Friday, March 31, 2017

Breath of the Wild: Nintendo's Renaissance

I believe the challenge and promise of computer game design is that our most important tools are the ones that involve and empower players to make their own decisions. That is something that allows each player to explore him or herself, which is something our medium is uniquely equipped to do. - Doug Church, Formal Abstract Design Tools

The new Zelda game is really good. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is fresh and challenging in a way that Zelda games - hell, Nintendo games - haven't been in years. This sea-change seems to come from a break with tradition, favoring a systems-based open world design over the story-driven experience offered in the two previous Zelda games. However, while there are indeed many new systems, mechanics, and design decisions not previously seen in the series, the design philosophy that employed those new systems is classic Nintendo.


Breath of the Wild offers a huge open world with few gates - from the beginning, you can go anywhere you want, though at your own risk. It seems natural to compare the vast, mountain-enclosed plains to those of Skyrim (2011), and many have done so. Like in Skyrim, if you can see it, you can travel to it, even if it takes an hour and you die a few times on the way.

However, Breath of the Wild isn't the first, or even second Zelda game to offer an open world for exploration. When first playing, I was immediately reminded of Wind Waker (2003), which also offers an open world to explore, though it has to be traversed by boat and there isn't as much stuff in it. However, Breath of the Wild intentionally references The Legend of Zelda (1986) in its open-world design. In that game, too, you could go anywhere you wanted from the starting area, and in exploring you would die a lot.

That tough-love, learn-by-dying approach is popular in game design today, particular in indie roguelikes and in the Dark Souls (2011) series. What's interesting is that the difficulty of those games is a kind of throwback itself, a reaction to the tendency for modern games to coddle the player with tutorials and easy difficulty curves. Dark Souls and indie roguelikes are influenced directly by games like the original Zelda, which would explain nothing to the player and have them figure things out by trial and error. For a Nintendo game, it's bold for Breath of the Wild to do so little hand-holding, though it certainly fits into the gaming zeitgeist.

In a different way, Breath of the Wild has a lot in common with Super Mario 64 (1997) (bear with me). In the 90s, former Looking Glass game designer Doug Church wrote an article about game design called Formal Abstract Design Tools, which was seminal for discussion and thinking about design itself. It called for a new vocabulary for describing how games actually work, from design to experience. As an example, Church picked apart Mario 64, and came up with a couple of terms: "intention" and "perceivable consequence." They aren't the best-defined terms, and there are more refined ones now ("player agency" and "feedback" come to mind), but they were important for describing principles of design that allow for exploration and play. Those underlying principles are absolutely at work in the new Zelda game. For instance, the following quotes could easily describe either game:
Simple, consistent controls, coupled with the very predictable physics, allow players to make good guesses about what will happen should they try something. ...This makes game situations very discernable — it's easy for the players to plan for action. If players see a high ledge, a monster across the way, or a chest under water, they can start thinking about how they want to approach it. 
...The key is that players know what to expect from the world and thus are made to feel in control of the situation. Goals and control can be provided and created at multiple scales, from quick, low-level goals such as "get over the bridge in front of you" to long-term, higher-level goals such as "get all the red coins in the world." Often players work on several goals, at different levels, and on different time scales. - Doug Church

Church here focuses on mechanical consistency and player agency because those are aspects of game design he focuses on in his own games. After all, he was a designer at Looking Glass, who had a specific design philosophy: "immersive gameplay emerges from an object-rich world governed by high-quality, self-consistent simulation systems."


What's new about this Zelda game is that Nintendo has chosen to express its design principles with the use of dynamic systems that promote emergent gameplay. The physics engine, "chemistry engine" (a state-based system that determines the effects of elements such as fire, wind, and electricity on objects), weather system, enemy AI, stealth system, and Link's weapon degradation and crafting systems all work together to create a multi-layered experience with a high degree of unpredictability and self-creating drama. Because these are "simulated" systems, they are consistent in how they behave, which gives the player enough feedback to understand them without a tutorial. In this way, Nintendo utilizes dynamic systems to give the player feedback and agency - or in Doug Church's words, "perceivable consequence" and "intention."

As in the Looking Glass design philosophy, having consistent, simulated systems allow the player to come up with and execute creative plans of approach to problems. For example, there are many enemy outposts throughout the game, and there are almost always more ways to approach them than simply rushing in head-on. You can sneakily climb to a vantage point and shoot arrows at them. Or, you could shoot a fire arrow into the grass upwind and let the fire creep into their base, triggering exploding barrels and finishing them that way. Or, you can choose to leave the monsters alone and just play around with the mechanics and see what happens. Because the entire world has so few gates (obstacles or tasks preventing you from exploring or progressing), Hyrule is practically a giant sandbox for the player to experiment in at their leisure.

However, while interacting systems can afford the player more agency, they can also introduce unexpected, uncontrollable elements into the game world. Here, I want to introduce (if nobody has already done so) another Formal Abstract Design Tool: chaos. Chaos is present in a game when there are enough dynamically-interacting systems to create unpredictable events that may be harmful to the player and/or NPCs. A classic example of this is the "grenade rolling down the hill," an aphorism coined by the Idle Thumbs podcast that originally described the chaos that emerges from the systems in Far Cry 2 (2008). In that game, chaos emerges often as a result of interaction between its physics system, fire system, weapon degradation, AI, and malaria attacks. Firefights with enemies can unfold any number of ways, literally depending on which way the wind is blowing. Dishonored (2012) and its sequel also utilize simulated systems to promote emergent gameplay, and even have a morality-based "chaos" system that creates more instances of certain enemies if one's play is violent enough. In all cases, these dynamic challenges force the player to think on their feet.

There's so much more to Breath of the Wild than new dynamic systems applied to Nintendo's design philosophy. There's the art, the charm, the classic Zelda mechanics, the non-linear story, the hundreds of surprises scattered throughout Hyrule, and plenty of stuff I'm forgetting or haven't seen yet. These things are also important parts of game design, and shouldn't be ignored. At the bottom of this post I'm linking to a talk given this year at GDC by the makers of Zelda, on the discussions and thought process that ended up making this game. I highly recommend it (as well as the game, if you hadn't gathered already). It's not every day that a new classic comes out.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Zen Stoicism: The Buddha and the Sage

In my first post comparing Zen to Stoicism, I outlined a few specific things that they had in common. I want to take a closer look at those things now, focusing on these three:
  • Thoughts are insubstantial and not representative of reality itself 
  • Suffering arises from passions resulting from attachment or "false judgement" 
  • The ideal mental state is one of equanimity, free from strong likes and dislikes
My aim is not syncretization, but rather to point out where these two schools of thought are basically saying the same thing, and for what reasons, with respect to their differences.


So many of our thoughts take us away from the reality in front of us. We're endlessly thinking about the future and the past, preoccupied by some anxiety or grievance, unable to engage the present moment. The pressures of civilization, like work, money, and health, pull us in different directions, to say nothing of our families or dreams. In addition, the technology of the twenty-first century (or sixty-first) provides a constant distraction from even these crucial thoughts, adding a layer of anxious entertainment over our already-distracted lives. This environment crowds our inner worlds, leaving little room for reflection on our thoughts and emotions, which results in a kind of short-mindedness. We react to things that aren't there in front of us as if they are. Having lost a greater perspective, we identify with our feelings immediately, and are compelled to react before something else sways us a different way.

Zen and Stoicism aim to alleviate the cacophony of these thoughts in order to experience reality more objectively, and to live a calmer, more sane life. To do this, each school has a different, though similar, way of thinking about thought itself. For example, the Stoics saw the mind as constantly beset by phantasiai, meaning "impressions," or "presentations." These impressions were broken down into different types, including those brought up by the outside world, those brought up by rational thought, those brought up by imagination, and others brought up by memory. What all of these impressions have in common is that they exist only in the mind.

The Stoics sought to inject reason into the space between impressions and reactions. Disturbing impressions, such as those that can bring about anxiety, depression, and shame, could be dealt with by understanding first that they are in fact impressions, then by subjecting them to the test of the Stoic, as we can see in the following Epictetus quote.
Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, 'You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.' And then examine it by the rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you. - Epictetus, The Enchiridion
Approaching it from a wider angle, Zen's Buddhism's understanding of thought is the same as Buddhism's take on everything: it's transient. Everything lives and dies, including thoughts. However, Buddha's basic lesson is that our lives are shaped by our minds; good thoughts lead to goodness, bad thoughts to badness, etc. Buddha urges the practitioner to refine one's willpower and self-awareness by studying precepts and meditating. Zazen, specifically, is a method that involves simply sitting and watching how one's mind works, which reveals the transitory nature of our drives and fears.
Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. Nothing comes from outside your mind. Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind. The true understanding is that the mind includes everything; when you think something comes from outside it means only that something appears in your mind. Nothing outside yourself can cause any trouble. You yourself make the waves in your mind. If you leave your mind as it is, it will become calm. - Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
Zen practitioners learn to separate thoughts from their selves, understanding that thoughts inevitably arise on their own, and when not grasped also recede on their own. To practice zazen is to practice simply being present, without letting the mind wander into the past, the future, or elsewhere. This objective viewpoint presents itself more readily while sitting zazen than while engaging with the world, where the practitioner necessarily has to react to events that concern them. However, regular practice allows the Zen practitioner to bring this objectivity into real-world situations, and over time they become more "present" in any given moment.


Zen and Stoicism each have unique practices for understanding how we add to our own suffering. Stoicism favors rational self-examination, asking one's self whether one's desires and fears are based on things in one's control, and if they are virtuous or not. On the other hand, Zen is obviously very heavy on seated meditation, preferring to simply sit and watch the mind and how it forms attachments and builds delusion.

The language Zen teachers use to talk about this process is interesting. There's some difficulty in talking about Zen, as it is a practice that is not supposed to be goal-oriented at all. Zen teachers don't want to say that Zen is about anything other than Zen itself. However, they can give vague guidelines on what we can expect to happen during the process. A common way to talk about zazen is that it's a kind of brutal self-examination. While one sits on the cushion, back straight and mind focused on the breath, thoughts from the sub-conscious come up. The method of zazen is to "watch" these thoughts without attaching any extra emotions or anxieties to them, and the way to do that is to return to focusing on the breath when one realizes they're focusing on a thought that's come up. This process is called "opening the hand of thought," and if done correctly and with consistent practice, it helps the practitioner understand their relationship with themselves and the world on a much deeper level.
Half the time we feel we can’t help what emotions we’re experiencing. But if you sit on the cushion long enough and watch them, you realize, “Oh, this is a choice I’m making.” And after a while eventually you can calm down enough to see that moment where you have the choice to act like an asshole or to choose differently. 
Transcending emotions doesn’t mean you have no feelings. You have them. But you recognize them for what they are and respond appropriately without letting them develop into what we call emotions, which are really just feelings that have been blown way out of proportion. - Brad Warner, Sex, Sin, and Zen
To use broader Buddhist language, zazen is the process of examining one's attachments. Its goal is not to cease all attachment, but to make one conscious of it and how it arises. When one is aware of an attachment, it becomes easier to stop contributing to it, if it leads to suffering.

The Stoics had a similar idea about the role we play in how we feel. Like Zen teacher Brad Warner does in the quote above, they separated feeling from emotion, and knew the latter as the passions. In Stoic philosophy, the four primary passions were Lust, Fear, Delight, and Distress, with all of their attendant emotions such as anxiety, shame, rage, and greed. The Stoics saw all of the passions as excessive, irrational emotions created primarily by improper judgement.
According to Stoic ethics, only virtues are truly good, whereas externals such as wealth, honor, power, and pleasure are indifferent to our happiness [eudaimonia] since each can also harm us and each ultimately lies beyond our control. These externals then are said to be morally "indifferent". When we mistakenly value something indifferent as though it were a genuine good, we form a false judgement and experience passion. - The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
For example, a Stoic can feel pleasure, but wouldn't hold pleasure as a value, as it's considered an "external," to phrase Epictetus; "something that can be taken away." Likewise, the philosopher may occasionally slip into passion as they confuse a good feeling for the perception of goodness itself, or a bad feeling for evil, but this is seen as a "miscalculation" on the part of the rational faculty. The Stoics advocate examining one's judgements and assumptions in order to examine their reasoning, and if that reasoning is not motivated by virtue, or if it's mistaken about what's in our control, then to use reason to examine what is virtuous and in our control, and strive for that. A well-ordered, well-functioning mind is the only thing truly worthy to the Stoic.

The core similarity between the Zen Buddhist idea of attachment and the Stoic idea of the passions is the understanding that strong emotions (and therefore suffering) arise from identifying with some impression, whether good or bad. Neither school advocates this course of action, but instead outlines an ideal for behavior arising from a solid understanding of the truth.

The first images of the Buddha were actually created by Greeks


In Stoicism, the ideal is the sage, or sapiens, meaning "wise man." The sage embodies apatheia, which Seneca describes as: "the man who refuses to allow anything that goes badly for him to affect him... a mind that is ‘invulnerable’ or ‘above all suffering.'" The wise man is always content because he knows that he has everything he needs - he understands that nothing that's truly valuable can be taken away. He places no value on things that are impermanent, and this very understanding of his relationship to the world is the source of his flourishing. The good things in his life - luxury, pleasure, good company - are "preferred indifferents," not sufficient for happiness but can be used towards virtuous ends (as can be "dispreferred indifferents"). This is not to say that the Stoic is free from the entire spectrum of feelings common to the human experience, but that the way they respond to those feelings is ultimately rational.

Remember that the only thing that is truly good in the Stoic worldview is the perfection of reason, identified with virtue. The opposite of virtue, of course, is vice, which causes one to stray from virtue by corrupting one's reason. To value things external to the maintaining of one's virtue is to make one's happiness dependent on something outside of one's control - the ultimate irrational act.

The Sage is extremely rare. There are no known instances of "confirmed" sages throughout history. Some older philosophers have been suggested as candidates, but titling them as sages posthumously is a kind of sainthood, motivated by reverence more than anything. The Stoics regarded sagehood so highly that it was considered an impossible ideal for which it was nevertheless worth striving. To the ancient Stoics, only the sage was truly happy and sane.

The sage is certainly a high ideal, though Buddhism probably has them beat. The ideal state in Buddhism is the awakened one, and the awakened individual is known as a Buddha. A Buddha has directly experienced the truth of reality - that everything is impermanent, and the self is insubstantial. A Buddha desires nothing and fears nothing, having entered nirvana upon the realization of emptiness. This state is also known as the end of the noble eight-fold path (or the fourth noble truth), and is commonly referred to as as "being enlightened."

Because there are many schools of Buddhism, there are many views on what a Buddha is and does, how a Buddha comes about, and just how many Buddhas there have been. Some of these schools see Buddhas as supernatural beings with powers of omniscience, who escape the cycle of death and rebirth. Others see the original Buddha as merely a human who discovered a truth about the world. What's consistent about these interpretations is that a Buddha is seen as somebody who has "gone beyond," and transcended the banal desires, fears, and ignorance that mark human life. In any given school, the specifics about the nature of Buddhahood are tied to their views on enlightenment, which also has a variety of interpretations.

However, Zen does not place much emphasis on enlightenment. In fact, Soto Zen, the school of Zen I practice (also the largest), is distinguished in part by its understanding that human beings are originally enlightened, and the practice of zazen is the "resuming of Buddha-nature."
In buddha-dharma [i.e. Buddhism], practice and enlightenment are one and the same. Because it is the practice of enlightenment, a beginner's wholehearted practice of the Way is exactly the totality of original enlightenment. For this reason, in conveying the essential attitude for practice, it is taught not to wait for enlightenment outside practice. - Dogen, Bendōwa
In other words, to practice Zen is to embody enlightenment. This understanding places the ideal not in a state of being, but in a constant process of realization and acceptance. Zazen, seated meditation, is therefore the most important part of Zen practice, if not comprising the whole of it. However, any Zen teacher will tell you that a good practice is defined by consistency, and that after a while it becomes easier in normal life to realize the state achieved in zazen. To quote Dogen again, "There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life."

It's very difficult to become a Buddha or a Sage, the requirement being the perfection of wisdom in a person. Such wisdom requires self-awareness and constant discipline, and may in fact be impossible. However, these models are set before us so that we might have signposts in this life. Both the Buddha and the Sage represent the ideals of a well-trained mind. Embodying wisdom, unswayed by fortune or feeling, they have wills of iron and are morally beyond reproach. Death is nothing to them, while life is a careful art.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Chinese New Year and the Era of Civilization

On Saturday, the Chinese will celebrate the new year on their Lunisolar calendar. It will mark the year 4715.

What happened 4715 years ago? In Chinese myth and religion, apparently 2698 BC (on the Gregorian calendar) was the beginning of the reign of the Yellow Emperor, thought to be the "initiator of Chinese civilization" according to Wikipedia. That's not to say that the Chinese didn't exist before then, but his place at the beginning of their calendar at least signifies an important distinction between what came before and everything after. Of course, there are a LOT of historical reasons for the way the current Chinese calendar is formulated.

Placing Year One on a calendar at the beginning of civilization makes a lot of sense. Calendars are an invention of civilization. They don't just tell time, they tell a story about the culture it belongs to. For example, the current year on the Hebrew calendar is 5777, with Year One taking place a year before the creation of the world in the Jewish myth of Genesis.

The calendar used all over the world today, the Gregorian Calendar, is of course a Christian invention, placing Year One at the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. This calendar frames the history of Western civilization, and indeed the entire world, as the story of a Christian world. But Western civilization, and indeed civilization as a whole, is far older than that. Why should the world run on a calendar based around a religion followed only by a third of the people in it?

I think there's something very satisfying about placing Year One at the beginning of civilization, as it marks the beginning of humanity as we know it today. The distinction is important, as humanity was thought to have achieved "behavioral modernity" about 50,000 years ago, which means that the project of civilization itself is a a relatively new one in the history of our species. We are still sorting through the various ways the environment of civilization has forced us to evolve, be it physically, mentally, socially, or otherwise.

But when to put Year One on the calendar of civilization? Western civilization is thought to have its roots in ancient Mesopotamia (meaning "between rivers": the Tigris and Euphrates, located in current-day Iraq and Syria). The first civilization to be founded there is thought to be Sumer, from which we get the story of Gilgamesh.

There's no exact date on the founding of Sumerian civilization, as written records from that time didn't emerge until a good while after the Sumerians arrived on the scene. Additionally, there is some debate among historians about when to place such a date, with some saying around 4000 BC and some saying a good deal older. However, that ~4000 BC date seems to be what is conventionally accepted, as it is the beginning of the Uruk period, named after the city of Uruk, thought to be the oldest of the Sumerian cities. Additionally, the fourth millennium BC is the beginning of the Bronze age, marking a significant departure in human development.

So, if one wanted to create a calendar based on the story of civilization (or at least Western civilization, though the Chinese and Indians popped up separately and around the same time as the Mesopotamians), one might simply add 4000 to our current year, which would make this year 6017. That's 6,017 years of organized agriculture, social stratification, government, written history, taxes, population density, specialist occupations, and politics, things we all take for granted today. That's 6,017 years out of 50,000 years of behavioral modernity, a mere 12% of the existence of humanity.

I think this is a fascinating, and even useful, formulation of time. In today's world we are still dealing with the problems posed by civilization, be it social stratification, the concentration of power, the effect on the environment, and the roles that it forces us into in order to survive. And there's a rich history in those 4000 unacknowledged years, from which the basis of our culture today was formed. I think we are better off looking at the bigger picture.

Here are some important historical dates revised with 4000BC as Year One (subtract all BC years from 4001). I separated them by millennia. I know this is lacking quite a lot, and it's very U.S.-centric, but I'm not trying to give a history of the whole world here. Significant dates in the history of the Roman Empire are in bold because of the through-line it makes in Western history.


With a few other dates thrown in

  • 1: Sumerian Civilization in Mesopotamia
  • 801: Invention of writing in Egypt and Mesopotamia
  • 851: Unification of Egypt and founding of First Dynasty
  • 1111: Second Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1200~1500: Estimated date that Gilgamesh ruled Uruk
  • 1300: Minoan Greek Bronze Age
  • 1303: Beginning of the reign of the Yellow Emperor in China
  • 1461: Great Pyramid of Giza built during Fourth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1503: Fifth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1651: Akkad arises from Sumeria
  • 1871: Tenth Dynasty of Egypt
  • 1900: Sumerian poems of the Epic of Gilgamesh dated to around this time
  • 1951: Assyria gains independence from Sumeria

THIRD MILLENNIUM - Middle-Late Bronze Age, Collapse, Iron Age
  • 2000: Canaanite city-states founded in the levant
  • 2107: Babylon arises from Akkad
  • 2401: Mycenaean Greece
  • 2561: Moses leads the Jewish people out of Egypt (estimated date)
  • 2689 - 2729: Writing of the Torah
  • 2722: Ramesses II rules Egypt as part of Nineteenth Dynasty
  • 2807~2817: Estimated date of Trojan war
  • 2824: Bronze Age Collapse, affecting Egypt, Greece, and much of the Mediterranean. The Greeks lose the ability to write.
  • 2976: King Saul rules the Kingdom of Israel and Judah, followed by David and Solomon (estimated)

FOURTH MILLENNIUM - Late Iron Age, Classical Antiquity
  • 3041: Solomon's temple in Jerusalem completed
  • 3200s: Greeks adopt alphabet from Phoenicians
  • 3240 - 3290s: The Iliad is written, followed soon by the Odyssey
  • 3248: Founding of Roman Kingdom
  • 3261: Assyria conquers Israel
  • 3396: Jewish Babylonian captivity
  • 3396 - 3439: Nebuchadnezzar II rules Babylon as king, during which the Hanging Gardens were said to have been built.
  • 3407: Athenian Greek Democracy
  • 3415: Destruction of Solomon's Temple by Babylon Empire
  • 3434: Birth of Buddha
  • 3451: Zoroaster, founding of Achaemenid empire
  • 3462: Fall of Babylon to Achaemenid Empire, Cyrus the Great releases the captive Jews the next year
  • 3476: Fall of Egypt to Achaemenid Empire
  • 3485: Second Temple in Jerusalem constructed
  • 3492: Founding of Roman Republic
  • 3511: Battle of Marathon, between Greece and Achaemenid Empire
  • 3518: Death of Buddha
  • 3521: Battle of Thermopylae, second invasion of Greece by Achaemenid empire
  • 3561: Herodotus' Histories published
  • 3669: Alexander the Great conquers Egypt, then Judea, the next year conquers Achaemenid Empire
  • 3678: Alexander dies, leaving behind a fractured empire
  • 3721 - 3871: Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) written
  • 3855: Roman rule of Greece
  • 3956: Julian Calendar adopted (709 AUC - 709 years since founding of Rome)
  • 3957: Death of Julius Caesar
  • 3971: Ptolemaic Egypt falls to Rome
  • 3972 - 3982: Virgil writes the Aeneid
  • 3974: Founding of Roman Empire
  • 3997: Jesus of Nazareth is born

FIFTH MILLENNIUM - Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages/"Dark Ages"
  • 4030: Jesus executed by Rome for the crime of sedition
  • 4070: Rome besieges Jerusalem and destroys the Second Temple. Books of the New Testament written in Greek.
  • 4284: Emperor Diocletian splits Rome in two, with the eastern capital in Byzantium, later called Constantinople
  • 4325: First Council of Nicaea, organized by Emperor Constantine
  • 4391: Library of Alexandria in Egypt destroyed by imperial decree against paganism
  • 4434 - 4453: Attila rules the Huns, invades Europe, dies
  • 4476: Fall of Western Rome during age of Germanic migration
  • 4632: Death of Mohammed
  • 4639: Egypt, ruled by Eastern Rome, falls to Islamic Empire
  • 4793: Viking age
  • 4800: Charlemagne, beginning of France and Holy Roman Empire

SIXTH MILLENNIUM - Late Middle Ages and the Modern Period
  • 5066: William the Conqueror invades and rules England
  • 5095 - 5192: First - Third Crusades
  • 5202 - 5204: Fourth Crusade, including sacking of Constantinople
  • 5215: Signing of the Magna Carta
  • ~5300 - ~5600: The Renaissance
  • 5337 - 5453: Hundred Years' War between England and France
  • 5346 - 5353: The Black Death
  • 5453: Fall of Byzantine Empire (Eastern Rome) to Ottoman Empire
  • 5475: The Printing Press
  • 5492: Columbus discovers America
  • 5517: Protestant Reformation
  • 5582: Gregorian Calendar adopted
  • 5650: Age of Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution
  • 5754 - 5763: Seven Years' War
  • 5760: Industrial Revolution
  • 5776: Declaration of Independence (United States)
  • 5789 - 5799: French Revolution
  • 5803: Louisiana Purchase (United States)
  • 5804: Napolean titled Emperor of France
  • 5806: Fall of Holy Roman Empire to Napolean
  • 5810 - 5821: Mexican war of Independence
  • 5821: Greece gains independence from Ottoman Empire
  • 5836: Texas revolution, gains independence from Mexico
  • 5845 - 5848: The United States annexes Texas and goes to war with Mexico, which results in the additions of land from Texas to the west coast.
  • 5861 - 5865: U.S. Civil War and end of slavery
  • 5870 - 5871: Franco-Prussian War, resulting in formation of French Republic and German Empire
  • 5876: Canadian Independence
  • 5914: World War I
  • 5920: Women granted right to vote (U.S.)
  • 5939: World War II
  • 5963: Civil Rights (U.S.)
  • 5990: Widespread use of the Internet

SEVENTH MILLENNIUM - Contemporary History
  • 6001: 9/11
  • 6017: Today

EDIT: A friend just sent me the following video, proposing a different scheme for setting the era. 

I personally prefer starting the calendar at the beginning of Sumerian civilization for my reason stated above, that the calendar itself is an invention of civilization, and civilization itself was a major turning point for humanity in that it permanently altered our environment. As the Indus Valley civilization and Chinese civilizations were getting started around the same time, it would be just as inclusive. Instead of HE: the Human Era, I'd propose HC: Human Civilization. All prehistoric achievements like the first temples would be marked as BHC.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Zen Stoicism: Meditation and Mindfulness

When did you first consider meditating? I'm not saying you've done it, but a lot of people at least think about it these days. That openness is in part due to a strain of meditation practice, called Mindfulness, that has caught on among the corporate class. Stripped of any woo-woo, and backed by science, Mindfulness has largely brought Zen meditation into the mainstream.

I say that Mindfulness is a form of Zen meditation because its founder, Jon Kabat-Zinn, practiced as a Zen Buddhist with none other than Thich Nhat Hanh, arguably the most famous (in the West) Zen Master that isn't Shunryu Suzuki. Kabat-Zinn repackaged Zazen, a technique that's been around for millennia, and centered his new therapy on one of Zazen's most helpful side-effects: mindfulness.

(Point of order: when I refer to Mindfulness with a capital M, I'm referring to Kabat-Zinn's technique and program. When I refer to "mindfulness," I mean the buzzword. And when I refer to mindfulness, I mean the state of mind.)

Mindfulness is, as a Zen priest once told us at AZC, a tool for awareness. It is something that naturally happens when one sits Zazen. However, Zazen - Zen meditation - is not a technique aimed at fostering mindfulness. Zazen has its own purpose, which is complicated but ultimately involves experiencing the non-dualistic nature of reality. Piece of cake, right? Mindfulness, in Zen practice, is the icing on that cake.

In practicing Zazen for about six years, I've experienced mindfulness as a strengthened faculty of inner awareness. With practice, I've learned to separate feeling from immediate reaction. Thoughts no longer automatically lead to other thoughts, and feelings no longer automatically lead to actions. Mindfulness is an adjective that describes this tendency to be able to step back from what one is feeling, thinking, and doing, in order to see it for what it is, with no attached judgement. With practice, negative behavior patterns become apparent, and with some action, eventually break down. Self-limiting beliefs become apparent, and break down. Lingering anxieties fade away. This process of expanding awareness is not always peaceful - it can be emotionally taxing to realize one's self-deceptions - but it is healthy.

Jon Kabat-Zinn must have realized that the health benefits of meditation could be repackaged and sold without any of that pesky philosophy or moralizing, so that's what he did. I personally don't blame him, though I know many Zen masters are skeptical. A lay practitioner at the San Francisco Zen Center put it to me this way: "Hitler could have been mindful. Without a base of morals, it doesn't mean that you're doing any good." I'm personally of two minds: widespread meditation practice would be an excellent boon to mental health everywhere, though I don't think training people to be more comfortable sitting in cubicles all day is what's good for society. Though I do think mindfulness is more apt to help somebody realize that their lifestyle is making them miserable, whatever it is.

If you're interested in learning how to meditate, I submit that there is little practical difference between following this instruction guide on and taking an introductory course at your local Zen center. The Buddhists would probably give me flak for saying that, but if your primary interest is meditation, and you're just starting out, I think either one is fine. The Zen people are more likely to give it to you straight, as they won't patronize you with hype, but that's my personal bias. I understand that when people ask me how to get into meditation, they aren't necessarily interested in Buddhism. I'll have more to say about that later, but just know that the Zen people don't ask you to believe in anything and that there is no dogma involved. Even if you're not interested in sticking around, there's no reason not to learn the basics from them, in a group setting where you can ask questions.

To relate this all to Stoicism: I don't think modern Stoicism can really be effective unless somebody is training themselves to be mindful. And I think somebody who has had Mindfulness training would find a lot to like in Stoicism. I may write about that next.

Read the last post in this series: The Cessation of Suffering

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Zen Stoicism: The Cessation of Suffering


Zen Buddhism and Stoic Philosophy are two excellent life practices that have a lot in common. It's interesting that they should have so much in common, coming from different cultures as they do. Stoicism is foundational for much of western culture and ideology, from Greek times though the Christian middle ages, into the Renaissance and even now. On the other hand, Zen Buddhism is an east-Asian practice, informed by millennia of eastern spiritual tradition and not operating according to the discursive, dualistic mode of western philosophy.

Despite originating in different parts of the world and evolving separately over millennia, these two schools of thought and practice have an incredible amount in common. Maybe most relevant is that both are concerned with the nature and cessation of human suffering. The methodology for understanding and ceasing that suffering involves "end-user" psychological terms - vocabularies for the mind that involve the mechanics of thought, which include anxiety, desire, virtue, and one's identity and values. These terms and ideas are intimate, experiential, and essentially practical, as opposed to modern medicine's descriptive, clinical terminology, meant to shuttle you to whatever prescription drug.

Among the more particular similarities between Zen and Stoicism are understandings that:
  • Thoughts are insubstantial and not representative of reality itself
  • Suffering arises from passions resulting from attachment or "false judgement"
  • The ideal mental state is one of equanimity, free from strong likes and dislikes
  • One's life is best lived in accordance with nature (though what each school means by "nature" is dramatically different).
There are more than that, but that's the list I have going right now. This is an area of interest to me, as there haven't been many lengthy comparisons between the two schools of thought as far as I know. Personally, I've been a Zen practitioner since about 2010, and I've been interested in Stoicism for the last couple years or so. While I love Zen for its simplicity and all of the positive changes it has made in my life, I do find that it doesn't leave me much in terms of having a workable identity for dealing with the real world.

While Zen is NOT AT ALL a "spiritual practice" that encourages asceticism and a rejection of the material world, with consistent practice one does tend to see through a lot of bullshit that's present in the mind and in the world. I've heard a couple Zen teachers describe this phenomenon as unintentionally "dissolving one's personality." It's a scary thought, right? Again, Zen isn't concerned with "destroying the ego" like so many new-age spiritual practices are, but merely by sitting and watching how one's mind works, the "ego" tends to deflate on its own.

Zen is not where you go when you're looking for the meaning of life. If you sit Zazen, Zen might tap you on the shoulder and say "hey, who told you there was a meaning?" That's not nihilism - it's just clarity. And clarity is fine, but Zen doesn't offer much of an answer to "how should I be spending my time on this Earth?"

Stoicism, on the other hand, is quite concerned with living in the world and the right way to do it. The Stoics were obsessed with living virtuously, in service to others and "in accordance with nature" (the Stoic conception of nature being a Whole Thing To Go Into). Stoicism was not just a philosophy meant to answer interesting questions, it was a way of life, practiced by slaves and emperors alike (Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius respectively).

I've found a lot of useful ideas within Stoicism. I'm not the only one, as this school of philosophy has been enjoying a minor resurgence as of late. Google "Stoicism" and you'll find headlines like "why stoicism is one of the best life-hacks ever devised" and "what is stoicism and how can it turn your life to solid gold?" In fact, Stoicism has informed a modern, effective therapeutic practice called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Coincidentally, there exists an offshoot of CBT called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which is influenced by Zen.

As much as Stoicism has to offer, it's unlike Buddhism in that there has been no consistent school of Stoicism in the last couple millennia. It has had numerous revivals and has left a long cultural shadow on the West, but there's no contemporary, cohesive school of thought that one can point to and say "that's Stoicism." The current revival is digging through the remains of the past and trying to fill in the gaps where possible. There are definitely gaps, as well as philosophical anachronisms - their conception of metaphysics is not especially useful today, even to the philosopher.

All of this to say: there is some interesting overlap between Zen Buddhism and Stoic Philosophy, both of which are useful, and both of which have their shortcomings. As they both play a role in my life, I'll continue to compare and contrast them. It's now an intellectual curiosity for me, and I need those in my life or I begin to feel like a mental potato putting out just the barest wattage. 

THAT BEING SAID, let's dive into it. I want to start with SUFFERING.


Both Zen Buddhism (and Buddhism in general) and Stoicism are concerned with the cessation of suffering. In fact, the cessation of suffering is Buddhism's #1 chief concern. Without going too much into it, the basic premise of Buddhism, known as the Four Noble Truths, goes roughly like this:

1. There is suffering
2. Attachment is the cause of suffering
3. There is an end to suffering
4. The Buddha's path (The Noble Eightfold Path) leads to the end of suffering.

"Suffering" in this context needs to be explained a bit. Some people like to interpret Buddhism as saying "all life is suffering," which is a pretty bummer attitude. But the word being translated as "suffering" is Dukkha. Dukkha is a kind of existential suffering, that goes beyond mere transitory unease. It goes beyond even the lowest, life-is-absurd-and-everything-is-pain "existential" suffering. One Zen teacher at the Austin Zen Center taught that it was "our alienation from ourselves" (which can be a bit confusing given the whole no-self doctrine, but let's not make this more complicated than it already is). Think of this as the BIG suffering for which mundane suffering is merely a symptom. Buddhism claims to be, first and foremost, the cure for that.

As the end of suffering is the object of Buddhism, the object of Stoicism is an ideal called Eudaimonia, meaning "human flourishing," often over-simply translated as "happiness." The Stoic view on the cessation of suffering is grounded in their system of ethics, which states that all that is necessary for eudaimonia is for one to maintain one's virtue. In their view, the best way to maintain one's virtue is to strive for a state of mind called Apatheia. Apatheia does not mean "apathy," but rather "equanimity." The sage, the ideal stoic, does not not experience emotions, but instead merely experiences them, not seeing them as bad or good, as the only true good is virtue, and the only true bad is straying from virtue.

The therapeutic aspect of Stoicism - the part concerned with the relief of suffering - can be found in their understanding of what is in our control and what isn't. To quote Epictetus:
There is only one path to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our power of will. - Discourses, 4.4.39
This idea is a very powerful one, and is among the greatest contributions Stoicism has made to Western society. It has survived through the ages in different forms and contexts, and today is most commonly known in the form of the "Serenity Prayer":
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
The Stoics, while having a sophisticated conception of God (knowing it as the Logos, the animating force in nature), did not conceive of it as a supreme deity that one could appeal to for worldly assistance. Instead, they created a life philosophy by which one can learn for themselves how to accept things one cannot change. The Stoic way to cease suffering involves constant exercise of one's rationality in order to make correct moral judgements, which allows one to be virtuous, which is, they say, all one needs to be happy.

On the other hand, the Buddhist way to cease suffering involves following the Noble Eightfold Path, which is a list of eight precepts that include Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration (which basically means meditation). Each school of Buddhism has its own take on each of these precepts, but the overall goal is to avoid and free one's self from attachment, which is the root cause of suffering.

I want to explore what both of these methods have in common. When reading into this stuff, it's hard not to think that these very different schools of thought were, and maybe still are, approaching some of the same ideas with different language. For example, I think the Stoic idea of the passions is very, very similar to the Buddhist idea of attachment. However, at this point I've already written too much, and I haven't even bothered to talk about Zen and why its take on Buddhism is different. So I'll publish this, then start working on that.

Discourses, by Epictetus

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Pokemon Stay

Everybody's playing Pokemon Go. I got into it for a while, then got tired with the grind. Don't get me wrong, Pokemon has always had a grind aspect to it (lots of RPGs do), but the lack of interesting battles and the emphasis on finding multiples of the same Pokemon is tedious.

Watching some of my co-workers get into Pokemon for the first time, two decades after I first got into it, has me feeling nostalgic. The memories: playing Pokemon Red for hours on my new Game Boy color, getting up on Saturday mornings to watch and record the show on Fox Kids, getting my mom to bring us to O'Brien's 5 & 10 to buy new trading card packs, reciting the Pokemon rap during lunch at Catholic school, and finally, catching all 150 through trading with kids at summer camp, only to find that my ultimate reward is a certificate that can only be printed with a Game Boy Printer. That was where I left Pokemon.

And here I am twenty years later cursing Amazon for being out of the "New Nintendo 3DS XL," as I try to find some way to justify dropping $300 on a system I'll only use for 2-5 games tops, instead of paying off my credit card debt.

In the meanwhile I'm playing Pokemon Fire Red on a Gameboy Advance emulator because I can't not scratch the itch. I want to play Pokemon. Not Pokemon Go, but what a buddy and I are calling "Pokemon Stay," or what a coworker called "Hipster Pokemon." The real deal. It's great. I mean, it's exactly the same as it was twenty years ago, but I'm happy to look at it with fresh eyes.

The cool thing about Pokemon is that everybody in the world of Pokemon is on the same page. To live among the pokemon is a privilege. To catch them is a test of strength, will, and character. To train them is a cause of the highest honor. While Pokemon is a game, everybody in the world of Pokemon is serious about what they're doing. You can't walk a few feet without being called out and challenged to a fight. There's a ritual to it; you can't say no to a trainer battle, and you can't run away from a trainer battle. There's a singularity of purpose to the world that everybody shares. Questions like the economy, food, healthcare, and the quantum mechanics of Pokeballs are all waved away in the utopian pursuit to catch more pocket monsters.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Honor, Dignity, Mutual Respect

Once upon a time I was listening to NPR, and they were talking about "honor culture" in The South. They said how most of America had moved on to "dignity" culture, while honor culture was still strong in the southern states. What makes a culture an "honor" culture is a focus on personal justice - you wronged me or something I hold in esteem, so you must pay. Think of vikings and Klingons when you think of honor culture. Honor culture keeps people polite by maintaining the ever-present threat of a confrontation.

Dignity culture, on the other hand, contains a more subtle approach to offense. Somebody part of a dignity culture will contain their reaction when offended. They know that the offender is in the wrong and should be embarrassed. The dignified person wouldn't deign to correct the offender or even stoop to voice their offense. Dignity culture keeps people polite by shaming people who don't conform to it.

Those were the two cultures they contrasted. I don't remember what they said about demographics or trends over time - I'm sure you can look up the original piece. But I was just thinking that there's another way to react to offense, another way to relate to people: mutual respect.

In a culture of mutual respect, all parties in a conversation are free to converse without threat of confrontation or shame. In a mutual respect culture, both parties can be sure of the following:
  • I respect you, and so will not intentionally disrespect you or your boundaries, and will endeavor not to do so unintentionally.
  • You respect me, so I feel comfortable talking about things that are true for me without unintentionally offending you, as well as calmly voicing my offense when my boundaries are crossed without worrying about being personally criticized.
The important thing here isn't that nobody is ever offended - that's impossible. What's important about mutual respect is that it allows for benefit of the doubt on both sides. In fact, it requires it.

I think the really beautiful thing about a culture of mutual respect is that it keeps people polite by actually creating polite people. Somebody who is considerate of others, who seeks to make anybody and everybody comfortable, is the definition of polite.

People of a culture of mutual respect won't be afraid of speaking their honest minds: both their views, and their views on others' views. But they also won't be afraid to own up to and apologize for an offense when committed, because they have respect for the other person.

I don't think you can look at any given region and say, blanket-statement, that they have an honor or a dignity culture. I've seen these cultures manifest in families, in individuals, in businesses and in subcultures. Living in a metropolitan culture like Austin definitely presents a mix, though I'm thankful my job definitely has a culture of mutual respect.

This is just something I've been thinking about more often, with the current tenor of political conversation in this country, as well as an interesting uptick in "outrage culture."

I think the interesting thing about the difference between mutual respect and honor/dignity cultures is that both honor and dignity require some claim to The Truth. Honor requires a personal truth, while dignity requires a group truth. Mutual respect, however, requires temporarily abandoning one's personal truth (that is, pre-conceived notions about the world, both experiential and philosophical) in order to fully consider somebody else's. That makes mutual respect kind of post-modern, right?