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.


Doug said...

A few months back I read Marta Szabo's "the Guru Looked Good" blog-novel about her time under Gurumayi. For certain people under certain conditions, yeah, the adoption of such spiritual or superficially spiritual practices might be a necessary step. In Marta's case, over the course of the story the way she presented herself changed dramatically; from a timid supplicant to a more confident, independent mind. She was able to recognize when the guru-worshiping no longer held any developmental value for her, and she was hard-nosed enough about it to make her exit, despite the subtle cultish peer pressure she received.

I can't help but think that the spiritual practices she embraced were a boon to this evolution, the meditation and chanting, etc., even while the guru centerpiece turned out to be less than what was advertised. The unfortunate thing that seems to be the case among many former guru-philes is that once the realization of deception sinks in there can be so much anger and bitterness there that the person eschews all further spiritual practice. So in the long run the guru has done more harm than good.

One thing I've noticed about the zen teachers I've had the good fortune to work with or observe, is that most of them go to great lengths to try and avoid appearing as a guru, or anything more than an ordinary human being, replete with flaws and weaknesses of their own, who maybe has a bit of insight to offer. My own teacher seems to be particularly sensitive to such things, I think partly from his education in psychotherapy, and partly from having observed his teacher grapple, sometimes unsuccessfully, with issues arising from students putting "the master" up on too high a pedestal, then feeling outraged when he didn't live up to the standard.

And while I don't play poker often, I do get intuitions about people or groups akin to what you're describing. It's like a spider-sense or something, there's just an element of phoniness when somebody is trying too hard.

I once signed up for some summer classes at a "Dahn Yoga" school, a variety that comes out of Korea, thinking it would be a good way to get some exercise. The spider sense was tingling from the start, but I chose to ignore it initially. In retrospect one strong signal was how the teachers would talk so nicely and gently with the American students, but in the next sentence they would bark harshly at each other in Korean. After attending a weekend seminar that turned out to be full of goofy "spiritual" exercises, I cut off all contact with them.

The real clincher for me was how at the end of the seminar the head instructor opened up a booklet and read to us from a script about how we all had achieved something so great and meaningful, just by taking their $200 2-day course. We were now part of some enlightened spiritual club. And the next step, of course, was to take more expensive seminars. The phoniness factor was through the roof, even though my classmates seemed to be eating it up. That was a pretty solid chunk of money wasted on my part, but I suppose it did teach me something important about trusting my intuitions.

Cheers Stu. :)

- Doug

Stuart said...

Doug said...
One thing I've noticed about the zen teachers I've had the good fortune to work with or observe, is that most of them go to great lengths to try and avoid appearing as a guru, or anything more than an ordinary human being, replete with flaws and weaknesses of their own, who maybe has a bit of insight to offer.

My own experience with zen has mostly been limited to a particular, smallish tradition from Korea. When I encoutered it over 20 years ago (while "on the rebound" from an India-style guru), I too was struck by the "ordinary, everyday" style of the zen teachers. They presented themselves like people carrying flashlights at night: the light can be very useful, but it doesn't make the person who happens to carry the flashlight superior or special.

So, anyway, it's cool to hear that Doug has had a similar experience in what I assume is a different school/tradition.

Maybe the whole of civilization is moving slowly and unsteadily towards values like freedom, democracy, and equailty... and this is reflected in the "spiritual" subculture in teachers who are less authoritarian and "regal."

Or maybe it's just me. When I was younger, perhaps I was (subconsciously?) looking for a teacher I could blindly follow, like a surrogate father. So those are the types of teachers I found. Later, when I was ready to think and live more independently, I suddenly started seeing more and more teachers who were free from the authoritarian style.

For what it's worth... I once heard that my original zen master had said, "A Dharma friend is better than a Dharma teacher."


Narayan said...

Very interesting analogy Stuart, poker intertwined with life experiences!
Funny how like minds think isn’t it! You and I have had words more than once on Exsy web site over the years. Now after readying your most recent post on your site about poker it has struck a code with me since I also play Texas Hold-um, but only on line at “Pure Poker.net” I’m there almost every day playing and although I am not playing face to face with my opponents, I can read what the reaction and interactions will be most of the time. I have gotten very good at it? It’s kind of similar to reading the posts on exsy, interrupting the real meanings of what was posted and written. I no longer post or am on at exsy, sort of been there done that kind of thing. I logged off for good a few days ago, and some of them there I will miss, but then some of them I will not miss at all. If you ever want to play poker on line try pure poker sometime, I am there in the players club, under “Yodaman” all the best to you Stuart. Jeff aka ganesha2006isgood. MSW.

Stuart said...

Narayan said...
on line at “Pure Poker.net”

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Narayan. Also thanks for your suggestion of PurePoker.net. I haven't been there myself, though off and on I've played online at PokerStars under the name RandomStu.