Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Difference Between a Church and a Casino

I spent last weekend in Reno, gambling with my buddy Bill. On the way back, we stopped in Sacramento for lunch with Clyde (co-creator of the Do No Harm website/movement). Clyde remarked that in reading my personal site, he'd wondered what the connection was between my interest in various "spiritual" traditions, and my video poker habit. It got me thinking once again about the dynamics of Religion and Gambling. I've long thought that the friction between these two realms comes not from their differences, but their similarities.

Back in 2001, I posted to the rec.gambling.poker newsgroup:

An ex-Mormon friend of mine ... noted that the two states that build the most garish "temples" (Nevada & Utah) happen to be right next to each other.
Religion & gambling are dependent on the fact that life is filled with unknowns ("When you die, where do you go?", "Will the board pair on the river?", etc, etc); since most of us aren't satisfied with not knowing, there's an attraction to such things. Just as movies etc put a frame around life in order to bring it down to a size we can grasp, churches & casinos put a "frame" around the unknown so we can approach it in our individual ways.
Generally, people approach the unknown with awe & reverence in church, or with playfulness in a casino, & often with desire in either location. At higher limits in the casino (or in low-limit religion), this distinction may blur...
It's my chosen belief that the Golden Rule operates in life as clearly as probability operates at the tables. But since there's no frame around our existence, the variance is monstrous, & the long term is longer than we can imagine.
Most people have a similar mind in a casino as in a church. They're ready to make sacrifices, in the hope that some unseen magic force (God or Luck) will ultimately grant them rewards that outweigh the costs. And they have an amazing ability to hold onto this hope, even when all logic and evidence contradict it. The old joke goes: the difference between a church and a casino is that when people pray in a casino, they really mean it.

As with religion, I approach gambling in a way that outwardly appears the same as the majority, but with a different intention. Sure, I'm affected by the roller-coaster of short-term luck, but my focus is on making the best decision in each situation, understanding that in the long-term, fluctuations even out, and you end up with precisely what you deserve.

I have faith that it works the same way for life-in-general: do good action and get happiness, do bad action and get suffering. This clear cause-and-effect can be glimpsed only occasionally, only from the widest perspective. Casino gambling, when done with discipline and mathematical understanding, makes it a little easier to see the ultimate justice of cause-and-effect play itself out. That's because, when compared with life, gambling has a simple and precise way of keeping score. Also, the "long-term," where ups-and-downs even out, requires months or years in gambling, as compared with infinite lifetimes in the real world.

Learning to play video poker with mathematical precision (which allows me to play at roughly even odds) isn't that difficult. Anyone of average intelligence could do it. I've found, though, that large numbers of casino-goers can't even grasp that one can apply critical thinking skills to gambling in a meaningful way. They can't or won't accept that we have some control over our gambling destiny, that there are alternatives to just praying for luck.

All of what I've said about gambling is perfectly analogous to my perspective on spiritual practice or life. As the alcoholics say, we need to have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can't control. If I can accept and make peace with the big questions of existence (that I don't know where I come from, where I'm going, why I'm here, or who I am), I can leave the mystery to take care of itself. I can direct all my attention and energy to the one thing that I can control, my true job: responding to this very moment with whatever clarity and compassion I can manage.

Different people do spiritual practices in ways that outwardly look the same. But there can be profound differences in intention. Are we, for instance, doing sitting meditation with the belief that some outside being or force will magically come to our aid? Or do we direct our effort and attention purely to how we keep our own thinking and behavior, moment to moment?

As I once put it in a dharma talk:
... the world is filled with spiritual teachers anxious to tell you their ways to beat the system. They say, "If you follow me and my way, you'll get all sorts of good feelings inside and good situations outside; if not now, then in the future. My way will grant you benefits infinitely greater than the effort you put into it."
In other words, they teach the possibility of getting good stuff that you don't earn, and don't deserve. This is a beautiful idea, and it's given beautiful names, such as "God's grace," etc. I've noticed that the largest crowds seem to form around those teachers who say that small efforts can bring big rewards.
In our school, the teaching different. Dae Soen Sa Nim says, "Big effort, big attainment. Small effort, small attainment. No effort, no attainment." How can someone considered a great teacher get away with promising so little? He also says, "Understanding cannot help you." This means that life offers no tricks or shortcuts; and if you really understand that there are no shortcuts, even that's not a shortcut.
Maybe it sounds awful to give up such beautiful hopes. But when you completely give up hope, you're left with something extraordinary: a clear view of the present moment. What do you see? What do you hear? What are you doing right now? That's much better than hope.
There's a story about this in a Carlos Castaneda book. Carlos is walking with don Juan and stops for a moment to tie his shoe. Just then, a boulder falls from the cliffs above and crashes to the ground a few feet ahead. "My God!" Carlos says. "If I hadn't had to tie my shoe, that would have killed us!"
"That's true," replies don Juan. "And maybe someday you'll stop to tie your shoe, and because you stop a boulder will kill you. You don't know when the boulder will fall, so the most important thing for you to do is to tie your shoe impeccably."

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Hillary & Barack (& Lyndon & Martin)

I've been recently addicted to TV news shows about the presidential primaries. It's great entertainment, even though I don't have a horse in this race. Come November, I expect to vote Libertarian, regardless of who's running for the Dems and Repubs.

(Since I'm a member of the tiny Libertarian Party, and make small donations to them, it wasn't so surprising that I got a call from the state Party a few months ago, asking if I myself would run for the California legislature. I didn't seriously consider it; running for office -- let alone actually serving -- seems like torture. My only regret is that I won't get a chance to use the perfect campaign slogan: "Vote for Stuart, Because the Entire Universe is an Illusion Anyway!")

When I last registered to vote, I did so as an independent. Most parties don't allow independents to vote in the California primary, so I can't vote Libertarian. The Democratic Party is an exception, so I am considering voting for Barack Obama. Here's why.

In a New Hampshire debate, Hillary Clinton famously said, "Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." I believe her point was that Obama, like Martin Luther King, is inspiring to many ordinary citizens. That's all fine and good (Clinton implies), but such inspiration becomes real only when it's made into law by skillful politicians like Johnson. Clinton is suggesting we support her based on her mastery of these political skills.

Clinton's comment reveals her lack of appreciation that laws are only one way to change society. The federal government has huge power: piles of money, and control of lots of men with guns. When they pass a law, it's an attempt to use these powers, from the top-down, to force citizens to behave better.

A civilized society depends on people refraining from violence, theft, and lies. Just as war is sometimes necessary to control tyrants, we sometimes need the force of law to control the worst elements of society from killing and stealing etc. And like war, the terrible power of federal laws ought to be a last resort, not the first or only option considered.

ML King represents the other way to transform society, from the bottom-up. He helped to change the hearts and minds of millions of ordinary people. King taught and inspired people to look to the content of one's character, rather than skin color. He deserves major credit for the fact that nowadays, there's a solid national consensus against racial discrimination. It's true that many Democrats still passionately support racial discrimination (as long as it's called by a different name), but thankfully that's a minority of the overall population.

King improved society with the power of his words and the example of his actions. His was a non-violent method, inspiring people to change voluntarily. The use of force and threats (as in wars or law-making) may be a very efficient way to get what you want, but it always has negative consequences. To the greatest extent possible, we ought to prefer the non-violent method exemplified by King.

Now consider what Clinton said: "Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964." She's suggesting that the top-down force of federal law is more real than the bottom-up power of inspiring the masses. I'm suspicious that after all her years in Washington, she thinks of passing laws as the only way to help society, and is tone-deaf to the possibility of voluntary, non-violent, bottom-up change.

Recall Clinton's attempt to reform health care during her husband's term. She made no reasonable attempt to teach or learn from the public on the issue. It was as if she considered ordinary people too stupid to understand the problem and contribute to the solution. She relied on closed-door meetings to produce a plan that no one understood. If instead she had tried to educate and inspire the citizenry in a bottom-up way, it may not have immediately resulted in exactly the policies she wanted... but in the long-run, it would have been a far more effective strategy.

This issue is well covered by the Jan 28 New Yorker article "The Choice." In it, George Packer writes of Clinton's MLK remark, "Clinton was simply expressing her belief that the Presidency is more about pushing difficult legislation through a fractious Congress than it is about transforming society." He quotes Obama saying that the Presidency "involves having a vision for where the country needs to go... and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change." Contrast that to Clinton's reply that the job of President is like that of a "chief executive officer" who has "to be able to manage and run the bureaucracy."

As a computer programmer, my style is to create simple little solutions to tiny problems, then slowly build them up and link them together to produce tools that help users in big ways. I have a natural affinity for bottom-up solutions. And as a youngest child, I'm well experienced in getting pushed around. This leads to my preference for the Libertarian-style of inspiring people through vision, rather than forcing values on us with laws. Neither of the Democratic candidates embodies Libertarian ethics, but of the two, my heart is with Obama.

If anyone wants to leverage their own political power by trying to sway my vote one way or the other, kindly do so in the Comments section. Before Tuesday!