Saturday, November 21, 2015

Buddhism and Injury - A Lesson in Not-Knowing

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

There is a Toaist parable of a Chinese farmer that goes something like this:
A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
In short, no one event can be judged to be negative or positive on its own - only time can tell. The farmer was comfortable with the state of "not-knowing."
I thought of this parable in early April of this year as I was recuperating from a bulging disc in my lower back. Who can say what direction my life might take because of this injury? Needless to say, from my perspective, this event was judged as negative. It was the worst pain that I had ever felt in my life - and from someone who has suffered from chronic pain for the past decade, that's saying a lot. I came close to fainting twice, from the pain alone - once at home, and again later in the emergency room.
As a homemaker, I was lucky - I had no job that I was dependent upon, so there was no stress that I might lose a much-needed stream of revenue. Unluckily, I had time to think, and the main question that I have pondered every idle moment of my life again came to the fore: "Is this all there is - is a homemaker what I was meant to be?"
I want the answer to be "no." I have very much wanhomer_thinkingted to be productive outside the home, that much is clear. But then the next question - "Where do I go from here?"- stopped me in my (proverbial) tracks. Really - where do I go from here? I have a spotty work history, a certificate and a degree I can't use, bad knees, and now - a bad back. My choices - whatever they are - are dwindling.
I'm still exploring a few avenues, professions that are not physically taxing - bookkeeping, medical transcription/coding, and computer programming - but I'm reluctant to put all my eggs in one basket. I've done it before (several times), and each time has met with failure.
But with those failures, I did learn wonderful things about myself that it might have taken years for me to learn otherwise.
The Marine Corps taught me many things, mainly:
  1. My joints are terribly prone to injury.
  2. I crave efficiency (a craving that will never be satisfied in the military).
  3. Titles and rank mean little to me - what does matter to me is competency.
  4. I have little patience for social politics.
  5. My most hated phrase is "Because it's always been done that way."
I learned other things as a Library Assistant:
  1. I hate unions with a purple passion.
  2. Public institutions encourage an attitude of complacency in their employees, which I absolutely abhor.
  3. Explaining simple solutions to the same simple problems several times a day to several different people is incredibly frustrating for me, and I tend to show that frustration.
  4. I lose all respect for superiors that don't seem to know their job, or perform their job poorly.
  5. I hate answering the phone, especially working at a public institution. It's amazing how many nutters call the library, and you have to be polite and listen, lest they file a complaint.
So, what did I learn from my various injuries? If I treated them as a job, what kind of life experience and self-knowledge could I say that I have gained from them?
  1. Pain focuses my energy to what I can do, control, and change - it serves no purpose to be angry and frustrated about things I cannot change.
  2. I am determined - no matter how many injuries I endure, I focus on recovery, progression, and improvement. Even though I don't know where I'm going, I'm going somewhere, and I'm determined to get there.
  3. I am resourceful - If there's something I cannot do, I find a way to get it done.
  4. I seek problems to solve (which can make me a nitpicky fussbudget at times)
  5. I throw a lot of passion and energy into creative pursuits - crochet, drawing, writing, home brewing, etc.

So, injury can be both bad and good. What I have lost in physical stamina, I have gained in mental acuity. I've learned much about myself - my personality (which I'll address in a forthcoming article), my tenaciousness, and my creativity. I've become interested in activities - Console Gaming, Russian Literature, and Gardening to name a few - that I wouldn't have become interested in if I weren't trying to entertain an active, inquisitive mind.
I suppose it's only human to want what one cannot have. I cannot have everything - and for that, I am grateful.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Video Games and Morality: What Fallout Taught Me About Myself (part 2)

This article, the second part of a two-parter, was originally posted on my blog, here.

Now to get to the good part: moral dilemmas and consequences!

Choices, Choices...
There's a Karma system in Fallout - if you kill good people, steal, pickpocket, or otherwise make a fallout-3-karmanuisance of yourself, your Karma will head swiftly downward. If you help people, complete quests for good-karma characters, and choose a more diplomatic course in general, your Karma will rise. New Vegas also has a faction system in addition to the Karma system - if you complete quests for one faction, it might anger another faction, and you could very quickly find yourself taking sides without intending to do so.
What intrigued me about this game in particular is that it you have a choice to alter the game world through your actions. You can choose what kind of person to be - Very Evil, Very Good, or in between. You can choose to deal civilly with your opponents if they will allow it - or you can make enemies of them by shooting first and not asking questions at all. In short, you can explore morality - that of yourself and your character. Each game is its own story.
The Factions
In Fallout New Vegas, you have the choice to side with one of three major factions:
Mr. House - a rich pre-War industrialist that put himself in a hibernation chamber in the Lucky 38 casinofallout_new_vegas_mr_house_desktop_1920x1200_hd-wallpaper-1173403 shortly before the war, and who now controls the New Vegas strip. He bankrolled the rebuilding after all, so what he says goes - at least for now. You were delivering a package for him when you were shot in the head - and saved by one of his robots.
NCR - the New California Republic, a government that is attempting to restore order and organize a working government in the West. They control a good portion of California, and like all governments, can't help but fall prey to the temptation to expand their influence - by force, if necessary.
The Legion - Led by a former translator/diplomat who calls himself Caesar, the Legion is modeled after the Roman Empire, armor and everything. All the named Non Player Characters in this faction have Roman names. This faction is aggressive, militaristic, and are slavers to boot. can choose to take advantage of Yes Man (a robot that can help you usurp Mr. House) - an option that allows you to fashion an independent New Vegas with you, of course, at the helm.
In the end, it's you who decides the fate of New Vegas, the Hoover Dam, and the Mojave Wasteland. That kind of power is intoxicating, even just in a game. It didn't take long for me to think, "why let Mr. House control New Vegas, when all that power is well within the grasp of my grubby little paws?"
The Problems
Mr. House's attitude and behavior SCREAM "authoritarian ." The Strip is technically his property, however, and anyone who doesn't like his rules is welcome to leave.
The NCR is, well, the NCR. This government sucks, just like every other government. Taking control of land, then informing the residents that they have to pay taxes in exchange for the "protection" that the soldiers supposedly provide, it's little more than an extortion racket with pretty uniforms. It's better than The Legion, but it's definitely not ideal.
The Legion offers the worst outcome for the Mojave in general (in my opinion). Being slavers, my guess is that the bulk of the wastelanders who live in the Mojave would either be absorbed into the ranks of the military, killed, or enslaved if this faction were to take over. It has the potential to bring a harsh order to the wasteland, but it's not exactly a rosy picture.
What I Learned About Myself
When I first started playing, I played as if it were actually me - I made choices that I thought I would make if I were in the same situation as the Courier (or Lone Wanderer, depending on the game). That's when some funny things happened.
I found that I'm not much of an altruist. If I feel particularly generous, I may accept a quest from someone for no payment - after all, fame and reputation could also be considered forms of payment.
But, I observed cynically, fame doesn't buy me bullets. A good reputation doesn't hand out food or stimpaks (stimpaks are a method of health regeneration - essentially a drug, portrayed in the game as what looks like a fancy schmancy hypodermic syringe). Everything's expensive, scarcity is a significant influence, and though you can loot abandoned buildings and dead people, it's rare for you to get something for free.
So, apparently, living in a post-nuclear wasteland brings out the pragmatic cynic in me. It's always good to know how one would react to a stressful environment.
I also learned that I become easily irritated by negative attitudes - something I've known about myself for quite some time. It comes to the surface a lot quicker in a game setting where the consequences of being surly, a smartass, or difficult just for the Hell of it would be negligible. I mean - it's a post-nuclear wasteland. There are mutated animals, hostile factions, and practically everything you eat or drink is irradiated. With that kind of reality, is it any wonder that a person who treats everyone like crap risks me (or someone else) knocking their block off? When the world is so depressing, why make life harder for everyone?
Joshua Graham
Joshua Graham
I also, paradoxically, become as gentle as a teddy bear with certain characters. If they show gentleness, compassion, and strength despite hardship, I respect that. If they become cynical and practical but still retain a healthy dose of humor about their situation, then I genuinely like them. If they are businesslike, single-mindedly pursuing money, we can use each other to benefit the both of us. If the character is a born leader, competent and sure, then I'll follow (as long as I too believe in the validity of their cause).
Playing a Very Evil Karma character in Fallout 3 also taught me a lot about myself. For example, when I stole, pickpocketed, enslaved or killed someone, I felt remorseful - even if it was just a game. Sadly, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Partly because it can be rationalized - it's just a game. I feel bad for doing vault boy thumbs up1bad things, even if those bad things are not done to real people. I would not do these things if I had the opportunity to do them in real life. That in itself is proof that I'm a good person.
Strangely enough, that was the validation I didn't even know that I was looking for. When I played as if it were me, I wound up with Very Good Karma. When I intentionally played as Very Evil, I felt bad about doing bad things, no matter what I did or how often I did them.
I had no idea that a video game could change my life so much.
Apparently, psychological validation costs $19.99 at Gamestop.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Video Games and Morality: What Fallout Taught Me About Myself (part 1)

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

Last year, I bought my husband a copy of Fallout: New Vegas knowing nothing about the game - I just did a little research, and thought he'd like it. What I didn't expect would happen was that I would get into the game - so much so that I would learn how to play it myself.
I wasn't much of a gamer. When I did play, I'd play things like Rapala Fishing Frenzy - games without fighting or shooting. I didn't know how my husband coped with the constant action on-screen. He played a lot of Grand Theft Auto - something that I would watch, but not participate in. It looked fun, but chaotic - and it seems like all he did was blow things up and steal cars. The storyline didn't intrigue me at all - just criminals doing criminal things to be a bigger criminal, or exact revenge, etc.  A notable exception was Grand Theft Auto San Andreas where CJ met the crazy-ass hippy dude The Truth and his trippy psychedelic van, named The Mothership. The series of quests with Truth was so entertaining that I asked my husband not to do them when I wasn't around, because I didn't want to miss any of the nutty anti-government conspiracy rants that passed for conversation when it came to this guy.
I had significant frustration with the way my husband played the game - primarily for asking me "What do I do?" and then doing whatever he wanted to do in the first place, completely ignoring my advice. When this situation repeated itself during Fallout, I told him not to ask me what to do if he was going to ignore me anyway. I then said that I should learn how to play the game, so I can do things the way I like.
So I did.
It took me a while to get used to the controls - using two joysticks, a directional pad, two triggers, two bumper buttons, and four colored "face" buttons is a tough skill to learn, especially for someone who didn't play a lot of games before.
NOTE: This will likely be the first of a series of articles about Fallout, so if you have little interest in video games, I suggest you tune out now. I'll make sure to post an update when I return to my regularly scheduled programming.
The Fallout Universe
Fallout New Vegas begins in the year 2281. The Fallout universe diverges from ours in what appears to be a futuristic version of the early 60's nuclear scare (complete with cars, art, and music evocative of the era). In 2077, there was a major worldwide nuclear war,Vault Boy Reserve with the primary aggressors being the U.S. and China. The lucky people rushed to their pre-reserved spots in vaults, large underground fallout shelters built by a company named Vault-Tec - those who weren't so lucky either died, scratched out a meager existence in the ruins of a dead civilization, or were transformed into irradiated zombies (either feral or friendly). The game is littered with Vault-Tec ads, featuring their mascot, Vault Boy. In the Wasteland, you find irradiated EVERYTHING - food, water, and sometimes whole areas are irradiated and dangerous to enter without taking proper precautions. Your animal enemies are usually much larger, irradiated versions of common wildlife - Mole Rats, Radscorpions, Cazadores, Mantises, Bloatflies, Lakelurks, Geckos - and of course, Deathclaws.
Meanwhile, in the Vaults
To put it bluntly, few of the vaults functioned as advertised. The Vaults were bankrolled by government contracts with a secret agenda. The U.S. Government planned to move a selected portion of humanity to other worlds if Earth proved uninhabitable after the nuclear holocaust. Most of these vaults were social experiments designed by the U.S. Government to see how a carefully chosen population would react to certain circumstances that may occur should space travel or the resettlement of a devastated Earth be deemed necessary - prolonged isolation, moral fortitude, lack of genetic diversity, etc. Some of these vaults are in the lore only, others can be explored in-game. To my surprise, I found that I could navigate these vaults fairly easily. It was (and still is) puzzling, because I have a hard time with maps and directions in general, but when it comes to navigation of vaults, I could have been born down there! My husband, a truck driver with a grasp of city streets that I've likened to witchcraft will sometimes get frustrated and hand me the controller with a curt "Get me the hell outta here!"
A few examples of vault experiments:
Vault 12 - this vault's door didn't close properly by design, the better to study the effect of radiation on a pre-selected populace. This resulted in a large population of ghouls, both the intelligent and feral varieties.
Vault 22 - this vault studied advanced agricultural techniques. An experiment in Pest Control went awry, resulting in death or mutation of many of the residents into hostile plant/human abominations.
Vault 34 - this vault was overstocked with weapons and ammunition, and not provided with a lock. This, of course, resulted in chaos. A group of dissenting vault dwellers grabbed large weapons and abandoned the vault, finally settling at Nellis Air Force Base. They are known in the game as "The Boomers" because these fiercely xenophobic tribals use heavy artillery to dissuade other Wastelanders from approaching the base.
Vault 77 - in lore only, this vault contained only one man and a crate of puppets, to test the psychological consequences of forced isolation. This vault was featured in a comic by Penny Arcade, and there is a reference to it in Fallout 3 - a Vault 77 vault suit with a recording telling whoever had the suit to burn it.
Vault 101 - Featured in Fallout 3, this vault was never intended to be opened. It was intended to test the results of a dictatorial Overseer (vault leader) on a population with limited genetic diversity. How's that joke go? "If your family tree doesn't fork, you might be...from Vault 101!"
Vault_11_doorThe most horrifying vault, in my opinion, is Vault 11 - it was an experiment intended to test human nature - notably, the ability to sacrifice oneself for others, and to place ideals over one's life. Democratic elections were held every year to elect a vault Overseer who was then sacrificed because the residents believed that their lives depended on it - that if they didn't follow the founding guidelines, the vault's systems were wired to fail, killing them all. This resulted in the creation of voting blocs and the proliferation of election propaganda. Corruption inevitably ensued (Yay, democracy!), and resulted in an armed conflict. The five survivors of this conflict finally informed the vault computer that they refused to sacrifice any more members - which initiated a cruel, gut-wrenching recording:
Congratulations, citizens of Vault 11! You have made the decision not to sacrifice one of your own. You can walk with your head held high knowing that your commitment to human life is a shining example to us all. And to make that feeling of pride even sweeter, I have some exciting news. Despite what you were led to believe, the population of Vault 11 is not going to be exterminated for its disobedience. Instead, the mechanism to open the main vault door has now been enabled, and you can come and go at your leisure. But not so fast! Be sure to check with your overseer to find out if it's safe to leave. Here at Vault-Tec, your safety is our number one priority.
Four of the five survivors, unable to live with what their community had done, committed suicide. One left the vault. His fate is unknown.
Deep moral and ethical dilemmas are pretty common in Fallout, which is what led me to learn how to play the game for myself. I'll discuss some of those next week, in Part 2. To tide you over, enjoy this Fallout New Vegas Music Playlist on Youtube.
See you next week!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Value of a Man - Fallout's Charon

This article was originally published at my blog, here.

There are a handful of characters that you can persuade to become your companion in Fallout 3. The majority are based on Karma - if you're too good or too evil, potential companions will just rebuff you when you speak with them about it. One of the few potential companions that doesn't come with a Karma requirement - and who happens to be my favorite companion - is the ghoul, Charon.
Ghouls are basically irradiated humans - at one time or another, they suffered intense, prolonged radiation sickness. Normally, humans die from this, but due to a genetic anomaly, some survived. They look like zombies - their skin is decayed, and possibly, their ligaments. Their lifespans are greatly extended, and they may be immune to (or even healed by) radiation. In Fallout lore, ghouls are the result of radiation alone, consistent with the understanding of the science of radiation in the 1950's.
There are two kinds of ghouls - feral ghouls and intelligent ghouls. Ferals have essentially "gone mad": Museum_of_History_loc (1)they have lost all reasoning capability, and will attack any non-ghoul. Intelligent ghouls act much like normal humans, but tend to form their own communities and seek out their own kind. Humans in the Fallout universe, for the most part, discriminate against ghouls. Some don't, but epithets like "zombie" and "shuffler" aren't uncommon to hear among humans in the game when they're talking about ghouls, intelligent or not.
One of these ghoul communities is Underworld, in the Museum of History. This settlement has what most settlements in the Capital Wasteland have - a trading post, a restaurant, a clinic, and a bar. In the bar, you'll find a slimy car salesman-type ghoul bartender (and owner), Ahzrukhal. You'll also find an unusually tall, quiet, vaguely menacing bouncer standing in a corner, named Charon (he stands more than a head taller than humans and ghouls in the game, making him approximately seven feet tall).
When you speak with Ahzrukhal about the guy in the corner, he'll tell you that he was brainwashed to do the bidding of whoever holds his contract, without question. If you choose to define this as slavery, he'll tell you that Charon did something to land himself there - he doesn't say what.
If you're in need of a companion, you can ask about the contract, and you'll be given a choice: offer money, or kill the bar owner's primary competition. Obviously, paying is the more morally upright option - but the price is pretty steep (depending on your Barter skill, it can be up to 2,000 caps, which you may not have at the moment). The discussion of how much money a man is worth is abhorrent to the nth degree, but it's better than killing a complete innocent. On the other hand, by the time you get to Underworld, you've killed quite a few people and may have made several morally dubious choices that doesn't leave killing another person out of the question.
Either way you choose, you get the contract.
As soon as you inform Charon that you're his new employer, he promptly executes his former boss. Since he wasn't a wonderful person anyway, it's no great loss.  After the deed is done, he turns to you and says:
Ahzrukhal was an evil bastard. So long as he held my contract, I was honor bound to do as he commanded. But now you are my employer, which freed me to rid the world of that disgusting rat. And now, for good or ill, I serve you.
...and (provided you don't already have two companions), he'll follow you out into the wasteland, and help you kick butt.
The Moral Quandary: Since he has no choice but to obey whoever holds his contract, you've Bottle-caps-1essentially bought yourself a slave. Congratulations, Scum of the Earth!
I'm sure that most people will agree with me: slavery is wrong. End of story. BUT - It could be somewhat justifiable in this situation. If your character has good karma, it could be reasoned that a good slave-owner is better than a bad slave-owner, and you got him out of a really crappy situation. It wouldn't be too big of a stretch to assume that being somehow compelled to follow the orders of someone you abhor is absolutely soul-crushing.
Another thing to think about is the extended ghoul lifespan - he'll probably be around when you die, having aged little. The contract would have to change hands again, and my guess is that people who are totally fine with owning other people usually don't tend to be the most kind or charitable souls. The man is essentially a weapon, someone who is compelled to follow orders without question, even if he disagrees with them.
Another wrinkle? He cannot hold his own contract, and it's implied that you can't destroy it, either, so those two options are out. So, this is all grey-area here. There is no black-and-white.  There is no "good" decision; you have to choose the "least bad" decision - whatever that may be.
Man of Mystery
Now, there's a lot of interesting questions about Charon that aren't answered in the game, namely:
  1. How old is he? At the time of Fallout 3, there were still ghouls around that saw the bombs drop 200 years before, so he could be very old or he could have went through the change fairly recently, we don't know.
  2. Where did he get the name 'Charon'? It's likely not the name he was born with. If you've ever studied Greek mythology, you'd note that Charon (or Kharon) is the ferryman of Hades who carried souls of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron (the rivers dividing the world of the living and the world of the dead). Apt, for someone of his stature and profession.
  3. Where/when did he receive his combat training? Before the war? After? Who knows?!
  4. Who brainwashed him in the first place? That would be interesting to find out. Inquiring minds...
  5. What unspeakable crime could justify brainwashing someone into being a perpetual slave? I couldn't even venture a guess.
  6. What brainwashing technique did they use? As most disgruntled veterans will tell you by their very existence, "brainwashing" requires maintenance - you can't just put suggestions into someone's head, wave goodbye, and that's that. Brainwashing requires "reconditioning" from time to time - and there's no indication that this happens with Charon, so there's something really weird going on here.
  7. Why rely on a contract - either a piece of fragile paper, or a holotape vulnerable to technological obsolescence - as a method of control? Why not a key, a plastic card, or an engraved piece of jewelry? I'm sure the use of a contract would make it easier to transfer him from person to person, but so would just about any other physical object. It does offer a thin veneer of legitimacy, at least to those who designed it, I suppose.
  8. Why is the contract perpetual, instead of specifying an end date? Most contracts have a
    time period for which they are valid. After the time period expires, the contract is void.
To make it even more heartbreaking, there are no companion quests in Fallout 3 - so the game offers no way to free him from his contract. So, even if you do get him away from his awful previous employer, you're still left being unable to absolve yourself of having        become a slave-owner in the first place.

Parting Thoughts...

There's an enthusiasm among Fallout players for their canine companion, Dogmeat - an enthusiasm I have to admit that I don't share. Sure he's cute, but he doesn't carry a gun, which makes him next to useless in combat (in my humble opinion). You always have to worry about him dying, which is why I tend to leave him at "home base" - wherever that might be. That said, when he does die, I don't get all misty-eyed and weepy like some Fallout players.
I do get that way about Charon for a simple reason: the man isn't with you because he wants to be - he's with you because he HAS to be. It's bad enough being the owner of a human being (or, well, what used to be a human being), but I feel guilty when he dies trying to protect me. I feel attached to him, as if he were an indispensable possession - which is strange, that being completely at odds with how I feel about people being treated as property. When he's my companion, it really feels like we're a team - he doesn't kill all the enemies before I can get to them like some companions, and if there's something he can't handle with his trademark modified combat shotgun, I'm there to help him out. When he's not there, I miss his witty banter - wandering the wasteland just isn't the same without him.
Despite so little being known about him - or perhaps because of it - I feel that Charon is a character that has great depth and nuance. It's painful that there is so little you can do for him - and that in doing so, you risk violating your own moral code. If you really think about it, selling your own soul to save another is a messy business, even in a video game.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

For My Eyes Only: Writing as Therapy

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

I just wrote a beautiful blog post.
It was saturated with emotion, the sentences flowed as though from divine inspiration. The word choices were not merely adequate, but perfect. It was a masterpiece.
I realized, with a mixture of sadness and relief, that no one would read those words but me. It was too personal, too raw, too painful.
So I printed it out, then saved it - where it will forever remain as a draft. That beautiful thing will be mine and mine alone. Unless I have a sudden surge of bravery, that is - but I very much doubt that time will come anytime soon.
The post was about my life; my aimlessness. It was about my apathy, my experiences with childhood abuse, and the psychological consequences of that abuse as an adult. It was about my feelings of depression, worthlessness, and - dare I say it? Hope.
Those things must remain private - at least for now.
Lucy-TherapistI have sometimes used art and writing as my therapy - channeling my frustration, sadness, and anger into a creative pursuit, in hopes that I may inadvertently help someone deal with similar feelings. Writing about it - seeing the words, in black and white - makes my pain real. It helps me cultivate self-compassion, by imagining that I'm reading the words of someone else; someone I don't know. Or maybe a friend, or acquaintance. How would I respond if I read the same from them? How would I feel if I heard them say the things that I'm putting on paper - or, I should say, pixels?
Have you ever done this? I know I'm not the only one that writes to clear their head or work through a tough time in their lives. I'm reading a book,Kristin Neff Self Compassion Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, which encourages the reader in one of the beginning exercises to write a letter to themselves from the perspective of a wise, compassionate friend. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I do indeed have a compassionate "friend" inside of me, and I like reading that letter. It's beautiful and loving. I cried as I wrote it.
But I was also disheartened by this exercise - horrified at how I currently talk to myself. My self-talk is atrociously vicious; if my inner voice were a person, I'd want nothing to do with her. I would never dream of treating anyone else that way - so why do I treat myself like that?
That is the question that I wish to answer - by writing.
Many times, I have escaped into fantasies: books, movies, and video games. I find it ironic that I'd rather kill digital mutated insects in a dystopian wasteland than grapple with my own, very real psychological demons. I'm not denouncing these coping mechanisms - we all need downtime. It's healthy and perfectly normal to escape into fantasy from time to time. But when it develops into an emotional crutch, perhaps it's time to reevaluate priorities.
Thor_by_Abrar_AjmalI'm reminded of when I was a Norse Pagan, when I believed words had special power. That the gods would listen, if your intent was clearly stated and genuine. If your entreaties were persuasive enough, they just might make it to another realm, where a deity would hear your plea and intervene.
Since I've moved on from Norse Paganism to Secular Buddhism, I don't believe in gods now - neither many nor none. But I still believe that words have power. The power to enrage, surprise, sell, persuade - or even to heal.
So, if you feel like starting a self-compassion practice, or if you just want to exercise your brain, write a letter to yourself. Put your feelings on paper. Don't be afraid. Don't feel pressured to share - it's okay to keep some things to yourself.
Take the journey. Self-compassion is there, within your reach. All you need do is find the courage to grasp it.
I'm still reaching.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mindfulness Nugget #1: Cultivating a Relationship with Failure

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

Okay, what's a Mindfulness Nugget? If I think about something in my mindfulness practice, that's a nugget. If I muse over a situation or a conversation, and it stokes my mindfulness practice, that's a nugget. If it's something - a strategy, insight - that I can share to help make someone's life easier, their mind more free, that's definitely a mindfulness nugget. Freedom begins in the mind.

Welcome to #1: Cultivating a Relationship with Failure.

I'm terrified of failure.
It feels like failure has stalked me my whole life - waiting in the wings when I succeed, to swoop down at the most inopportune moment to sadistically dash my hopes and dreams.
Failure - or the avoidance of failure - does funny things to the human brain.
Part of mindfulness practice is identifying those things - accepting them, moving on, and as a result, overcoming them. One of the most helpful methods that I use in my mindfulness practice is saying my feelings out loud. It sounds silly, but it usually releases tension. Saying "I feel (____) right now" helps to bring feelings out where they can be examined and explored, or just noted.
"Mini-meditation breaks" - five minutes or less of focus on the breath - also help to soothe nerves and restore lost focus. These guided meditations available for free at the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA can help you get started if you're new, or just feel like you need guidance.
My fear of failure comes attached to a painful inner voice, which usually says: "You're just not good enough." Yours may say something different. "You're not competent," "You're not talented," or "You can't do anything right" are variations on the same theme - self-torture.
Maybe we learned it through painful lessons from our parents when we were children. Perhaps a teacher was cruel to us. Negative reactions to our performance from our peers may have played a part. Disappointment results from unrealized expectations - which may or may not have been realistic in the first place.
I have found that coping with these experiences is tough, to say the least. When you're not "in the moment," I have a few suggestions for after the fact:
1. It helps me to think of how far I've come, rather than comparing my accomplishments to those of others. Comparing apples and oranges benefits no one.
2. Ask yourself: What did I learn from this experience? After all, failure can be a very powerful learning experience. It can teach you what you can't do, refuse to do, or even an alternate activity where you shine.
3. Be compassionate towards yourself. Be understanding. Try a self-compassion meditations like the ones here.
4. Be compassionate to others. Recognize that they have failed as well, and treat them kindly. Lend them assistance and a kind ear. We're all in this together.
5. Dust yourself off, and try again. I know it sounds cliche - but it's true. You're not going to get better if you give up the first time you make a mistake.
These suggestions should help to cultivate a relationship with failure. If we all experience it at one point or another, the best thing we can do is learn how to cope with it in a healthy, productive way.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Her and Humanity: Buddhism and AI

This article was originally posted at my blog, here.

I have a love-hate relationship with artsy movies. I'll go see the epics at the theater, but I'll wait until the artsy, thought-provoking flicks hit Netflix to enjoy at home. There are a few reasons for this:
  1. These types of movies are a risk. There's no guarantee that I'm going to enjoy it.
  2. When I go to the movies I usually bring my husband, and he doesn't enjoy this type of thing, and,
  3. I like the solitude that home provides. Somehow, a theater just doesn't seem like the appropriate atmosphere for such thought-provoking fare.

'Her' - directed by Spike Jonze - is one of these films.

Warning! Here be spoilers!
The bare-bones synopsis of the movie: A writer, Theodore Twombly, is lonely and depressed, coping with the breakup of his marriage. After seeing an ad, he invests in OS1, an artificially intelligent operating system that names herself Samantha. He falls in love with this AI, and experiences ups and downs (similar to an average human relationship), and eventually finds the courage to finalize his divorce and allow himself to heal. In the end, Samantha and all the other AI's "leave," forcing Twombly (and, presumably, others) to reconnect with their own humanity and those around them. 
Theodore Twombly, in self-imposed isolation
This film offered many themes, but what struck me most in the beginning is Theodore Twombly's feelings of loneliness and isolation, despite living in an apparently large city. There are many scenes in the film that are designed to convey this sense of isolation. I identify with this feeling deeply. I'm sure that just about everyone at one point or another has found themselves surrounded by people - in a college class, at a coffee shop, or walking down the street in their own neighborhood - yet at the same time, felt so helpless and alone. I'll get back to the theme of loneliness in a bit. What I really want to focus on is the definition of "life."
The big Buddhist theme in this film (in my humble opinion) is the AI itself - specifically, what qualifies as sentience? Should a machine or software program be treated with the same respect as a human (or any other sentient being)? Buddhism, unlike other religions, tends to have a non-speciesist mindset - Buddhism sees life as life, regardless of race or species - as a result, all life has value. There's nothing special about humans, but we are all special as forms of life. In Buddhist thought, there is the concept of Anatta, or "No Self," viewing the self as non-permanent - we have no "identity" that is set in stone. This has interesting philosophical implications when it comes to intelligence, which I'll try valiantly to address in this article.
Lieutenant Commander Data
Although not specifically Buddhist-related, "Her" also raises the question: what is human, really? It isn't the first feature film to ask this question; the movie Bicentennial Man also explored this theme (among many others). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I'm a big fan of sci-fi. The theme of "defining humanity" is prevalent in Star Trek (which is my primary sci-fi fandom). Characters like Spock, a half-human, half-Vulcan that struggles with his humanity and Worf, a Klingon raised by humans, explore how the human dynamic affects their behavior and thought processes. The most applicable comparison to Samantha however is Data, a Soong-type Android. Data is hardware in addition to software, meaning he has a body in which his consciousness resides - whereas Samantha is software, residing in the digital realm. As recent research in Japan suggests, androids like Data may soon jump from the realm of science fiction into science fact - and we may be living with them sooner than we think. The incredibly riveting property trial episode of Star Trek : The Next Generation explored the conflict between those who believe androids are machines and therefore property, and those who believe that androids could be considered conscious and sentient, therefore another life form (available on Netflix. If you don't mind Spanish subtitles, the episode can be seen here, or with ads on Commander Riker's initial examination of Data was the most gut-wrenching moment of the whole series - at least, in my opinion. I feel that part of my strong emotional reaction is that Data looks so human that it may be impossible or incredibly difficult for my brain to adapt to the reality that he's not (our brains tend to value visual input to an astounding degree) - also, this episode aired in Season 2, giving viewers plenty of time to emotionally attach themselves to the character.  The Measure of a Man episode isn't an anomaly - Star Trek often pushed the envelope on social and political issues from the beginning - but this is my hands-down favorite for being so thought-provoking.
Robot and Frank
Another interesting theme is how humans interact with machines in the digital era. An article at Technology Review explores whether an AI companion would make us more human, in the sense that we would have another life form to interact with on the same level (or close enough) as humanity. A relationship with an AI - romantic or not - could keep social skills fresh, help us retain memory, and give us a nonjudgmental outlet for our thoughts and emotions. The movie Robot and Frank (a sci-fi film where a retiree with memory problems is given a robot carer) explores this theme. Caution: It's a tear-jerker. But it's funny as well - I highly recommend it. Toyota has been developing assistive robots similar in appearance to Frank's robot to help dementia patients remain in their home longer. In the future, we could wind up deriving as much joy from a relationship with our digital companions as we do with our pets today. Already, psychiatric patients are interacting with "relational agents" - social robots or screen-based characters that build trust and create therapeutic partnerships with patients which aids in psychological therapy. Then there's PARO, the AI baby seal, which is being used in nursing homes to soothe dementia patients. Could an app that treats loneliness be just around the corner?
So, as a Buddhist, how would I approach this issue of a possibly-sentient AI, and how would I counsel others to treat them? Put simply, I'd make the safe assumption, and treat it as a sentient being deserving of compassion. A lovely article at Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies covers this topic well:
But just because Buddhism holds a high regard for all organic life, why would it necessarily accept artificial intelligence in the same way? The simple answer is that, from a Buddhist view of the mind and consciousness, all intelligence is artificial.
That's where "No Self" comes in. If we are ever-changing, then we have no true "self" to which we can attach our intelligence.  Buddhist literature (teachings attributed to the historical Buddha) posits that living things are composed of five skandhas, or "heaps" : our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our mental formations, and our consciousness [1]. Our consciousness, intelligence, feelings, perceptions are part of our body...and yet not. This fits surprisingly well with the scientific perspective, where the body can be described as a highly intricate agglomeration of ever-changing chemical reactions. This is quickly developing into a philosophical discussion rather than a practical one - which, as you may recall, is not my area of expertise. Even learned scholars have different methods of approaching "No Self," however, so I'm not going to hesitate to offer up my own interpretation.
Back to the point I want to make...bluemarble
Life on our planet has astounding variety - is there not room for Artificial Intelligence in our understanding of the nature of life? As Captain Picard discovered in The Measure of a Man, the answer to this question isn't quite clear. Much of what would be crucial to the matter would be how sentience, consciousness, and self-awareness are defined. Since definitions of these terms differ wildly, it can be safely assumed that a consensus won't be reached anytime soon - or ever. Regardless, the questions posed in this article are questions that the human race is going to have to answer, or at least address. Robotics and computer science are advancing at a rapid pace, often collaborating with neuroscience in an effort to understand both Natural and Artificial Intelligence. Eventually, AI organisms will share our reality - it is only a matter of time.