Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Alchemical Gaming Manifesto

or, Alchemical Gaming: Transforming Your Real Life Through a Character

It’s mind-boggling to me that I’ve been playing role-playing games for 20 years now – about two thirds of my life – but when I stop to think about it, it’s really not that surprising. I was the kind of kid who had a very active fantasy life. Each of my closest friends and I had particular, specific make-believe games we’d play when we were hanging out together. With some friends, the more creative ones, I had several – but I remember there was almost always at least one. Without some level of shared fantasy, I had trouble feeling close to other people. With Noah it was usually some kind of secret-agent thing. Jennifer liked to play the older sister and make me do her bidding. With Ryan, we'd do whatever we felt like that day - it could just as easily be cops & robbers as an exploratory visit to Planet X.

My friend Dave was one of my closest friends as a kid, and it was pretty devastating for me when he moved from Pittsburgh to Buffalo. I think we were probably about ten years old. He and I used to do what amounted to freeform Dungeons and Dragons together, so losing him was what made me investigate the real thing. I quickly became discouraged by the sheer number and scope of the rules, which led to some disastrous gaming sessions in Middle School. Where was all the fun, the magic?

I found it in Vampire: the Masquerade, especially once I began LARPing. Soon I was also playing Changeling: the Dreaming, which soothed my soul as a bullied, academically gifted outcast in high school by letting me reframe my situation as being like a spirit of creativity surrounded by mindless drones. Like all of the Classic World of Darkness games, Changeling and Vampire both contain a great deal of real-world occultism and the existential angst that comes from being a misunderstood free thinker. It's no accident that when I ran back into Dave in our early 20's, both of us had already been LARPing for quite some time. In high school also related very strongly to works such as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orson Scott Card’s classic Ender’s Game, and Frank Herbert’s equally classic Dune. All four books might be easily summed up by the words of Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.”

I first learned of the idea called alchemical gaming several years after high school, around the same time that Dave and I reconnected. I had gone to what I thought was the college of my dreams, studied what I thought was the call of my heart, and ended up being too distracted by computer games to actually go to class. I had wanted to take a year off in between college and high school, but my parents feared I’d never return to school. They were right: I still haven’t. But that’s because I’m working on something much more important. And it’s an idea I first thought of when I was working on some books for White Wolf, another way I was ignoring my studies while pursuing my dreams instead. The idea is simple: What if, by playing a character who has certain characteristics like confidence or vulnerability or joie de vivre, a person could actually rewrite his or her own personality? My friends and I use the word “alchemy” in the metaphoric, Jungian sense, rather than the literal sense – alchemy is the Great Work of transforming your personal lead into gold.

I saw this at first as an ideal way to help people with social anxiety like myself, and now that there’s much more research into role-playing studies, it turns out that many gamers have intuitively realized that gaming is good social practice. But it is also far more than that. Over the past 40 years or so since Dungeons & Dragons was first released, researchers have found that gamers also use role-playing as a motivator to learn new things, as a safe space in which to explore issues they might ignore in their real lives, and even as a way to take a vacation from their usual roles and identity.

Or as Whitney “Strix” Beltran put it so succinctly, role-playing gives us access to mythological archetypes in a culture that has no longer has many organic ways to access them. Immersion into a character is a liminal space, within our normal consciousness but distinct from it, much like going on a vision quest or other shamanic journey. But because there is no audience, there is also no choice but to participate, which is why the process transforms communities just as it does individuals.

In Nordic and some American LARPs, gamers speak about “bleed” – the term used for when a player experiences emotional release or spontaneous, unexpected emotional reactions from an in-character situation. This can be because the situation was upsetting or triggering for their character, for themselves, or more often both, because a person’s character will always represent whatever ideas and skills that player finds most compelling or interesting at the time. But the term “bleed” itself implies it is something that happens to us, rather than a process we can consciously direct. And my own experience, as well as that of the people I’ve interviewed about theirs, strongly suggests that progress is far more dramatic when done deliberately.

If you don’t know what you want to work on, but you feel like this system might be a good idea, that’s great. Ask yourself a few questions: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up and why? If money were no object, how would you spend your days? What activity makes you feel both happy and fulfilled, or like you’re being your better self? Or what thing about yourself have you always wanted to change? These are good places to start for goals to create a character around, but always remember that the character needs to be one you think you’ll have fun playing. Without that, you won’t be able to immerse yourself in the character’s personality and you’ll get nowhere with your goals as a result. The purpose of this system is to add a small additional layer of nuance to your roleplay, not to dominate it with heavy-handed lessons.

If you’re still having trouble figuring out what goal to build your character around, think about past characters you’ve played. A few years ago, for example, I noticed that my first few Vampire characters were wanderers or loners who were good at performance, gathering knowledge, and magic or the occult. I thought this was just an expression of my real-world interest in those things, but now I believe this was my unconscious mind trying to tell me, “Hey! Stop watching so much TV and go back to reading, writing, and practicing magic like you did when you were younger!”  Your unconscious will frequently try to send you messages through characters this way, just as it sometimes will through a favorite quote, book, song, or film. The trick is in learning how to listen to it, which comes with time and practice. You can always ask your close friends what patterns they see in your usual character choice, because that’s a blind spot for many people that should be pretty obvious to those who know them well.

            There are four basic types of characters a player can use for alchemical work:

1    1. The Ideal Character

Ideal characters, in my experience, are probably the easiest way to do alchemical work in a game. This is because they’re entirely self directed – input from the storyteller or GM will help, but is completely optional. The idea is a simple one: Create a character who is good at the things you’ve always wanted to get better at. These could be your strengths, weaknesses, or a combination of both. Because LARP is a safe space where you’re surrounded by fellow geeks, you’ll have a much easier time trying to be more outgoing or practicing your marginal singing skills without the usual fear of judgment should you fail. Just as in improv theater, Failure Is Okay in LARP (as in life, but it takes a while to learn this). Ideal characters are generally best for learning new personality traits. You can also use an ideal character as an aid in real-life situations where you feel a lack of confidence, by getting into character when you’re doing something that your character is better at than you are.

2. The Motivation Character

Motivation characters are a special subset of ideal characters, but are a bit more formalized. They work best for people who sometimes have trouble with follow-through on their goals. Create your character like an ideal character, but circle the skills that relate to your real-world goal. Write up a contract with either yourself or your storyteller, promising that you won’t spend experience points on those skills until you’ve actually developed or improved them in real life. If your storyteller is open to helping you, her or she may ask you to give a small demonstration of your martial arts or public speaking skills (for example) before letting you spend said XP. Motivation characters are generally best for learning new skills or improving on old ones.

3. The Catharsis Character

Consider this a more advanced technique for after you have a bit of experience with alchemical characters. It will likely happen to you unexpectedly when playing an ideal or motivation character, via emotional release or “bleed”. That’s fine and to be expected. But deliberately confronting what Jungian psychologists call your Shadow – the parts of your personality you prefer to forget about or ignore most of the time – can be both disturbing and potentially dangerous. When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

Still, if you have a long-standing fear or emotional blockage, building a character around it and watching that character’s eventual destruction may help you to integrate some of those darker aspects of your personality, or to transform them into something you feel more comfortable with. As a result, catharsis characters are best for facing fears, prejudices, or mindless assumptions. ALWAYS INFORM YOUR STORYTELLER IF YOU ARE PLAYING A CATHARSIS CHARACTER. Otherwise, you may appear to be a disruptive player if your character is getting other players’ characters into a lot of trouble seemingly without reason, and your ST also won’t know about the very real possibility of emotional complications from playing a character like this. Consider yourself fairly warned.

4. The Archetype Character

If you want to combine two or all three of the character types above within one character, don’t worry – it’s been done before, and after a little practice, it’s easier than you might think. The simplest way to do it is to create your character around a particular archetype. For example, imagine a person who wants to learn more about stage magic, wants to become more confident, and also notices that he can be manipulative and unreliable sometimes. To work on all three of those ideas simultaneously, he could create a character around an archetype such as the Trickster, who has all those characteristics since all archetypes have both light and dark aspects. The archetype character feels tricky at first, but it’s also potentially the most valuable because it can show you the value of balance and the fact that real people are far more complex than simply being “good” or “bad”. And even the so-called negative aspects of the Trickster would be an asset when trying to dodge bullets or avoid capture.

There are certain pitfalls to avoid in this type of work, but luckily there are also some simple ways to mitigate them. Bleed itself is one. If you find yourself spontaneously laughing, crying or even filled with rage, try to roll with it if you’re able to. It may take minutes or longer to figure out whether this comes from in- or out-of-character emotion, but spend enough time and you’ll always learn something about yourself from paying attention to emotional release. If it’s too painful for you, though, you have every right to step out of the scene, take some deep breaths, and wait to step back into character until you feel ready. Because this process is self-directed, no one else can tell you how to get what you need, so pay attention to your body’s physical reactions and to your mind’s mental and emotional ones in order to figure out what you should do next in this situation.

Focusing too much on the goal rather than on the process can also be a mistake. Even if you feel like you were thwarted this game at every turn, you can learn a lot about yourself from looking at why your plans didn’t work out the way you wanted them to. Whether the individual game occurred for you as easy or challenging, fun or grueling, you will notice that insights or new ideas will tend to pop into your head following an event. I believe this is because shifting your normal persona into the unconscious mind gives it unprecedented access to your worries, concerns, hopes and dreams, so that it can help find solutions to them that are waiting for you when you return to your normal self. It sounds absolutely batty, schizophrenic even, but it does actually work.

What can help the most with processing an intense alchemical gaming experience is a technique from Nordic LARP called debriefing. The way a debriefing works is a bit like the standard eat-and-chat sessions at the local diner or family restaurant that every LARPer has experienced already. The difference is in what the conversation talks about. I suggest asking six questions that everyone needs to answer for themselves, though they only need to share with the group if they feel comfortable doing so. Although alchemical gaming is mainly self-directed, debriefings can be very helpful for STs to learn what themes their players might want to see in future plotlines. Especially if the ST is comfortable with helping players to better themselves (in whatever way the player considers “better”).

The suggested debriefing questions are below, but don't feel obligated to use all of them. If the response from most people present is a groan or a bored look, skip that question and try a different one. Numbers 3, 4, and 5 are the most important, so I suggest at least touching on them during any discussion, even a more unstructured one.  A debriefing should always be optional, but anyone who comes to one needs to agree to confidentiality so that everyone can feel safe to talk about whatever they're working on. STs: Metagaming the information from a debriefing or using it against another player in any way is an inexcusable breach of the trust makes alchemical gaming possible in the first place. A single warning is reasonable, but a second offense should result (at minimum) in disciplinary action against the player and no more invitations to debriefings. This process is for mature, reasonably self-aware adults, and all it takes is one gossip or drama queen to spoil the web of trust.

1.     What do you feel worked particularly well this game session, and why do you think it worked so well?

2.     What do you feel didn’t work very well this game session, and how might it be fixed or changed in the future to make it work better?

3.     What did you learn about yourself and your personal goals this session, and how did it make you feel?

4.     How did you help another player or group achieve their goals this session, and how did that make you feel?

5.   Name something that you failed to accomplish this game session. How do you feel about that, and what changes will you make to prevent this from happening again?

6.     What was your favorite moment from this event? Describe it as vividly as you can so that everyone else can get a taste of what it was like for you.

It should hopefully be obvious from these questions that one of the group benefits of alchemical gaming practice is an increased sense of community, closeness, or belonging, and a heightened emphasis on role-playing as collaborative storytelling rather than a competition. This tends to increase everyone’s fun, which in turn makes achieving goals even easier. Jane McGonigal talks at great length in her book Reality is Broken about how most people are far more inclined to make important life changes for the sake of a game than because they’re “a good idea”: Games are meaningful work that we choose. Building your character around a goal adds a little meaningful work to any game, which is why it can be so valuable.

If you’re a player at Dystopia Rising: New Jersey or Pennsyltucky and would like to take part in an experimental debriefing group for alchemical gaming, please contact me on Facebook about joining the groups I’ll be starting soon. If you do have interest, I suspect that you’re one of my favorite kind of players: The ones who know the goal(s) their character is built to address, but aren’t quite sure how to achieve those goals in real life. My name is Jason Louis Feldstein and we probably have several mutual friends on Facebook already. Please help me work on elevating gaming from an art form to a spiritual or self-help practice, just as White Wolf helped elevate it from entertainment to an art form back in the 90’s. The time is now for this much-needed evolution. I will eventually be publishing a book on this topic, but first I need beta testers for the system. Please let me know if you're interested in helping.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Conversations with Angels, Part 1

Recently I tried to contact the archangel Gabriel, but I did so in a very cursory and frankly arrogant way. He responded anyway, but was terse and generally unhelpful. I asked my friend Sara about this, since she's been doing spirit magic since before I even met her (and that was 10 years ago). She suggested that he might have been angry with me. So I decided I'd do it right the next time.

Today when I found the new herb shop in Squirrel Hill, I honestly didn't realize my desire to get all the herbs mentioned as offerings in Torah was in any way connected with this. But the fun thing about listening to your intuition is that intuition is a direct line to things your unconscious mind has figured out. And your unconscious mind is connected to the collective unconscious (or Akashic Record, or Dreamtime, or whatever you prefer to call it).

And that realm, depending on whom you ask, may also be identical with the mind of God. In the series the Death Gate Cycle, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman called this idea the Wave: God is the collective will and desires and wisdom of all humanity in egregoric form. I have run across it in Hinduism as well, if I remember correctly. If this idea makes you feel uneasy, that only means you still have an AT field. (I'm using the term from Neon Genesis Evangelion because I have never found a better one.) Don't worry, so do I. So do we all. It's why we're humans and not spirits.

So tonight, when I realized it was time to try approaching Gabriel the right way, I had all the herbs I'd need already handy. Thanks, unconscious mind! Because I'm currently ritually impure from visiting a cemetery, I didn't approach the One but rather went through one of the angels who's known for being a spokesperson of his. As you'll see, I was given the go-ahead to publish this conversation. I put the angel's words in all caps not because there was the feeling of shouting, but rather because his words seemed to carry deep conviction and, well, severity. I have no better word for it. "Gavriel" and "Gevurah" have the same root, so this is not a surprise. But he was much, much friendlier this time:

Jason: Are you there?

Gabriel: I AM HERE.

Jason: I'm sorry for being presumptuous and arrogant last time, and for treating you like one would treat a lowly demon. That was wrong and I'm sorry for it.


Jason: Thank you. You're very forgiving. Are all angels that way?

Gabriel: MANY.

Jason: It's your nature, is that right? Is that how it works?


Jason: Is there any information you need to pass along?


Jason: *Laughs* Okay. Message received loud and clear. Is it all right if I ask a question?

Gabriel: YES.

Jason: If it's not too presumptuous, what does the One think of my role-playing game?


Jason: Is that a good thing?

Gabriel: USUALLY.

Jason: Okay, cool. I want to thank you for taking this time. Please pass along my gratitude and respect and love. And I'm grateful to you and respect you as well. And I guess... okay, I love you also.


Jason: If you don't mind my asking, why didn't you say it back? Is it difficult getting attached to mortals?


Jason: Okay, of course. I'm sorry. You are a person. I'm sorry for not getting that, it was unfair of me.


Jason: Thank you. Once again, I thank you for taking the time. Goodnight.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Who Looks Outside, Dreams. Who Looks Inside, Awakens.

Carl Jung said that, and he was right. Just look at his Red Book.

Recently, I experienced what might be called a spiritual awakening. This guide is my attempt to unpack all the assumptions that led me here, as simply and as specifically as possible. The goal is for other people to try it and hopefully get good results. Please feel free to distribute this document as widely as you like, via Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, etc. I’m not after any kind of recognition here, even though recognition is always nice. What I’m after is the transformation of society itself, one individual at a time. If these rules work for you, please help. If not, forget about them, no harm done.

1. Discard all useless assumptions. And I do mean ALL. Everything from what you should eat for breakfast to what you always wanted to be when you grew up. Only the useless ones, though. If you reevaluate them and realize you agree with them for a good reason, then they're not useless assumptions, they're useful ones.

2. Spend as much of your time as possible doing the thing or things that leave you feeling both happy and fulfilled. They normally involve creating something. The capacity to create is what it means to be made in the image of the divine.

3. Read more. About whatever it is that interests you. Fiction is great, but reference makes you better. Whatever your interests are, find books about them that look incredibly cool to you and then devour them. Same with documentaries and audio books.

4. Accept your darker nature. You can never get rid of it, it's an important part of you. The trick is just not to indulge it too much or too often. But even so, there is such a thing as doing the wrong thing for the right reason, rarely.

5. Whatever your art is, do it every day. Always try to remember that art is about expressing an idea, so do whatever it takes to express your idea as fully as you can. Collaborate with other artists, even if their media are totally different from yours. Together you will find a way. Don’t be afraid of losing control of an art project… instead, be afraid of missing out on another creative person’s valuable input. Also, take as broad a view of the definition of art as it takes – computer programming, law, medicine, graphic design, and architecture all qualify, if done with feeling. That’s the biggest secret of good art – while technique is important, passion is far more important. That’s why young kids can draw or paint pictures that can really touch an adult, even though they may look simple or even crude.

6. When making any decision, ask yourself, "Will this make me more or less awesome?" Always choose whatever will make you the most awesome. You are already have a talent, maybe several. But relentless improvement is the goal. Become the best you that you possibly can, and then be that self all the time.

7. Assume you don’t know what other people are thinking or why they do what they do. People make up all kinds of stories about what happens to them. Usually those stories are partially or completely wrong. So given that fact, it's always most productive to look at things in the most positive way possible because that tends to produce the best outcome. Never ascribe malice to someone's motivations when stupidity or ignorance works just as well.

8. Judge by the results you get. Especially with this document. If some or all of these rules don't work for you, then discard them. If you feel like something’s missing from this document, then add it. If you do add one, please put your email address in it, so that others can report their results to you.

9. Speak your mind when something wrong is happening. Better yet, always speak your mind all the time, unless you're trying to avoid creating drama. Never forget that if you don't say something, there may be nobody else present who's willing to even consider the possibility of being a whistle blower. If you see hypocrisy, shove the person's face in it. You have a choice, every minute of every day, of whether to be a hero, a bystander, or a victim. "Hero" is naturally the most awesome choice of the three, so choose that one whenever possible.

10. Assume everything that happens to you is a message from God/dess (however you conceive of him/her/it). There is no such thing as coincidence. Everything that happens to you every moment of every day is intended to teach you something. But you have to pay attention in order to see beneath the details to the truth that's waiting for you to pick it up. Tearing down boundaries in your mind between different interests or disciplines, like i mentioned before, along with taking everything as a message from God will lead to your art being brilliant. and also to you realizing that you can do anything you set your mind to (which, believe me, you can).

11. Reexamine all your favorite books, movies, music and TV shows for what they're trying to teach you. You like them because your unconscious mind and/or God wants you to see one of your blind spots or to learn something important.

12. Stay humble and sane by being of service and never taking anything at face value. You can still make mistakes just like any human, regardless of how "enlightened" you think you're becoming.

13. Practice magic, however you understand it. Daily. Make sure you practice both “high” and “low” magic. High magic traditionally concerns itself with uniting with the divine for its own sake, while low magic is about getting real-world results. Neither is “better” or “worse” than the other, they’re just different.

14. Creating art is alchemy. Art is not just creation, it is also the vehicle through which we transform our personal lead into gold.Hence, drama therapy and art therapy. And like alchemy, art allows us to turn our personal lead (suffering) into gold (beauty).

15. Art is philosophy is shamanism is psychology. All of these pursuits involve holding up a mirror to society so that it can see all its metaphorical warts and blemishes. You may face scorn or ridicule for being a free thinker, but that only means you’re on the right track. Socrates, maybe one of the first of us, called himself a gadfly – in other words, “I will sting you as many times as I have to until you wake up.”

16. The "Yes, and..." rule from improv. Yes opens doors. No closes them. Unless you have something really important to do or the suggestion is actually dangerous, say yes to it.

17. Many people will be inclined to read these rules, nod their heads, and then sit back and forget about them. If you want to avoid this, print them out and keep them in your pocket. You can refer to them throughout your day if you need to. Eventually they will become intuitive, which is the point of all this. You will still experience sorrow, loss, loneliness and suffering in your life, but you can always come back and center yourself by reading this document and thinking about which rule you might have followed better. Usually there will be one. If there isn’t, figure out the mistake you made, then make up your own rule that might have prevented it, and add it to the end.

18. Pay attention to your passions. Let your enthusiasm flow freely. The key to this entire system is living in the moment and expressing your love to everyone and everything. And when you let yourself gush about whatever inspires you, other people will naturally want to help you with your project. Authenticity makes the “hard sell” completely unnecessary, because relating to people’s humanity leaves everyone feeling empowered, where treating someone as a means to an end creates resentment and exploitation.

19. You are only as good as your word. Keeping it makes you powerful; breaking it makes you powerless. Do all you can to keep your word or promise at all times. When something happens that renders you unable, be sure to call the other person and let them know so that they aren't relying on you. Conversely, never give your word that you'll do something unless you actually intend to do it; otherwise, it's a broken promise waiting to happen. Most importantly, always keep your word to yourself, even if it means being forced to break a promise to someone else that isn’t life-or-death. If you don’t know yourself that things happen when you say they will, then the rest of this system won’t work for you.

20. Addiction is what happens when people try to soothe their soul with artificial fulfillment or joy. It is also the same thing that ancient people called “idolatry”: placing something material above the pursuit of the divine. Many people find wisdom in sex, drugs, food, TV, movies, or even business. It's only when you confuse the messenger for the message that it becomes a problem. Life is not about consuming as much TV or sex or food as you can; life is about finding your purpose and helping others to do the same.

21. Separation is an illusion. God is not separate from you, and neither are other people. This is why helping others helps you, and why making yourself more awesome helps others too. The drop becomes the ocean, and the ocean becomes the drop, but they are both still water. In Africa this called "ubuntu", which means "I am who I am because of who we all are". Duality is an illusion also – it’s completely possible to be funny and serious, or masculine and feminine, or rational and intuitive, at the same time. Experiment with doing so and you’ll see.

22. Every conversation is an opportunity, both to teach something and to learn something. Every person you meet knows something that you need to know. Every person you meet also needs to know something that you consider obvious. Share often, and listen even more often.

23. Have faith in something. It doesn't have to be religion, but it does have to be something that tries to help others. Some popular non-religious choices include freedom, equality, love, women’s rights, the scientific method, positive psychology, libertarianism, socialism and art therapy.

24. Find your purpose. It is more complicated than you think, so normally you will only find pieces. But eventually you’ll put them all together and you’ll know exactly what you’re on this earth to do. You’ll know because when you start doing it, the universe will conspire to help you. It will feel like coincidence, but in reality there is no such thing. A good place to start is here: As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? What about in high school or college? Why? Alternatively, what are your favorite things to do and why do you enjoy them? Whatever your answer turns out to be, find a way to do it as often as you possibly can. Turning it into a business is the easiest way, and our economy is transitioning to a creator-based one, so the time is now.

25. These rules are intended to provoke a state of permanent mindfulness. Some belief systems refer to this as being a prophet, a bodhisattva, an enlightened master, or a self-actualized person. The label doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that the world needs more people who are truly Awake. If these rules worked for you, then spread them to your friends and please email if you’d like to share what results you got. Together, we will transform the world, one soul at a time.

26. Practice detachment from outcomes. This may be the hardest thing in this entire guide, but it is also the most valuable. The only thing that lets you truly be in the moment and enjoy your life to the fullest is not caring about whether you succeed or not. Failure is not only okay, it’s completely expected. Whoever told you otherwise – and I’m sure there were many – they are probably still unhappy because of their assumption that failure is somehow wrong or bad. This is the first assumption you should discard when you adopt rule 1. Doing so will set you free. Detachment can sometimes make a person seem overconfident, so guard against this with rule #12.

27. As you begin to internalize these ideas, you will notice unusual things happening to you. Things that you may have no rational explanation for. Some people call this the law of attraction or the “blue pill”, but again, labels are unimportant. The important thing is this: Even hallucinations are not a problem as long as they aren’t maladaptive. What this means is that if you see a spirit and it tells you to do things that seem noble and helpful, there is no problem here. It’s only if you see something that wants you to do wrong or evil things that you should question whether you need medication. Never lose sight of this, because many people are very afraid of the non-rational, and they will try very hard to convince you to go back to sleep.

28. Trust your intuition. If you feel like you need to do something but you can’t explain why, DO IT. Immediately, without delay, if at all possible, but otherwise write it down and do it as soon as you have the opportunity. If you feel like a situation is dangerous but aren’t sure how you know this, exercise caution. Intuition is what happens when your brain processes information that you aren’t consciously aware of noticing. Part of the function of your unconscious mind is to protect you this way, so listen to it. This also  relates directly to Rule #10: When you take an interest in God/dess, eventually the interest becomes mutual and you start getting information. This will feel very strange at first, but your discomfort only shows that you are still sane.

29. Forget what you think you know about time. Time appears linear to us because our culture tells us that it is. If we were ancient Navajos or Hindus, we would believe that time is a wheel. In actuality it is neither of these – all things throughout history are happening simultaneously, just as all beings are not really separate. It’s just as easy to receive information from a future self as it is to remember something from when you were a child. Maybe easier, since memory fades but the future never does.

30. Look at your weaknesses and improve upon them. They are opportunities to learn new things, just like every experience you have. You may never be great at these things, but you can almost always learn to be good enough that they are no longer actual weaknesses. This makes you more awesome.

31. Meaning is not in things but between them (or beneath them). Whatever your favorite book or movie or food or store is, always remember that it is not valuable in and of itself. Rather, it is valuable because it helps pull you into the moment, so that you can experience your life more fully.

32. Humor is crucial in an absurd universe. We live in a world of Tea Party “Christians” who support war, greed, and hatred, Israeli “Jews” who think it’s okay to put Palestinians in concentration camps, and terrorist “Muslims” who ignore the sanctity of human life in favor of blowing up people in God’s name. It’s just as absurd as it is sad. While I think God probably cries about all these things, I also think the smaller stuff can be amusing. We are, in essence, God’s reality TV: while human drama usually feels vitally important in the moment, in retrospect it’s usually pointless. Humor unites people and cuts through defense mechanisms and anger, which is why it’s such a good choice to defuse a potentially toxic situation.

33. Many books, classical music, documentaries, and intelligent TV promote mindfulness. But there’s also a lot of crap out there. The best way to tell the difference is to notice whether what you’re reading, watching or listening to is making you think, or whether it’s just entertainment and nothing more. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment for its own sake, but always remember that a mind needs good books like a sword needs a whetstone. (That’s a favorite quote from one of my favorite intelligent TV shows.)

34. Practice mindful eating. Loving animals is incompatible with eating factory farmed meat (or any meat, depending on how you look at it). Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Catholicism, Islam, and Discordianism (at least) all include mindful eating practices, and for good reason.  Also, the factory farm industry is largely responsible for greenhouse gases, antibiotic resistance, and the spread of meat-borne pathogens like salmonella and E. Coli. You simply cannot be an ethical person and continue to eat meat that is contaminated by torture, disease and global warming. And really, why would you ever want to? Also, you will be amazed how consciously choosing compassion three times a day tends to change you over the course of the next year or two. Naturally, choosing to eat local, naturally raised meat or no meat at all is up to your own conscience. You can also practice mindful eating by eating to make hunger go away (rather than to feel full) and by putting down your fork between bites. This will also tend to produce weight loss.

35. Other people are different from you, and that is wonderful! Life would be boring if everyone were the same. Always remember that if you go through life expecting other people to react to things the way you would, you are usually going to be disappointed.

36. Losing touch with this system from time to time is natural and probably inevitable. This is why you should keep a copy with you for easy reference. Consult it a few times a day at first, just in case, but later on you should only need it if you’re feeling blocked or upset.

37. Always stay grounded. Humility helps, as mentioned above, but so do mundane tasks like cleaning your house, doing laundry or washing dishes. You can always think about lofty ideas about religion, philosophy, art or science at the same time. Many traditions warn about the possibility of madness from or addiction to the blissful states that mindfulness makes possible. The body is no less important just because the soul is evolving. Mens sana in corpore sano. (“A healthy mind in a healthy body.”)

38. Add your own rules as you discover them. Every person is different, and these are only the assumptions or truths that worked for me. We don’t have to agree on all or even some assumptions about how the universe works in order to be friends or learn from each other. Nobody likes an echo chamber, but nobody likes a contrarian either.

39. Get to know some animals and see how they surprise you. Any pet owner can tell you that animals, particularly (but not only) the more complex mammals like dogs and cats, have not only preferences and emotions but a real capacity for genuine love. They are like children, in that their love can’t not be pure, trusting, and unconditional. If your pet loves you, he or she will think nothing of jumping in front of a car to save you or digging you out of ten feet of snow. And cats, while smaller, have been known to stay up all night meowing when they find an abandoned baby in an alley. (Real example.) You can even “catch” a yawn from them, and they can catch one from you too. Michael Jackson used to say that he saw the face of God in every child; I see the face of God in every animal. You can too.

40. Practice happiness activities daily. These include such deceptively simple acts as singing, dancing, reading, creating art, meditating, taking a walk in the park, playing with your child or pet, visualizing someone you love, or contemplating death. Only a few minutes a day can make a huge difference to your mood, and that in turn will enrich the lives of everyone you meet.

41. Irrational fear, embarrassment, shame, and guilt are the most useless of emotions. Society has programmed them into you in order to make sure that you're a good little worker bee. But society needs you to break free and innovate much more than that, even though most people don't realize it. Be unreasonable and never let other people tell you that you can't. You will know you’re succeeding at this when you experience genuine tears of joy unexpectedly.

 42. This is a journey, not a destination. Mindfulness (or enlightenment, if you prefer) is a process, one that lasts a lifetime and possibly beyond. You will never truly be "done", because there are always new layers of self-imposed limitation, fear, and doubt to peel away. These rules are designed help you avoid needless suffering, and hopefully eventually to get you to the very first step of this journey. That's all they could ever do: create a context in which mindfulness will tend to arise on its own. They won’t change you so much as they’ll help you clear away whatever in your life doesn’t fit. Beyond that, all the succeeding steps will be intensely personal (and thus, probably very difficult to explain to most other people). That is normal and something you should expect. But if someone expresses interest in your personal journey, offer them these rules as an aid in starting theirs.

43. You deserve to be happy. So do other people, of course, but you are the only person you can ever hope to control. If you notice yourself starting to feel happier when working on these principles, that’s by design. Try not to question it too much. Many of us have been taught that we should be afraid of success, but like conformity, that ideal benefits only those who want to keep you asleep.

44. Explore altered states of consciousness. As many different ones as you can. Try the “hot” states that come from activities such as drumming, dancing, spinning, exercise, tantric sex, or self-flagellation. Try the “cool” states from meditation, lucid dreaming, “sub space”, even alcohol or a sugar crash. You will start to notice which states appeal to you most and what wisdom you gain from them.

45. Other people's reactions and judgments are not your problem. While you should always apologize if you’ve been inconsiderate, people who get uncomfortable because you’re making changes in your life that don’t directly affect them need to learn to mind their own business. Listen to their criticism anyway, thank them for it, and then feel free to discard it if it’s not useful.

46. Keep a calendar and a to-do list. If you have a smartphone or a tablet, use that. If you prefer paper, that’s fine too. Either way, while it’s possible to be mindful all the time, no one can practice mindfulness about every single detail in their lives. We’d all spend so much time remembering appointments and tasks that we’d have hardly any brain power left for actually doing anything. Calendars and to-do lists free your mind to contemplate important things instead, which is why they’re essential.

47. When you want something, act as if it’s a given that you will get it. This is one of the principles of “The Secret”, but news flash: That movie and book were successful because their system works. It’s vastly oversimplified, but it’s true that when you ask the universe for something in the right way, it will tend to figure out a way to give you what you need. Expecially if you’ve already started making your plans as if you have it.

48. The best time to use these rules is during or right after a crisis. Suffering naturally causes us to reevaluate our beliefs. This is why so many people seem to change careers after surviving a car accident or learning they have cancer. So if something devastating has recently happened to you, great! That willl give you a head start on rule #1.

49. Sometimes confrontation is the absolute best solution. When forced to make the choice between being someone’s friend by staying silent or by potentially hurting them, only you can know which option is wiser. But if hurting them might mean helping them overcome drama or an addiction, it is usually worth the risk. If you express your concern gently and with compassion, it will usually lead to hugs or tears rather than shouting. Compassion is like willpower or a muscle – in order for it to grow, you need to exercise it regularly.

50. Tell the truth, but cushion it as much as you can. Brutal honesty has its place, but most of the time the other person will appreciate a little tact. You can tell your friend privately that you think she might have a drinking problem - there’s no need to shout “You’re an alcoholic!” in front of all their friends and family in order to make your point. If the gentle approach doesn’t work, you can always get more help from other people who also see the truth you do.

51. Practice delaying gratification. When you feel you need something right away, ask yourself why. Is it actually a need, or is it only a want? If it’s a want, use it as a reward for finishing a project. There’s no need to eat dessert before dinner; there will still be plenty of dessert when the time comes. And it will always taste better if you’ve eaten your broccoli.

52. You’ll notice certain signs when you don’t really need this guide anymore. First, the ideas for new projects will start coming, and you’ll feel compelled to write them down. You’ll also get insights about your own behavior or about (for example) what the deeper meaning of your favorite film is. You may lose the ability to be forgetful, except when you’re tired or stressed. Then, as you start working on making whatever you’ve had ideas for, people will come into your life who can teach you skills you’ve always wanted to learn (or always been bad at). Likely, there will be things they want to learn from you also. Finally, you may notice a subtle shift in your consciousness. Especially if you’ve been diligent about rule #44.

53. You can never escape your own bias. Neither can I. While I’ve made every effort to make this guide as universal as I can, there will inevitably be mistakes or blind spots. I started out as a very rational and disordered adult, and then learned how to listen to my intuition and impose order on my life. It’s possible that if you’re very organized or intuitive already, some of these rules won’t apply to you. In that case, consider doing the opposite of the rule. It may help you improve upon a weakness.

54. Others are as afraid of you as you are of them. Most of the time, when you think someone is upset with you or doesn’t like you, you’re misinterpreting their own signals of discomfort. Unless you know the person very, very well, you have no chance of figuring out what they’re thinking. In any situation where someone seems cold or distant, make up three stories about why that might be the case. You can start with the negative one if that’s where your mind naturally goes, but come up with a positive one and a neutral one also. This will show you that your mental explanation for any situation is entirely your own choice.

55. You will make mistakes. Don’t repeat them. This may sound obvious, but too many people seem to focus on feeling guilty instead. Repentance doesn’t mean beating yourself up, it means resolving never to do such an unwise thing ever again. That’s what really makes a difference anyway.

56. Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of justice. Sounds cheesy, I know, but like mindful eating it’s an opportunity to program yourself to be more compassionate. Give a dollar to that homeless person, even if your mind wants to judge them. Forgive someone when you both know they’re in the wrong. Compassion doesn’t cost you anything, but it’s an enormous gift to the other person. Love shared is love multiplied. So share yours.

57. Abandon negative talk. Most people call themselves dumb, stupid, or a bad person multiple times a day. Quit it. Life is hard enough without you convincing yourself that you’re worthless. The same goes for negative speech about others – even if you know the gossip is true, how does spreading it serve anyone? It’s fine to warn someone about a toxic person, but you never know why that person is the way they are. Part of being compassionate is assuming that most “bad” people are actually just misguided or in pain. And speaking ill of others only diminishes you.

58. Ask for help or support when you need it. From family, friends, teachers, a therapist, or even me. If you have questions about the intent behind any or all of this guide, my email address is in rule #25. Just realize that I’m not a guru – I’m only a fellow student who’s been following these principles a little longer than you have. I’ll offer advice if I have it, but I’ll also be honest if I don’t know the answer. You should be skeptical of anyone who does otherwise, because they likely know far less than they pretend to. Addiction to a guru does happen sometimes, when people confuse the messenger with the message (see rule #20).

59. Check your bank account balance every day. Even if you think you know what it is. This will help you avoid embarrassing and potentially very distracting money issues. Nothing holds us back from self-actualization like not having enough money for food or shelter.

60. Connect people who need to know each other. When someone needs help with something, put them in touch with someone you know who has the knowledge they need. If you don’t know such a person, you probably know who to call to ask.

A note: I am not a Buddhist. People today, particularly Americans, seem to think that Buddhism has a monopoly on enlightenment. Most Buddhists admit that they don’t. Not that it matters much, but the principles in this document came to me through sources as varied as Jungian psychology, psychodrama, the Principia Discordia, chaos magic, Jewish mysticism, religious studies, personal development courses with Landmark Education, Usui Reiki Ryoho, role-playing games, improvisational acting, and writing classes. This is because my own intellectual vanity made it easier for me to figure out this information by solving the puzzle of connecting all these different disciplines. But how you get here doesn’t matter to anyone but you; what matters is what you do next. Eliphas Levi put it best, in one of the longest sentences I have ever actually liked: “Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practiced at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed.

Monday, November 11, 2013

I Am the Kwisatz Haderach

Okay, so I'm a Dune geek and so I'm using that metaphor. A better way to put what I want to say is in the words of Leto Atreides II: I have seen the Golden Path. I am not yet upon it, but it is within reach. And now nothing will stand in my way.

I could also put it in the words of Elphaba from Wicked:

"Something has changed within me.
Something is not the same.
I'm through with playing by the rules of someone else's game.
Too late for second guessing,
Too late to go back to sleep,
It's time to trust my instincts,
Close my eyes, and leap!"

The Golden Path, for me, is telling stories for a living. That has been my dream ever since about first grade, and now I actually see how it can work. It includes writing, but it also includes the Dystopia Rising chapter I'm currently working on starting. The process has been going very smoothly so far, as have all my other creative projects (including a novel, a role-playing game, a Jewish sweat lodge ritual, my most ambitious Purim party idea ever, and a book on Jewish folk magic). Something has indeed changed within me, from Playa del Fuego this year to Deathcon and Crucible... the magic I did on Halloween and the mindful diet a client gave me recently. It's all converged to produce in me what feels like how I imagine a satori - a moment of sudden enlightenment: Telling stories is what I was born to do. I'm going to get out of my own way and do it already. I've waited a few weeks to talk about this because I wanted to make sure it wasn't going to fade. It hasn't. It's like a switch has been flipped and I can't switch it back off again. And that makes me ecstatic.

I suspect this might be what Crowley meant by the True Will. Does finding your True Will cause bliss and euphoria? Because that's what I've been feeling ever since Crucible. A large part of that was teaching a Jewish folk magic class for the first time. I spent hours upon hours of prep time on it, and although the talk was far from perfect, I think I succeeded in presenting information most of the people in the room didn't already know. But the more remarkable thing was that I found myself able to concentrate on one thing for three or even six hours without a break. After so long out of school, I was worried I might not be able to do that anymore. This is just one example of how I got in my own way. All of you who think I'm awesome, I appreciate it... but I've been operating at maybe 20 to 30 percent of my potential for the past ten years or so. Now my goal is to be not just awesome, but epically so.

PDF (Playa del Fuego), for those who haven't heard of it, is a regional burn festival modeled after Burning Man. It's held twice a year, spring and fall, in Delaware, and draws just under 1400 people to Burning Man's 65,000. It's a great size for an event that has tons of variety but is still small enough to be intimate. And the culture of the Ten Principles there is so strong. PDF is where I learned most of what I know about radical inclusion, radical self-expression, participation and gifting.

These values also pervade the culture of Dystopia Rising, a post-apocalyptic zombie survival LARP I've been going to since December. The largest event of the year, Deathcon, happened before, during and after Crucible, so that's why I was only around for about half of Crucible. As I mentioned above, I'm now working on the application process for opening my own branch of this game in either Virginia or Ohio. I've spoken with the creator of the game, Michael Pucci, about how one of his goals with it was to enable other writers to do what he's done: become a professional, full-time creator of stories. Since events are normally once a month, even if I spent two weeks of the month writing modules and plots for the game, I'll still have two weeks a month to work on my other writing projects. Long term, I will want to run my Middle Eastern fantasy/horror game, Golden Age, as a LARP once a month as well. I also see occasional World of Darkness LARPs happening once the new rules from By Night Studios are out.

My PDF experience this year was bittersweet. I had a lot of fun, but I also suffered a lot from social anxiety. This guy I just met was good looking or seemed like he might have a problem with me (or worse yet, both), and so I'd sit in the corner and feel sorry for myself. After the event I mentioned it to my wonderful campmates from Barrel of Fun, and many of them said they'd experienced the same kind of self doubt as I had. Something about that was so reassuring that my social anxiety has all but disappeared since then.

Doing Crucible and Deathcon at the same time was a huge part of this too. I always come back from DR with great ideas, I think because I get to bounce off so many creative people there and we all cross-pollinate each other's unconscious minds. But the amount of great ideas coming off that weekend wasn't twice but more like three or four times normal. And while it's trickled from sudden bursts of insight to more of an on-demand kind of thing, that fountain of ideas hasn't turned off completely. I think as long as I tend it and drink from it regularly, it never will.

I've lost most of my will to watch hours of TV or to overeat. I'd much rather read or write something, most of the time, and when I do watch TV it's usually something interesting rather than something diverting. I've already had enough entertaining television to last a lifetime. I've also been having a much easier time with my temper because now I have perspective about what matters and what doesn't. What matters is what allows me to express myself and what doesn't, what helps people and what doesn't. But that leaves a whole lot of things I can just avoid worrying about. I do keep having to remind myself that money is not one of these things, because my day job now seems like an annoyance getting in the way of my real work. I always knew it was that way, but until recently I had no idea how to make self-employment as a writer actually feasible.

I feel like Lester Burnham at the beginning of American Beauty: Like I've been asleep for ten years and I'm just now waking up. Here's a secret that I now feel entirely comfortable sharing - for years, I was a notorious TV addict, overeater, pothead, even sometimes a shopaholic. I realize now that I wasn't an addict so much as I was an artist who was starved for creative expression. Filling that void with creativity is so much easier and more rewarding than filling it with anything else, at least for me, because it makes my everyday life far more interesting than TV or food or buying things. So the big secret is this: I play a Telling Visionist well because for a long time I enslaved myself to the boob tube. But now I'm back on books, and like the book of Proverbs says, Wisdom is a much more rewarding mistress than Foolishness.

I have to thank Dystopia Rising and especially everyone at Eschaton Media for creating a game that gave me a good excuse to write and sing and paint and craft things. I knew that it helped my mood, but it does so much more than that... it helps my soul even more. If not for all of you, I might have slept another ten years and not even known it. You've also created a place that draws so many game designers that it seems just as good for networking as a convention might be. And do you have any idea how unusual it is for players to have the kind of reverence for writers that your players have? It's done wonders for my self-esteem, let me tell you. I look forward to bringing your terrifying and illuminating vision to many more new gamers who can appreciate it.

I'd like to close by sharing the secret of how I'm able to get so much done these days. It comes down to a few simple tips that I learned from Landmark Education. The first is to be unreasonable when you know you want something. The second is to do whatever it is that makes you feel the most alive or the most yourself that you can possibly be.  And finally, there's the power of enrollment.

Landmark defines "enrollment" as "authentically sharing a possibility with someone, such that they are touched, moved and inspired by that possibility". So to translate that out of Landmarkese, if you're really jazzed up about something and you share your enthusiasm with others, there's a pretty good possibility that they might decide they want to help. This is exactly what I've done with Dystopia Rising: Illyria, and I've got a bunch of people already who are volunteering to build things once I have a site finalized. That's also how I've started up Psycho Sex Kitten Camp for next PDF so easily. When you've got a community that's into radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, and radical inclusion, enrollment is even more easy and rewarding than usual. And an essentially open-source mindset like that of burners or DR players leads to greater innovation and thus fun for everybody.

Having just visited the Pennsyltucky game, it struck me how interesting it is that Boulder Run, like Playa del Fuego and like Burning man was at one time, is a great example of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ). The writer Hakim Bey describes a TAZ as the perfect form of government, because it allows people to work together without stifling their creativity at all. But by definition it is always temporary. Communes and so-called pirate utopias are other examples of TAZs from history.

I'm beginning to ramble, but it's only because I'm trying to describe something ineffable. Something has changed within me. The Golden Path is within reach. Expect great things from me soon. I promise you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

We Need to Talk About Ender's Game...

I've been seeing all sorts of venom on social media directed at Orson Scott Card because of the new movie version of Ender's Game. While I appreciate your support in a way as a gay man, it also appalls me as a writer that people seem unable to grasp that being a bigot does NOT make someone a bad artist. I want to talk a little about why I think everyone should go see Ender's Game, regardless of where some of Card's money goes.

As an intelligent, geeky kid, I got teased and bullied a lot. Being socially awkward made it worse. So when I finally got to go to CTY (the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a.k.a. nerd camp), it was a revelation. Here was a place where liking Rocky Horror and Monty Python actually made you one of the cool kids, after a fashion. Here was a place where it was okay to discuss philosophy while lounging on the couches with your friends. And CTY was the first place I heard about Ender's Game. (Unfortunately, my roommate ruined the twist for me when I asked what it was about, but that's not the point here.)

Everyone there had read it. Everyone there loved it. Ender's Game is the quintessential parable of our time about being intelligent and socially awkward. Beyond that, it's a story about how capable outsiders seem eternally destined to get screwed over. This makes it an effective allegory for gay or transgender people just like any other marginalized group. The great irony of the story of Ender's Game is that a homophobic writer has written one of the most powerful stories about tolerance ever told through science fiction. I personally happen to think it was the tolerant part of him, deep inside, desperately trying to get out. But regardless of the reason, art ceases to be the property of the artist once it's out in the world having people interact with it. Ender's Game is a story about tolerance, plain and simple, and that story has great potential to help closeted gay kids just like it has helped so many shy gifted kids in the past.

More importantly, it's a damn good story. The characters are real, the geopolitical power structures are believable, and the twist is one you won't see coming if you haven't read the book. This is because Card is a master of his craft. His book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy has been my bible on the topic ever since I first read it in high school. Yet another way this homophobe has benefited this gay Jewish writer. I would argue that because this particular work is written in such a way that it might easily give hope to people who aren't comfortable with themselves, supporting it is the ultimate act of protest against Card's politics. And if we discarded artists' work because of their archaic or bigoted beliefs, there goes Carl Jung, Aleister Crowley, Walt Disney, and all of the Founding Fathers, just to name a few. Surely you must see how little sense that would make.

Finally, if you've read the book, you might find the absence of the word "bugger" conspicuous in the movie. We hear "bug" once or twice, but usually it's "Formic" instead. This is a convention from the Ender's Shadow series, but it's more interesting to me that the one homophobic slur that appeared in the book has been deliberately omitted. I doubt that was Card's choice, but more likely a smart one on the part of the studio. When I first read the book, I didn't know that "bugger" meant "faggot", but it would bother me now rereading the book and the movie avoids that problem entirely.