Play That Denies Itself

Nick Williams
7 min readFeb 5, 2023
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The thing about life that we never want to see is that we inevitably miss the whole point of it! We miss the point of it every time… The point of life — so to speak — is that there is no point — life is playful, not serious. It’s not about attaining a very important goal, or ‘fulfilling our plans’, it’s about exploring possibilities. We explore the possibilities of life, not for any particular reason, but just for fun! We know this is children — without of course knowing that we know it — but we forget it as adults. This is what makes us adults — forgetting that life isn’t all about chasing these goals which we say are so important.

Life can be all about chasing goals if we want it to be, however. If we want to play the game of saying that life is all about chasing goals (and that it isn’t essentially playful) then life is big enough to facilitate us in this. Life is big enough to facilitate us in anything! When we opt to live in a world that is not at all playful then this too is a form of play, even though we can’t see it. In this case, our play is ‘to be stubbornly unable to see that everything is play’. This doesn’t stop everything being essentially playful of course, it merely stops us from being aware of that. We ‘lose our sense of humour’, so to speak.

When Joseph Campbell says that stories which present themselves as being literally (i.e., exclusively) true are a form of myth, a form of metaphor, this is what he’s getting at — ‘literal truths’ are metaphors that deny their own essential metaphorical nature. When one myth (or one story) gets above itself and writes off all other myths, all other stories, as being untrue, then its open-ended or playful nature is lost and everything narrows down to become ‘serious’. This — says Joseph Campbell — is precisely what orthodox Christianity has done by insisting on the exclusive truth of its particular myth; by saying that ‘its story is the only story we should ever listen to’ it has become a form of play that denies its own playfulness. It’s ceases to be a living myth and — instead — it becomes ‘dead dogma’.

The non-playful world is ‘the world that excludes all possibilities other than the ones that we have already been provided with’. Playfulness means that no possibilities are excluded — whatever is out there is allowed and so we aren’t trapped in ‘what we say is true’, ‘what we think is true’. Everything is open-ended and because everything is open-ended (i.e., because everything we think we know is subject to radical revision at any time) there is no getting stuck, there is no getting trapped. ‘You can’t get stuck in space’, says Chogyam Trungpa. In the non-playful world however (the world that denies its own inherent playfulness) all there is is ‘getting stuck’! being stuck is the beginning and the end. We are forever stuck and so we have to find some way of turning this into a virtue…

We do this by saying that ‘the way we are’ (or ‘the way we see things’) is the only right way and that all other ways are wrong. Our assumption is that by being zealous enough, fanatical enough, narrow enough, we can receive the ‘ultimate existential benefit’, therefore. We are chasing rational perfection in other words, and when we obtain it then all will be well (or so we say, at any rate). The problem with this however is that — as anyone suffering from perfectionism will be happy to tell you — the ideal can never be obtained. It can never be obtained because it isn’t a real thing. This is actually what makes the game possible to play however since when we don’t receive to pay-off for our efforts we can always imagine that this is due to some failure or deficiency on our part. We will blame ourselves, in other words, rather than seeing that what we’re trying to do is absurdly impossible.

This is what positive thinking is all about — saying that ‘there is a way’ when there isn’t. Because of our short-sightedness we say that positive thinking is a good thing when actually it’s the worst thing ever. It’s ‘the worst thing ever’ because it’s the denial of what is real and it is the denial of what is real that traps us, nothing else. Reality itself never traps us. Anything that denies reality is automatically serious — when we become come across ‘seriousness’ (or lack of humour) it is always because the truth is being denied. Denying the truth is by definition a serious business — we have to say that possibilities aren’t there when they are, and this means constant policing, constant surveillance, constant controlling. This is of course the hallmark of the totalitarian state; it is also the hallmark of the rational life.

We are perfectly free to deny the open-ended nature of reality. ‘Open’ can quite happily contain ‘Closed’, the Infinite Game can contain any number of finite ones. We can deny that what we’re doing is playful and say that it is necessary but this is merely the game that we are playing. As James Carse reminds us, there is no rule saying that there has to be a rule, since if there was that would then have to be a rule to say that there has to be a rule, and so on. It couldn’t work that way. So the way we do things is only ‘necessary’ because we say it is, but we refuse to see this. We are free to deny the open-ended nature of reality and we are free to make a virtue of being stuck, but this is only ever a trick. It won’t be true just because we say it is, clearly.

We can say that the prison which we have created for ourselves isn’t a prison, that it is simply ‘the right way to be’, or ‘the only way to be’, and that all other ways are ‘wrong’, or ‘untrue’, but that doesn’t alter anything really, of course — we’re stuck whether we like to admit it or not and being stuck — being unable to move on from our tired old patterns of thinking and behaving, being unable to grow — is the very quintessence of suffering. Being stuck can never be anything else but suffering. We will try to get around this by believing that it’s all worthwhile in the end, that we will ‘get our reward in heaven’, so to speak, but this is like a gambler who keeps on believing that the big break is just around the corner. The ‘good thing’ isn’t just around the corner however; On the contrary, it’s never going to happen. It’s not on the menu at all. There’s no way to be free through successfully playing finite games, there’s no way to ‘please the slave master’ with our obedience and hard work so that he’ll smile upon us and release us from our bondage.

What we’re essentially looking at here is an ‘act of substitution’ whereby the genuine article is replaced what we might call an ‘inferior copy’, an inferior copy which is actually a dud. The reason for this is that when we close off all possibilities (other than the ones that the system allows) then naturally enough we lose our connection with the bigger picture. That’s the whole point of the exercise after all — that’s what we want. That’s how we go about obtaining a ‘literally-understood reality’. If we were to talk in terms of literal descriptions versus myths or metaphors, then we could say that when our account of what’s going on denies all other possible accounts (which it has to if it is to be literal) then it ceases to resonate with the Whole. Metaphors or myths are — we could say — alive because of this resonance. The resonance with something that is incomprehensibly bigger than us is life. Metaphors and myths lead us on to something that is more expansive than us, something that is beyond us. They work by ‘connecting us to the Whole’, therefore. Having a literal understanding of the world doesn’t do this, of course. Instead of this we are insulated, cut off from the bigger picture, disconnected from the Whole…

This is ‘the deal’ that we have entered into we get to live in the World of Final Meanings, which protects us from existential vertigo (or ontological insecurity), but this security can only be obtained by denying the bigger picture. Because our narrow way of understanding things has been officially sanctioned as ‘the one and only true way’ we very effectively consign ourselves to a prison that we can’t ever admit to be a prison. Because our stories about the world no longer resonate with the living Whole, we trap ourselves in a situation where there is no intrinsic meaning, only the extrinsic meaning of what we arbitrarily say is true. The thing about this therefore is that by ceasing to have any resonance with the bigger picture our stories about the world cease to be true; they cease to contain any truth at all, they become lies, they become mere propaganda, and so the world that is created by this crude propaganda exercise becomes the only reality where capable of knowing. We’re no longer living in the ‘Anaxagorean Universe’ (which is where ‘everything contains everything else’) but instead we are stuck in our own ‘Pocket Universe’, our very own Private World.

We are obliged — therefore — to somehow put up with this sterile situation, even though the task will ultimately prove intolerable to us. We tolerate it by saying to ourselves that it is a road that is ‘leading somewhere’, whilst actually it’s a dead end. Everything becomes a case therefore of how long we can continue to tolerate the intolerable, how long we can deny what can’t be denied. Our ‘dreams’ are utterly and absurdly nonsensical and they never can be realized. As a result of the deal that we have unknowingly entered into, we end up missing the whole point of life and so gaining nothing, despite our best efforts. For the sake of ‘ontological security’ we exchange Open-Ended Reality for a Closed System, for a ‘conditioned reality’, for a False Reality that is made up of lies, for a type of existence that contains nothing but pain and frustration, just as the Buddha says…

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