Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Only Thoughts and Actions Can be Controlled, Not Outcomes

"For the uncontrolled there is no wisdom, nor for the uncontrolled is there the power of concentration; and for him without concentration there is no peace. And for the unpeaceful, how can there be happiness?"--passage from the Bhagavad Gita, as quoted in Jerzy Kosinski's Steps

"The man who is secure within himself has no need to prove anything with force, so he can walk away from a fight with dignity and pride. He is the true martial artist--a man so strong inside that he has no need to demonstrate his power."--Ed Parker

I have always had a strong feeling about the importance of doing things the right way and I have always been greatly bothered by any situation in which things are not done the right way (or what I perceive to be the right way) but there can be a negative result from being so focused on trying to fix every perceived injustice: "Too much [yetzer hatov] leads to premature saintliness. If one is overly righteous, one is likely to become suicidal."

Almost every person in my life has disappointed me to some extent but I am the person who has disappointed myself the most--and after some deep reflection about various situations I now realize the reason for all of this disappointment is very clear: heightened, unrealistic expectations about life and a desire for perfection inevitably lead to self-inflicted suffering.

In his monograph Life Was Never Meant to Be a Struggle, Stuart Wilde wrote:

Are you struggling to fix the world? If so, why? It's a bit of an ego trip when people think they can fix things. If you can see the world as an evolution--the way God would see it--you would know it's more or less perfect and does not need fixing. It's only when we view the world within the finite context of our emotions and ego that it looks less than perfect.

You can instantly become happy and free by deciding to leave the world alone and concentrate instead on yourself. By strengthening yourself, you serve all humanity. Each of us is linked to one another.

I do not agree with Wilde that the world is "more or less perfect"--in fact, I vigorously disagree with that notion--but I agree with him about the importance of self-improvement. I have no power to change the things that people say and do that make no sense to me but I have the power to control my reactions to the world's irrationality; I can choose to focus on enjoying my life and being as productive as I am capable of being, as opposed to dwelling on the world's problems and imperfections. When I first read the above quote from the Bhagavad Gita, I understood it to refer to self-control as a precursor to being able to control events and outcomes but now I understand self-control to be a worthy end in and of itself.

During the fateful lightsaber duel between Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and Darth Maul in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a force field temporarily separated the two combatants; Darth Maul paced back and forth like a predator poised to kill its prey, while Qui-Gon Jinn knelt down, closed his eyes and meditated: Qui-Gon Jinn knew that his whole life and his entire training had culminated at this moment and that he needed to control his emotions, embrace concentration and focus his energies. The way that Qui-Gon Jinn maintained such equanimity and poise while facing a devil-horned opponent brandishing a double-sided lightsaber is a great example of how one should face all of life's challenges, great and small: trust your training and your instincts, do your best and accept the outcome. That particular outcome was not good for Qui-Gon Jinn--Darth Maul killed him--but Qui-Gon Jinn's apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi immediately killed Darth Maul and Kenobi's apprentice Luke Skywalker eventually brought down the evil Galactic Empire. Qui-Gon Jinn's influence resonated long after his death because of the way that he lived his life.

In a recent chess tournament, I won a game because my opponent responded to my blunder ...Nxe5 with the blunder Nxf7 instead of playing Nb5, which would have given him a winning position. Winning chess games used to make me feel very happy, while losing chess games used to make me feel very upset but those reactions are too extreme. A better, more balanced path is to prepare properly before the event, concentrate fully during the event, enjoy the entire process and not overreact to the result. All that a person can control is his own actions; outcomes and results are influenced by factors that a person cannot control: the results of other games affect who I get paired against--which means that I could face someone whose style is a good matchup or someone whose style is a difficult matchup--and my opponent's training, discipline and outlook affect the quality of his moves, so unless I play perfect moves 100% of the time I cannot control the outcome of the game. Of course, the better that I play the more influence I can exert over that outcome and that is one of the most seductive qualities of chess: the illusion that with only a little more knowledge and discipline a person can completely control his destiny (echoes of that illusion can be heard in the famous concluding words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby). The difference between winning a game and losing a game and the difference between winning a tournament and finishing in the middle of the pack is sometimes just one move, one flickering of a neuron in someone's mind. 

If I had been more well-rested and/or if I had studied more before the tournament then perhaps I would have played a different move but I have many interests and I enjoy the time/energy that I devote to those interests; I am not making excuses about that blunder or any other chess blunder, just stating the truth. At that moment under those conditions, ...Nxe5 was the best move I could find; I did not play impatiently and I thought that I had considered all of the relevant tactics. A minute or two after I played ...Nxe5, I saw the Nb5 idea; while I waited to see which move my opponent would play, I pondered the folly of basing one's emotional state on what happened next: I knew that the outcome of the game would likely be determined by his move and that if I was not careful then I could permit that outcome to affect my mood for the next several days. I vowed that, whatever happened, I would not overreact. I tried my best and ...Nxe5 is the move that I played, so there is nothing to be elated about and nothing to be upset about; winning the game after my opponent blundered did not "prove" anything about me (or about my opponent).

My opponent also did not rush and I assume that he did the best that he could under his individual circumstances. I have deliberately not given the complete move list or provided a diagram of the game position, because this particular game and these particular moves are just vibrations of a much larger cosmic string. If my opponent or I had vibrated the string a bit differently then we would have played a different melody but--regardless of the melody we created--there is nothing to cry about here. I should celebrate that I have been playing tournament chess for more than 25 years and that I am capable of playing chess at a higher level than 97% of all rated players; my young opponent should celebrate that he is already a strong player and that if he stays on his current path then he likely will become a chess master. No, it is even simpler than that: regardless of years spent or rating points obtained, the enjoyment of playing the game in the moment is the height of ecstasy; the game result is logically determined by the combined mental and psychological states of both players and there is no reason to become emotional about that logically determined outcome: if you have a succession of outcomes that you deem to be unsatisfactory then it is necessary to adjust your life pattern (sleep habits, study habits, etc.) to maximize the chance that you will enjoy better outcomes in the future.

Easy to say, hard to do but very necessary. My opponent looked distraught when he realized that he had blundered and I understand that feeling all too well. Chess is a very violent game; it may not be possible to completely eradicate the suffering one feels after a loss but I think that determined, focused concentration can result in a modified perspective.

In his aforementioned book, Stuart Wilde declared, "Conflict is always just a divergence of opinions. Are you struggling to convince others that your opinion is right? And if you are right, so what? To win a moral victory at the expense of your sanity is dumb." This article represents my attempt to explain my mental, emotional and psychological evolution as I understand and perceive this ongoing process; it contains insights that have helped me achieve greater tranquility and balance and I believe that those insights could help other open-minded people as well: I welcome the opportunity to interact with introspective people who are thinking about these issues but, following Wilde's sage advice, I have no interest in trying to convince anyone that anything that I have written is true, important or even relevant.

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