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The Master Game
In January of 1995, I returned home from a month's fieldwork in Ethiopia in a state of high excitement. Our multinational team of scientists had made a major discovery, excavating about half of a fossilized human skeleton from ancient sediments in the Middle Awash region of the Great Rift Valley that are about four and a half million years old, making the bones considerably older than any other human remains recovered at that time. The fossils preserved a complex of primitive features, giving rise to the possibility that we had found the earliest ancestor from which all of humanity is descended.
While there, I had also experienced one of my deep visionary episodes in which I had been able to connect with Nainoa and bring his conscious awareness from his time and place into mine. This event had included a direct encounter with a monumental spirit-being of great power called a dorajuadiok, an entity without physical form, composed of a vast intelligence associated with a dense concentration of energy. One of the many things I learned during this interaction was that this spirit does not understand or identify with our human sense of individuation, but instead, expresses qualities that may represent some form of collective consciousness.
During my "meeting" with this entity, an enormous chunk of information was transferred into my memory banks from or through this awesome being, an experience that was simply overwhelming. I was very busy with my field research when this happened, and there was no opportunitytomake notes. I was concerned that I might forget large parts of the information, but Nainoa had received "the program" as well, and with his highly trained skills of memory recall, the chances were good that I would be able to retrieve virtually all of it.
On the trip home from Africa, I felt Nainoa's conscious awareness come into connection with mine during a 20-hour plane flight from Italy to California. My attempts to retrieve some of the dorajuadiok data with his input were continually interrupted by discussions with colleagues about details of the field season, stops at airports, periodic meals, as well as on-flight filmsall of which diverted my attention. There was also, of course, Nainoa's stunned amazement at directly experiencing these wonders, and I spent a good deal of the flight mentally reviewing what I knew about aircraft for his benefitfrom their history and design, to the extraction of the fossil fuels and metal ores that made it all possible.
Nainoa's worldview is determined by the time and culture in which he lives, and his mind is shaped much like that of someone who lived during the Neolithic Period. Accordingly, he lacks a cultural frame of reference through which to comprehend our technology, and for much of the flight, I could feel his rising frustration as he sought unsuccessfully to assimilate much of what I simply regarded as the known.
I fell asleep somewhere over the western Atlantic, and when I awoke, the plane was landing in snowbound Newark to refuel. I focused my attention within, but Nainoa's awareness had disconnected. As a result, my attempts to retrieve the data remained in the initial phases of recovery.
Upon my return to my home in Northern California, I experienced severe jet lag for about a week and found myself waking at two or three in the morning, unable to get back to sleep. In those dark hours, I began to reconsider the issue of what it meant to become a mystic in an age of multinational corporations, super science, and high technology.
The majority of the time, my life was not very different from anyone else's. I was a married householder with children who made my living as a teacher and writer. At night, however, my life had taken on a kind of mythic quality in response to my ongoing visionary experiences.
When I considered the term mythic, Joseph Campbell, one of the preeminent mythologists of the 20th century, always came to mind. One of Campbell's great contributions was his revelation of the monomyththe single, timeless, universal story found within all the rich and varied mythologies of humanity. Campbell called this story "the hero's journey," and in his book Hero of a Thousand Faces, he analyzed the major stages of the voyage, providing a grand synthesis and revealing the unity within humankind's incredible cultural and ethnic diversity.
In the first stage in the journey, an ordinary citizensomeone like you or mesuddenly and unexpectedly receives "the call." This usually takes the form of an open invitation to embark on an adventurous quest into the unknown. As often as not, the person is quite comfortable with their life and is not particularly motivated to leave it all behind. In addition, society at large provides us with every conceivable reason for staying with the known, for not rocking the boat, for accepting its beliefs as real, for regarding its morals as appropriate, and for seeing its limits as valid.
The call can come in many forms. For some, it appears as a dream or vision, or as a visit from an ancestor or supernatural being who gives instructions or offers new directions. For others, it might come as a new job opportunity on the one hand, or being fired from their present job on the otherthe end of a relationship or the beginning of a new one.
Whatever form it takes, the hero is the man or woman who recognizes it for what it is and awakens from the conventional slumber of culture at large. The individual then begins to penetrate the mystery beyond the edges of the known, enabling them to grow beyond the boundaries of the old self. As this amazing experience deepens, the second part of the journey beginsthe stage of initiation.
This period inevitably includes tests, trials, and tribulations, one of which usually involves the search for a teacher who can guide the initiate in the right direction. Sometimes the teacher may appear as an internal one, a spirit guide or inner guru. Just as often it may be a teacher in the outer world, a Zen master, Rinpoche, or master shaman. When the teacher is found, the time of discipline and training commences.
As the tests continue, the law of karma has a way of speeding up, and the individual will often experience an increase in their personal problems. There are always failures in the beginning, and sometimes one's life can unravel in truly spectacular ways. The hero must persevere, proceeding onward toward the goal, heedless of their own well-being, comfort, or security, for this is also a time of purification in which certain negative aspects of the self must be faced and thrown off.
With the paying of these debts and the cleansing of the inner self, an additional factor usually enters the dynamichelp from the spirit world. This spiritual assistance provides the hero with supernatural power, protection, and support, and it is then that this individual is able to cross the threshhold into the inner worlds where they're granted access to the zone of magnified power, and entrance into the true visionary realms.
Everything changes at this point. Transformed by their initiation and assisted by their guardian spirits, the hero passes the tests, completes the quest, and achieves breakthroughs of life-changing proportions. The individual is utterly transfigured in the process, reemerging with great skills, profound knowledge, and new abilities.
In the third stage of the journey, the accomplished hero must then return to society, bearing their newfound gifts and functioning as one who has become the master of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. As such, the hero can now operate as a fully formed and fully initiated human beingas a warrior, protector, messenger, teacher, ruler, healer, and mystic. In short, the hero returns as a chief and a world redeemer.
At this point in the journey, the need to alleviate the confusion of the world and heal the suffering of others becomes the hero's major concern. To accomplish this, the hero must exercise compassionate thought, feeling, and action, transforming their newfound expertise and knowledge into wisdom. It is then that the authentically initiated and fully awakened hero becomes a sage.
Campbell has suggested that this mythic saga is universal, and that all of the world's stories, from classic literature to soap operas on afternoon television, are simply variations of this one great theme. He has also suggested that the monomyth is experienced to varying degrees by all of us as we pass through our livesthat each of us is living out our own, personal version of it. The inevitable conclusion: Each of us has the potential to become the hero in our own journey.
I spent many sleepless hours meditating on the nature of these insights as I recovered from my jet lag. My own experiences had precipitated an unprecedented personal transformation that, once started, was continuing to unfold, enabling an entirely new understanding of reality, the self, and the reason for living.
One morning soon after my return, I turned on the bedside light and speculatively looked over the pile of books and papers on the shelf within reach. My wife, Jill, awoke briefly and asked if I was okay, then turned away from the light and slipped back into her dreaming. I surveyed my sleeping mate with affection, then chose a book at random, one titled The Spirit of Shamanism, by Roger Walsh, a professor of psychiatry and philosophy who teaches at the University of California at Irvine.
I scanned it quickly, getting an idea of the overall shape of the work, then settled down to read. To my delight, Walsh identifies the shaman as the world's premier mystic and culture heroas the first in a long succession of cosmic explorers whose lifeway has stood for untold millennia as a monument to the untapped potentials within each of us. Unlike Campbell, however, Walsh makes clear distinctions between the different types of heroes, pointing out that while there are similarities between the lifeway of a mystic and that of a warrior or ruler, there are also major differences, especially in relation to the different journeys, goals, and games played by each.
Walsh uses the word game with deliberation, distinguishing between trivial or frivolous games played for amusement, entertainment, or distraction, and those serious and significant life games that present us with challenges and objectives that contribute to our personal growth and to the greater good of society and the world around us. It is in response to these life games that our constellation of survival skills and abilities is formed and sharpened, enabling each of us to succeed in becoming who and what we are. Walsh observes that without such "games-worth-playing," life becomes filled with repetition and boredom, giving rise to an ever-growing cycle of existential meaninglessness and disharmony, depression, and despair.
Within the first few chapters of Walsh's book, I came across several passages quoted directly from another book called The Master Game, by Robert De Ropp, a biochemist who carried out research in the fields of cancer and the biochemistry of the brain. As I read the quotes with growing excitement, I recalled that I'd had this book in my own library for years but had never had the opportunity to read it. I got up, found the volume, and took it back to bed, where I resumed reading. By chance, I had found something of real interest and sent Walsh a mental message of gratitude.
De Ropp divides the life games that people play into two basic types: object games and meta games. Object games are those played to explore, master, and acquire the things of the outer world, especially the "physical foursome": money, power, sex, and status. Meta games are played to master the things of the inner world, intangibles such as knowledge, beauty, and the salvation of the soul. De Ropp points out that the different life games we choose to play are indicators of the type of individuals that we are, and also provide signs of our level of inner development.
De Ropp ranks the object games as hierarchically "lower" and describes them as more or less pathological in that the players who win emerge with little that they can truly call their own. For example, the businessman playing the Money Game may emerge as rich as Rockefeller, only to find himself embittered, unhappy, and emptyat a loss to know what to do with all his wealth. Those who play the Fame Game with the goal of becoming celebrities realize sooner or later that their fame is an illusion, a mere shadow designed to inflate their ego and keep it inflated, and that their public image ultimately has no relationship to the person they really are.
De Ropp portrays the Military Game as the deadliest of all object games, in that it is played by various grades of trained killers programmed to regard their craft as acceptable, even admirable, if those they kill believe in a different god or political system and can thus be collectively referred to as the enemy. History reveals that players of the Military Game can kill men, women, and children with boundless enthusiasm, destroying whole cities and devastating entire countriesin the process sacrificing the lives of tens of thousands of young people for the glittering dream of glory or victory, now more generally termed as "defense." So great is their power, exerted through various forms of political coercion and blackmail, that the thousands and thousands of young people involved make little or no protest as they go to their deaths. This fact has led De Ropp to conclude that there is a criminal element infusing most object games because they harm both the players and the society of which the players are a part.
De Ropp places the biological game on which the human species dependsthe Householder Gamein a sort of neutral zone between the object games and the meta games. The aim of the player in the Householder Game is simply to raise a family and provide it with security and the necessities of life. Also found in this intermediate level are those nonplayers who are unable to find any game worth playingoften becoming chronic outsiders who are alienated from societymany of whom turn out to be antisocial loners with criminal tendencies.
De Ropp ranks the meta games as hierarchically "higher" in that they are played for intangibles and tend to be more subtle, yet even these games express both a positive and negative polarity. Those who play the Art Game, for example, are ideally searching for some inner awareness that can be defined and expressed as beauty. Yet many artists have no inner awareness at all and may only be proficient at imitating those who do have it. Others may become known for producing something that lacks beauty entirely but is acceptable by virtue of being new or startling.
In the same manner, those who play the Science Game are ideally searching for knowledge and meaning, but many players are little more than technicians with advanced degrees who, like many who play the Art Game, are primarily interested in status and fame. In addition, as all who play the Science Game discover sooner or later, projects that are truly original tend to be excluded by the array of committees that stand between the scientist and their funding, and the more or less routine projects are usually given preference.
The Religion Game is a meta game that is ideally played for the salvation of the soul. De Ropp points out that this game had fairly well-defined rules in the past, determined by a paid priesthood who made their livelihood by serving as intermediaries between the populace and various alternately wrathful or beneficent gods that they, or their predecessors, invented. Unfortunately, some of the players began to insist that their god was the only god, their truths the only truths. So eager were these priests to keep the game entirely in their own hands, that they did not hestitate to torture and kill all whom they viewed as outsiders, exhorting their followers to slaughter unbelievers as a sure way of gaining supernatural favor and guaranteeing entry into a hypothetically blissful afterlife state called "heaven" or "paradise."
Fortunately, there was, and is, another, quite different element to the Religion Game. In De Ropp's words:
All the great religions offer examples of saints and mystics who obviously did not play the game for material gain, whose indifference to personal comfort, to wealth and to fame was so complete as to arouse our wonder and admiration.... They played the game by entirely different rules and for entirely different aims from those priestly con men who sold trips to heaven for hard cash and insisted on payment in advance....
These worthies were players of the Master Game that De Ropp places at the apex of all the meta games. This is the great game that has been played throughout time by the shamans and mystics, the saints and sages of all the world's cultures, who explored and mastered the inner world through the vehicle of their own mind and consciousness. The Master Game involves the quest for spiritual awakening, enlightenment, and liberation. The goal: to discover one's own true nature and to know from direct, empirical experience that this nature is both sacred and immortal. Roger Walsh writes:
Different traditions express this [game] in different ways, but the message is clearly the same. Christianity tells us that "the Kingdom of Heaven is within you" or, in the words of Saint Clement, "He who knows himself knows God"; Buddhism says, "Look within. Thou art Buddha"; in Siddha Yoga the message is, "God dwells within you as you"; and in Islam, "He who knows himself knows his Lord."
In De Ropp's eloquent words:
The basic idea underlying all the great religions is that man is asleep, that he lives amid dreams and delusions [sic], that he cuts himself off from universal consciousness (the only meaningful definition of God) to crawl into the narrow shell of a personal ego. To emerge from this narrow shell, to regain union with the universal consciousness, to pass from the darkness of the ego-centered illusion into the light of the non-ego, this was the real aim of the Religion game as defined by the great teachers, Jesus, Gautama, Krishna, Mahavira, Lao-tze and the Platonic Socrates. Among the Moslems, this teaching was promulgated by the Sufis, who praised in their poems the delights of reunion with the Friend. To all these players, it was obvious that the Religion Game as played by the paid priests, with its shabby confidence tricks, promises, threats, persecutions, and killings, was merely a hideous travesty of the real game....
[The Master Game] ... remains the most demanding and difficult of games and, in our society, there are few who play. Contemporary man, hypnotized by the glitter of his own gadgets, has little contact with his inner world, concerns himself with outer, not inner space. But the Master Game is played entirely in the inner world, a vast and complex territory about which men know very little. The aim of the game is true awakening, full development of the powers latent in man. The game can be played only by people whose observations of themselves and others have led them to a certain conclusion, namely, that man's ordinary state of consciousness, his so-called waking state, is not the highest level of consciousness of which he is capable. In fact, this state is so far from real awakening that it could appropriately be called a form of somnambulism, a condition of waking sleep.
As I thought about these ideas, I must confess that I felt a twinge of recognition. My spontaneous mystical experiences had served as "the call," and through the vehicle of my own consciousness, I had become a playera living link in a long chain of players that stretched back across time to when the Master Game first appeared long before the rise of our state-level societies more than 5,000 years ago.
And when exactly did this great game take form? We don't know, but it is likely that the shamans of antiquity were the initial players, the first brave pioneers who began to explore the capabilities of the human body-mind-spirit complex. It is also possible that their courageous acts of exploration and discovery within the inner worlds may have propelled the human species into the next stage of its evolutionthe evolution of consciousness.
The Master Game is still with us, and I suspect that it is being played by considerably more people today than when De Ropp wrote his book in the late 1960s. There is a general spiritual reawakening currently going on in the West, one in which an increasing number of individuals are seeking the direct, transformative experience of the sacred that defines the mystic.
Due to the relative ease with which the time-tested techniques of the shaman can be learned and practiced even by non-tribal urbanites, there is a resurgence of interest in the ancient shamanic methods for entering mystical states of consciousness. More and more contemporary Westerners are learning how to access the ordinarily hidden dimensions of reality to make contact with the inner sources of knowledge and power to facilitate healing and problem-solving. In the midst of a world obsessed with money, sex, power, and status, these heroes are quietly rediscovering the Master Game.
I found this knowledge deeply reassuring as I considered some of the truly awesome issues we face in our timerunaway overpopulation and environmental degradation; political, social, and economic instability; the rise of epidemic diseases such as the HIV virus and AIDS; issues of humanitarian concern and social justice; and the potentially devastating climatic shifts being generated by greenhouse warming, just to name a few.
In the face of these issues, the old stories, beliefs, values, and trends that collectively represent our cultural mythology aren't working so well anymore. It is clear that we must now create a new story, a new transmodern version of the monomyth. I smiled to myself with the realization that right at the core of this lurch toward the new is the Master Game. And there lies both the gateway and the key to the next stage of human evolution.
I picked up a yellow pad and a pencil and began to make some notes, when Jill turned in her dreaming and drew me into her sleepy embrace. We were still in recovery from our long separation while I was in Africa, and I felt a surge of primitive feelings in response. I put down my books and turned out the light. For long moments, I just held her in my arms, feeling the deep bond between us and experiencing the love I felt for her and the children we had created together. Then we played the Love Game at its most joyous level of intensity, and in the dreamy aftermath of that ancient ritual, a thought appeared in my mind.
Nainoa was also a player of the Master Game.
With that, the inner doorway cracked open, flooding my body with the sensations of power. As I began to vibrate uncontrollably, I glanced, by chance, toward the window, where my eyes could just make out the shape of the cotton tree I had grown from a seed in a large pot. It was the descendant of one of those rainforest giants from the tropics, and its crown of slender, palmate leaves was now six feet high, blotting out some stars shining through the window behind it.
As the trance state deepened, my body was overtaken by paralysis, and the strange phosphenic light show began. The stars flowed into the bedroom window, through the leaves, accompanied by the high-pitched roaring rush of sound that usually fills my ears at such moments. I watched, entranced, as the sparkling, swirling dots of light coalesced into lines that, in turn, seemed to weave themselves around the cotton tree like brightly colored vines. Then the room was gone, but the entwined lines of light surrounded by moving, firefly-like sparks remained, looking similar to the great mythical beanstalk that Jack climbed to get to the giant's castle in the clouds.
The vibration increased, and the glittering, twisted cable of light danced as if it were alive. I looked up its snakelike length and saw that it led outward into the lacy spider web of the great grid. Without thought or intention to do so, a sense of movement began, and I started to ascend along it, merging with it and rising faster and faster, as though I were spiraling upward on a brilliant, swirling escalator. Above me, I saw the curious crescent of light take form and begin to open. I rushed toward it and plummeted through in a blazing flash into the familiar darkness of the Hall of Silence.
My last thought was focused on Nainoa. Then thinking ceased and the shift occurred....
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