For over 150 years, American friends and families have gathered around their kitchen tables to play a fun and competitive board game, that is built upon the premise of achieving the goals we aim to achieve in the real world, known as The Game of Life. After deciding which career path to follow, the game’s instructions tell us, players then proceed through life’s most important stages where they have the chance to get married, have kids, trade stocks, and invest, all with hopes of accumulating ample amounts of money when it comes time to retire.
While it should be quite easy to see how The Game of Life outlines the real-world journey that each of us embarks on during our lifetimes, less apparent to notice is how we similarly fail to recognize a number of life’s most important lessons, the ones that allow us to truly succeed when playing the game in the real world.
Despite the fact that each of us comes to believe that our propensity to ‘win’ is based upon our successes, material possessions, and financial well-being, the truth of the matter is that because of the impermanent nature of reality, it’s ultimately impossible to ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Just as our reputation, professional titles, and money vanish when we close the box of the legendary board game, our real-world social status, career accolades, and bank account will one day do the same. This means that if we truly desire to win the seemingly unwinnable game of real life, a new approach based on universal wisdom must be taken.
What is The Ultimate Aim of Life:
Money, sex, possessions, and status. These are the things that we come to see as the ultimate aims of life. But is this really what we’re after or are we naively missing the mark? Although a variety of biological, psychological and cultural factors unite together to create this widely held belief, it’s actually nothing more than a misperception that prohibits us from achieving life’s most meaningful aims. For anyone who sets out to win the game of life by acquiring letters at the end of their name, fancy cars and monetary wealth, the sobering reality of still not feeling fulfilled, after attaining these things, eventually sets in because there’s always newer, better and more appeasing aims. Until we realize that victory ultimately isn’t possible this way, and begin to approach things differently, winning the game of real life will forever remain out of our reach.
To discover how we can do the seemingly impossible and win the unwinnable game of real life, we first need to realize that every decision we make and action we take is done so with the ultimate goal of fulfillment in mind. Regardless of if we are seeking a new relationship, going back to school for a second degree or systematically climbing the corporate latter, the underlying drive is to become fully satisfied with ourselves and our world. As His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, a man who’s globally revered for his psychological insights, tells us:
The purpose of our lives is to be happy.”
The Impermanent Inevitably Leads to Disappointment:
Over the past 6 million years, the human species has undertaken an evolutionary journey incomparable to any other animal. While our most basic biological drives for safety, sexual reproduction and environmental enhancement still largely influence our behavior and have followed a path similar to all other living organisms, our mental capabilities have gone far beyond those of any of our animal counterparts. We certainly can thank our enhanced cognitive capacities for being able to communicate in sophisticated ways, oftentimes using our evolutionarily unique mental time travel capabilities, and also for the ability to carryout tasks built around previously thought-up strategic plans. There’s no doubting the fact that these are wonderful capabilities, however, this doesn’t mean that a downside hasn’t come with our newly installed mental hardware. In addition to the wide variety of mental illnesses that are directly related to our brain’s evolution, it is also because of our superior cognitive capacities that we falsely assume our ultimate goal for fulfillment as being dependent on what we can achieve and acquire externally.
Fortunately, because critical thinking and analytic reasoning are also new evolutionary faculties we enjoy, we have the ability to freely observe, analyze, challenge and change problematic ways of thinking. By examining how we go about creating the life-satisfaction we seek at the deepest level of our beings, we can come to discover that the status, relationships, wealth and possessions we assume make us happy are ultimately impermanent and inevitably leave us unfulfilled. The fancy car we’ve dreamed of owning eventually breaks down, we come to find out that the dreamy partner has their own flaws, the pay raise we joyously celebrate soon doesn’t seem like enough, and once again we’re back at square one. It is directly because of the impermanent nature of reality, and our faulty idea that true happiness can be found in impermanent things, that our hopeless grasps to find fulfillment in them always come up empty. It’s precisely because the things we desire continuously change and the pleasurable feelings they create eventually wain, that the game of life remains unwinnable when we play it the way we’re accustomed to. The celebrated Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahh tells us:
It is not impermanence that makes us suffer. What makes us suffer is wanting things to be permanent when they are not.”
Developing the Wisdom to Win the Game of Real Life:
If we are truly determined to win the the game of real life, it’ll be imperative to develop a perspective based upon timeless wisdom that allows us to remain contented in both good and bad times. Fortunately, within the ancient spiritual tradition of Buddhism there’s a treasure-trove of secular knowledge that shows us the path we must follow. It was only after six long years of obsessively examining the inner workings of his own mind, systematically chipping away at the illusion of self, when Siddhartha Gautama attain the covenant state of spiritual enlightenment and forever become the Buddha. Along the way of his incomparable spiritual journey, the Buddha came to realize that humans remain unfulfilled because of our ignorance towards the impermanent nature of reality which expresses itself as attachments, cravings, and aversions towards intangible objects, people, and states. To move beyond this ultimately unsatisfying way of living, the Buddha told us, we must focus our attention on developing acceptance, contentment, and gratitude for each day regardless of if we perceive it as bad or good.
Perhaps there isn’t a better example of someone who developed the wisdom to win the game of real life than that the late great Vipassana Meditation teacher S.N. Goenka. Like all too many individuals, Goenka spent the early years of his life chasing financial prosperity while thinking a lavish lifestyle would make him fulfilled. Despite the fact that the successes came early and often for Goenka, who was one of Burma’s most successful businessmen at only 31 years old, he never felt fully satisfied and pressed on towards loftier aims. Unsurprisingly, a lifestyle of overworking himself into the ground eventually caught up to him and cumulated in a bout against persistent and severe migraine headaches. It was only after failing to find relief through modern medical treatment options that Goenka sought out the ancient practice of Vipassana Meditation which is based upon the idea that individuals become attached to pleasurable bodily sensations and driven to create a state where only pleasurable feelings exist. To counteract this faulty perception which tells us we can be unceasingly fulfilled by finding and living with only positive experiences, people and things, Vipassana meditators focus on developing awareness to observe their bodily sensations while remaining equanimous towards both pleasurable and painful feelings. As one of history’s truly iconic meditation masters found out, it’s only possible to create the fulfillment that we seek by developing acceptance and indifference towards the impermanence of the world. He told us:
Real wisdom is recognizing and accepting that every experience is impermanent. With this insight you will not be overwhelmed by ups and downs. And when you are able to maintain an inner balance, you can choose to act in ways that will create happiness for you and for others. Living each moment happily with an equanimous mind, you will surely progress toward the ultimate goal of liberation from all suffering.”
Pursing Meaningful Goals Detached From Outcomes:
The time has now come for us to make our move on the board game of real life, a move that’ll largely determine our ability to do the seemingly impossible by finding sustainable levels of happiness in a constantly changing world. The choice is quite simple, either we can continue to chase the impermanent objects, relationships and sensual pleasures that leave us dissatisfied with life or we can shift our focus towards developing the awareness and equanimity that leads to an unwavering sense of bliss. Let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean that we should stop pursing our goals and dreams but rather pursue them with detachment and indifference toward the positive or negative outcomes that come. Because neither the advantageous nor unfortunate results will remain, the smartest thing we can do is develop equal-mindedness towards our perceived successes and failures, as well as the positive or negative feelings that accompany them.
In addition to developing intelligence indifference towards each and every life experience, there are a number of other important truths to learn and beneficial steps to take which can further improve our ability to win the game of real life. First, it’s important to realize that although we assume our fulfillment is based upon what we acquire and obtain for ourselves, just as much happiness, if not more, is created when we act compassionately and give to others. Second, to find the levels of life satisfaction that we crave at the deepest level of our beings, it’ll be vital to prioritize our most important relationships, rather than success and work, and also spend our resources on memorable life experiences rather than material things. After realizing the immense role that these two factors play in creating happiness, we can then begin to examine, critique and alter our goals in a way that naturally leads to fulfillment. Lastly, because everything in this universe is impermanent in nature, including ourselves, it’s vital that we strive to get the most out of the limited days we have on this Earth Day. As the legendary Thai Forest monk Ajahn Chan told us:
One day some people came to the master and asked: How can you be happy in a world of such impermanence, where you cannot protect your loved ones from harm, illness or death? The master held up a glass and said: Someone gave me this glass; It holds my water admirably and it glistens in the sunlight. I touch it and it rings! One day the wind may blow it off the shelf, or my elbow may knock it from the table. I know this glass is already broken, so I enjoy it – increibly.”