The Presence Game

tarot readingMiro walked slowly back from his outdoor workspace to the solarium where he entertained his guests, and sat down on the sofa. There were three small boxes on his carved coffee table, and from each he drew a stack of cards, which he lined up in front of him.

He was expecting a visit from his friends Wolf, Kristen and Elena, but he had time before he had to make his preparations for this month’s get-together, which was to be on the theme of A World Without Time. “All the time in the world”, he thought.

The cards in the first stack were an amalgam of 30 different Tarot decks, which Wolf & Kristen’s daughter Birgit had made for him. She had also put the meaning of each card in small letters on the back of the card to make the resultant spreads easier to interpret.

Miro asked the question: “How will my Presence practice turn out in the next short while?” — he had been struggling to realize experientially what he knew intellectually, and had found it frustrating. He chose the Past Present Future tableau for his question and shuffled the cards, then smiled and shook his head as he turned over the Tower, the 7 of Coins and the Four of Cups in order. “Amazing”, he said to himself, “It doesn’t matter what cards you turn, you always find truth and plausibility in the cards.”

Unperturbed, he shuffled the second and third decks, which he had created himself. The second deck was distinguished by a large question mark on the back of each card, and was used for Miro’s inquiry practice. Before he began the practice, he would draw three cards from this deck, consider the existential question on each card, and select one to inform his practice for that day. Today he drew:

inquiry cards

He selected the question on the third card and focused his attention on it for fifteen minutes. It was not an intellectual process as much as a noticing one: the purpose wasn’t to answer the question, but rather to see what came up in considering it, and, since many of the questions were self-challenging, to shake up and “let go” of his entrained thinking.

Now Miro did the same with the third deck, which was distinguished by an exclamation mark on the back of each card. These cards informed Miro’s contemplation practice, and each contained some insight, idea, quotation, verse or incongruity that Miro had found intriguing. Again, its purpose wasn’t to think about the wisdom of the words, but to “let come”, to see what ‘sense’ emerged as he contemplated them. ‘Sense’ in its more holistic meaning of ‘making sense’, rather than ‘making meaning’, as he had explained to Wolf when the latter expressed surprise that “such a seemingly cerebral process” would be part of Miro’s attempts “to get out of his thought processes”.

Today Miro drew:

contemplation cards

This time he selected the second card, and spent 15 minutes quietly contemplating it. Then, grabbing a cup of tea, he wandered out to his deck, sat in his lounge chair, and for the next 30 minutes, meditated, watching the clouds and the birds and the mountains and the forest and the ocean beyond, just appreciating them all, appreciating his own health and fitness and joy in living, the miracle of being alive, and just trying to be present with it all.

His adopted pets Kitti and Puppi (so named by Birgit) wandered out and sat on the cushions beside his chair, as if parodying his practice, before starting to wrestle with each other. They began playing with a floating helium-filled ball that Miro had invented that hovered constantly just above the floor of the deck, even as they batted it around with their paws.

As he finished his meditation and returned to the solarium to start preparing for his visitors, Miro’s thoughts went back to his university days. His audacious doctoral thesis, which had since been studied by hundreds of anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, was that thinking had evolved, not to help humans make better decisions in the moment, but as a means of imagining future possibilities and practicing coping with them ahead of time, so that if and when those imagined situations actually arose, we would be better prepared for them.

Miro had been fascinated with the theories of punctuated equilibrium and the unintended consequences of evolutionary adaptations, the so-called ‘exaptations’. He was aware that bird feathers originally evolved to help birds self-regulate their temperature, and their later ‘exaptation’ for flight was, while stunningly successful, entirely unintended, an accident. Likewise, Miro argued, our brains had evolved as they had in order to enable their host organisms to better handle mobility and sense detection. Thinking was an entirely inappropriate vehicle for responding to crises — it was far too slow to be of use in making ‘fight, flight or freeze’ determinations; instinct (driven by emotion) was far more effective. Research even indicated that the decisions that are made ‘by’ the brain are in fact ‘made’ after the host begins to act on the decision, not before, and so were not decisions at all, but rather rationalizations for a decision already made.

But since brains were capable of imagining future scenarios, what evolved as an exaptation, he said, was the use of this imagining to practice coping with such scenarios, safely, when there was no immediate risk. The learnings from that practice could then help inform the instincts and the body’s autonomic responses later when real threats actually arose. A very logical evolution, except that it was fatally flawed. The imagination, unfortunately, usually imagined scenarios that were unrealistic and preposterous — creating monsters in the mind and exhausting the body’s hormonal systems preparing to deal with them.

And then, even worse, what the brain had conjured up as a feeble and oversimplified representation of reality for practice purposes began to be interpreted by the increasingly egoistic brain as ‘real’ reality, at which point our species disconnected itself from its instincts and from all other life on the planet, and hermetically invented the separate ‘self’, which it then imagined had self-control, a separate existence, a separate need to defend and advance itself as an ‘individual’, and a separate, and divine, purpose. Too smart for our own good, we had become afflicted with a self-induced mental illness which, when reinforced by similar beliefs by other ‘individuals’ soon became a societal and then global disease.

So, Miro said with a sigh, while other creatures just know how to live in the real world, we humans must first cure ourselves of the disease of our egos, and then spend the rest of our lives struggling and suffering with the consequences of the collective product of that disease, civilization. Not all exaptations are healthy ones, and the ones that aren’t, as past civilizations have shown, and as cancers demonstrate, are not sustainable, and will sooner or later cause their hosts to exterminate themselves or be exterminated.

Games are like thoughts, he said to himself as he set up the activities and refreshments for his soon-to-arrive guests. They too evolved as a means of practicing for possible future situations. Young foxes play with sticks to learn coordination. Young geese, not yet ready or fit enough to be one of the breeding pair, ‘play-mate’ with sterile eggs. Young children play with dolls and toy cars. War games, most notably, are practices, rehearsals for real events, he thought with a shudder. But so are the social experiments of shy young people in Second Life and World of Warcraft, trying to learn how to deal with others in a safe alternative world before daring to do so in the real one. In some cases these rehearsals become addictive escapes, when living in the real world seems inadequate or just too overwhelming.

If games and thoughts were meant to be ‘just practice’ for coping with real world adventures and crises, Miro wondered, perhaps there is a game that could be invented and used to ‘practice’ re-awakening to the real world, the more-than-human world beyond thoughts and emotional reactions to thoughts, beyond the illusions of mind and self and separation and time. What might that game be like?

.     .     .     .     .

The “World Without Time” theme evening turned out to be a great success. The foursome did a series of thought experiments and model-drawings as they discussed what it might mean to transcend the illusion of time and live and work in Now Time. At the end of that evening, Miro had introduced the idea of The Presence Game, and they had brainstormed a bit about it.

Now, a month later, they were meeting again to play the first version of the game. Kitti and Puppi greeted each of the guests as they arrived. They chatted over a Thai-themed potluck dinner before retiring to Miro’s solarium and sitting in a circle on floor cushions. Miro had laid out an array of equipment, and explained to Wolf, Kristen and Elena how to attach the sensors to various places on their bodies, how to wear the virtual reality helmets, and how to read the biofeedback monitors.

On his whiteboard he had drawn the following:

He explained that the objective of the Game was two-fold: (1) to notice which of the four ways of being was dominant in each of them, both normally and in the special situations that the scenarios would present, and (2) to see which of the four ways of being was most closely aligned with a state of Presence, and to try to deepen that state.

The four friends donned their VR helmets and Miro ran the first simulation. In it, they were each seated in the passenger seat of a car that was driving in busy, noisy city traffic. After about 5 minutes, they removed the helmets and Miro handed them a printout of the sensor readings and asked them how they felt about the experience. Kristen said she was slightly stressed because she couldn’t “see” or connect with the driver of the car, and had actually called out a warning when it looked like the car was going to hit a pedestrian. She used the words anxious and disoriented to describe the experience. Elena said she was exhilarated by the experience, and started making up stories about it — who was driving, where they were and where they were going and why. Wolf said he felt himself holding his breath at times, and found the lack of control over what was happening frustrating. He wanted to be driving.

“That, my friends, is the control scenario, the one we will use as a surrogate for your normal state,” Miro explained. “Just as the helmet is on your heads, for most of this experience you were in your heads. The readings correspond to a way of being that is mostly emotional and intellectual, with a small amount of sensual experience.”

They then donned the helmets again and a second VR scenario video was run. This time they were alone on a dark street at night and were suddenly accosted by a masked thief who insisted they turn over their money and jewelry, and then showed that he brandished a knife. Halfway through, Puppi came over and started licking the hand of the obviously agitated Elena, seemingly trying to comfort her. When the knife came into the scene she tore off the helmet and shouted “That was awful. What are you doing to us, Miro?” The others didn’t seem to notice, as they were rapt in the experience, their bodies shifting into a defensive stance. When the 5 minutes was up, Miro showed them how the sensor readings corresponding to emotion had spiked, while the readings corresponding to thinking activity had fallen off. “You were in fight-or-flight mode, and your instincts took over and pushed your thinking activity aside,” he explained.

He reassured Elena that the remaining scenarios were “much nicer”, and they resumed. The third scenario was different for each of Miro’s friends — the person each of them saw was someone who had the optimal qualities each of them had selected in a get-together a year earlier called The Aesthetics of Beauty. Miro had had great fun creating avatars that he knew would be attractive to each of his friends, and programming them into this scenario. In the scenario, the avatars were confessing their passionate love for each of Miro’s friends. Each avatar adopted postures and exhibited facial expressions and body language consistent with someone who had fallen madly in love, and their words invited reciprocal affection. Unbeknownst to his helmeted friends, Miro had uncorked a bottle with some human pheromones reputedly emitted by the bodies of people in the early throes of falling in love, to add to the experience.

About halfway into the scenario, the avatars began to disrobe, drawing a mixture of gasps and laughter from Miro’s friends. Miro noted with amusement that although the conversation and other qualities of the avatars had not changed, the readings from some of his friends’ sensors began to shift as the undressing continued.

As that scenario ended and Miro quickly re-corked his pheromone bottle, his friends were wide-eyed and smiling as they removed their helmets. “Wow,” said Wolf, “that was really something. Can I get a copy of that to take home?” His wife laughed and said “You should have seen mine. It might be interesting for us to view each other’s… Or maybe not a good idea,” she added, after reflecting. Elena said “You took these avatars from our Aesthetics of Beauty session last year, didn’t you? I recognized my guy, except I think you put a little of yourself into him as well. Are you trying to tell me something?”

Miro just smiled and asked which of the Four Ways of Being they thought had been triggered by that scenario. They correctly answered that it was the emotional and sensual quadrants. Miro explained how the sensor readings of his three friends had differed, and gave them printouts, but did not attempt to proffer an explanation other than to say “We’re all different.” He described the various “chemicals of love” that the scenario might have evoked in each of them, from his whiteboard graphic.

The next scenario had no avatars. In it, the experiencer was walking alongside a fast-moving stream through an immense old-growth tropical forest teeming with birds, which then opened onto an ocean beach at sunset, with the surf pounding ashore. When it ended, Wolf said he just wanted to watch that one over and over; he claimed he was already “over” the imaginary lover who had seduced him in the previous video. “Though of course if she were to meet me on that beach…,” he laughed. There were great sighs of pleasure from Elena and Kristen. “Where was that video taken?,” Kristen asked. “I want to go there, and stay for a long time.”

Wolf said “I think I’m starting to see the pattern here. I’ll bet the sensors placed us in the instinctual and sensual quadrants for that scenario, and that’s the one that corresponds with Presence.” Miro nodded, and added “Correct, but the winner of the game is not the one with the sensor readings closest to those quadrants, but the one whose sensor readings change most in that direction from the ‘normal’ readings from our first scenario. And you have to achieve those readings without the benefit of the forest and beach scenario you just saw.”

Miro put away the helmets, lit some candles and incense, and poured a glass of wine for each of his guests, as he marked on each printout the sensor readings most closely associated with the state of instinctual/sensual Presence that had peaked during the final scenario. He invited them to get up and move or even go for a walk outside if they were so inclined: the sensors had wireless transmitters that would continue to show their changing states. He suggested some meditation, contemplation and biofeedback exercises that might help. And then, for the next hour, he just watched his friends, and the monitors, and offered them food and drink and cushions and hugs and whatever else they might want to achieve a deeper sense of presence, and hence, win the game.

As the hour drew to a close, Wolf and Kristen returned, hand in hand, from their walk in the moonlight. Elena had sat down in front of Miro and was leaning back into his chest, her eyes closed. Kitti had in turn curled up on her lap, and was purring quietly. Miro reached over and passed out the last hour’s sensor charts, showing that it was Kristen who had moved most deeply into a Presence state from her ‘normal’ more anxious state, and she was declared the “winner” of the game.

Elena acknowledged that she was still caught up in the “love” video and the chemical rush it had induced in her. Miro assured her that the “love interest” that had spoken to her in that video was strictly based on the ideals from the Aesthetics of Beauty profile she had created a year earlier, and included none of Miro’s own traits. “He was so beautiful,” she said, “and the way he looked at me, his eyes, his smile, the passion in his whole demeanour — just electric. I was hooked while he still had all his clothes on. I can understand how people fall in love with avatars in alternative worlds. So believable.”

She paused and then added: “I think I might rather be in love than Present, if I have to choose. Tom Robbins talks about the impossible struggle to ‘make love last’ and Eckhart Tolle warns that the euphoria of falling in love is a transient illusory feeling that is always followed by ‘disenchantment’ and the same feelings that come with drug withdrawal. Nature wants us to be totally addicted to another; it’s her way of ensuring the intense bonding that will perpetuate the species… And then as your chart shows, she shifts the chemicals to endorphins to keep us attached to the other, for stability and the benefit of the family and tribe, but takes away the euphoric chemicals, the ones that feel so good, so blissful. Yet we’re left with the memory, the craving to have that feeling again… So fuck Mr Tolle and his Presence, I choose Love instead.”

They all laughed, and sighed, and then just sat quietly, until the gong by Miro’s door sounded and told them it was 2 am, and time to go. Kitti and Puppi roused from their naps and prepared to see the guests out.

As they hugged each other goodbye, Wolf said to Miro: “The Presence Game will be hard to top. What do you have in mind for next month’s get-together?”

Miro replied with a smile: “I think the theme will be Letting Go. So give some thought to what it is that you’re holding onto, and whether that ‘attachment’ is good for you or not. See you next month!”

photo credits: (1) tarot reading and interpretations from aeclectic.net, with images from the Tarot card decks as credited beside each card; (2) inquiry card images from deviantart members, left to right: by casimir0304 (“The Tower”), neutrix (“Neuron Spark”), and guldbrandt (“Flying”); (3) contemplation card images, left to right from NBC News (Dick Cheney), Salvador Dali’s Persistence of Memory, and FarmSanctuary.org (factory farm).

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