I possess an odd love of game shows. One of my all time favorites to watch as a kid was Press Your Luck.

If you’re not familiar with Press Your Luck here’s a video. The basic idea was that there was a prize board with a series of squares. Squares would light up randomly as a golden highlighter bounced around the board, visible to all the contestants and the audience on a large screen. Each contestant had a plunger which when pressed would stop the golden highlighter on a specific square. The contestant would then win whatever was contained in the highlighted square–say $500 or a vacation and so on. Contestants could always seek to use all their turns (or pass them to another player) so long as they never landed on a whammy.

When contestants landed on a whammy, they lost all their money and prizes.To add insult the injury, the whammy would make an appearance and taunt them in awesomely bad 1980s cartoon graphics.

In order to ward off the evil whammy, there was a common phrase, a kind of superstitious mantra prayed to the game shows gods during each turn. You could hear contestants constantly repeating one or both of two phrases: “Big Bucks, Big Bucks” and/or “No Whammies, No Whammies.”

It was basic casino psychology. The game board was rigged so that if a player kept going they eventually were bound to hit a whammy and lose all the cash and prizes (except for the famous case of the guy who memorized all the screens and beat the house as its own game–more on him in a second).

Now you’re probably wondering what does all this have to do with spirituality exactly?

Quite a lot I think.

I contend that Press Your Luck is a perfect metaphor for the spiritual life–or at least one dimension of it–namely how to deal with the problematic dimensions of ourselves, aka our whammies.

A person starts meditation or prayer practice, perhaps that meditation practice goes along with healthier eating, exercise, or yoga. The person begins to receive benefit from such practice. In Press Your Luck this would be a person whose getting a decent streak on the wheel going, winning prizes and building up a good sized cash fund.

Things are going great and then bam, they land on a whammy. Money and prizes squandered. Turn lost. In some ways this moment is worse than the beginning. Here one has tasted something more, something better and now has crashed down back to zero, losing everything in the process.

This pattern is one I see constantly in spiritual practitioners. They’ve been on a decent streak. They’re gaining in capacity, insight, and subtlety, and then, as if out of nowhere, they are blindsided by an internal whammy.

For one person their whammy is lack of self-love, for another right relationship to finances, for still another a problematic tendency to form intimate bonds with people who don’t respect or treat them well, and for yet another unexpressed grief. Whatever the exact nature of their whammy, it emerges and lays them low taking all their accrued earnings with them.

The whammy is their shadow, their vulnerability, and their temptation all wrapped up into one.

Just like contestants on the show, spiritual practictioners chant over and over to the gods, “Big Bucks, No Whammies.” They want all the positive ooey-gooey spiritual experiences and feelings of happiness and clarity. Meanwhile they fear the whammy. They know somewhere deep down in their soul lies this being which they are praying will simply never emerge. Unfortunately it does and undermines their progress as a result.

Hence the mantra, “Big Bucks, No Whammies.” In spiritual language that’s praying or meditating on all the prizes–higher states, joy, peace, bliss, enlightenment, whatever–and not wanting to have to face the dreaded enemy, the whammy. A spiritual aspirant doesn’t want to be shown his lack of humility, her class biases, his incompleteness, or her spiritual ego.

The whammy in other words.

No whammies. This is the cry of our spiritual age.

The brilliance of the whammy was that when he came on the screen he often was unable to steal the money from the person. The whammy himself was typically in some fashion humiliated. He both caused the person to lose all their money and yet he (the whammy) couldn’t himself hold the winnings.

The parallel is perfect. An individual trying to live a spiritual life encounters one or more unexpected whammies in her being. Not only does it cost her all her winnings, the whammy itself is humiliated in public view. When her whammic pattern reveals itself it causes her to be shamed, embarrassed, or perhaps even ostracized. The whammy not only takes her back to zero, he very often takes her, as it were, into negative emotional and spiritual territory.

In the game there were whammies on every one of the rotating game boards. That is to say every spiritual practitioner, every single of us, always has whammies on our board at all times. No spiritual master or personal growth guru ever completely outgrows the existence of whammies in his/her being. Remembering this truth is what keeps us humble. We remain vigilant (though not paranoid or unable to act) by recalling that we always carry whammies. When we believe ourselves to have evolved to some higher state of consciousness and to be beyond such mundane things that is precisely when we let down our guard and the whammy will strike.

Which inevitably leads to the questions:

What then can we do about it? What options are available to deal with our whammies?

Well in the show a player could only either press their luck by taking a turn or pass their turns to another player. Either act was a gamble.

In spiritual language, that means one option for spiritual practitioners is to abdicate their responsibility for their own path (i.e. pass their turn). They could do that by handing over all their turns to a guru or some fundamentalist spiritual tradition–i.e, either a person or a system that has all the answers pre-established for them. No thought required. They simply don’t ever have to play the game for themselves. Every time it’s their turn to step up, they pass.

The other option is simply to Press Your Luck–hoping the mantra of simply praying for only good to come and no whammies to appear will somehow work. Drink more green smoothies, say some more affirmations and magically hope everything works out. This option is also not mature or realistic.

There was however a third option, one taken famously by contestant Michael Larson (you can watch the entire episode here). Larson used his VCR to tape episodes of Press Your Luck. As he re-watched the episodes, he realized that the movement of the board was not in fact random but followed a clear sequence. He saw through the pattern and this allowed him to beat the house at its own game.

Larson memorized a sequence which enabled him to simultaneously avoid the whammies and gain the largest prize winnings as well as free spins in order to allow him to continue playing for as long as he desired. Larson ended up winning over $100,000 in one day, a record for the largest earnings in a single day in all of game show history (a record that lasted for 22 years).

The key point here is that he relied entirely on one technique to win the big bucks as well as to avoid the dread whammy.

Except a couple of funny things happened. One, on his first turn he was so nervous he missed his mark and ended up on a whammy. When his turn came back around the second time he was more settled and following his one technique he beat the game and recorded 45 consecutive spins. Then amazingly, he passed his remaining turns because (as he revealed years later in an interview) he had missed his initial mark and lost his concentration and couldn’t regain the sequence.

And here I think the parallel to the spiritual life should be starkly obvious and frankly a bit anxiety producing. A person who has only one or two go-to moves in the spiritual life may seem to “beat the game” from time to time. Until of course they become nervous or lose concentration, an inevitability it would seem, given Michael Larson’s example. This practitioner can only ever rely on their technique and if they waver for just one moment, they don’t know how to regroup and adapt.

To the show’s credit, they allowed Larson to keep his money as they decided that memorizing the boards wasn’t cheating. They then changed the board making it far more difficult to memorize the precise sequence.

In other words, if ever we come to rely too much on a given spiritual or personal growth technique, the universe will change the parameters of the game of life so that our old patterns (“cheat codes”) no longer work.

Which leaves still without a way forward. Passing turns doesn’t work, neither does simply pressing your luck, nor will trying to beat the game.

The whammies must be faced. The question remains: how?

Here Press Your Luck can’t offer us any guidance. Another option is necessary, one not available within the rules of that game. We need to love our whammies and embrace them.

Love disarms the whammies within and without

When the whammies are forgiven, embraced, and acknowledged, even appreciated in their way, they relax and relent. When they do they release inner wisdom.

I struggled for years with what’s called low self-esteem. That was my whammy, that was the problem I had to solve–or so I thought I had to solve at the time. Since I was told (and came to genuinely believe) that I had low self-esteem, then I thought I must work to have high self-esteem. This attempt at developing high self-esteem A) didn’t work and B) in certain areas where it did “work”, I became subtly quite arrogant.

But I kept trying. I would read book after book on how to build self-esteem. I’d do my best to follow someone else’s self-esteem building system. I had passed my turn to them in other words. Then that system wouldn’t work so I’d just go about more spiritual practice, acting as if I could simply grit my way through, with or without self-esteem. I was pressing my luck and eventually I would inevitably land on the whammy and go back to zero.

When however I stopped fighting the whammy of self-esteem, and learned to love him, he offered me humility. I became much freer by realizing who I fundamentally was and am and conversely who I am not and will never be. Loving that whammy, allowed me to comprehend the gifts of my being as well as the inherent idiosyncrasies, foibles, flaws, and weaknesses of my being (of which they are plenty of both…gifts and flaws).

Loving the whammies brings us back to ground. Fear, self-doubt, confusion, grief, shame, anger, these don’t need to be whammies. They can be friends, allies on the path.

In Press Your Luck, whammies took away one’s prizes and winnings. In the spiritual life, when they are loved and consciously embraced, I find the whammies bring me back to zero in the truest sense. They empty me, like air escaping from a balloon. It’s a deflating experience, but not in the negative way we so often fear (“no whammies, no whammies, no whammies”). When there are truly no whammies consciously allowed, we lose the ability to be brought back to square zero, to be released of everything, even the greatest of winnings in life. When we don’t consciously embrace the whammies, then life will do it to us without our consent. The first option can be painful but it’s empowering. The second is absolutely horrific.

We need the whammies. We need to know how to relate to them rightly.

The mantra of “no whammies, no whammies” turns out, paradoxically, to be right–though not in the way we imagine. When we love and embrace the whammies, they cease to be whammies. There are, in that moment, indeed no whammies. And that way of being is spiritually Big Bucks indeed.

 Image by  Tom Woodwardcourtesy of Creative Commons license.