Excellence or inferiority in learning to comprehend essence and life is all a matter of finding out principle. Understanding one part, you can practice one part; understanding ten parts, you can practice ten parts.
– the Taoist I Ching
Okay. For the sake of argument we’re going to presume that you can and will do everything you set out to do. That you can and will accomplish all of your goals, even if it takes you the rest of your life. With me so far?
No? Why is that? Are you secretly thinking that there’s just no way you’ll ever do all this stuff, and you’re hoping maybe just thinking about it is gonna make you feel better?
Fuck that shit. If you aren’t willing to believe that yes, you will indeed accomplish everything you set out to do, then you’re the happy owner of what we call a loser script. You’ve failed before you even started. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars, unless it’s your welfare checque.
But I digress. That is simply our opening proposition. We’ll assume you are instead winner- scripted, and proud of it. Like Chris Walken you are the man ( or woman ) with the plan.
But really, so what? You’re gonna get everything you want. Who cares?
I know you do, but why? It’s just content. It’s just a game. The world’s largest stack of monopoly money is still monopoly money. And you may be sliced bread in your chosen game, but have you ever stopped to consider the nature of the game itself?
And no, I’m not talking about some kind of conspiracy narrative or social control rant. That’s just content, too. I’m talking about the parameters that enclose the content.
Stop me if this sounds familiar: you get up in the morning or whenever, and you fulfill whatever you perceive to be your obligations or important projects, you enact the same rituals over and over again to reinforce a sense of continuity and familiarity, and above all to give you a sense of emotional satisfaction, or at the very least, to numb out the sense of not having any emotional satisfaction.
All the particulars. The things you eat, the things you say, what you do and how you feel about it, the people in your life, their games and whatnot. CONTENT.
For a second or two, ignore the content. Ignore the specifics, the colors inside the lines, and consider the lines. What are the parameters that constrain the content? How are you any different than all the other talking monkeys who quest for an abstract sense of emotional fulfillment every day? Probably only in the contours of your game. The size of the field, the rules and expectations. The limit conditions.
You could spend a million lifetimes shuffling around content inside the frame of whatever your current parameters happen to be. Is that satisfactory? Maybe it is. There’s always going to be some set of game rules, short of disengaging from them entirely. That’s an exotic option, but it’s doable. But generally speaking, most people wouldn’t do that even if they had the ability, which they usually don’t.
For as long as you’re attatched to anything resembling an outcome, you’re going to have to accept the fact that your life is a game. You can immerse yourself in the content and try to forget it’s only a game, like most people do, or you can take some faltering steps toward personal authenticity and existential commitment, and recognize it for what it is, and choose the parameters accordingly.
Gandhi was once heard to say: What you do doesn’t matter at all. But it is very important that you do it.
Think about that for a little while.
Now there’s not much chance you’re going to be able to disengage from the content when it’s bombarding you in some kind of endless confusing wave. When you’re fooled by the changing appearances of things into imagining that what’s happening to you day after day doesn’t follow any underlying principles. Until you see the underlying game rules, the game is playing you, not the other way around. As in I ching hexagram 21; you gotta bite through all that content and get to the root.
And again, let me stress, this is not some kind of high horse conspiracy rant. The rules I’m talking about are in your head. Every human has them, is born with them, and usually dies never even recognizing them. The only difference is how we apply them.
There are plenty of these archetypal modalities of consciousness, but we’ll start with four. Most cultures identify these with the elements, but for our purposes we’ll treat them the way the hermetics do: as your magickal weapons. The Wand, the Cup, the Sword, and the Coin.
The Wand represents the will. Your ability to engage an object of focus and hold it, manifest it, apply your intent and sustain it. It represents dynamic, active force. When you use the wand you are the actor. You are the center of the drama. You make the rules, and everything that you find is yours to play with. The wand allows you to enter a new game and make it your own, or even create a new game altogether.
Conversely, the Cup is acceptance. The ability to disengage from a set of foci. To rest in the role of being acted upon, to play a part in someone else’s game. To let go of a context that you don’t like anymore. To step back, and out, collapse the game. To let things come to you and accept them as they are. The passive principle.
The Sword is analysis. To divide things into their component parts. To scale down. To magnify a corner of the picture and make that your whole world. To break anything you see into pieces that you can handle easily. Chop it up and see how it works.
And opposite that is the Coin, also known as the pentacle or the disc. In each case we have an enclosed circle, a perimeter drawn. The root meaning of the word reality is ‘a small coin’.
The coin is synthesis. To place two different things in the same sphere and examine how they work together. To scale up your focus and take in a bigger picture. To rub out your old boundary and draw a bigger one. The limits of your coin are the limits of your world. This is why many rituals take place in a circle, or pentacle, drawn on the ground.
Now if these sound really abstract, it’s because each of you already uses them all, but in utterly idiosyncratic ways. One of you may have a strong wand and treat the world like your playground, another might be happy just to rule the roost at home. Some of you may habitually take the sword to everything in your life, analyzing it into it’s smallest details, others may accept everything uncritically until it’s time to place bets on football. Some may have a very small pentacle; many americans couldn’t find canada on a map, for instance, nor do they care to. Others feel comfy speculating on the nature of collapsed neutron stars in a distant galaxy and how it might impact on their lives.
You see? There’s so much room for variation there. Theoretically we all deal with the same shared cultural content, but the way we contexualise it, the way we place a frame around the stuff to deal with it, what we choose to engage or disengage with, what acts on us, or what we act upon, makes all the difference.
You could be the wand itself and feel like god on earth, or you could be the holy grail of christ on the cross. You could have a pentacle that encloses the whole shimmering infinite void, or you could use your sword to take your sense impressions down to the level of virtual particles blinking in an out of existence in the femtosphere.
What I’m saying is, there’s a lot of room to play with your toys.
Now it’s no more necessary to actually have a physical weapon of each type to experience these phenomena, than it’s necessary to have nice clothes to feel good about your appearance. But it can help. Sooner or later you need to drop the crutch. I tend to think it’s better not to have the crutch in the first place. Whatever floats your boat.
Homework: You’ve been off the hook for a while now, so we’ve got a hard one, in four parts. Time to dust off your list of delusi- I mean goals.
The Wand: this is the easiest because the act of setting goals in the first place is a function of the wand, as is much of what we’ve done so far. But take the time to see if anything on your list could benefit from more specificity. What exactly do you want and how exactly do you want it? None of this wishy washy crap. Quit buffering the fear of failure and just announce yourself. The universe responds to courage. And while you’re at it change any wimpy wording: no more I want, I hope, I’ll wait, I’d like…. fuck that. I WILL. Make it so.
The Cup: Now take a deep breath. Do you really need all this stuff? It’s all just content anyway, right? Some people only really do one thing for their whole lives. It’s castles made of sand in the end. Look at your goals and decide if you’ll really care one way or another in a few years. Quit trying to bang your life, your friends and yourself into some arbitrary shape. What really enriches your mind and your soul, and what’s just distractions? Drop at least one thing you want altogether and replace it with helping some one you love with something they want.
The Sword: What don’t you understand? What’s too big to get your head around? Your life is built on billions of tiny interactions and processes that you know NOTHING about. Why are you trusting someone else to fix something you won’t even look at? Why are you worried about politics when you can’t manage your relationships? Why are you worried about relationships when you can’t manage your health? Why are worried about your health when you can’t manage your own thoughts? Why are you worried about anything, actually? A taoist sage said once that worry is preposterous: we don’t know enough to worry about anything. So since you’re gonna worry anyway, you better get on that understanding thing, but quick.
What on your list could benefit from being broken down into something smaller? Take anything that’s too big right now and break it into steps. Make the first step your new goal.
The Coin: Go outside on a clear night. Check the stars. How many civilizations do you think are out there? Even if you think there aren’t any, how many stars? How many planets? How many natural wonders exist on those worlds, do you think? Sunrises right here are pretty impressive. Imagine what a red giant or a binary star looks like coming up in the morning. You and I may never go there, but our decendants probably will. Is what you’re doing with your life going to be worth mentioning when they do? Is that okay with you? In the context of a universe that probably does contain an inconceivable number of races with an inconceivable number of languages, artifacts and works of art, are you going to feel honored to participate, or just small and trivial?
You may have some very small, very specific, very personally important goals. That’s cool. Just remember: There’s a difference between having a small world and being afraid of a big one. Don’t confuse the two.