Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Poker Tactics for Spiritual Life

I'm just back from a successful trip to Reno. Meanwhile, I've been following the latest posting at the Guruphiliac blog, which explores possible misconduct by followers of Ammachi, the world-famous "hugging guru." Like Reese's, I'll now try to bring these two great experiences together.

The Ammachi organization is built on hugs and sweet words about love, love, love... yet Guruphiliac reports accusations of the org using harassment and violence against critics. I have no personal knowledge of the accusations; clearly they're not all proven. But such scandals are well-documented in similar groups.

Decades ago, Hare Krishna gurus preached purity and love of God, while simultaneously engaging in everything from financial scamming to child molestation to murder. In Swami Muktananda's SYDA group, successor Gurumayi would smile sweetly in public, while secretly sending goon squads to harass followers of a guru deemed to be her competition in her quest to amass devotees.

I visited Ammachi once. (I got my hug. It was OK; hugs are generally nice things.) I noticed the followers often acted ultra-spiritual: wearing white pajamas, speaking softly and reverently, rolling their eyes towards the ceiling each time they mentioned "God."

Afterwards, I mentioned to a friend that even though everyone at the event was so very very sweet and nice, I felt nervous and suspicious. "Of course," my friend replied. "You knew there had to be a shadow."

As a poker player, I try to "read" opponents' inner states, based on their outward behavior. Much of what I've learned comes from Mike Caro (aka "The Mad Genius of Poker"), an expert at this skill. I've enjoyed Caro's writing, and found him fun and gentlemanly the time I played with him live.

Caro teaches that weak means strong, and strong means weak. That is: when we have a strong poker hand, very likely to win, we try to fool opponents by acting weak. But since most of us lack confidence, we're afraid that the act won't succeed, so we overact. The way to see the truth behind the appearances is to keep our eyes and ears open to sense this overacting.

It's not foolproof; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But it's cool when I'm able to "read" through the act, sometimes intuiting the exact cards my opponent holds. It applies to non-gambling situations also. When I heard Bill Clinton say, "I did not have sex with that woman...," his tone of voice, and unnatural pause before the word "sex," revealed precisely that he was trying to hide a blow job.

Whenever a person or group acts a bit too loving and spiritual, it's a red flag. Hell, you don't even have to go to Eastern groups like Ammachi, Gurumayi, or Krishnas. Just consider how ultra-pure Catholic priests used to appear... and the shadow that too often lurked behind.

I can't totally condemn Ammachi etc. If you got to a hospital, you'll find sick people. If you got to a guru preaching love, you'll find people trying to deal with intense anger. It's problematic to deny one's inner anger by covering it with an excessively sweet exterior. But for some people at some times -- perhaps when people aren't ready to confront their inner anger head-on -- such play-acting could be a necessary step in the process. Who knows.

I can't condemn the tendency of devotees to display more love on the outside than they've attained on the inside. But still... it can be useful to understand the dynamic of "Weak means strong; strong means weak." It might just help us make more informed choices, next time we need to decide whether to metaphorically hold'em or fold'em.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Thinking Appears, All Things Appear

I was surfing by CNN cable news and caught an interview with a guy who'd been kidnapped in Colombia 6 years ago by FARC (the group that held Ingrid Betancourt), and was recently rescued in the daring operation by government security forces. He was talking about how he made it through his time in captivity.

Along with another hostage, he'd painstakingly carved a chess set, and would spend hours playing chess with each other. What hit me was when he said something like, "As long as we were playing chess, I was no longer a hostage."

I think I know what he means, a little. I was a decent chess player in my youth. In trying to understand my attraction to the game, I concluded that part of the magic was that when my mind was occupied with the chess game, the world disappeared. All my thinking was directed toward the situation on the chess board; it wasn't just the most important thing in the world, it was the only thing in the world. When the game was over, I'd have to shake myself a little and remember that the rest of the world still existed.

It's similar now with my interest in playing poker, and in other games and puzzles. It's not so different from formal meditation practice. When the mind is merged with one thing, there's nothing else.

The first time I met Zen Master Seung Sahn, it was at a New Year's ceremony, for which he'd written a poem. The lines that have stuck in my mind for decades are
Thinking appears, all things appear
Thinking disappears, everything disappears:
Complete, empty stillness.
I've got no reason to believe that the hostage interviewed on CNN had any interest in Buddhism. That's what makes his story so cool: the people with the best understanding of Buddhism are those with no idea about "Buddhism." The hostage may never have formally practiced Zen, but he naturally found a great secret: regardless of the external situation, the key thing is how you're keeping your mind in this very moment.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Is Meditation Good? Part 2

(This is a continuation from the previous blog, jumping off from the comments on that Part 1 post.)

GreenSkink said... Is it possible for "good" intentions to lead to undesirable results? Does anyone hold intentions they recognize to be "bad"?

Since we all have different and changing ideas of what's "good" and "bad," maybe it's clearer to talk about whether or not the intention is "only for me." Zen-style teaching suggests that a motivation that's just for myself will bring suffering.

When I first started a sitting meditation practice, it was entirely about getting something for me. I wanted to get inner feelings of peace, quiet, even euphoria. I wanted to become wise, holy, and enlightened.

With mathematical precision... to whatever extent my head is filled with "I want," I'm more likely to be ignorant of the needs of others. It's not that I ever intend to be "bad." But if I'm occupied with getting something for myself, there may be people right in front of me who are suffering (perhaps as a result of my own actions), and I won't even notice it.

Sincere questioning of this "I" can reveal it to be just a thought that comes and goes. Less clinging to "I want" can make for clearer perception, and a greater likelihood that I won't overlook or ignore the suffering of others.

"Meditation" may be a tool for questioning the self. It can also simply be an effort to get good feelings etc. If a meditation practice doesn't include strong and sincere "What am I?", I see no reason why someone can't be a great meditator or teacher, while being blind to the suffering of others.

When I'm chasing after what I want, it's like being on a merry-go-round. The constant motion makes a clear view of the situation impossible. The first thing is to step off the merry-go-round for a moment. That means following some sort of meditative discipline, keeping the mind still for a while, using any style or technique. In that pause, that not-moving, there's the chance of questioning the "I."

I guess my current view is that any practice that interrupts the merry-go-round of our usual desires, is better than nothing. But it doesn't automatically cultivate compassion; that only comes when we use the stillness to question everything, our deepest wants and identifications.

Doug wrote... Who can really say that they've never done something less than saintly, "consequences be damned."

Any time I'm caught up in a belief or desire, it's easy to follow it blindly, missing the consequences, including suffering to others. Any type of belief creates this fog. Even my desire to be more saintly is such a want. It may be a good want, but it's still a want, still a hindrance to clarity.

That leaves the practice of trying to keep a questioning mind, in this very moment. If I can sincerely ask "What am I?" and "How can I help all beings?", these big questions can cut through all thinking. That can leave an empty stillness, in which perhaps I can perceive the suffering around me, and respond as best I can.