Transcendence through Second Life

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.

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