Transcendence through Second Life

While I’m burning eyelashes on my other computer, swallowed by much-delayed work, I came up with the idea of writing about a topic which you will find, well, unusual. If it makes you smile and laugh, I’ll be happy 🙂 If it makes you think a bit, because in my usually light tone, I touched something quite profound, well, I’ll be even more happier, of course. 🙂

Around mid-2004, when I first started thinking about Second Life® and what it meant (those were the days when I thought this was actually a sociology experiment, disguised as a video game), I came to the surprising realisation that something that I always found to be rock-solid was actually malleable, even plastic. I was observing my own self.

You have to take into account that in my teens — the last time I gave a serious look at my own self — neuroscience was not so advanced as it is today. We were still taught the prevalent opinion of the 1980s, stating that the neural connections in the brain sort of “solidify” around your puberty. Science recognised that the brain of a foetus has to have “raw” connections — after all, we are all born with some innate, instinctive behaviours, like sucking at our mother’s breasts — but that most of them were still “plastic” enough to be shaped by the first years of being subject to external stimuli, playing, and, later, more formal training and education. However, it was believed that after your teens, this ability of “rewiring” existing neural connections would not go much further on; about the time you were at the “peak of adulthood” (roughly around 25 years), the brain was fully formed, and the slow decline and deterioration would begin.

Nowadays, we all know this isn’t true (brain cells can continue to grow and be replaced, and neural connections can continue until the end of your physical life). But with my 15 years I didn’t know that. So, I looked at myself, and wasn’t happy about the way I was. I hated being shy, introverted, and socially inapt. So, well, I thought this was my last opportunity to make a change, until it was too late. And change I did; if for the better or for the worse, I don’t know, but at that time I was particularly surprised at how easy it was.

Then, well, after my 20th birthday or so, I simply never worried about this again. I was still aware of having been that odd, ugly kid at high school which was scorned, ignored, and laughed at; those memories were still present. But I was quite self-confident at that time and thought that I had “grown out” of it. Certainly through some serious effort of mine, sure, but I wasn’t too much worried. Adulthood had far more complex challenges (or so I thought!) than worrying about my own self — I just got absorbed in my studies, and later in my work, and there was really no much time to think about my self again. The occasion never rose, and I didn’t deem it to be “important” anyway: I was who I was, and, in any case, science would tell me that my brain was now “frozen in place”, so any opportunity to change it was lost anyway.

I never thought about this again until I started logging in to SL regularly.

The “sharded” self

My experience in SL was weird at the start. Since there was a certain level of detachment — in the sense that I could observe what was happening in front of me, in the virtual environment, I could see the way my avatar related to other people, and, most important, what kind of ideas they made about myself. Curiously enough, they got slightly different reactions to what people have towards my real self. Of course some is “lost” through the more narrow range of senses in SL. After all, images in SL have less resolution than in SL. In 2004, the only way to talk to people was via chat, and text-based communication is different than voice communication. You can’t smell people, and body language is very reduced (but not non-existent!). I first attributed the change in perceptions to the narrow channel of those “limited” senses.

Clearly, however, this wasn’t the whole explanation. The notion of “limited senses” is just a convenient excuse. After all, on my daily routine, I chat on other media too; I write emails; I get phone calls (fortunately, less and less of those!). All these are also “limited” in several ways. Nevertheless, most people I communicate with react to my physical self in pretty much the same way when they are in my physical presence. Thus, physical presence, by itself, is not the conditioning factor. And why? Because the amazing pattern-matching and processing abilities wired in our brains is most excellent at dealing with limited information. In fact, this goes to extreme cases, when you consider the simple issue that the brain sees things that are not there: we all have a rather large blind spot in our eyes (the place where the optical nerves enter the eye), but we’re never aware of it. The brain just compensates. Or, more correctly, the awareness bit of the brain just gets processed information which does not contain the big, black spot where there is no visual information. We don’t “see” (in the sense of data processing of visual input) the blind spot and just conveniently ignore it; no, our awareness does not include the lack of visual data at all. We see contiguous visual information all the time.

Similarly, although we all know that we just see about 22 frames per second, we’re not aware of individual frames.We can’t tell ourselves, “I’m seeing just snapshots of the external world, continuous movement is just an illusion of my brain”. We simply don’t think like that. We can’t “freeze” a frame and analyse it, or discard frames, or anything like that. Even if we know, at an intellectual level, that we just get snapshots and there is no real “movement” out there, that’s not what we’re aware of. The brain just compensates and translates and interprets everything as “fluid movement”, even if no such thing exists in reality.

So, well, when we’re on a phone call, we also compensate for the lack of visual input. We don’t behave so differently on a phone call with a good friend — we can imagine their face when they laugh, for instance. The lack of information is not a crucial factor for our so well adapted brain. The narrower bandwidth of a communication medium is usually not a problem. So we can “feel” we’re in the “presence” of a friend when we call them up, even if that’s really just our brain tricking us to believe that, because it’s so good at tricking us all the time. And, of course, we all know that this is an evolutionary trait: the skill we have to look at tell-tale signs in the surroundings and start running well before we see the tiger jumping at us. Being able to deal with incomplete data, getting it right most of the time (the ones that didn’t manage that have quickly dropped out of our gene pool and made some happy tigers in the past), and being able to react in a fully functional is a consequence of the way our mind works.

If one discards the lack of information as the cause of people perceiving a different self, what else remains? I had to conclude that my self is, well, not the same self. It’s almost the same one but not quite the same. This confused me, since, in a sense, I was still stuck with the old idea of a “frozen” neural structure in the brain of my tender teens. If my self was “frozen” decades ago, how could it possibly change now?

Thus, I postulated the notion of a sharded self. Unlike what I originally thought, the self — whatever that is — cannot possibly be physically “frozen” and be something immutable (even after your teens). It has to have several “components” that are pretty much assembled (and broken apart) depending on such things like your mood, for instance. But under the influence of some drugs (alcohol was the one that came to mind), some of those “components” might surface temporarily to the forefront, and thus the behaviour might change, in a manner quite unlike what others would consider “the normal self”. Anyone who has seen their best friends drunk and behaving in quite a different manner would recognise this immediately (it’s far easier to see that happening on others than on yourself!). But after the effects of those drugs, the self would return to “normal”: so there was a certain amount of plasticity built-in into the brain, but not too much, since, of course, unless you have severe psychological disorders, you will pretty much “return” to your own self sooner or later. This altered state of behaviour, an alternative self, is seldom too different, and definitely only temporary — or so I thought.

SL is not exactly a psycho-active “drug”, but being immersed in SL definitely triggered the same kind of “shard shifting”. The in-world Gwyn behaves slightly differently — and is thus perceived slightly differently — by the off-world Gwyn. This is something I don’t even need to force, or concentrate, or make any kind of effort. It happens naturally. And, to be honest, I wasn’t even really aware of any change to my own self — I just observed how others reacted. In some funny cases, people I know iRL react differently to me in-world than off-world, and this, of course, was quite baffling.

The interdependent self

But clearly this was not all. SL is not an uniform environment: there are thousands of separate communities. By observing their reactions to myself, I’ve noticed that they were ever-so-slightly different — and that I also behaved ever-so-slightly differently when on different communities. Again, when I talk about “differences” I’m not considering dramatic differences. They were so subtle and small as to be almost imperceptible. But remember that I was really paying attention this time! And sure, there they were, here and there, different reactions to myself — triggered by slightly different forms of behaviour.

Now anyone who loves role-playing is aware of all this; any resident with an alt does this all the time, and that’s their form of enjoying SL: pretending to be someone else. There is nothing to it. Actors do it for a living, amateurs do it for fun. However, I was not consciously doing any “pretending” at all. I was just, well, behaving naturally, or at least that’s what my intention was. The result, however, was not what I expected: when the environment changed, I would change a tiny bit as well, and people around me would perceive a slightly different Gwyn.

Thus my “theory” of the sharded self was definitely incorrect, or, at least, quite incomplete.

But the more intriguing discovery was that this didn’t happen just in SL. I had not been aware of how much differently I behave when at home, with friends, or at work. When I’m in court as a witness, for example, I behave in a completely different way than when among my friends dining out. So which of those behaviours are my true self? In fact, I started to agree that I was just wearing masks, one for each occasion, and that it was quite natural to do so — because everybody else does the same. My mother at church behaves differently when at home, or when at the hospital with my daddy. She’s not “pretending” to be a different person. She just wears the mask which is more appropriate to the occasion.

Well, then the question would be: among the different masks, which one is the “real me”?

And to that question I had no answer.

This was a most disturbing thought. One of my preliminary answers was, “the mask that I wear to myself”. But even that one was not a definitive answer. First, that mask changes over time: the pre-teen Gwyn had a quite different mask than the one I wear today — even to myself. But over the days, even to myself, I wear different masks. There is the “annoyed Gwyn”. The “angry Gwyn”. The “happy Gwyn”. The “sleepy Gwyn”, which is one of the most frequent ones, coming next to the “hungry Gwyn”… which one of those is the “real Gwyn”? I could only say “all and none”, but that wasn’t a very satisfying answer.

Instead, what I thought is that I couldn’t simply say, “there is this ‘me’, which is unchangeable, and there are ‘others’, who react to this ‘me’, and they’re unchangeable — we just employ different masks depending on the environment”. That’s just half the truth. In reality, however, it became quite apparent that this “self” — my own and the ones of all of the others — is totally dependent on the environment and the people in it. Specially the people. So when I was in a particular group, they would experience my self in a certain way, and create a mental image of the current “mask” I was wearing; if I moved to a different group, they would experience a different Gwyn (even if not too different). If the two groups shared their experiences about my own self, they would describe two ever-so-slightly different Gwyns. But there is just one Gwyn. So clearly none were experiencing the quite the same thing, although, from my perspective, I was the same person and behaved in the same way in the two groups. Or perhaps not.

Perhaps, even if I behaved in exactly the same way, people would still experience a slightly different Gwyn, just because their perceptions are different. If that was the case, how could I convince them to change their perceptions about myself? I’ve tried that hard and for a long time, and somehow, I became very frustrated when I figured out, no matter what I did, it would be impossible to force others to change their perception of myself.

In Portugal we have an old saying, “you can’t please Greeks and Trojans”. That’s one of my favourite mottos. It encompasses this notion of perception of one’s self very neatly: no matter what you do, no matter what your intentions are, people will still perceive you differently — and in most cases, they will perceive you differently than you perceive yourself! This was got me even more frustrated, specially with people that got angry at me for no logical, rational reason — but just because they projected an image of what they thought I was, and got angry at that projection. But they take that projection as being “real”. It’s very real for them. And that make them angry, or frustrated, because I’m not fulfilling their expectations — when those are really not even part of my agenda.

So, clearly, the way a “self” is perceived depends on others, and vice-versa: your own self changes depending on others, not only because of yourself. We’re all interdependent, even if we pretend not to be. We all wear masks depending on whom we’re with. We all lie to ourselves trying to believe there is a “fundamental self” somewhere — the “real mask” that only we can see — but we can’t pinpoint it.

Changing your mind

It was time to catch up a bit more on the latest advances of neurology and psychology and see what people have been thinking recently about how the brain — and more importantly, how the mind — works. However, their answers were not so satisfying. These days, we definitely know that the brain doesn’t “freeze” into place at all — it’s always plastic and flexible all the time, even though it might lose some of that flexibility close to our physical death. But “losing a bit of plasticity” is quite different from stating that it loses its ability to change!

In my teens, I was also taught that the peak of mental activity in humans is around the time the body reaches full adulthood, and it declines from then on inevitably. This encouraged students to get their PhD and write their thesis before their 30th birthday, because, so I was told, after that you simply don’t have the mental agility to come up with earth-shattering new theories. Examples abound on scientists who did their masterwork around that age but never came up with anything new after that.

Now this is plainly wrong. Anedoctal evidence has always showed me the reverse to be more correct. One of my best friends has just completed his PhD — with close to 80 years. In my country, most architects never become famous before they’re 65 — they simply don’t have enough experience to do great works of art before that. One of our most famous movie director is 102 years old and faithfully produces a movie every year. All of those examples are of people doing their work better, not worse. The difference between them and others who really look like they have lost some mental abilities, assuming that loss is not due to illness or accident, is that they continue to exercise their brains regularly.

In SL, this is even more true. Most of my best friends are all over 50 years of age; many are over 60; some over 80. They exhibit absolutely no “lessening” of mental abilities. They’re able to learn how SL works and to use it every day as quickly as a teenager — specially way more quickly than teenagers who spend half their lifes watching TV. So it’s clearly not a function of “age”, but more a function of using your brain. If you let go of “brainy activities”, you’ll lose mental abilities, but that can happen when you’re 13 or 113.

Taking this for granted, the question then is really how this mind-changing business is accomplished. The answer, of course, is easy. Just remember when you first start taking driving lessons. By repeating the same movements over and over, they become, so to speak, “second nature”. There is no magic going on there: our brains can learn, after all, and all they do is to wire and rewire neuronal connections. We all know that.

However, one thing that was not clear to me was what kind of things can be learned. I always associated the “learning” process to physical skills (like driving a car, or painting a house), but clearly we can do much more abstract things, like maths. The way we “train” something to “learn” it seems to be similar: we repeat, over and over again, some activity we’re doing, be it physical or mental (in the sense of “abstract”), and at some point, with enough practice, we can accomplish it with little effort. Granted, different people will learn different things at different rates; some things might be overly complex to be learned quickly, some we might never learn. Others — like for instance learning our first language — are common to us all, and we pretty much take the same amount of time (on average) learning it.

About this time, I remembered my teenager days, when I definitely changed my self… or perhaps I should now be a bit more precise. I don’t really know, after these pages, what my self “is”. All I know is that I had a lot of fears when I was young (like the fear to speak in public, the fear to sound silly and behave inappropriately, the fear to stand up for something I believed in), and I definitely had a lot of expectations and hopes (I wished to become less shy, I wished to get a partner, I wished not to be seen as an idiot, I wished to be popular, I wished to be a talented artist, and so forth… I had quite a lot of wishes!). What I did was to shuffle these around. At the beginning, it was a daunting task — how does oneself “wishes” to become less shy? If I feared to speak in public, how could I overcome that fear?

Instead, I did something quite more subtle. I started to care less about what I feared, and hope less about what I wished. Instead of fearing audiences — mostly because I feared to be seen as the idiot I was — I just didn’t care so much if people thought I was an idiot or not. I just went ahead and said what I had to say. Sure, people still looked at me in a menacing way, but I cared less about that. Sure, some even thought I was more idiot than before — but I didn’t care so much of making a fool of myself. And the same was true about my other wishes: I didn’t have any talent in painting, sculpting, playing an instrument, composing music… so an artistic career was out of the question. I could still write, even if I wouldn’t have any hopes of getting published, or make a living out of that. So that became, all of a sudden, less important. Just because everybody in my circle of friends would become successful artists, that didn’t mean that I had to become one too, or, worse, become frustrated with the idea that I had no talent whatsoever. And so forth.

So by giving a little less importance to all those things, I might not have changed my “self” (whatever that might be), but I most certainly changed the way I thought about myself. It’s like having lived all my life up to then with a mask I hated and despised, but the only thing I did was to take a good look at this mask and ask myself: “what’s so terrible about it? It’s just a mask. Who cares? Nobody but me; so if I don’t care about it either, I won’t be frustrated.” Surprisingly — very surprisingly, in fact — this worked well, even though I thought it would be quite impossible to do again. What was the secret? Over a whole year, I just focused on looking at the mask differently. Every day I thought about caring less and less about how ugly that mask was. After a year or so, well, I really didn’t care much about it any more.

Sounds too simple? Or like magic? Well, I just attributed it to the plasticity of the mind when one’s young, and, as said, I didn’t expect it to work again.

I was so wrong. 🙂

Second Life as a Path to Enlightenment

(That would actually make a nice title for a book to be sold in airport lounges 😉 )

One day in SL I was having a violent, rabid discussion with a resident that shall remain unnamed. We flew insults at each other, and, on my side of the keyboard, I was in tears, totally devastated. I was furious, angry, and terribly sad at the same time, with a huge sense of frustration. Why, oh why, couldn’t this guy see things like I did? (because obviously I was right and he was wrong)

There is an old Netiquette rule, from the olden days when people still knew what that was: before sending a furious email or writing a forum post (or blog comment), let it stay unsent for 24 hours. If after that time you still feel the same way about it, then send it.

Whoever wrote that rule was very wise. As a day passes, things change. The conditions that made you so furious often fade and disappear, although not always. The email or post you read, after some time, just don’t convey the same intensity of feeling. You might simply have woken up to a new, bright, shiny day, and things don’t sound so gloomy or insulting as before. Even if you end up sending the message, it might get a strong revision first, and be quite milder. It might even accomplish the desired effect — e.g. persuading others to see your point of view — just because it is much less angry/insulting, and have more compelling arguments.

Second Life, however, in its early incarnation, was all text-based. That means that you can always think before you write. Since there is always a delay, and the Delete key is always available, it means that when you’re utterly furious you can pause to think. And that is a huge advantage!

We all have experienced discussions iRL when we regretted our words afterwards. We excuse ourselves and say that we simply were forced to say what we said because our emotions pushed us to that. It’s true — anger drives us to say irrational things, and we cannot “fight” it. And there is no question that insults and similar things will drive us insane. Sometimes just someone’s presence fills us with anger, and we just say what we have to say. We might apologise later (or never), but on that moment, we cannot “go against our nature”.

But often we wish that we could have had a bit more time to reflect on what we said; and we might even consider that, though justified, we could have employed different words.

Now in SL we can do that very conveniently. We can take an insult, kick some chairs iRL, throw the keyboard against the wall (I have seen some people doing that and much worse!), but after we vent our fury, we can sit down again and type an answer. Some seconds might have elapsed between the rise of our anger and the actual typing. What comes out may be much milder, and the other resident might not even have noticed how furious we are. As a matter of fact, we might come out sounding wiser, or even making sense.

Obviously this is not something observed frequently. For most residents, even a few seconds is not enough to placate their anger and answer in a more moderate way. But here is where you can practice! Since there is a detachment between your anger and the time you take to type something furiously insulting… you can take advantage of that detachment. The wonderful bit about SL is that nobody will notice. In real life, the old “count to ten before you shout” will leave your face flushed and contorted in a spasm of anger, so you won’t fool anyone with kind words. In SL, however, your avatar doesn’t reflect your expression. You can just type: “sorry, I’m just too angry to continue” and teleport away.

But wow, what a difference that makes! Instead of throwing everything back at the other resident, you have a choice to remain rational and just leave. How wonderful would RL be if you could do the same!

And all that because you have a few extra seconds to react to your emotions, and a Delete key.

Some acquaintances of mine actually dislike this (and that’s why they insist in voice chat, for instance). They say that in real life, people aren’t writing mild, calm, neutral messages (with perfect spelling!). They claim that strong emotions are so filtered down that you’re not experiencing someone else’s “true self”, which is supposed to be angry, furious, and irrational.

This actually baffles me. What these people are saying is that they like to be insulted, offended, and shouted at. I find it strange because I personally would prefer that people are kind to me. Surely nobody really likes to be insulted and offended. But I think that the point they’re trying to make is that in real life few people are so ‘controlled’ as they often appear in SL, and this makes them uneasy.

Well, it’s certainly true that most people are not in control of their emotions iRL, that’s a fact. However, I find that SL gives us a lovely environment to train to be in control of our emotions. And that’s just because of two things: your avatar doesn’t immediately reflect your body language, and you get a few more seconds to reply when your emotions “take over”.

According to the Buddhist tradition, we’re not supposed to be “slaves to emotions”. Don’t take me wrong on this: emotions are good. That’s what make us humans. We wouldn’t have inspiring art, for instance, if we hadn’t any emotions. We wouldn’t have developed fantastic technology that makes our lives so much more fascinating if we hadn’t a way to, well, get fascinated by things. We wouldn’t have chocolate brownies if we didn’t enjoy the taste explosion of chocolate 🙂 All these are fundamental to make us human beings, and “getting rid” of emotions is hardly functional — we’d be little more than animals, and quite low animals at that (all mammals have strong emotions — we can see that if we have pets 🙂 Cats and dogs do have a lot of fun when playing).

But one thing is feeling emotions, the other thing is being a slave to them. When we are conditioned by our emotions — not unlike Pavlov’s dogs — we hurt others, and hurt ourselves too in the process. Note that this is true both for positive emotions as well as for negative ones. Everybody sees “anger” as being a terribly bad emotion, but we quickly forget that being addicted to the pleasure of eating chocolate is not that good, either. Passion in a relationship (which is so often confused with love) is intense and good, but being a slave to passion means becoming possessive and jealous, or so totally dependent upon our partner that we can’t function properly unless they’re around all the time. We convince ourselves that this is “normal” because “everybody else” feels and does the same, but that doesn’t mean we have to enjoy being unhappy because we’re slaves to emotions.

Now, our brains are not so fast as a computer, but they’re pretty fast indeed. Neurons fire at the speed of a fifth of a second (a magic number — we experience “chat lag” when the time between pressing a key and the corresponding letter to appear on the screen takes more than 0.2 sec). That’s fast enough. It means that the time between getting angry and yelling at someone else just takes 0.2 seconds. That’s not much time. If the Netiquette guys advise 24 hours to send an angry message, what can you accomplish in 0.2 seconds? Really, not much. You simply don’t notice that tiny amount of time passing — you just react, and regret it (or not…) later.

A typical Buddhist training attempts to deal exactly with that. It deals with observing how your emotions and thoughts arise, but let them go without reacting or “judging” them. With years of training — and remember, everything can be trained with enough daily practice — you can in fact observe a very strong emotion rising (like anger), but, instead of immediately reacting to it, just watch it fade away by itself. When the emotion disappears, you don’t feel compelled to act because of that emotion: you get a choice. Oh yes, this all happens in perhaps 0.2 seconds. So you can imagine that this is not easy and takes a lot of practice (the good news, of course, is that with practice it gets easier all the time).

So now you understand why on the movies those Oriental monks seem always to be so calm and peaceful and able to do uncanny martial art tricks without an effort. In fact, unlike what the popular media claims, they haven’t suppressed their emotions, or somehow dampened them, becoming some kind of vegetable or zombie, unable to feel anything. Oh no, they feel pretty much everything that you and I feel — perhaps even more so, since they are always paying close attention. The difference between them and us is that they don’t allow the emotions to condition them. They just watch their anger rise and seize their bodies, filling them with the same kind of fury that we all feel. But they don’t allow their actions to be compelled by those strong emotions. They have a choice. They might just smile instead. That’s the secret of their years of practice: not to abandon all human thought and emotions, but, rather the contrary, paying good attention to it, and practising every day. And no, they’re not “special” in the sense that they have some “magic” or “secret” tricks that allow them to function that way. They just practice.

If you have ever picked up a complex physical exercise — even driving a car! — you might have experienced the same thing. I remember when I took my first ballroom dancing classes. At the beginning, there was so much to learn, so many things to do at the same time — watching your feet to get the proper steps, listening to music, see what you’re partner is doing, remembering the choreography… I used to think to myself, “how do people enjoy this at all?! It’s so stressful! Surely when we see people talking while they dance is just something out of Hollywood; in real life, we have too much to think about to have some free time to talk!” But of course, after a few years (I wasn’t a fast learner) of practising, you get used to all of that. Those 0.2 seconds, all of a sudden, seem to be quite a lot of time after all. And it’s when your brain is properly wired-up to allow you to dance automatically without making an effort that you can fully enjoy dancing — and yes, even talk to your partner and laugh about how silly you were when you started! And yet, this doesn’t come easily, it takes a lot of practice, and we just get frustrated because of the time it takes… but it pays off. When you learn to accomplish all those things (doing the right steps, listening to the music, figuring out where you are in relation to the other dancers so that you don’t bump into them) in those 0.2 seconds, you really start enjoying yourself a lot. Dancing is supposed to be fun!

Now paying attention to your emotions and thoughts, and not getting compelled by them, is pretty much the same thing. You can get there with enough practice, but it’s not easy, either. It takes as long as learning to dance (at least), but you start with a huge handicap: you have been conditioned all your life to react to your emotions violently (these are an evolutionary trait — for example, when we feel fear, we run away; when we feel physical attraction to a partner, we copulate to reproduce our genes). Dancing, by contrast, is starting something new from scratch. Getting unfettered from your emotions requires learning how to observe them first (which we don’t really want to) and make a choice on how we react afterwards (we have to unlearn the typical reactions first, which we are so used to).

Since this happens so quickly, it’s hard to practice! Unlike dancing, where the worst that can happen is that you fall down or bump into another dancer, training to deal with anger or passion is something that will always hurt others (or yourself), until you accomplish at least some minimal skill. That’s frustrating. In this day and age, we simply have no time. We expect immediate results. People go to weekend retreats in the hope of learning how to decouple strong reactions from emotions and come back frustrated because they still wish to hit someone when they get angry. That’s normal: our expectations are too high and the method is simply too slow, you can’t do it in “a few days”, and very likely will require years of training, not days.

We SL residents, however, are quite lucky: we have a fantastic tool that can help us a lot. The two major difficulties — time and hurting others while we train — are removed in SL. We have a lot of more time (at least in text chat): not 0.2 seconds, but a handful of seconds, or even a minute (other residents don’t expect instant text chat, just fast enough text chat). Often this is more than enough to pause a bit, feel the anger get drained, and write something less furious. And while we do that, we’re not hurting anyone. Our avatar just stays there, animated by our Animation Overrider — not by our emotions. The other resident is just waiting, expectant, but doesn’t know — and cannot see — what is happening in our angry mind. And if our anger is actually taking longer than a few seconds or minutes to go away, we can simply teleport away (hard to do iRL!) or disconnect — people are used to glitches on the ‘net, and most won’t be furious. We can even pretend that we had some “urgent RL call” while we vent our fury at our end. Whatever we’re doing, the point is, SL enables us to make choices which we cannot do so easily in the 0.2 seconds of real life time.

If these are good news, here come more good news. If you start seriously doing this all the time in SL, you will, for starters, be seen as a very friendly, happy person, and gather a good reputation of being someone well-balanced. Ironically, we feel attracted to those kinds of people. Don’t worry if it looks like you’re “always in control of your emotions” when in fact you’re seething with anger all the time (or crying over your keyboard). Nobody knows what goes inside your mind. Remember that this is pretty much what all those spiritual masters are actually doing — they’re fully experiencing the whole range of strong and violent emotions, they just choose not to act according to them. But we don’t see that, we just see their friendly expressions and the smile. The ability to detach yourself from your strong emotions and just behave in a functional, rational way is amazingly attractive. And, in SL, you can do that — while still kicking chairs or using up your storage of tissue paper.

And finally, the better news. There are lots of methods to accomplish the same results, and not all work for all people in the same way. The important here is to find a method that works for you, and practise it daily. Those Buddhist monks smiling at you will probably have learned dozens of techniques, all of them involving methods to observe thoughts and emotions with close attention, but not all techniques will work on all of them. They will probably have picked one that worked for them and have stuck to it. Whatever the method, all of them rely on our brain’s amazing ability to be trained by getting its neural paths rewired; it gets easy — like driving a car — with constant repeating. So the trick of reading the text chat, waiting until the anger or sadness subsides, and answering only then is just another method. If you train it long enough you will be able to do that in real life as well. Now that’s amazing, but it’s not “magic”: you just get some training to be unconditioned from emotions in “a minute” or “a few seconds”, but, over time, you can do it in less and less time. One day you’ll suddenly realise, in the middle of a RL discussion, that you don’t really need to yell back: you can observe your anger, and, in a few seconds, just like you do in SL with text chat, refuse to react in a typical, aggressive way. The interesting thing is that this will happen, sooner or later, depending on how seriously you engage in this kind of practice.

I have actually found a lot of residents like that. When they were very new in SL, they were unusually furious at everybody, always angry, always creating drama, always insulting others and hurting them with offensive words. As time went by, they started to change. They still made snarky comments, but these were less frequent. Often I asked them what happened, why they didn’t answer back as usual, and they just told me: “oh, what’s the point, I got furious, but it was worthless to type”. After a few years in SL people started changing their opinions about them — not always for the best, mind you, because it’s impossible to change people’s perception about yourself; some thought that they became more cunningly clever, more cold and calculating… but the truth is that this was just a result of expecting them to be insulting and offensive all the time, and finding it so strange that these people just stopped acting (or, rather, reacting) as they expected them to behave, that they simply thought it was a devious trick. But in reality it was just a result of “thinking twice” before reacting. And this simple popular method, “think twice before you answer”, actually leads to very positive results: it makes people around you more happy because you don’t get angry at them so often 🙂

And when that starts to happen regularly, you mind does change. It’s like starting to wear a mask, fully aware that it is a mask. “I’m now wearing the mask of a sensible, reasonable, calm, peaceful person. I know it’s just a mask. But who cares, I know that deep inside I’m still furious/sad. I just won’t let that interfere in my reactions towards others”. But in time, like I said, it will be very hard to say what is a mask and what is that so-called “true self” which is so hard to pin-point. You’re just wearing masks, after all, and replacing the “furious mask” by the “calm and peaceful mask”. Which one is more functional? Having enemies all over the place, angry at you, scorning or ostracising you — or actually people who are happy because you don’t yell at them all the time? Personally, I much rather prefer the latter approach.

So, while I’m not sure if you can achieve “transcendence” through SL, or “enlightenment”, or whatever spiritual state you prefer, I’m quite sure that at least you can enhance awareness. Not in the mystical sense of the word: but in the more literal meaning. You can become more aware of what you feel and react in an unconditioned way to those feelings. You can learn to observe what goes on in your mind, and make choices in a rational way, instead of being a slave to your emotions. And of course you can continue to fully enjoy your emotions — some might even claim that you can enjoy them more fully, because you’re paying close attention to them. SL allows all that, and it makes it rather easy; and since it benefits you and others (because you won’t make them so angry as before), I think it’s a quite good step towards a better world.

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