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Life is a game

Buddhist snakes and ladders

The other day I came across one of those ubiquitous articles about the Problem with Men. And it had this line: ‘life is not a race, it’s not a game, and it’s not a fight’. The problem, the author suggested, was men were attached to the wrong metaphor for life. He preferred ‘life is a dance’ – that frames life in a non-competitive and open way.

In the Quran, Allah likewise says: ‘We didn’t create the heavens and the earth, and all that is between, for mere play.’  The Islamic apologist Hamza Andreas Tzortzis writes: ‘believing life is just a game equals no ultimate purpose and value. Not only does it make life ludicrous but it also represents a very bleak outlook on our existence.’ 

ludicrous: early 17th century (in the sense ‘sportive, intended as a jest’): from Latin ludicrus (probably from ludicrum ‘stage play’)

So does treating life like a game necessarily empty it of meaning and moral value? It depends what game you’re playing.

In the history of games, there have been games designed to teach people the hidden meaning of life, death and the afterlife, like Senet, an ancient Egyptian game where the movement of the pieces followed the soul’s journey through the afterlife. In medieval India, a popular game was Gyan Chauper, in which players tried to move their pieces towards Moksha or ultimate liberation. Along the journey, the pieces could move up ladders – representing virtuous actions – or down snakes – representing vices. The soul could be one square away from liberation, only to tumble down a large snake – how often this seems to happen to spiritual gurus!

American Puritans developed a similar game in the 19th century called The Mansion of Happiness, in which players moved across squares representing the Christian virtues and vices until they reached heaven (shown on the left). However, in 1860 a new version of the game was developed, called The Chequered Game of Life, in which the object was not to get to heaven but rather to get rich, get a family, and retire in a nice home. That version – now called simply The Game of Life – is still played today. We edited heaven out of the game of life.

Today, we can create games that are so immersive, so huge, so brimming with intelligence, that we feel like we’re in another world, a world of humans’ own creation. That’s what I felt when I played Grand Theft Auto for several days in a row – there were so many missions and side-missions, the world of the game was so changeable, so beautiful, so full of interesting characters, that I became totally absorbed in that world.

And when you can create games which are that absorbing and immersive, you can start to see this world as a game, a virtual reality. And that’s precisely what’s happened in the last few years – various philosophers and futurists have suggested we’re actually living in a virtual simulation, created by future humans or some other intelligent species.

I’ve found myself thinking this more and more over the last couple of years, and I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not.

I remember walking back over Hampstead Heath one evening last year, as the sun set. It was a beautiful evening, the sky was turning a sort of bruised purple, the darkening heath seemed to flicker with pagan mischief. And I thought, if this is a computer simulation, what an utterly beautiful simulation. The sky, particularly, is a masterstroke, but you can also drill down on tiny details – right down to the microscopic or even atomic level – and it’s still beautifully and wondrously made. And then the characters you come across – so fascinating! So unpredictable! In fact, we’ve been playing this Earth game for 200,000 years and we still haven’t exhausted all its missions, secret levels and hidden Easter eggs. Bravo to the makers, seriously. 9.5 / 10 on IGN.

Another beautiful moment in the world of Grand Theft Auto

I felt it again when I went to India last year. I hadn’t been back-packing for two decades, and I was a little nervous. The first place I stayed was a beach in Goa called Patnem, where nothing much happened. I thought about walking to another beach one night, to watch some fireworks. My nerves told me not to go, that it might be dangerous (what a chicken), but I went anyway, and as I walked into Palolem, I imagined a digital voice saying ‘New level unlocked: Palolem’. And I walked in wonder among the bongo-playing hippies and children throwing firecrackers, enjoying this new level.

I guess I was inspired by Westworld, which I’d been watching the month before. It’s about a fake Wild West world filled with AI cowboys and Indians, who let the visiting tourists act out their wildest fantasies without legal consequences (it was Charles Dickens, in 1838, who first had the idea for a theme-park populated by robots so humans could act out their murderous appetites). In Westworld, tourists can either stay near the centre, where the action is pretty tame, or they can go on missions further out. ‘The further out you venture, the more intense the experience gets’.

Is it unhealthy, this tendency to view life as a virtual reality game?

It could be. You can start to see everything and everyone as fake. This is what happened to me after I emerged from a 10-day ayahuasca retreat in October. Somehow or other, in the days afterwards, I became convinced I was in a fake reality, one that was shoddily constructed and filled with anomalies. I couldn’t work out if it was a dream (why did it go on so long), or the afterlife (what a crappy afterlife) or if I’d been trapped in a fake reality by an evil shaman (I’d been watching a lot of Twin Peaks). How strange, to become really convinced that the reality you’re in isn’t real – is there a name for this delusion?

Something similar happened to Timothy Leary the first time he took LSD. He became lost in a reality where everything seemed fake and everyone seemed like plastic dolls. It was all just a rather shoddy cosmic play, which he had seen through. He wrote about it in The Psychedelic Experience, suggesting it was a phase people often go through on psychedelics:

We are little more than flickers on a multidimensional television screen…You feel ultimately tricked. A victim of the great television producer. The people are you are lifeless robots…You are a helpless marionette, a plastic doll in a plastic world. ‘I am dead. I will never live and feel again’.

This is a sort of extreme dissociation from reality. It’s what happens to people sometimes after trauma – their soul detaches from the horrific situation, because it’s too painful to be there and feel it. It flies off and views it from above, as it were, as if through a safety glass. That’s what happened to me when I had trauma in my late teens and early 20s, and I think the ayahuasca brought this traumatic dissociation back up, to give me the opportunity to process it and bring my soul back.

Luckily, the delusion wore off for me after five days or so, once I’d come back to the UK and surrounded myself with people I loved. But I still feel a sort of detachment and dissociation from life, that is, from the usual games people play in this life. I can’t take them entirely seriously. I mean career games particularly, the sort of quest for ego-gratification that is totally absorbing in ones 20s and 30s. I can’t take those games that seriously.

Sometimes this loss of interest in my previous games means this life seems a bit ludicrous, and I almost fall drawn to death. I don’t mean in a suicidal or depressive way. I just think…death is where the mystery is. Between the levels. What is happening there? But sometimes this detachment and dissociation means I can calm down, take a breath, not get so absorbed in the trivial stuff, and just look around and enjoy the beauty and pathos of this game-world.

I can let go of fear and anxiety and craving – the fear of failure, the fear of ageing and sickness and suffering and death. It’s just a game, and we have multiple lives. We can try out multiple ways of living, in fact, we already have. And if we wake up to the game, we can let go of some of the more boring and obvious missions – accrue a lot of money and glory – and get into some of the deeper and more interesting missions. How do we level up? Who is the programmer – is it us? Can we change the code?

I’ll end with a quote from Ram Dass, Leary’s former colleague, who often uses the ‘life is a game / dream’ metaphor:

If you know you’re dreaming, can you continue to dream? That’s what the soul does – the soul appreciates that it’s a dream and that it contains the ego. If you push away the ego, if you cultivate an aversion to that dream, you’re never going to be free because there will be an attachment. The process is realizing that you and I exist on more than one plane of awareness simultaneously and on one plane suffering stinks, and on another plane suffering is grace. The question is, “Can you balance those two things in your consciousness?”

Confronting the shadow

When I was 20, I had a series of nightmares. In the first nightmare, I was in a car with some friends heading to a music festival. We heard on the radio that a lunatic had escaped from a local asylum. The traffic started to slow on the motorway, and we realised this was because people were leaving their cars and running away in terror. The whole motorway was deadlocked with abandoned cars.

My friends also ran away but for some reason I kept going forward. The motorway turned into a foggy country lane at night. Lots of dry ice. Very spooky. A figure stumbled out of the fog. It was a tramp figure in an overcoat, clutching his side as if he was wounded. I realised with horror that this was the escaped lunatic, and that in his hand he was holding a gun.

I turned to try and run away, just as the escaped lunatic raised the gun and aimed it at me. BANG! I woke up.

In a second nightmare from that period, I was walking through a zoo, when I realised that the fences of the animal cages had fallen down, and the animals were loose in the zoo and coming to get me. As a horde of snakes, tigers and crocodiles came for me, I flew out of their jaws and into the air. I could fly! I joyfully floated through the air for a bit, safely out of reach of the wild animals, but then it felt like my ‘rocket fuel’ started to run out, and I sank back to the ground, into the awaiting jaws of a crocodile.

In a third nightmare, I was at a party, and I looked in the mirror. I looked terrible – like a ghost, pale, haggard, destroyed. I then realised that my body was covered with tattoos, and that the tattoos prophesied that I was, literally, a marked man, that there was a price on my head. I was a scapegoat, a Jonah. I must die. Just at that moment, a gang of armed men burst into the party, looking to gun me down. I managed to escape by hiding, and ran out into the streets. The gang pursued me, down some dark alleys. I ducked into a building, and jumped down some stairs – the distance between each step got bigger and bigger. Finally I fell down into a hallway several metres below. I landed, and something fell and smashed next to me. It was a mannequin.

In the final nightmare in the series, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a lorry, hurtling down the motorway. I looked to my left, and there was a tramp, filthy and laughing away as he drove the lorry. He seemed drunk. We careered off the motorway and half-way off a cliff. Just before the lorry fell off the cliff, I managed to pull myself and the tramp free of the wreckage.

Big dreams

What sense could I make of these dreams? At the time, I didn’t know, although they stuck in my mind and have stayed there ever since – they were unusually vivid, numinous and unsettling, unlike most of my dreams. Carl Jung referred to such dreams as ‘big dreams’ – a survey I did last month found that people reported having such unusually memorable and vivid dreams only rarely in their life, usually at times of transition or crisis, and that they found such dreams helpful and useful in adapting to that change. I also think these dreams were giving me useful information about a psychological crisis I was in, although I didn’t entirely recognize their message.

The nightmares occurred when I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brought on by a couple of bad trips on LSD I’d had when I was 17-18.  Those experiences made me feel my psyche was seriously wounded, but I was too frightened and ashamed to talk to anyone about it. So I buried the experiences. The bad times seemed to pass for a few months, until my first year at university, when my emotional life went hay-wire. I suffered panic attacks, mood swings, feelings of dissociation or unreality, paranoia, and long periods of depression. I didn’t recognise myself anymore, that I had turned into someone else – a weak, insecure, wounded person. I hated that person, and did everything I could to escape him. I couldn’t accept or deal with the wounded parts of me. This was the situation I was in when the nightmares came, and it seems to me now that they accurately described to me my psychic situation and how to deal with it.

Confronting the shadow

I eventually came to understand the nightmares with the help of a concept of Carl Jung’s – the shadow. Jung thought that adults in a civilized society have to learn to play a role. He wrote: ‘We have a certain idea of how a civilized or educated or moral person should live’. Playing the role of a civilized person requires us to wear a mask, or what Jung called a persona, behind which we hide those aspects of our psyche which other people might judge as ugly, shameful, primitive, weak, sinful, or ridiculous. Constructing and maintaining this mask takes a huge amount of psychic energy. Jung wrote: ‘The construction of a collectively suitable persona means a formidable concession to the external world, a genuine self-sacrifice.’ We do it because, as Adam Smith noted, the most powerful human drive is the desire for public approval, and the fear of public shaming or ridicule.

Being an adult in polite society means playing a role, putting on a mask, and trying to hide those aspects of the psyche which you fear society might shame or ridicule.

Unfortunately, the rest of our psyche does not appreciate this construction of a persona or false self. Jung writes: ‘Under no circumstance with the unconscious tolerate the shifting of the centre of gravity…A man cannot get rid of himself in favour of an artificial personality without punishment’. The repressed parts of us – the shadow –  resents the ego’s repression of it, and it tries to return, in the form of ‘bad moods, affects, phobias, compulsive ideas, back-slidings, vices’. The shadow is a ‘kind of hostile brother’, an ‘adversary’, a ‘stranger’, bitterly opposed to our persona with all its fake posturing and social ambitions. It behaves like a devil, ‘and seems to delight in playing impish tricks’. If the gap between the persona and the shadow grows too big, if a person is playing a role which is simply too fake, then the energy to maintain this division becomes exhausting, and the person may have a breakdown. The shadow becomes daemonic – filled with resentful and vengeful energy, hating the ego’s false life and plotting to destroy it, even if it means destroying the individual’s social life…or ending the person’s life entirely.

The individual needs to find a truce between her ego and her shadow, she needs to find a way of reintegrating the shadow back into the psyche, rather than having it as a menacing adversary lurking at the window. Because the shadow is not entirely evil – it may be less civilized, more primitive, more emotional, but it’s also a source of power, healing and vitality.  Jung wrote that the shadow is not just ‘slime from the depths…this ‘slime’ contains not merely incompatible and rejected remnants of everyday life, or inconvenient and objectionable animal tendencies, but also germs of new life, and vital possibilities for the future’. The persona, by contrast, is a fake construction, without soul, without life.

Jung thought the shadow often appears in dreams as a ‘primitive’, a ‘savage’, a wild man, ape or other wild beast, or a monster. In my dreams, it appeared as a tramp, a lunatic escaped from an asylum, a bunch of wild animals escaped from a zoo. These figures in my nightmares represented the traumatized, dissociated parts of my psyche which I had tried to lock up and hide away from view, to protect my persona as a strong, healthy, powerful and attractive person. The shadow was the opposite of that – weak, broken, mentally ill, unattractive, ostracized. When the shadow burst out into my dream-life, I perceived it as a mortal threat, because my ego had become so identified with the false self of my persona. Yet gradually, my dreams tried to tell me that this shadow was a part of me, that I needed to try and take pity on it, to stand by it, even if it meant the sacrifice of my social persona. In that final dream, the lorry goes through a barrier and crashes over a cliff, and I manage to pull the tramp to safety. My dreams were wiser than my conscious ego – they were telling me how to reconnect the dissociated parts of my psyche. Unfortunately, I didn’t heed the warning, and about a year later, the final dream came true – I crashed through a barrier on the side of a mountain, and almost killed myself. Luckily, I survived, and had a near-death experience, which felt like an ecstatic reconciliation of the warring parts of my psyche.

I had to let go of my social persona, let go of control, and learn to accept and have compassion for all the parts of me, even the ugly and wounded parts. I could have learned that from my dreams, if I’d paid more attention.

The persona and the shadow (in this case, the scary hobo from David Lynch's Mulholland Drive - a figure who intrudes from a nightmare into waking reality)
The persona and the shadow (in this case, the scary hobo from David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive – a figure who intrudes from a nightmare into waking reality)

Dream Practices

How, practically, do we pay attention to our dreams? How can we heed their messages? You can go to see a therapist, though most cognitive behavioural therapists do not incorporate dream analysis into their therapy, and Freudian and Jungian therapists sometimes have rather rigid interpretative frameworks. Alternatively, you can do-it-yourself. Roughly 30% of the respondents to my dream survey said they kept a dream-journal by the side of the bed, so they could write down their dreams upon waking. This practice makes it more likely you’ll recall your dreams in the future, which in turn makes it more likely you’ll heed any useful messages they send.

Over 80% of respondents also said they’d had lucid dreams – ie dreams in which you realize you’re dreaming but stay in the dream-world. Scientists thought lucid dreams were a New Age fantasy, until two scientists (working separately) proved that they were real in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were Keith Hearne, a British parapsychologist, and Stephen LaBerge, a scientist at Stanford University. Both of them managed to get participants to communicate when they were lucid dreaming, using eye movements rehearsed beforehand. Since then, thousands of people have learned how to lucid dream, often using ‘dream yoga’ techniques developed a millennium ago by Tibetan Buddhists.

One leading British practitioner of Buddhist lucid dreaming is Charlie Morley, a former break-dancer. Like me, Charlie managed to give himself post-traumatic stress through a bad LSD trip when he was 17. For several months, he was plagued by nightmares, in which he was pursued by a malevolent bald dwarf. However, unlike me, Charlie managed to use dream-yoga techniques to recognize the dwarf as his shadow, and to welcome it with compassion. He writes: ‘Suddenly the dwarf’s face changed and then the entire dreamscape changed int a 17-year-old’s vision of paradise – in this case a beach full of bikini-clad girls and people skateboarding and drinking cocktails in the sun. That was the last time I ever had that nightmare. Four months of post-traumatic stress cured by one lucid dream.’ Lucid dreaming is now recognized as an effective remedy for curing chronic nightmares. People also use it to heal emotional and even physical disorders (Charlie thinks he managed to heal an ear infection through lucid dreaming), and to practice or rehearse ideas, attitudes or actions.

It’s worth saying, at this point, that you can also confront and integrate the shadow using conscious, rational techniques. After all, both the persona and the shadow are constituted by deeply-held cognitive beliefs. The persona is constituted by beliefs such as ‘I must appear strong, popular and attractive to other people’, while the shadow is constituted by beliefs like ‘I mustn’t appear weak, broken, wild, mad or out-of-control to other people, otherwise they will reject me.’ You can work to uncover and challenge those automatic beliefs using your rationality, as people do using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. But you can also work to transform these beliefs using other forms of consciousness – dreams, trance-states, imagination, body-consciousness. The are rational and non-rational approaches to healing and flourishing, and we can work with all of them. Why would one only work with one level of the psyche?

As well as dream practice, we can also confront and integrate our shadows through cultic or religious practices like contemplation, psychedelic experiences, or ecstatic dancing – Aristotle thought the Dionysiac and Corybantic dance cults give people catharsis, helping them ‘purge’ their neurosis and shake off the tension that arises from the gap between our masks and our shadows. He also thought that theatre can help us achieve catharsis. In really good theatre (or literature, or cinema) we are confronted by our shadows, as in a sort of lucid dream, and helped to accept them and integrate them. We’ll look at some examples of this in next week’s post.