Saturday, April 9, 2016

What I Learned From Zen Practice and Video Games


       Why did I give away my car and volunteer to spend the next six months of my life on an organic farm?  More importantly, why should you care?  Truthfully, you probably shouldn't.  I'm not going to say anything on this blog that hasn't been said before by people far more intelligent than me.  My primary goal is to improve my understanding of Zen, and hopefully convince my friends, my family, and myself, that I haven't gone insane.  I think the best way to do that is by briefly discussing what got me to this point.  Why am I doing this?  Why did I quit my secure, well-paying IT job?  Why did I stop eating meat?

   Three years ago I was suffering from severe anxiety and depression.  Some of that was the result of a bad break-up, and unresolved issues from my time in the Marine Corps. But I honestly can't think of a time in my life when I didn't see the world through a fog of melancholy.  Either way, I tried dealing with my problems in the typical fashion (e.g. drinking, partying, and working long hours).  But that was expensive, and going to work with a hangover isn't all it's cracked up to be.  So on a whim I read Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner and began a daily meditation practice.  And it worked... to a certain extent.  My depression hasn't gone away entirely, and I don’t think it ever will.  But life hurts a lot less than it used to.  And I handle difficult situations much more skillfully that I once did.  So what does this have to do with me quitting my job.  I'm glad you asked!

     One major side effect of meditation is that it changes the brain in ways which make practitioners feel greater empathy and compassion towards others.  The science behind this is actually pretty cool, and you can watch this video if you want to learn the details.  For my part, as I continued meditating I began to notice some of the pain that I was causing to the people around me.  This sucked, and I almost quit at this point because I really didn't like what I was seeing.  Had I really done those things to people?  How could I be such an asshole?  The bright side of this experience was that I finally recognized that a lot of the pain that I'd experienced over the years was a direct result of pain that I'd caused others, so I started working to make amends with the people that I'd hurt, and life continued to get better.  But how do you make amends with someone who lost their job as a direct result of you doing yours?

     As a business analyst, my job was to oversee projects and write programs that increased efficiency for my company's clients.  In the corporate world, increased efficiency almost always equals layoffs.  To be honest, it makes good business sense.  Why would you pay thirty people to do a job when you can install a computer program and just pay ten?  The ten people who are left standing will work harder for fear of losing their jobs AND you increase department revenue because the salary from the twenty people you're no longer paying goes straight to the bottom line.  Plus the people who are laid off get to go somewhere that will actually appreciate their talents.  Everyone wins!  At least that's the lie I used to tell myself.  But the more I practiced Zen, the more terrible I felt each time I sat in someone's cubicle, pretended to be their friend, and took notes on how I could automate their job out of existence.  So I quit.  It felt awesome, but it left me with a new problem.  How am I supposed to feed myself without being a slave to the corporate machine?!

     The answer came to me when I happened upon GTA Pacifist.  Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is a game in which players are encouraged to make money and pursue pleasure in the absolute worst ways possible (e.g. killing prostitutes, robbing convenience stores, shooting it out with the cops, etc.)  But Goldvision changed the whole game up by creating a character, Fernando, who lives his life by egalitarian, pacifist principles.  In other words, he lives in a world purposely designed to cause suffering to its inhabitants, but he chooses to ensure that he himself is not a cause of said suffering.  For example, he street races to earn money as opposed to committing robberies.  And he purposely doesn’t carry a weapon (something that the game makes surprisingly difficult to do) in order to refrain from killing other players.  He even refrains from littering!  From what I can tell, Goldvision isn't a Zen practitioner, but I'm at a point in my practice where I see Zen everywhere I look, so stick with me.  You see, at the heart of Buddhist practice we have the four noble truths which state:    
  • Samsara is full of suffering
  • Suffering is caused by desire
  • The way to end suffering is to end desire
  • The way to end desire is the eight fold path
      The third patriarch, Sheng T'san summed up the four noble truths by stating, "Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional."  In other words, both the video game world of GTA and the real world that I'm living in are designed to be painful places.  There is no getting around that.  However, I can live my life in such a way that I'm not a cause of that pain; thus lessening the suffering of both myself and others.  In other words, I'm going to take the experiment that Goldvision is doing in a video game, and try it out in real life!  With this in mind, I'm going to spend the next year doing the following:

  •  Maintain a daily practice which includes a minimum of 30 minutes seated meditation and a chanting of the heart sutra
  •  Refrain from owning a car, and utilize a bicycle, car pools, or public transportation to fill my travel needs
  •  Eat a vegetarian diet
  •  Provide myself with food, water, and shelter in ways which are both beneficial to the planet and useful to my own needs
  • Limit my worldly possessions to what I can comfortably carry on my back

     My hope is that living by the aforementioned code will allow me to deepen my Zen practice, provide for my own basic needs, and minimize the suffering that I cause to others which will in turn minimize my own suffering.  To put that more concretely, doing the aforementioned items on a daily basis will lower my carbon footprint for the year by 7000 pounds of CO2, increase my ability to empathize others, save the lives of approx. 400 farm animals, and decrease my overall consumption of the planet's resources.  Wish me luck!

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