to top

The Life of the Finite Self

When perspective is lost then we imagine ourselves to be what we’re not. Then, having ‘falsely imagined’ ourselves in this way, we proceed with this as a starting point, and try our best to find fulfilment on this basis. We also imagine, on this basis (the basis of imagining that ‘we are what we’re not’) that we have this thing called ‘free will’….!



What we imagine ourselves to be might be called the ‘finite self’. The finite self is a fixture, a fixture which is made up of an apparently permanent set of features or characteristics. The finite self is therefore a static kind of a thing – it is what it is and that is the end of the matter. Or, we could say, it is what it is specified as being and that is the end of the matter. This defined and unchanging identity is the finite self, which is what we mistakenly imagine ourselves to be.



The finite self gets great satisfaction from believing in its own concrete description of itself, its own black-and-white definition of itself, and it gets very great satisfaction from proving that the particular way that it has of being is the right way. If it is stretched or pulled or pushed out of the comfort zone of its own familiar and well-established pattern of existing in the world (or if this pattern is in some way doubted or disparaged or ‘de-validated’ by others) then it experiences correspondingly great dissatisfaction. When there is agreement or concurrence with my fixed way of being I feel gratified, and when there is not I feel aggrieved. One way there is pleasure, the other displeasure, and this is all we need to know about the life of the finite self! It can either be flattered or insulted, and that is about it.



The life of the finite self always exists somewhere between these two possibilities – the possibility of be validated and the possibility of being de-validated. Or we could say that the life of the finite self always exists somewhere between the two extremes of ‘euphoria’ on the on side and ‘dysphoria’ on the other. It cannot exist anywhere else than between these two poles because this is how it constructs itself, i.e. either in terms of feeling good because its situation matches its preferences (i.e. it agrees with how it would like things to be) or feeling bad because the situation does not match its preferences (i.e. it does not agree with the way it would like things to be). The other way of putting this is to say that the finite experiences euphoria when its taken-for-granted way of seeing things is confirmed by the universe, and dysphoria when this way of seeing things is not confirmed, or is ‘falsified’. This might seem ridiculously simplistic – and we might think that the psychology of the everyday self ought to have a bit more in it than this – but this just isn’t the case!



The life of the finite self is what James Carse calls a finite game. The point of a finite game, according to Carse, is to be always to in control, and ‘being in control’ (of course) means getting our circumstances to accord with a certain specific template or model for ‘how we think things should be’. The finite game is finite because it never goes beyond its starting-off assumptions – in fact the whole point of the exercise is that it doesn’t! The template itself is chosen at random (since in reality no one template, no one model is better than any other) but the point of the game is to keep on trying to control everything to be in accordance with it – which obviously means that we must never change or tamper with it. That’s the one thing we can’t do in a finite game! When we get our circumstances to accord with the template this is called ‘winning’ and when we don’t then this is referred to (generally with contempt) as ‘losing’. Winners are great and losers are crap, as everyone knows…



As Carse says, the whole point of a finite game is that we will not ever be taken by surprise. The whole point is that we control all the important outcomes and if we control all the outcomes then very obviously we are never going to be taken by surprise! The ‘meaning of life’ for the finite game player is therefore to remain in control at all costs and to successfully resist any influences that come about either as a result of random environmental factors or of the efforts of other players to alter these outcomes. The ‘be all and the end all’ for the finite game player (for the finite self) is to obtain the goal that it sees as being important, and not to be put off under any circumstances from doing this. There is a fixed agenda and the only satisfactory outcome is the bringing about of this agenda. Nothing else counts, no matter what it is. Only the agenda counts and we never question the agenda.



When we explain the finite game (or the logic of the finite self) like this, it tends to sound reasonable enough. It may even sound very healthy if we’re used to thinking about things this way – why shouldn’t life be about trying to obtain those goals that are important to us? Why shouldn’t we ‘chase our dreams’? This philosophy sounds empowering of the individual, supportive of the individual, valuing of the individual, and so on. We feel good about who we are by successfully doing what we want to do, and by not taking NO for an answer, not being hemmed in by circumstances or other people with competing agendas. This is pretty much what we all believe and it is very hard to question such a widely held view. The reason we can’t see the spectacular down-side to this whole philosophy however is because we have become so habituated to playing the finite game that we simply can’t see any other way of looking at things. If we could only ‘get outside the box of our thoughts’ for a moment we would see that fixating on obtaining our goals is all about ‘getting better and better at controlling outcomes’ and ‘getting better and better at controlling outcomes’ is (as Carse says) all about getting better and better at making sure that we are never surprised. Put like this, the goal ethos of struggling determinedly to obtain our goals doesn’t sound quite so healthy, quite so empowering. What’s so bad about being surprised, after all?



Wanting to make sure that we never get surprised (either by the world around us or by other people) really means that we are being driven by fear. We are wanting to ‘close off’. We are wanting to shut down all lines of communication with what is really going on out there. We are wanting to eradicated anything that doesn’t obey our own inflexible will. When we succeed at controlling all the important outcomes then we have actually achieved something very strange – even though it is extremely hard for us to appreciate this. When we ‘control all the outcomes’ then what we are actually doing is turning the world into a reflection of our own expectations!



If things turn out as we want them to then this is obviously a reflection of our own expectations and if they don’t then we label this as a failure, as an error or mistake, as a wrong result and so this is still a reflection of our own expectations!  If everything is either ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, etc then this means that there is nothing that isn’t a reflection of our underlying agenda. The closed agenda determines the meaning of everything. The thinking mind has subsumed the entire world in this case, and we never seem to notice that there is anything strange about this…



When we do this thing (when we turn everything into a reflection of our own expectations) then we have turned the world into a game, and what this means is that we have over-simplified everything to such a ridiculous extent that there is no longer any actual information in it. ‘Information’ can be neatly and succinctly defined as newness (i.e. as ‘something that we didn’t know about before’) and so straightaway we can see (very clearly indeed) that a world that is a reflection of our expectations is a world without any actual information in it. All that’s in it is ourselves, looking out at our own projections, and relating to these projections as if they are an external independent reality and not just our own closed mind reflected faithfully back at us.



Very obviously, when we look at the universe in an agenda-based way then all we are ever going to tune into is whether the universe delivers or doesn’t deliver, and therefore whether we should feel gratified or disgruntled, pleased or displeased, delighted or dismayed, and so forth. It’s either going to be one way or the other and whatever way it is it’s all about us, it’s all about what we want out of the world. The world has therefore become a mere game, a banal matter of ‘win or lose’, ‘succeed or fail’, ‘right or wrong’. But the world isn’t a game, isn’t a mere banal matter of winning or losing, succeeding or failing, getting it right or getting it wrong. We are absolutely addicted to thinking that it is, but it just plain isn’t! It is clearly nonsense to say that it is. How could we be so short-sighted as to think that it is? How could we be so extraordinarily short-sighted as to never see beyond ourselves?



What we see when we play a finite game (any finite game) with the universe is only ever our own closed mind reflected back at us at every turn. This is like seeing our own sleeping face being reflected back to us from every shiny surface we look at, from every mirror the world provides us with. And yet we do not see it to be ‘our own sleeping face’ – we see it as something outside of us, we see it as the external objective universe.



What has happened is that we have created our own pocket-sized universe – we have created our own private world, a world that is only ever going to be a sterile projection of our own pointless assumptions. A finite game is therefore only ever a game that we are playing with ourselves, even though it may appear to be otherwise, even though it may appear to involve others. It isn’t a game that involves others because ultimately it’s all about ‘me getting what I want’, ‘me getting to satisfy my agenda’. Everything that happens is only ever seen in terms of this agenda, this closed motivation, and so even if there are others in the game they are only ever going to be perceived by me in terms of this agenda.



Nothing exists outside of myself, therefore. If other people are going to help me to obtain the goals that I want to obtain then they are my ‘friends’ and if they threaten to obstruct me in this then they are ‘enemies,’ but whether I call them friends and experience warm feelings about them or call them enemies and experience hostility or coldness towards them it is still all ‘just about me’. Everything (both other people and the world in general) is only ever going to be seen in terms of PLUS and MINUS, RIGHT and WRONG, ADVANTAGE and DISADVANTAGE and this means that I am seeing everything in terms of myself. The world of ‘duality’ is no more than the reflection of the sleeping self, therefore.



Instead of saying that ‘everything is all about me’ when I am acting out of a closed agenda we could say that ‘everything is about the game’. Everything is seen in terms of the game that is being played and so everything is the game. [+] is the game and [-] is the game, ‘signal’ is the game and ‘error’ is the game. If it’s included then it’s about the game (obviously) and if it’s excluded then it’s also about the game (because it’s excluded from the game). All of this is just to demonstrate that the finite game is closed – and saying that the finite game is closed means that there is nothing in the finite game apart from the finite game. There is nothing in the finite game apart from the finite game and the finite game doesn’t actually exist…



The life of the finite self looks very different from the outside than it does from the inside. From the outside it’s a simple vibration, a vibration that takes place between two limits – the limit of [+] on the one had and [-] on the other. The life of the finite self is also therefore no more than a vibration that takes place between the limits of advantage on the one hand and disadvantage on the other, satisfaction (or pleasure) on the one hand, and dissatisfaction (or pain) on the other.



We can say that a vibration exists (as a vibration) but this is all it exists as. A vibration is no more then an endlessly repeating act of self-cancellation and this means that it doesn’t actually exist at all! A vibration has no content. It negates itself constantly, like a man who keeps saying one thing one minute and then the opposite the very next minute. Who is going to take such a man seriously? It is – we might say – empty in the sense that it has zero information content, and yet from its own perspective (‘from the inside’, as it were), it does have content – plenty of content, in fact! From the inside the vibration which is the finite self (or the finite game) is not empty, is not null or self-cancelling. It appears, from its own taken-for-granted perspective, to contain lots and lots of information.



This is a very curious thing therefore. Zero information – a simple self-cancelling vibration – appears from its own point of view to have lots and lots going on within it. Redundancy appears to possess genuine content. The non-existent appears to be real, and this of course is the nature of what in Buddhism is called samsara. “Samsara is mind turned outwardly, lost in its projections; Nirvana is mind turned inwardly, recognizing its nature.” as Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche says.



Talking about the finite self (as we have been doing) does not bring out this central point sufficiently. Talking about the finite self makes think that there actually is such a thing as the finite self! We tend to think that the situation of being a ‘closed’ or ‘finite’ self (and living in a ‘closed’ or ‘finite’ world) is at least something, even if only a rather modest something. But this is not the case! We tend to think that the finite world, however limited or circumscribed it might be, is at least some kind of a world, and that there is therefore at least some kind of an existence to be had within it. But this is not the case!



There is no ‘finite self’ and there is no ‘finite world’. There is no ‘finite game’. There is no finite anything! There is only the Infinite Game. As James Carse writes in Finite and Infinite Games  –


Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness. It is not an openness as in candor, but an openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one’s unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one’s ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.


In finite games we play to protect the finite self that we know and are familiar with, for ever and ever. When we talk about ‘security’ this is what we’re on about – protecting and perpetuating the finite self. The finite self may not be much  – but its what we feel comfortable with. Comfort (or security) means denying what we might be (our own potential, our own growth) for the sake of what we arbitrarily say is ‘our self’. The Infinite Game, one the other hand – as James Carse indicates in the passage above – is where we are prepared to sacrifice this finite (and therefore ‘tokenistic’) self, for the sake of what we might be…




Image –








Leave a Comment