiracy between a married couple (undoubtedly very rare if not non-existent these days) where there is an unspoken agreement that the husband will not clap eyes on his wife before she puts her make-up on the morning. Needless to say, the show that is enjoyed as a result of the successful ‘concealment of what goes on behind the scenes) is entirely theatrical in nature. It is staged from beginning to end, and, what is more, it ‘works’ only because we do not allow ourselves to see that it is staged. Everything that has been created by the thinking mind is of this nature – there is nothing in the mind-created world that is not theatrical.




Anxiety can therefore be seen to arise inevitably from this situation since we construct (or understand) both ourselves and the world we live in on the basis of this restriction-that-we-cannot-see-as-such, which is the same thing as saying that we construct our whole world on the basis of a lie. Psychologically speaking, this sort of an idea is of course highly familiar, and it is what we all call ‘denial’. Denial is of course  fundamentally and quintessentially anxiogenic – the endeavour we are investing absolutely everything in is by definition a doomed one, and so a repressed or unacknowledged sense of doom pervades all of our affairs like a bad smell that no amount of ventilation or air-freshener can get rid of it. Anxiety can therefore be defined an indirect perception of the impossibility of what we are trying to do. Alternatively, and more long-windedly, we can say the following:


Anxiety is the apparently inexplicable sense of incipient failure and nameless foreboding that I am faced with as a result of an unsuccessfully repressed awareness that I am somehow leaving something vitally important out of the equation. I cannot help knowing that if this is the case, then there is no way at all in which ‘things can come out right’. Therefore, any further action that I take becomes part of the ongoing attempt to distract myself from this dreadful feeling.




What we call ‘depression’ can similarly be shown to arise with grim inevitability from the situation where we are living our lives on the basis of a restriction that does not know itself to be restriction. The type of meaning that our endeavours (and indeed life itself) has for us is necessarily conditioned by the way that we choose to understand it. Of course, were we to forgo this ‘choice’ and be content not to understand life in any logical or rational way at all, then there would be no such thing as conditioned meaning, and so there would also be no such thing as depression. Conditioning involves unconscious choice about how we see the world, and it involves the quintessential ‘reification’ process whereby a finite (or restricted) set is called into being by the imposition of an arbitrary rule which we subsequently take as being ‘not arbitrary’. This process involves the elevation of one set of possibilities, and the depression (or suppression) of all else, and the sneakiness of what is going on here is due to the fact that we act as if nothing was cast down in order that our chosen set of possibilities is glorified in the way that it is. in other words, we act as if our way of looking at things has not been glorified by us, but as if it is naturally glorified, by virtue of the fact that it is (as we see it) ‘the one and only true picture.’


The mathematical process of creating (or abstracting) a bounded set out of the unbounded Universal Set is, as we have been saying, directly analogous to the business of creating (or abstracting) a particular rational viewpoint out of the irrational ‘Whole Picture’.  When we talk about a ‘particular viewpoint’ this makes it sound like a particular pair of glasses that we are putting to our eyes, so we may see what the world looks like with that particular tint, or that particular angle. This is indeed what we are doing but there is a great deal more to it than this because  the rational mind does not just govern one aspect of our sensory input, like a pair of trick spectacles does, the rational mind is far more than just this, governing as it does every possible avenue of incoming information. If there is a sensory gateway, then there is a set of information-processing criteria waiting for news to come in, so that it can be evaluated, analysed, filtered, and generally ‘dredged for salient features’; what it going on – in a nutshell – is that a search is being carried out for anything in the incoming stream of information that might prove useful in terms of the goals that are implicit in my information-processing software.  To put this even more basically, I am looking at the world in terms of ‘what I can get out of it’. Therefore, we can say quite simply that


The extent to which I am looking at the world with regard to any sort of a need (i.e. in relation to greed or fear) is the extent to which I am seeing the world in a rational way (which is to say, via the agency of the system of thought).


When I see the world in terms of a need (and the need may be overt or covert), then I am in the hands of the system of thought and this, as we have said, means that I am dealing with the universe on the basis of a restricted or shallow understanding that does not perceive itself to be restricted or shallow. The type of meaning that the world takes on for me is therefore ‘superficial meaning that does not perceive itself as being superficial’. The meaning we project on the world when we are in the rational or goal-orientated mode is in other words wholly tautological in nature, which basically means that there is nothing in it that I have not myself put in it! To put this another way, the meaning I perceive is meaning that has been created by my own thinking, which works in the time-honoured two step fashion:


[1] It participates in creating a reality for us to believe in


[2] It obscures from us its involvement in Step [1]


In terms of the perception of meaning, then, we can say that what the rational-conceptual mind is essentially doing is arranging or fixing things to mean this, that or the other, and then saying that it didn’t arrange or fix that meaning at all, but in fact that meaning is the meaning that the things in question actually already have. Extrinsic meaning is substituted for intrinsic meaning, via the ubiquitous (and thoroughly nefarious) process of ‘conceptual mediation’. After a paragraph in which he speaks of the way in which our technological-scientific civilization has ‘silenced the gods’ which mankind previously appealed to in order to make sense of the world, James Carse (1986, p 101-2) gives his take on the matter:


There is an irony in our silencing of the gods. By presuming to speak for the unspeakable, by hearing our own voice as the voice of nature, we have had to step outside the circle of nature. It is one thing for physics and chemistry to be speaking about nature; it is quite another for physics and chemistry to be speaking of nature. No chemist would want to say that chemistry is itself chemical, for our speaking cannot be both chemical and about chemistry. If our speaking about a process is itself part of the process, there is something that must remain permanently hidden from the speaker. To be intelligible at all, we must claim that we can step aside from the process and comment on it “objectively” and “dispassionately,” without anything obstructing our view of these matters. Here lies the irony: By way of this perfectly reasonable claim the gods have stolen back into our struggle with nature. By depriving the gods of their own voices, the gods have taken ours. It is we who speak as supernatural intelligences and powers, masters of the forces of nature.



This irony passes unnoticed only so long as we continue to veil ourselves against what we can otherwise plainly see: nature allows no master over itself. Bacon’s principle works both ways. If we must obey to command, then our commanding is only obeying and not commanding at all. There is no such thing as an unnatural act. Nothing can be done to or against nature, much less outside it. Therefore, the ignorance we thought we could avoid by an unclouded observation of nature has swept us back into itself. What we thought we read in nature we discover we read into nature. “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (Heisenberg).




We generally speak somewhat glibly of depression. Or perhaps it would be better to say that when we are not depressed we tend to speak glibly on the subject. We might for example talk of feeling down, having the blues, being out of sorts, being in a low mood, etc, and this rather breezy way of speaking is of course comforting to us because of the sense of ‘intellectual distance’ (and implicit control) that it imbues us with. Even when I have just emerged from the depths of severe melancholia, I find it remarkably easy to put it all to one side, basically as if it never happened. I might worry about relapsing, and in this sense I have not forgotten the teeth of the depression, but I nevertheless contrive to forget the uniquely disagreeable flavour of the thing just as soon as it becomes feasible to do so. We have a quite extraordinary capacity to ‘forget’ in this way the most intensely significant insights when it so happens that the insight in question goes against what we want to know. The ‘capacity to ignore’ involves as part of the package the ‘capacity to ignore that we are ignoring’, and so we experience no curiosity at all with regard to what is actually going on here.


The point that we are making is of course that the actual business of ‘being depressed’ is an altogether different matter to our neat conceptions of it; when the shadow of the alchemists’ nigredo falls over us the cheap and cheerful ‘rational veneer’ that covers our lives is unceremoniously stripped off and at this time we cannot avoid knowing the extent of our folly. In the face of the implacable reality that I am now experiencing, my brave talk of only a few days ago amounts to precisely ‘nothing at all’ – I have been ‘laid low’, my pretensions revealed for what they are. When the depression first bites into me, showing me in no uncertain terms that it means business, I cannot help knowing what is going on. I cannot help knowing that this thing is my nemesis, that it is the ‘kiss of death’ to everything I hold dear.  Depression isn’t just a weight that I have to carry, it is the annihilation of my ability to bear or carry any weight.  That inner wellspring which up to now has reliably and uncomplainingly provided me with ‘the motivation to carry on’ has run dry; the source of my happiness (which I have blithely taken for granted up to now) has been poisoned and I have to face life without it.


The ‘official’ view of depression is that it is a species of brain-malfunction, a failure of the brain to maintain correct levels of a certain neurotransmitter. The popular understanding is that it a ‘bad feeling’, a lowness of mood that is more intense than the usual type of low mood, and much more long-lasting. This is pretty accurate – by all accounts – but the interesting thing about our consensual evaluation of depression is the spin we put on it – we represent depression to ourselves as a sort of random accident, as an illness that has been visited upon us by the vicissitudes of genetics or perhaps by just plain ‘bad luck’. We talk about depression as an ‘illness’ that we have unfortunately contracted – which is to say, we speaking of having a depression in the same way that we would speak of having the flu. Of course, depression is much more serious than influenza – it might in fact seem more like cancer, if not something even worse (long-term sufferers often say that they would rather have cancer) – but what is significant about treating depression as an illness is the underlying belief that what we have here is essentially a form of ‘meaningless pain’, which is to say pain that we have to bear only because we lack the sort of illness-curing (or ‘pain-killing’) technology that would be necessary to alleviate the condition.


This belief in the ‘illness paradigm’ is helpful to us (in the usual, short-term sort of a way) because it allows us [1] to hand over responsibility and [2] to keep on hoping for a cure. It is not so helpful (in fact it is diabolically unhelpful) because it represents a dead-end, i.e. it is a dead-end because [1] I cannot hand over responsibility for my depression, and [2] there never will be a ‘cure’.  A more useful way to look at depression can be found by paying careful attention to what the experience itself actually entails. Rather that studying the condition in others, using the ghastly so-called ‘objective’ stance so beloved of the clinical expert, (which yields no worthwhile knowledge at all, unless the observer has dropped the grotesque theatre of ‘clinical distance’ and can learn directly from the experience of another) what we need to do is to savour the unique flavour of the depression, and ask the question “What is this depression telling me?” This is not such a hard question to answer because depression is anything but subtle when it comes to delivering its message. The message is plain enough, the only problem is – I don’t want to hear it!


In general terms, we can say that what depression actually does is to ‘falsify our game’. We can express this idea in terms of attachment:


Depression is the perfect antithesis (or nemesis) to all of the things that I am attached to in my life.


Putting it another way, depression (to use Gurdjieff’s phrase) ‘ruins my favourite dish’ – it renders unpalatable the pattern of interaction which I have going with the universe, and so all of the thoughts I used to like thinking no ring in my ears as being false, all of the beliefs I used to like believing in now sound hollow, and all of the behavioural routines that I used to delight in now fall totally flat, and bring me no joy at all. This is not to say that depression somehow ‘annihilates’ our attachments because it doesn’t (that would be too easy), what it does do however is to make what I am attached to a horror to me – I am still attached, no doubt about that – but the object of my attachment is revealed as a dead thing, like a rotting corpse that I am entombed with, or a grinning death’s head that I insist on carrying around with me. Try as I might, I cannot evade this negation of my game; the knowledge of the futility of trying to evade the horror that I see brutally overwhelms any resistance that I might have, and for this reason depression is not an active sort of a thing like anxiety or an obsession, but rather it is (potentially, at least) the beginning of a true ‘submission’ to a reality that we can no longer control.


Culturally, we are very far indeed from accepting that depression can usefully be seen as a ‘falsification of our games’. The obstacle to this is that we would first have to acknowledge that life (as we live it) consists of little more than a sophisticated tissue of psychological games. To put this another way, we would have to acknowledge the edifice of ‘positive knowledge’ for what it is, i.e. we would have to see that everything we believe to be true isn’t really true at all, that our beliefs only seem true to us because we have secretly set up things up so they would. This radical view of things – needless to say – is not really on the negotiating table as far as most of us are concerned, and for this reason we settle for a more ‘dismissive’ view of what depression is; to use a phrase of Jung’s, we say that it is “nothing but…”




A closely related approach to depression is to say that it involves an insidious erosion of the sense of meaning that we have about things. This is an interesting angle to take because it immediately ‘widens the remit’ – instead of focussing on the handful (albeit a very big handful) of people who experience the classically defined symptoms of depression, we can apply this new criterion to a far broader proportion of the population. Actually, instead of talking about a ‘broader proportion’ we might as well just come right out with it and say that the population we are talking about is just about everyone (barring children under the age of twelve or so, who are usually immune from the syndrome of ‘meaning decay’ which effects the more sophisticated and ‘conceptually-mature’ adult). This pandemic ‘lack of meaning’ is not immediately obvious, and we can give two reasons for this. The first reason has to do with the way which we dismiss or ignore the phenomenon (just like we dismiss or ignore depression); for example, we talk about being ‘bored’ and boredom, whilst unpleasant, does not really have any serious connotations for us regarding the absence of meaningfulness in what we are actually doing every day. It is not serious, it’s just being bored, and everyone gets a bit bored from time to time with their lives. We might also experience a general sense of ennui, a kind of ‘lack of flavour’ which creeps in more and more over the years, until there is very little that remains undiminished. Things (including ourselves) just get blander and blander. Put like this, the onset of blandness does sound rather serious, in fact it sounds diabolically appalling, but this whole process is cushioned, so to speak, by the way in which we gradually acclimatize to the blandness so that it more or less becomes normal to us. It has been observed that ‘folk can get used to anything’ and blandness is no exception to this rule. This idea of ‘getting acclimatized to a lack of meaning in life’ is – needless to say – a rather scary one, and we will deal with it moiré thoroughly later on. But for now all we need to note is that it is very much a question of ‘reduced perspective’ – when perspective is gradually reduced we really have no way of accurately detecting this process, or even knowing that it is occurring at all. This is because with the loss of perspective comes a loss of anything to compare the loss of perspective to. What we are actually talking about here is something very major, which is the operation of the psychological equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics. The second law says that the information content of a closed system tends to decrease, and when we decrease the amount of information available to a closed system, we also decrease (by exactly the same amount) the capacity of the system to know about the decrease. Not only have I lost the information, any information relating to the lost information is also lost…




That is the first reason. The second reason has to do with the way that false meaning (or ‘virtual meaning’) is surreptitiously substituted for the ‘genuine article’. This is essentially a ‘substitution process’ in which a defined set is substituted for the Universal Set, without there being any acknowledgement of this process. We could also explain what is going on in the ‘switch-over’ by saying that a relativistic paradigm of knowledge is substituted for by an absolutist paradigm, or by saying that ‘perspective’ is substituted for by ‘false perspective’. In terms of motivation, we can say that intrinsic motivation is replaced by its extrinsic analogue (which is to the same thing as saying that urgency is replaced by compulsion, or ‘a sense of duty’.) In terms of meaning, as we have said at the beginning of this paragraph, a similar process takes place, whereby an independent source of meaning is replaced by dependent meaning. To explain this a bit further – independent meaning is meaning that stands up on its own two feet, needing no external validation at all, whilst dependent meaning (as the name strongly indicates) is meaning that only holds good because of an unexamined ‘context of meaning’ that we have assumed earlier; if we take this context away (which is essentially what happens when we examine it) then the perceived meaningfulness of what we are experiencing evaporates without any further ado.


Another way to approach this is to think in terms of the ‘separation of the opposites’ – <hot> is only meaningful in relation to <cold>, <high> is only meaningful in relation to <low> and so on. This constitutes the type of meaning that is sometimes called ‘dualistic’, and the thing about dualistic meaning is that it is actually virtual rather than real information. Why we can say this is because a <YES> answer and a <NO> answer to a question both agree totally with the context of meaning within which the question is framed, and so no real ‘information’ is actually being brought into the system. The definition of information is that it represents something new, something unexpected, something we didn’t already know, but when the so-called ‘information’ that I am obtaining comes down to me having one of my evaluative categories validated over another, then clearly there is nothing new that is being learned! Nothing is actually happening to disturb my neat and tidy way of seeing the world; quite the contrary is true – my logical scheme (in terms of its applicability of relevance to the world at large) is being validated by the process of obtaining virtual information. Virtual information does not disturb us at all therefore, but quite the opposite – it’s a potent narcotic and it lulls us into a state of sleep.




Virtual information (or virtual meaning) looks perfectly good to start off with, and so it is very easy to get swept along by it, just as we would get ‘swept along’ by something that is genuinely meaningful – we get taken somewhere, we get taken ‘on a journey’. The only problem is that we are looking at two sorts of journey here: as we said in the introduction, the type of journey that we get taken on when we hand over responsibility to an external source of authority is circular (or closed) and the type of journey we get taken on when we don’t hand over responsibility is non-circular (or open). Needless to say, the concept of a ‘closed journey’ is profoundly self-contradictory to say the least, and it is this self-contradictoriness that constitutes the essential ‘drawback’ of virtual meaning. There is a slightly odd metaphor that we can use to illustrate this idea, and that is the metaphor of ‘genuine versus counterfeit fuel’. Suppose you called at a petrol station and discovered that they had two different brands of petrol, one being a type of ‘substitute fuel’ that was far cheaper than the real thing. Naturally you are impressed by the saving and decide to fill your tank with the substitute version; having done so, you hop into your car and speed off very happily. Now at this stage there is no obvious disadvantage to the ersatz fuel that you have purchased – it seems to work fine and you can go as fast as you like. There is a disadvantage however (as of course there must be, since – as you would know perfectly well if you thought about it – no one gets something for nothing, and no one buys goods at a fraction of the going rate without there being some sort of a catch somewhere.


The catch is a curious one – basically, what happens is that, after a certain time, everything reverts right back to the way it was at the start, before you jumped in your car and drove away from the petrol station. We can explain this ‘back-lash’ idea, within the terms of this somewhat ungainly metaphor, by saying that every night, when we are asleep, everything that we achieved during the day is undone and so the next morning we have to start off right back from the beginning again. This is of course the basic idea behind the film Groundhog Day, only here, in this particular version, we will change things so that the person involved doesn’t actually know that they are going around in circles. Psychologically speaking, this has to be the case because for us to be motivated (or led on) to do the same thing over and over again, clearly we must be under the illusion that we actually stand to get somewhere. To put this another way, were I to see the complete deal that is being offered to me I would not bite; were I to see both the lure (which is that I get to save a load of money) and the catch (which is that my gains will later be erased) then it goes without saying that the incentive to go ahead and buy the counterfeit fuel will be nonexistent. Which is of course the point that we keep on making…




It takes a fair bit of imagination to appreciate the full extent of the horror this affliction because it does not seem to be actively horrible – there is no persecution by avenging furies, there is no fear of some unspeakable doom that is about to fall, there is no actual active ‘thing that is going wrong’. Everything is quite peaceful, the horror lies not in ‘what is happening’, but in something a lot more subtle; the disagreeable element in depression lies not in what is there, but in ‘what is not there’ – in other words, the bite of depression has to do with the perception of a lack, a lack of meaning. This represents a new and nastily unexpected way in which things can go wrong; because we are more usually on the lookout for the more obvious ways in which things can mess up, this particular ‘malfunction’ takes us by surprise. We can illustrate this point by thinking about a person who obtains their heart’s desire, and two quite distinct ways in which the fulfilment of their desire can turn bad on them. This is a fairly well known sort of an idea, as will become clear in a minute.




Let us say that I am granted a wish by some friendly genie, and I wish that I get to go for an extended holiday in some tropical island paradise with a gorgeous looking partner. We have all the time in the world to be together, all the money that I could possibly need, the setting is perfect, the food exquisite, the weather is marvellous, and so on. How could I not have a great time you ask? Well, this is of course a question to be avoided if one does not wish to be rudely awoken out of the state of blissful unconsciousness; as everyone knows, Pandora’s Box is instantly opened the very moment I start to think that ‘I have it sussed’. Let us just apply our imagination to the situation: I have been there only one day when my wallet and all my credit cards are stolen. I go into the local police station to report the loss but no one seems to care. There is a delay in getting replacement visa cards sent over, everyone I deal with is (it appears to me) deliberately unhelpful. Because it is taking so long to sort out my finances, we are thrown out of our hotel room. The manager is unsympathetic and refuses to listen to me when I assure him that the money will be through in the next day or two. The next thing that happens is that my fickle supermodel girlfriend runs off with a handsome German tourist. I sit in the bar, my head in my hands, wondering what more could possibly go wrong with my life.


Just at the moment, the policemen that I had been talking to earlier burst into the bar and demand to see my passport. They search my bag and show me a plastic bag containing a large amount of white powder which they claim to have found there. I am arrested and find myself in jail, where the sanitary conditions are unbearable and the food inedible. I cannot get legal representation and I learn that there is a mandatory death sentence for possession of a large amount of heroin, such as had been found in my possession. I am molested and bullied by the prison officers and the other inmates, and in the unsanitary conditions of the island prison I develop dysentery, scurvy, and a disfiguring skin disease…


This story of how things can ‘fall apart’ illustrates the sort of technical malfunctions that can unexpectedly occur in paradise. If these malfunctions had not occurred, or if they had been corrected, then paradise remains a viable proposition. The awareness of how close I was to having ‘had it all’ is of course the major factor in the torment that I am experiencing – it could have been so good, but by a series of flukey chances I lose it all. We can relate this type of malfunction to anxiety, because anxiety is the state of mind in which we become unpleasantly aware of the possibility of how horribly wrong things can go, and try (ineffectively) to fight against it. The ‘ineffectual’ aspect of the struggle is of course a key ingredient in anxiety – anxiety is not so much about the actual malfunction itself, but rather it is about my awareness of the possibility of it, and my futile attempts to eliminate the risk. In this I am fighting against reality itself, since there is no way to eliminate the risk from life, and so the thrust of my anxious striving becomes more about distracting myself from the awareness of risk, rather than eliminating the risk itself. In other words, my attempts to eliminate risk are a theatrical performance whose real purpose is to convince myself that there really is a chance that I can get everything under control. The possibility of effective control is the illusion that I want to cultivate.




The other type of ‘malfunction in the game’ is another kettle of fish entirely, and when it hits home it comes from a place that I really hadn’t expected. What happens here can be explained as follows. Suppose that the same basic thing happens as in the first story – I am granted a wish by some powerful supernatural being. Or perhaps, to make it all just that little bit more believable – I win five million Euros in the state lottery. This of course comes to exactly the same thing really because I am now empowered, by my new found wealth, to turn into reality whatever ‘wishes’ I might have. We will assume that my wishes are much the same as everyone else’s wishes, i.e. that they are ‘selfish’ wishes. People do often say, it is true, that if they won X amount of money on the lotto they would try to help the world in some way, by giving a certain amount to charities, etc.  Probably if it actually happens that I do win a huge amount of money I don’t end up being quite as generous as I imagined that I would – and if I were to be unusually honest I would have to admit that a big amount of the motivation for ‘giving money to a good cause’ is so I don’t feel horribly greedy and selfish (which means that it is of course still selfishness that is driving me). In any event, the point that we are trying to make is that I would use the money to ‘realize my dreams’, as the saying goes.


Suppose that I buy an extravagant holiday villa on a tropical island with its own private beach, a sleek yaught moored on the jetty, and so on and so forth. Let us also suppose (although this is admittedly not necessarily something that can be obtained on the basis of wealth alone) that I have a beautiful adoring girlfriend who never looks at another man, and does not show any inclination to challenge me in any major way. Furthermore, just to make the picture more complete, let us also say that I have numerous interests and hobbies and side-lines that are more than enough to stimulate my need for ‘meaningful pursuits’. In short, everything is rosy in the garden and I seem to have everything that I could possibly want.  What happens now (in case you haven’t guessed) is that I just start to get bored – nothing really ‘does it’ for me anymore. I find my luxurious home boring, I find the constant parties and the scintillating social life boring; my stimulating and worth-while hobbies leave me flat and my beautiful devoted girlfriend merely irritates me. This is the first sign of some sort of global ‘technical failure’.


The second phase of the global failure is however far, far worse – the feast loses its flavour entirely. In other words, I cease to derive any sense of meaning whatsoever about my so-called ‘perfect life’. The whole thing now shows itself to be an exercise in futility, I actually feel mocked by the charade that I myself have set up. Everything exists as a sort of ‘cardboard cut-out’ – brightly painted but clearly fake, just like the set of a film can clearly be seen to be fake, if we happen to be there in person watching the filming going on. Obviously if I was sitting in the cinema eating my popcorn and drinking coke, then it would be a different story – the illusion would effective, and I would enjoy letting myself be taken in – but when you can actually walk around the back of the set and see that all the buildings etc are actually part of a two-dimensional ‘front’, then the magic is well and truly gone. This is how I feel now – I feel as if I have been taken for a ride, and I am haunted by this sense of fraudulency, a fraudulency that I myself have played a major part in. The metaphor with the film-set breaks down here because whilst I can walk away from the set and re-enter the real world, when it is my life itself that is revealed as a sham, then there is obviously no question of simply walking away from this ghastly feeling. I want to crawl away and hide, but even this is revealed as part of the same hollow ‘act’. There is no authenticity left to me. I am caught in a cruel trap – doing nothing is the last thing I want to do because then I am a sitting duck for the nightmarish feelings of meaninglessness that echo all around me, and gnaw upon my liver daily so to speak; on the other hand, to actually force myself to get to my feet, go out of the door and ‘do’ the things that I usually do makes me all but cringe with horror. It is like having to take part in a sick joke – everything I do simply serves to amplify the perception that I have of being tortured by the all-encompassing machinery of universal mockery. I can’t go forward and I can’t stay where I am, and this is the unrelenting predicament I find myself in when things fall apart in the ‘second type of technical malfunction’.




It is impossible, when safely ensconced within the normal bounds of rational consciousness, to fully appreciate the keen edge of the experience of fully-fledged ‘meaning failure’ – we do not understand the true meaning of meaninglessness until depression has got to work on us and ‘done its business’ on us.  Horrors like this usually lurk somewhere off-scene from the carefully-edited movie that is my life; the blasé and cocksure everyday mind exists precisely to exclude such wholly unpalatable feelings as this. A great poet would be needed to come anywhere close to capturing the unique flavour of what we are talking about here; and what is more, any listener would need to be blessed with a rare ‘poetic ear’ to be able to benefit from such a fine poetic description. In crude terms, we can say that a Type-2 malfunction of a psychological game results in the person concerned being subjected to a claustrophobic blast of the ‘pure solipsistic vision’, which is to say, I perceive that the ‘me’ fills all the available space, and I simultaneously perceive that this ‘me’ is in itself a ghastly charade – that it is a thorough-going phoney of the very worst sort. The shock of this perception strikes as hard and as deep as it does because this ‘me’ (and its world, which is also ‘me’) is all I believe in. I have invested everything in this game – all my eggs are in this basket and so when the basket is revealed to be rotten the precious eggs fall right through it and smash on the pavement.


I don’t believe in anything else other than my game, and even if I did believe in something else, whatever new thing that I started to believe in would automatically become part of my game too (since ‘my game’ equals ‘my beliefs’). My beliefs exist purely to support the ‘me’, and the ‘me’ is the front for the ubiquitous system of thought. It would be more correct, therefore, to say that I have made myself unable to perceive anything else. I am closed, and I am closed to the fact of my own closure, and so when what I am closed around (my central inner sun) is revealed to be a putrefying corpse, what is left to me? This is the horror of the ‘unveiled nullity’. This notion of the unveiled nullity (the ‘horror of horrors’ which we cannot allow ourselves to see) brings us to the point where we can consider that there could be a deeper level of anxiety than the one we have already discussed, which is to say anxiety that is based on ‘risk with regard to things not going the way we want them to go in the game’. We could therefore say that the deeper level of anxiety would be based on risk ‘with regard to the game-player seeing that the game is indeed a game’. There are thus two rules in operation here, the second being a good deal more ‘unconscious’ than the first:


[1] Things – the more important type of things at least – must always happen in the way that I want them to happen (i.e. in certain matters, I must always be in control).


[2] I must never see that rule [1] is essentially meaningless (i.e. I must never see that ‘’control’ is a redundant, self-referential, or ‘tautological’ concept).


Rule [2] obviously creates the necessity of a whole gamut of activity, activity which generally involves an unreflective intensification of activity that is designed to obey rule [1]. Despite this feverish and frantic nature of this activity, however, there is an inevitable process of ‘exposure’ that sets in at some stage, a process which involves the overthrow of both rules. The overthrow of rule [1] is in evidence in what psychiatrists call ‘anxiety disorder’, and the overthrow of rule [2] corresponds (or so we are suggesting here) to clinical depression.  We can look at the process whereby rule [2] is overthrown in terms of two distinct stages or phases.




The first stage of the process is, very straightforwardly, when we perceive the ‘lack of worth’ of the lie – we see that it is corrupt, degenerate, shoddy, bankrupt etc. This is of course the sense of disillusionment that we have talked about earlier; to go back to Tony de Mello’s metaphor, it is when we suddenly see that the cheque for a million dollars which we clasp in our sweaty hand is in fact no more than a scrap of old newspaper. This disillusionment phase of the process is necessarily wholly negative – there is no “Aah yes, but its okay really because…”, there is no ‘mitigation’ of the news that I have just received. This is the ‘darkest hour’ and there is no redeeming light apparent anywhere in the picture; I have been dealt a singularly crushing blow and I have nothing to fall back on at all. my intellect reels as it takes in the full magnitude of what I have just learned; the stark and painfully clear awareness of what is happening vies with the swirling mists of dumb, uncomprehending confusion for supremacy in my mind.


The second stage of the process is when I start to see something else apart from the fact that the lie was in fact a lie – I start to see what the lie was covering up. I see the lie for what it is, but the all-important extra ingredient here is that there is the beginnings of insight into the fact that if there is such a thing as a lie, then there must also (by direct implication) be such a thing as ‘the truth’, for how the horror of the lie be as bad as it is, if there is not the corresponding glory of ‘that which has been lied about’? Sadness points to the existence of joy, or as Kahlil Gibran (1923, p 36) says,


When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.


 When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.


What we have called ‘the lie’ exists, we might say, in order to save us from the pain of loss. The lie comforts us and numbs us, and it fills the aching void so that we do not see that core that has been taken out from the centre of everything – we do not see what it is that we have so tragically lost. This is of course a false remedy for it condemns us to carry on in a parody of life; to put this another way, because our sorrow is invisible to us, the fact of this concealment causes us to carry that unwitnessed sorrow with us wherever we go and the ‘life’ that we lead as a consequence of our ‘lack of courage’ with regard to facing the truth is no life at all, but merely the prolongation of our untenable situation in the most ghastly fashion possible. What we are doing flies in the face of any sense or intelligence that we might have; it destroys every last shred of our dignity and extends the period of our suffering indefinitely.  There is no sadder, no more piteous thing than this ‘prolongation’ of a lie for no reason at all other than the reason of fear.


The ‘lie’ that we are talking about is the same thing as the system of thought, and so what we are saying is that the system of thought maintains itself purely by fear, since it is because of fear that we do not ever stop to examine what we are perceiving or thinking or doing. The system of thought is ‘the unexamined life’ – it is that which persists when we lack to courage to question our own reasons for carrying on with whatever pattern it is that we are enmeshed. When curiosity (or courage) arises then this means that the force of the fear is not so total, and so we are able to see that pattern that we are caught up in. This is a bit like ‘seeing the bars of our prison cell’ and this perception of confinement necessarily comes in a painful way. The ‘perception of my prison’ corresponds to the perception of the freedom that I have lost, and it also corresponds to the perception of the True Self that I have lost. Although the pain is ‘more than I can bear’, it constitutes the right and correct remedy for my situation since I no longer have the motivation to carry on with my false life. That false (or extrinsic) motivation was the motivation of denial, and so when the denial ends, the ‘motivation to carry on’ also ends.


The acceptance of the overwhelming pain and despair of Stage 1 leads, therefore, to a growing perception of what the lie was preventing me from seeing, which is Stage 2. In stage 2 the lie is still there, but it is now seen. There is some perspective on the matter, and this perspective means that the lie no longer ‘takes up all the available space’. The lie is now seen in its proper place – it is shrunk, deflated, revealed as what it is. This idea is most clearly expressed in Gnostic terms: we can say that the False God – the Demiurge who is the creator of the material universe – has now been toppled from his throne, and cast aside so that the True Divinity may now been seen its proper place; the never-ending Empire of Lies, which seemed so appallingly impregnable, is brought down at last. Stage 2 can therefore be described as the joyful, revelatory phase of the process of seeing through lie.


Seeing the falsity of the lie (seeing that a lie has been told) is the very same thing as seeing that there is a Truth there along; seeing that there has been a misrepresentation is synonymous with seeing that there is something that has been misrepresented. The beauty of this whole process is that – in the end – it is the lie itself which points to the truth. It is its own undoing. This formulation of things all sounds very neat and very straightforward; so much so that one might even go so far as to ask what all the fuss is about – if evil is its own undoing then surely every thing is fine and we don’t really have to worry. The way things work out in practice is, however, very far from being neat and straightforward: such is the degree of pain involved in Stage 1 that, when it comes right down to it, we do everything in our power to prevent ourselves from seeing through the nature of the lie that we have trapped ourselves in. we exert to the utmost the ‘signature power’ of the unconscious life, which is the power to deceive ourselves.




The essential irreducible problem associated with the system of thought can be seen as having two complementary aspects. We can set out these two related problems as follows:


[1] Because the system is self-referential in nature (i.e. closed), this necessarily means that it is tautological, self-cancelling, or ‘null’. We can relate the perception of redundancy inherent in this situation to the form of mental distress commonly known as depression.  


[2] Another way of expressing [1] is to say that the essential form of the pattern to which we are committed equals a ‘blind striving to achieve the impossible’. This ‘unacknowledged impossibility’ naturally produces a secondary goal which is to avoid becoming aware of the fact that the original goal is impossible. This secondary goal can be alternatively formulated in terms of a need to avoid becoming aware of the fact that ‘everything I perceive and think and do is null’.




The idea that depression, and perhaps mental illness in general, has something to do with the inability to find meaning in life, is not a new one. In the following passage, taken from The Master Game, Robert De Ropp (1968. p11-12) puts forward the argument:


It has been stated by Thomas Szasz that what people really need and demand from life is not wealth, comfort or esteem but games worth playing. He who cannot find a game worth playing is apt to fall prey to accidie, defined by the Fathers of the Church as one of the Deadly Sins, but now regarded as a symptom of sickness. Accidie is a paralysis of the will, a failure of the appetite, a condition of generalized boredom, total disenchantment – “God, oh God, how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of the world!” Such a state of mind, Szasz tells us, is a prelude to what is loosely called ‘mental illness,’ which, though Szasz defines this illness as a myth, nevertheless fills half the beds in hospitals and makes a multitude of people a burden to themselves and society.


Seek, above all, for a game worth playing. Such is the advice of the oracle to modern man. Having found the game, play it with intensity, play it as if your life and sanity depend on it. (They do depend on it.) Follow the example of the French existentialists and flourish a banner bearing the word “engagement”. Though nothing means anything and all roads are marked “NO EXIT,” yet move as if your movements had some purpose. If life does not seem to offer a game worth playing, then invent one. For it must be clear, even to the most clouded intelligence, that any game is better than no game.


If, the argument goes, we do not find a ‘game worth playing’, then we are candidates for the dreaded condition of accidie, which makes people a burden both to themselves and others. Of course, if we were to be strict in our understanding of the term ‘game’ then this would throw doubt on the whole idea of ‘a game worth playing’ – if by ‘a game’ we mean that ‘kidding yourself that something is meaningful when it is not’, then it is of course utterly impossible to play any game without simultaneously raising the spectre of meaninglessness. De Ropp goes on to say that the only game that is really worth playing is that ancient pursuit which he calls ‘the Master Game’ (which corresponds to Carse’s Infinite Game). The Master Game basically means ‘waking up out of the stupefying trance of unconsciousness’ (just as the Infinite Game means ‘transcending the boundaries of the prison of rationality’) and so we can see that neither is a game in any strict use of the word, at least not in the strict use of the word that we have been using. Taking this into account, we can therefore refine the argument to say that depression (and mental illness in general) is the inevitable result of the process of ‘rational adaptation’, which is where we try to adapt ourselves to the psychostatic world that is projected by the system of thought, as if it were the one and only final reality.


This, of course, is exactly what we are all trying to do and so we are all (give or take a few exceptions) candidates for ‘paralysis of the will, failure of the appetite, generalized boredom, and total disenchantment’. Such an assertion is unlikely to find much favour with ‘the powers that be’ within the field of psychiatry, but we do not have to go to far back in time to find a similar viewpoint being aired, as evidenced by the following, definitely dire, pronouncement on the subject made by the eminent psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung:


The lack of meaning in life is a soul-sickness whose full extent and full impact our age has not as yet begun to comprehend.


There is absolutely no doubt that since Jung wrote that, back in the middle of the twentieth century, and the present time, the number of people seeking help from the medical profession due to depression, has increased a thousand fold, and the only difference now is that we have the use of powerful ‘antidepressants’ which in a proportion of cases temporarily alleviates the worst of the symptoms. Statistics in Western Europe sometimes go as high as one in three for people that have suffered from depression at one point in their lives. So is this enough proof to say that it is, as Jung says, our rational way of life that produces such a high incidence of depressive illness? One way to try to throw light on this would of course be to look for statistically significant differences between prevalence of depression in a rational, techno-consumer society (which is getting to be most of the world) and a culture that is orientated along non-rational lines –which is to say, a culture which uses living (and therefore deeply mysterious) symbols as a currency more than it uses dead (or ‘fully defined’) signs. India is still an excellent example of this latter type of culture, although the Western rationalist paradigm does seem to be making inroads (it is not unheard of for example for some members of the professional classes in Modern India to feel rather embarrassed by the blatant irrationality of their culture and desire therefore to put a substantial amount of distance between themselves and such unfortunate ‘superstition’).


Interesting though such comparisons would be, we are going to take a different tack. Rather than looking at clinically defined depression, which although widely prevalent is obviously not universal (since the majority of us clearly still do exhibit bucket-loads of motivation to carry on striving after our goals) we are going to focus on a more subtle manifestation of the same general sort of malaise, and we are going to assert that nearly one hundred percent of people living in the techno-consumer mega-culture exhibit all the prime symptoms of this condition. The condition we are talking about is simply ‘lack of meaning in life’. On the face of it, this idea is rather an extreme one – the images that our culture constantly portrays of itself to itself are in direct and unambiguous opposition to any such idea. Adverts on TV and the glossy images splashed around the colour supplements of a typical Sunday newspaper are excellent examples: there are interesting, vivacious, delightfully quirky and marvellously stylish people out there and they are doing all sorts of fascinating things. Who can deny it? It is actually very hard to deny this because as soon as you start to people will begin to look at you in a sort of a knowing way (even if they don’t immediately say anything), as if to say “Well – it’s pretty obvious that you are just a sad screwed-up loser and you’re only jealous of everyone else ‘getting on with it’ and being successful…”




Such is the nature of the global collusion that we are trapped in that no one can say anything critical without incurring scorn (or general censure) from everyone else – scorn and censure which is born of the fear that if I don’t quickly say something then everyone will know that I also am a loser! This is the very crux of the matter – having happy, successful and above all meaningful lives has become (as Alan Watts says) a rule which means that we are driven by the need to be happy, successful ‘happening’ people. We live in mortal fear of being the loser in this cruel game – we live in terrible secret dread of not being in the ‘winner’s club’, that highly exclusive, much publicized group of people (who we hear about and read about all the time) who have happening lives. This is not just a matter of ‘fear of having a crap life’ – actually that is a very small part of it, what we are afraid of is other people seeing that we have a crap life…! Therefore, if we were to put it perfectly bluntly, we would have to say that having a happy, successful and meaningful life is a purely theatrical endeavour, which is to say, it’s not for us that we do it (or strive after it) but it is for the sake of the effect that it has on our audience (real or imagined). As James Carse says, we live our lives for this abstract audience, for the simple reason that ‘the abstract audience’ forms the world within which we need our lives to make sense. We need for that world to exist, or we don’t exist. Carse (1986, p 90-91) explains this reciprocal relationship as follows:


World exists in the form of audience. A world is not all that is the case, but that which determines all that is the case.


An audience consists of persons observing a contest without participating in it.


No one determines who an audience will be. No exercise of power can make a world. A world must be its own spontaneous source.  “A world worlds” (Heidegger). Who must be a world cannot be a world.


The number of persons who join an audience is irrelevant. So is the time and space in which an audience occurs. The temporal and spatial boundaries of a finite game must be absolute – in relation to an audience or world. But when and where a world occurs, and whom it includes, is of no importance. One does not say, “I was in the world, or audience, on November 22, 1963,” but rather, “I was just getting out of the car thinking about what to cook for dinner when I heard that the President had been shot.” An audience does not receive its identity according to the persons within it, but according to the events it observes. Those who remember that day remember precisely what they were doing in the early afternoon of that day, not because it was the 22d of November, but because it was at that moment that they became audience to the to the events of that day.


If the boundaries of an audience are irrelevant, what is relevant is the unity of the audience. They must be a singular entity, bound in their desire to see who will win the contest before them. Anyone for whom this desire is not primary is not in the audience for that contest, and is not a person in that world.


The fact that a finite game needs an audience before which it can be played, and the fact that an audience needs to be singularly absorbed in the events before it, show the crucial reciprocity of finite play and the world. Finite players need the world to provide an absolute reference for understanding themselves; simultaneously, the world needs the theatre of finite play to remain a world. George Eliot’s villainous character, Grandcourt, “did not care a languid curse for anyone’s admiration; but this state of non-caring, just as much as desire, required its related object – namely, a world of admiring and envying spectators: for if you are fond of looking stonily at smiling persons, the persons must be there and they must smile.”


Going back to what we were saying about the primary need for others to see that I am having a happy, successful, and meaningful life, we can see that the struggle that comes out of this need constitutes ‘the contest’ of which Carse speaks. My need is to win in this contest, and the reason I have such a need (although I cannot see it) is so that the world which is created by this finite game continues to exist. Because it is only through this world continuing to exist that I continue to exist. Of course, it is also true that I am not only the contestant – I am also part of the audience for others in their struggle to ‘succeed’ in their lives. In this regard, we are all both ‘audience’ and ‘actor’ and we shift between the two poles constantly, without ever clearly realizing what we are doing. Both are the two aspects of the same phenomenon – the fascination and absorption that I experience in watching the struggle of others is the very same thing as the concern that I experience regarding my own performance in this struggle. Therefore, we can say the following:


The decidedly pleasurable fascination that I experience at seeing others lose in the game, is the very same thing as the appallingly disagreeable fascination that I experience towards the spectacle of myself becoming (or threatening to become) a loser in the game.




It can also be seen that in both cases – in my attitude to others when they look as if they are going to lose the contest, and in my attitude to myself when I start to look as if I am going to lose in the contest – there is no real sincerity at all. I do not care about what is actually going on, but only in the public spectacle of what is going on. It is the public shame and the public glory that I am fascinated in rather than anything else and this negative/positive fascination constitutes what we have been referring throughout our discussions as extrinsic motivation (any kind of concern regarding what is really going on beneath the carefully manicured external layer of ‘the way things seem to be’ would therefore constitute motivation of the intrinsic variety). Needless to say, the result of this insincerity (or ‘theatricality’) is that the ‘happiness, success and meaningfulness’ that gets advertised so confidently is not true ‘happiness, success and meaningfulness’: after all, if the point of me having a meaningful sort of a life is so that I can know that I am having a meaningful sort of a life through the fact that my audience perceives (and believes) me to be having a meaningful sort of a life, then the actual ‘meaning’ that my life supposedly holds isn’t actually the point at all. The point to me winning the contest that I understand life to be is for others to be believe that I am a winner, so that I too (seeing as I do the world through their eyes) can believe myself to be a winner. I have to convince you, before I myself can be convinced, so to speak. In all of this the true nature of whatever it is that I am experiences gets completely misplaced, and so we have the peculiar (and very perverse) situation where the reality of my life is sacrificed for the transient satisfaction of ‘creating a convincing illusion’. With regard to the fact that the meaning which my life holds for me is entirely dependent upon the meaning that I can cause other people to perceive it to have, it is obvious that the whole idea of ‘meaning’ has been sacrificed on the alter of theatricality. I am no longer the beneficiary of my life, I am not living my life for myself at all – on the contrary I am living it for the sake of the audience (which is to say, for the sake of the way of looking at things that is taken for granted by the audience). Therefore, I am not the beneficiary of my own (theatrical) success and my own (theatrical) happiness, but rather the system of thought is the beneficiary.


The net result of living the theatrical life (living life through other peoples’ understanding of what life is) is that I have divorced myself from the meaning that life actually has; I am now cut off from the meaning life has ‘for itself’, as it were. This alienation from what is real causes me to rely even more on the system of thought to tell me what I should be doing, what is good for me to do, and so on. My thinking and my beliefs are all I have left to guide me. So, just to give a crude example, let us say that being devoid of the confidence to trust my own judgment, I resort to buying the most expensive clothes that I can afford (on the grounds that ‘the more expensive a product is, the better it must be’). Or, to give a more realistic example, let us say that I, having never had the courage to discover my own tastes, use my well-developed social radar apparatus to discern what style is considered ‘in’, and try to adopt this style before most other people (with perhaps less well-developed radar) do the same thing. Of course, this whole ‘surreptitious mimicry’ business doesn’t end here: life becomes a matter of doing all the ‘right’ things, being in the right places, and hanging out with the ‘right’ people – although it is of course extremely unlikely that we would see it like this. The rule, as always, is that ‘being superficial means that I am also too superficial to see that I am superficial’ (or alternatively, we could say that the rule is that ‘being inauthentic means that I am too inauthentic to see that I am inauthentic’). In any event – no matter how subtle and devious my game – all I am basically doing is following a set of rules for ‘how to have a successful, happy, and meaningful life’.


My logic is that because I am doing all the right things, because I am following the rules for ‘having a good time’ (and therefore, by implication, because I look from the outside as if I am having a good time) then I must be having a good time. I am doing all the things people do when they are ‘enjoying life to the full’ and so I must be. We can define this sort of happiness as theatrical happiness, and say that it is when both I (and everyone around me) assume that I must be having a good time. It might sound when we put it like this that the mere assumption of the thing is going to be, at best, a very thin substitute for the thing itself, but this is to overlook both the immense ‘power of suggestion’ that the group collusion has, and the effect of not knowing any different. Both of the factors are more than enough ‘to do the job’ on most occasions. We can also look at this in terms of ‘perception of meaning’ – I have followed all the rules for having a meaningful life, and so I take it for granted that my life must, indeed, be meaningful, but by the argument that we have just now been through, it is clear that – precisely because I have followed all the rules – there can be no meaning at all in my life. After all, if it is to be properly meaningful, then I must have to discover its meaning for myself – I can hardly copy my life from other people (who have in turn copied it from others, who have also copied it) and expect this thing that I have so lazily acquired to contain actual genuine meaning. To put this another way, if I am following the ‘rules for life’ (which I unquestionably am if I am ‘doing all the right things’) then what I am actually doing is enacting the pattern of the rational mind, I am in fact tracing out with my life the logical grooves that are dictated by the system of thought and as a result the meaning of what I am doing is guaranteed to be quite hollow, quite tautological.




It seems a bit steep to insist, as we have been doing, that the pursuit of theatrical happiness is our number one concern. The idea that we act out our lives (or most of our lives) for the sake of the abstract audience in our heads rather than for ourselves is hard to accept. But inasmuch as we only do what makes rational sense for us to do, and inasmuch as we find it obligatory to make sense of our experience within the terms of rationality (that is to say, within the terms of our beliefs) then this has got to be true. The system of thought itself is the abstract audience, and so there are very few moments indeed when we are free from this insidious and invisible middleman.


And if this argument doesn’t wholly convince, there is a kind of a test that we can use to highlight the fact that we tend to live theatrically rather than dramatically: all I need to do is to wait until I feel very bad in myself one way or another (such occasions can of course be relied upon to present themselves with a certain dependable regularity) and then notice, if I can remember, how I feel about other people seeing me this way. If the threat of other people seeing my distress constitutes a more pressing problem than the original distress itself, then my true allegiance can straightaway be seen. Alternatively, I can wait until I achieve some great success – when I achieve a goal that I have been struggling to attain for many years, perhaps. All I have to do is to remember to notice at this time if the happiness that I have found in achieving my goal is enough in itself, or if perhaps I feel the need to share it with others. After all, how real is my victory, without an audience to validate it? If I win a Gold Medal in the Olympics then this is a tremendous success indeed, but who can honestly say that the moment of victory would be as momentous an experience if the rest of the human race was at that precise moment wiped out in some fluke global accident, leaving no one at all apart from me to witness my accomplishment?


This is not to say that there are not tasks that we undertake for the sake of no audience, and it is not to say that there is no such thing as a victory that needs no validation; all we are saying is that most of us are trapped in the realm of theatricality – which is the realm of the rational mind – and so even when we are involved in what we have called ‘the Internal Task’, it still tends to get tangled up in the ‘outer theatre’ of our lives, and therefore becomes a clever (or not so clever) deceit, just like everything else. This ‘entanglement’ is a huge difficulty, because impulses that originate in the intrinsic self can end up being taken over by the extrinsic (or false) self, and similarly, impulses can be mistaken as coming from the true (or dramatic) self, when in fact they originate in the false (or theatrical) self.  Therefore, until some degree of separation is obtained between the extrinsic and intrinsic self (until I know when I am being sincere, in other words) all ‘starts’ tend to be ‘false-starts’, which means that all my efforts are sabotaged from the beginning.




Life seen unreflectively looks very different to life when it is seen reflectively. When we see the theatre of successful life with a ‘psychological’ eye it becomes the exact opposite of what we previously took it to be! Suppose that I am a sitting on a bench in a busy shopping street in a fashionable part of town watching all the people go by – I am looking at a veritable river of beautiful, sophisticated, immaculately attired and flawlessly accessorized individuals; each person is moving with a firm sense of purpose, knowing what they are about, knowing where they are going, what they are going to do when they get there, and why it is they are about whatever it is that they are about. The whole thing is seamless, imposing, unquestionable, and all I can do is watch on, wondering perhaps how they do it. However they do it, it definitely looks good, and I would without any doubt like to be able to ‘do’ it too! If I were to suddenly see the shopping street and it’s current of people with ‘psychological’ eye, what I would see would be a different story altogether. In this case, what I would see would be ‘externally perfect people’, moving with ‘unimpeachable external (or extrinsic) purpose’, and what this means is that I am seeing the appearance of freedom and meaning, without the actual content. Beforehand, I saw an elegant and imposing dance, now I witness a ‘dance macabre’ – the dance of slaves who think themselves to be free, the dance of the dead who do not know themselves to be dead.


What we are saying here, as unambiguously as we can, is that it is all an act for the sake of the abstract audience. Or to put it another way, despite the fact that everyone on this fashionable high street looks as if they know what they are doing with their lives, and why, they don’t. It is all the most fantastic bluff – it is a bluff on such a tremendously huge scale that no one would be audacious enough to call it. As has been said – when a lie is big enough, then everyone has no choice but to swallow it. Bluffing your way through life is by definition not the most reliable way to do things, and in the end it is absolutely guaranteed to fail, but on the short term (when the bluff itself is so huge, and so total) it is remarkably, amazingly awesomely safe. It is a bluff maybe, but it is a bluff that no one will ever dare suspect; I myself do not suspect what is going on, even though I am a part of the whole conspiracy!




The thing that is so striking when we view the theatre of successful living with the eye that is not taken in by appearances is that something crucially important is missing. Everything else apart from this has been managed to perfection, but there is just this one thing that is not there. What makes it all into a ‘dance macabre’ (as we called it before) is that this deficit is completely unacknowledged by all the players. Modern life, as we see it lived on our TV screens and in our High Streets, and as we live it ourselves, is deficient in the one vital ingredient it needs to be worth anything, but we all adhere to the ‘conspiracy of silence’ – we don’t admit that anything is wrong, even to ourselves. The starkness of this ignored fact is alluded to in Beckett’s play Happy Days where the two characters manage marvellously contrive to wholly disregard the fact that they are all buried up to their necks in sand. In Happy Days the question as to what the playwright is bringing to our attention is perhaps open to debate, but the central ignored fact that we are talking about here is the actual pointlessness of it all – which is to say, the ‘lack of any genuine meaning’ (which in itself isn’t a million miles from the sort of themes with which Beckett is associated).


At this point in our discussion of meaninglessness it is crucially important to interject that we are not (quite) saying that humanity is a race of zombies. This charge has of course been made before, for example by Frank Zappa when he sings (rather unsympathetically) such mocking lines as “Plastic people – oh baby now you’re such a drag…” It would be inexcusably careless for us to give the impression that this is what we are saying – people are a deeply diverse lot and as a result we can never assume that we know what any particular person ‘is’ or ‘will turn out to be’. What we are saying is something that is slightly, but very significantly different, and we can put it in the form of an assertion:


There exists a collectively generated ‘ideal state of being’ which equals ‘being outwardly successful’. This ideal doesn’t just have to do with skin, hair, attire and accessories, but also personality, and all that goes with personality. This ideally imagined (or projected) state of being has a magnetizing effect on us, like a mathematical ‘attractor point’ that we are all helplessly drawn to as we automatically strive to better approximate ourselves to it.


If it happened to be the case that this idealized vision of what it is to be optimally successful in life were in any way true, then we could of course have no grounds for complain about the situation that we have just described. Successful adaptation would then be, without the slightest doubt, ‘the highest good’. But of course the whole point of us considering the matter in this way is to try to ague that the process of optimization to what we think life is all about is a very different thing from being harmoniously ‘at one with life’, in the mystical sense. The former process is merely ‘adaptation to the system of thought’, which as Jung noted leads only to greater and greater artificiality, sterility, and lack of meaning. The latter process, on the other hand, can only occur as a result of a person becoming progressively more ‘non-adapted’ to the system of thought (i.e. individuated). Therefore, we can say that the problem with this ‘ideal state of perfection’ that we all try to attain to is that it hides within its heart a very nasty hollowness that is not visible whilst we are hungering for it. Winning, as Emily Dickinson reminds us (Selected Poems. 1994. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.), only appears as attractive as it does because we are looking at it from the unhappy position of the potential loser:


Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne’er succeed

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host

Who took the flag today

Can tell the definition

So clear, of victory.

As he, defeated, dying,

On whose forbidden ear

The distant strains of triumph

Break agonized and clear.




Due to the semi-repressed fear of being a loser that we each carry deep within us, we are all very much under the spell of the particular type of triumph that is hinted at from the images we are daily subjected to by advertising and the media in general. Such is our haste to reach that most valued of situations that we never notice any evidence to the contrary. All around us, others strain to ‘get there first’ and so we are very much inclined to join in the race; if everyone else is trying to win the prize, then the prize must surely be worthwhile, and if I waste time wondering about what everyone is doing (instead of staking my own claim) then I will surely be beaten in the race.


When we used, just a minute ago, the image of the fashionable shopping street, it was because it is in such venues as this that we find most strongly evident the magnetizing power of the ideal of ‘outer success’. The corollary of this is that it is in such places as this that we also find those people who are most ‘dedicated’ to chasing this ideal. These dedicated followers of fashion, along with those individuals who have the job of physically embodying the ideal so that everyone else can see it (media personalities, pop-stars, models, and ‘celebs’ in general) have in a sense volunteered themselves to be used in this way, to demonstrate to the rest of us less fortunate folk what outward success looks like ‘in the flesh’, so to speak. It could be said that by taking upon themselves this role the icons of cool are doing us all a favour (albeit unwittingly) since, because inasmuch as they embody success, they must also embody the dreadful price of success, which is there for anyone to see, if they cared to notice. If we want to focus on exactly what this ‘price’ is, all we have to do is consider the following sort of situation.


Let us try to imagine a perfect person, for whom everything is going just right (when we say ‘perfect’, we mean of course perfect as far as our thinking about things is concerned). I am good looking, I am highly trained and educated, I have valuable skills, I have a high-status professional job that is interesting and pays well, I have a lovely home in a pleasant situation, a handsome, intelligent, caring partner, lots of friends, etc. Basically, I have everything going for me. Let us say that tonight is a very special occasion for some reason and I am going out with my partner or boyfriend for a meal in an exclusive restaurant, and then perhaps we will go to a fashionable club or two. Because it is such a special occasion, I am naturally going to make sure I look my best – I want everything to be ‘just right’. And so when the time comes I am looking ‘drop dead gorgeous’ (as the cliché has it) – my hair is right, my outfit is right, my make-up is right, everything that needs attention has been carefully attended to and so am ready for my night out. I have specified what my ‘dream-evening’ is to be, and now I just have to wait for it to come true.


But let us now go back to what we have said about ‘outwards success’, which is where we get everything to accord with how we think it ought to be. The point that we made was that if everything is done so that it will be in accord with our ideas about ‘what is the best way for things to be’ then it is theatrical, which is to say, we are ‘playing to the gallery’. The gallery, in this case, is my rational mind – that abstract and abstracted ‘observer of the show’ – and it is the rational mind of anyone else who happens to be involved. In fact, we could simply say that the gallery is the rational mind itself, irrespective of which person’s eyes it might be looking at. It is on behalf of the rational mind that I have made all the effort for, and so it is the beneficiary. However, and this is where the rub lies, for there is in actuality no such thing as ‘the rational mind’ – it is a fundamentally unreal vantage point, a fiction created by itself, for itself. Anything calculated, anything managed by the system of thought, is always like this – a dance macabre, a parody of life (which is necessarily uncalculated and unmanaged).


Just why the theatrical (when it is not known to be theatrical) should be a ‘grotesque or macabre parody’ is obvious once we see that the system of thought is an attempt to grasp hold of the ungraspable. When I try to grasp hold of the ungraspable what I end up with is clearly not going to be the ungraspable (which is life itself), but rather it is going to be something else other than life – a plastic imitation thereof, so to speak – which I am then going to treat as if it were what I was unsuccessfully attempting to grasp. I want to know that I am definitely here, that I definitely ‘have a life’, that I am definitely happy, that I am definitely ‘a success’, that I am definitely ‘doing it right’, etc, and in order for me to be able to do this I have to resort to the unquestionable (and therefore absolute or ‘objective’) abstracted point of view that is the system of thought. In other words, in order to continue monitoring myself, so that I can continue to know that I am definitely ‘there’, that I am definitely such-and-such a person with such-and-such a life, it is necessary for me to elevate the so-called objective framework from which I do the monitoring above and beyond any possibility of me ever doubting it. If I doubted it then that would of course make mockery of the whole endeavour. But – and here lies the unseen snag – when I elevate my way of looking at things beyond any possibility of doubt, I restrict the whole of life to ‘that which makes sense within the unquestionable framework’, and because the essence of life lies in the fact that it is an evolutionary movement (in a non-Darwinian sense) from the known into the unknown, the actual gist of it all is completely lost.


The real meaning of our existence lies not in our insecure attempts to validate that we are what we think we are; in fact this can only ever be ‘false meaning’ since the truth of the matter is that we most definitely are not what we think we are. Where that meaning may be said to lie is quite simply in the journey of discovering that we are not what we took ourselves to be, and that we are – ultimately – inconceivable more than we took ourselves to be. The irony of what actually happens to us is cruel indeed – out of insecurity (which translates into fear and greed) we do not allow the Great Process of which we are a part to unfold according to its own law, but rather we substitute our own law; we substitute the dead law of the system of thought. In a nutshell, by wishing to know for sure that I am alive and that I ‘have a life’ I elevate the system of thought over life, and so I have no life. All I have is the ‘virtual life’ that I have received as my payment for the deal that I struck, tempted in my moment of weakness by the clever salesman of ‘logic’.


So, we can now return to our story of the young woman who – in the eyes of the world – has everything going for her. This young woman, it will be remembered, has been getting herself ready (as is customary) for a very special occasion, an occasion for which it is important that everything should be ‘exactly right’. The idea is, quite understandably, that the evening ahead should be perfect. The dénouement of our story is that everything is indeed ‘perfect’, except for the one thing that cannot be calculated for, properly managed, or otherwise brought under control. That ‘one thing’ is of course that the occasion itself should have genuine meaning, as opposed to the ‘made up’ meaning that has been projected upon it. The argument that we have been putting forward is that when all our attention and effort goes into maintaining theatrical perfection, then the price of this theatrical perfection is that life itself gets totally ignored. It is important to reiterate this point – when I ‘play to the gallery’, when I get things right with regard to the abstract audience that is the system of thought, then this automatically involves me turning away from my ‘non-theatrical’ (or dramatic) self. I cannot serve two masters – it is either the one or the other. Now as Carse says it is possible to include a finite game within an infinite game, which is to say, I can play at theatricality within the context of a dramatic enactment, but what is not possible is for the infinite game to be included with a finite game. I cannot persuade life to dramatically unfold for the sake of the theatre that I am staging. More succinctly:


Whilst I can spontaneously be purposeful, I cannot be spontaneous on purpose. 


Therefore, if I put all my attention on the task of achieving perfection within the game which I am playing (i.e. the game of rationality) it is the inevitable consequence of this investment that I am going to ‘lose out’ on the dramatic component of my life, which – as it turns out – is a component that I cannot really do without. External perfection, without the connection to the world of the dramatic, is what John Bennett calls the state of living death: I am there, perfect in every (outward) respect, but I am a doll or a mannequin; I am the outer appearance of life without the inner actuality, I am the container without the content, an envelope which has lost the letter that should be inside it. To put it as bluntly as we can – what is the point of having a beautiful, healthy, well-nourished body, a body which lives in a lovely house, has many similarly ‘perfect’ friends, a well-paid job etc, if there is no soul, no ‘I’ to live in it? What could be more horrible? And yet, it is this state, the state of ‘being a perfect body with a perfect life with no genuine individuality’ that we are all ardently aiming at. This is the ‘mental attractor’ that is leading us onwards like sleep-walkers to our doom; this is the collectively valued goal that we are all in grave danger of actually obtaining. We gain the world at the expense of our souls. As Oscar Wilde says so well in De Profundis (taken from Collected Works, 1997, p 947-8):


As regards the other subject, the relation of the artistic life to conduct, it will no doubt seem strange to you that I should select it. People point to Reading Gaol and say, ‘That is where the artistic life leads a man.’ Well, it might lead to worse places. The more mechanical people, to whom life is a shrewd speculation depending on a careful calculation of ways and means, always know where they are going, and go there. They start from the idea desire of being the parish Beadle and no more. A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a member of parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment. Those who want a mask have to wear it.




The question might arise at this point as to what exactly it feels like when I start to slip into that dangerously ‘safe and comfortable’ equilibrium state in which I lose the one thing that actually ever really mattered. How can a person tell when this starts to happen? To put it bluntly – how do know when I have lost my soul? This is a fascinating question, as well as – pretty obviously – being a very urgent practical concern into the bargain. The point that we are making is of course that it doesn’t feel like anything really; I cannot tell, and I do not know. If it happened that alarm bells went off all over the place and I was struck by an immediate overwhelmingly painful awareness that I had gone ‘off course’, that I had taken a wrong turn and gone down what will ultimately be discovered to be a blind alley, then the whole problem of ‘losing the vital connection’ would never come up in the first place. The problem arises precisely because it is so very easy to lose the connection with reality, without being at all aware that any such thing has happened. That is what makes the realm of illusion (i.e. samsara) the infinitely dangerous place that it is.


A good way to think about the insidious process of ‘becoming adapted to a virtual (or counterfeit) reality that has been substituted for the genuine thing’ is to imagine spending a few hours in a state-of-the-art shopping mall. These modern day temples to consumerism and the rapturous state that goes with it are not just extensive and expansive in terms of the physical ground they cover, they are also extensive and expansive in the sense that they ‘take up all of our mental space’. Such places somehow contrive to exclude anywhere that isn’t part of themselves, to exclude any region that isn’t part of the ‘consumer-orientated zone’; in an old fashioned high street the shops were discrete and self-contained localities which a person could enter and depart from in a fairly conscious fashion. So, in this more traditional scenario I am an independent and self-motivated agent who goes into a specific shop in order to buy, or view, a (fairly) specific commodity. There is an undeniable dignity to this way of doing things, a dignity that is missing in the modern day shopping mall. The reason for this is that in the contemporary type of shopping complex there is no place that is actually outside of the ‘selling’ zone – the whole place is dedicated to putting those individuals who carelessly venture in them into a pleasantly disconnected trance-state in which they are prey to whatever suggestions it is that the commercial images are designed to evoke. There is no neutral space between the shops, in which we can ‘come back to ourselves’ – experience readily shows that a peculiar state of consciousness pervades the whole shopping centre so that no matter where I go within it, I am still the same pathetically helpless ‘shopping puppet’, defined totally by the space that I am in .


If this sounds a little strong, then perhaps that means a trip to your nearest big new shopping mall is in order, just to remind yourself just exactly what it is like. All you need to do is retain enough basic awareness to notice how you start to feel, and – just to emphasize the point – to notice how your fellow shoppers look. In answer to the question “What is going on in the head of a person drifting around in a shopping mall?” there can only be one answer – not an awful lot. Strictly speaking of course, we could qualify this by saying ‘not a lot that hasn’t got to do with shopping, and associated matters’, but this comes to exactly the same thing. It is a fact that getting struck by an awareness of the unfathomable mystery and grandeur of the universe whilst wondering around the shopping mall is an extraordinary, astronomically unlikely occurrence – the briskly functional space of the shopping mall is designed to encourage you to shop, not to allow you to get in touch with your deeper feelings regarding what really matters in life. And if a person were to object that shopping is about shopping and not about philosophy, and getting in touch with oneself, all we would need to do in order to effectively answer this point would be to ask the following question “Who exactly am I shopping for if my true self has been left outside in the street?” Or, to put it in more general terms, “If I live unreflectively, without any awareness of the deeper philosophical significance of life, and without any awareness of who I actually am, then on whose behalf I am engaging in this so-called ‘living’?” Who is the master that I am serving, if I am not serving the True Self?










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