Rules of the Game: Part Two

(You can find Part One here)

The man stops speaking. He looks at the skull crown, which disappears. You sit, trying to process this information, your brain desperately trying to disprove the empty portrait of yourself that has just been painted. You run through possibility after possibility, but only one stands out.

“What about the soul?” you ask.

The man chuckles.

“What about it?” he replies.

“Isn’t it permanent? Isn’t that the part of me that never changes?”

“That,” he says, “is a very complicated question, and not what you need to focus on right now. At the higher levels of the game, you will find the answer to this question. All I can say at the moment is that what you’re referring to as a soul can only be found in the space between your thoughts. Right now, though, you need to focus on defeating Mara.”

Annoyance creeps back into your mind, a feeling of frustration at being told what to do and not getting enough answers. Snappily, you ask “Why should I listen to you? I feel like all this is a dream anyway, and I’ll just wake up and you’ll have never existed.”

The man chuckles again.

“The only difference between a dream and your normal life is that you keep waking up in your normal life.” Again, the power of these words and the profundity of his calmness deflate your own anger. He pauses, then continues.

“I understand that all this seems strange and nonsensical to you right now. But, please, listen to what I’m telling you. If you don’t defeat Mara, you will suffer again and again and again. Even if you make a billion dollars and buy your own island, Mara will find you there. As long as you ignore the rules of his game, you will never know true peace.”

“Okay, okay, okay,” you repeat, processing everything he’s told you, “so life is a never-ending game run by some devil-creature called Mara, the goal is to get out of the game, I don’t really exist, and I’ve been ignorant of these facts. Now what? What do I do? How do I play this game, anyway?”

A deep smile crosses the man’s face, an elated grin that says I thought you’d never ask. In the distance, across the great void, a faint light begins to glimmer.

“At this point, all you have to do,” he replies, “is watch your mind, every moment of every day, and, eventually, make it stop.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“How?”

The man starts to speak more and more rapidly. He remains calm, but there is an increasing urgency in his words.

“It works like this. Every single choice, every conscious action you make, is laying the seeds for your future choices and actions. Nothing you do is by accident, really; when you look deep inside your own mind, you will find the seeds of everything you’ve ever done. For example, when you make an impulsively bad choice on a Friday afternoon, it wasn’t created in that moment, but earlier, when, say, you had a miserable commute to the office. This is why you often feel not in control of yourself, because you’re not fully aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is how Mara operates – he wants you to not go looking into the cause and effect that takes place in your own head.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” you interject. “I have a few questions about this Mara thing. Is he real? You said he’s like the Devil – is there a hell, then? Does he want me to go to hell? How does he operate?”

The light in the distance is getting brighter and brighter.

“I’m sorry,” the man says, speaking with real urgency now. “There isn’t much time left. Mara is your bad thoughts, your ignorance, your greed and hatred; above all, he is your tendency to grasp to yourself, your problems, your sense of being a real, existing being instead of a collection of impermanent phenomenon that come and go. Whether he’s real or not, whether there’s a hell or not – that’s not important right now.”

“What is important is that you understand your own mind, and how it works. You must watch the aggregates I’ve described to you, watch how they interact, and, most importantly, understand what makes you want some things and not want others. This understanding is essential, because until you get to the bottom of your own momentary motivations, you will continue to act mindlessly and not make any progress in the game. I wish I could explain more, but we’re almost out of time. ”

The light is quite bright now. As it intensifies, you can feel this reality becoming less tangible, less clearly defined. One look in the man’s eyes confirms what you’re thinking: This place is about to disappear. You are about to wake up in your normal life. Anything you want to know, ask now.

Three questions come to the forefront of your mind.

“I have three questions.”

“Tell me.”

“How do I watch my mind? What do you mean by making it stop? And who are you?”

The light is very bright, as bright as the sun on a desert horizon. The man becomes vague, indistinct, and his answer sounds distant, like voices drifting over water.

“Start with two things: analyzing the impermanence of your thoughts, and watching your breath. As for your second question, it will feel a little like -”

The light suddenly becomes brighter than an exploding star, engulfing the man, the disc, petals, and the void. His words cut out mid-sentence, merged in a roaring multisensory vibration that envelops your entire body, dissolving it into clear white light. Your brain becomes electricity, a blinding brilliance filling the space where your thoughts normally reside. Everything begins to meld into one frequency, one wavelength, one phenomenal taste.

HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.

You wake up with your head face-down on your desk at work, the keys of your laptop pressing into your forehead. A soft poke in your side is revealed to be the coworker who sits behind you, a look of concern on their face.

“Hey, you alright?” they ask. “You just kinda passed out for a minute there. We were wondering when you were going to wake up.”

You give them a big smile.

“Right now.”

Rules of the Game: Part One

HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.

A vibration not unlike the sound of an engine starting echoes through your mind, waking you from your slumber. Groggily, you open your eyes, yet the advent of vision does little to dispel your confusion. This is not my room, you think. Where am I? 

Looking around, you appear to be in a vast yet vibrant void, seated upon a bright white disc. At the fringes of the disc, brilliantly colored petals hang down into the ether that surrounds you. In front of you is a man, wearing the robe of a monk and seated in the lotus position. His entire being radiates calmness and presence, like a punctuation mark on each moment.

He looks directly into your eyes. “It is time you learned the rules of the game,” he says.

“What game? Who are you? Am I dreaming?” you reply, unsure of pretty much anything at the moment.

“No time for that,” the man answers. “Soon, you will leave here, and there is much to explain before you go. Please, for your sake, pay attention to what I am about to say.”

Typically, such a cryptic and evasive answer would frustrate you, but the combination of the endless void surrounding you and the aura of the man arouse your curiosity. “Alright,” you ask, “what game are you talking about? Is this like a VR thing?”

“The game has many names, and none. It is the ultimate game, the only game that matters, the game of life itself,” the man replies, his tone somehow full of urgency and warmth at the same time. “You have no choice but to play.”

“Okay…” you respond. “Isn’t that just life? What do you mean by a game? How can life be a game?”

“It is a game,” he answers, with finality, “because you can win.”

“Win? How?”

“You get out of the game.”

“Get out of the game? You mean like when you die?”

The man smiles slightly, a hint of something in his eyes. “Not exactly,” he says.

A shape materializes in front of you, a horrifying apparition – a demon. Wreathed in flames and smoke, it has a human shape, with claws, fangs, and three baleful eyes. It wears a crown of five human skulls, and seems to somehow crawl with a malevolence that distorts the space around it.

You jump back, terrified. “What is that?!” you yell, unable to look away from the creature’s eyes. They seem to suck you in, while your worst thoughts begin to whisper from the back of your mind.

From his robe, the man pulls out and rings a brass bell. At the sound of the bell, the creature vanishes, leaving behind a faint odor of ozone.

“That was Mara,” the man says, matter-of-factly. “He goes by many other names, too: Lucifer, Satan, the Devil – too many to count. It is his game you are playing. You win when you conquer him. However, if you cannot do so, you will not escape him even when you die.”

“You’re talking about reincarnation?”

“I’m talking about getting out of the game. What you consider death to be is merely just another part of the game. You’ve had many characters, all of which have died. This body, this you, that won’t come back again, but the thing at the base of it – the player of the game – that’s been here a long time.”

At this point, you’re confused, disoriented, and a little shaken from the appearance of whatever that Mara thing was. Unbidden, annoyance rises within you – annoyance at not knowing where you are, annoyance at the cryptic answers you’ve been getting, annoyance at the perpetual calmness of the man seated across from you.

You get up and begin pacing. The man watches you, the same glint in his eye. You open your mouth, ten thousand agitated questions on your tongue – but he cuts you off.

“Ignorance is the cause,” he says.

You explode at this latest cypher, unable to take it any more. “Ignorance is the cause? Excuse me? Cause of what? What are you talking about? Where the hell am I? Is this a dream? What WAS that thing? How do you conquer him? Why can’t you give me any straight answers? Oh, and who on earth are you?”

During your tirade, the man closes his eyes, as if resting. When you finish, he lets out a deep breath, opens them, and looks directly into your eyes. “Ignorance,” he intones “is the cause of your suffering. Please, sit down.”

You sit down.

“As long as you play this game,” he begins, “you are given a character – what you call your body and mind. In reality, this character is as fluid, transient, and impermanent as anything else in this universe, yet you maintain a firm belief that this is YOU, an unchanging, permanent thing. Instead of examining it critically, you unquestioningly accept it, and run around doing all sorts of things to maintain this fiction. Inevitably, though, the holes in the story you create for yourself shine through, whether it’s when you don’t get what you think you want or when you get what you think you don’t want, and this causes you pain. You are ignorant about the true nature of this game, and your resultant attempts to get certain things and avoid others make you suffer, again and again. Thus, ignorance is the cause of your suffering – like the annoyance you feel right now.”

These words shake you, quelling your anger. There is a ring of truth to this, although a part of you finds it ridiculous. Thoughts race through your mind: How can I not be real? What does this mean about the things I like? Should I not want them? After about ten seconds, you settle on a question.

“If I am ignorant about the true nature of my character in this game, then what is the truth? What am I, if not me?”

The man closes his eyes, nods, and smiles. A crown of five skulls, similar to the one worn by the Mara creature, materialize in front of him.

“Your character is made up of five parts, or aggregates,” the man says, eyes closed. “These parts are your physical form, the sensations you experience, the perceptions and thoughts that define these experiences, the actions and decisions you make, and a confused consciousness that is made up of the other four. There is nothing to you besides these five things, and none of them are you.” His voice is sonorous and solemn, as if there is great weight behind his words.

“None of them are me? What do you mean? How can I not be my body? Or my thoughts?”

The man takes a deep breath, and opens his eyes.

“Each one of the five aggregates is transitory, and ultimately empty of any permanent self. Your body is made of atoms that constantly float in and out. Your sensations and feelings are temporary. Your thoughts, even the most deeply ingrained ones, all eventually cease – are you not you when you’re asleep? Your actions start and stop. Your consciousness, being comprised of the other four, is equally insubstantial. These aggregates are all you are, and there is no you in any of them.”