Sunday, July 3, 2016

Not Zen 187: No Reason

"No," said the eldest, Langsam. His face grew stern. He folded his arms over his chest.

"There is no reason to be unhappy about this," Dennis, the shortest monk, replied. "So why not choose to be happy?"

"If you have no reason to be happy, it can not be taken away from you," added the youngest monk, Kwen.

"That is the smartest thing you've said all morning, Kwen," Langsam grumbled. "But is it because you understand the idea or is it because you've heard someone else say those words? Anyway, we will have an unfair advantage. That is all that matters. That is why we should not play."

"It's only for sport," countered Kwen. "Aren't you interested to see if our meditation studies have produced changes that can be measured?"

"I'm curious," Langsam conceded. "But we could come back when they are not holding a tournament."

"We came today." Kwen gestured in the direction of the museum sign. "This is how we can use the brainwave measuring apparatus. It's the only way. And we have already paid for our visit."

The sign announced that the science museum had organized a day of games. Children 'of all ages' were invited and, indeed, many teenagers, adults, parents, and grandparents seemed to be joining in. There were signup lists of visitor names in front of many interactive exhibits. That included the one advertised as 'mindball,' which measured brainwave activity.

In the game, contestants wore headbands that monitored their mental activity. The lower the amplitude of their brainwaves, the more electrical force the apparatus generated on the magnets under the table between them. Those magnets moved the ball. So the calmer a contestant's mind was, the more they moved the ball toward the opponent's goal. When they calmed their mind more than their opponents for long enough, they scored the goal and won.

A casual glance at the children playing mindball revealed no ethnic or social patterns about calm minds except that there were no toddlers who could compete. A few pre-teens, however, seemed to display better mental control than their parents.

"Many exhibits have been turned into games," Kwen observed. He lifted his arms to indicate the other displays in the brain science section. "It's not just this one."

His older companions nodded. All three had expressed interest in various aspects of neuroscience. They could not avoid the crowds here. They could decline to participate in the games but, if they intended to read and learn from each exhibit, they would have to watch the contests. They could see, straight in front of them, a pair of grandparents, their daughter, and three grandchildren dressed in vibrant, primary-colored shirts as they stood in line for mindball. The family divided into two teams. Each team consisted of three players to a side.

There were three monks who had come to the musuem, so Kwen laughed and argued that they had been fated to form a team and join in.

"Fine," Langsam conceded. He wanted to understand brain activity and measure his own. "But let's try to not play against teams of children."

"I agree," said the Dennis. He was the only one of them who had been married and a father. "If we're being sporting, let's seek out other meditators or at least adults."

"I'll ask the museum staff," sighed Kwen.

To the monk's surprise, the science exhibit coordinators agreed. One of them, as she revealed in their conversation, was an adjunct professor at the city university. She knew about their school's meditation classes. She'd met their sensei. She'd hosted one of his talks at a university cognitive science seminar. She was eager to observe how well the monks performed in a game like mindball.

"I can arrange the brackets for you in the first three rounds," she said.

"That's enough." Satisfied, the two older monks agreed with Kwen. However, Langsam silently decided he would drop out after three rounds.

A few more questions to the museum staff revealed the story of how brainwaves came to be measured, which was not part of the exhibit. They gave Dennis a pamphlet on it from a class they'd taught earlier in the year. The waves were measures of electric amplitude, he learned. When the headbands were worn tight to the skin, they detected the natural electrical signals of the brain. The measurements were crude. The sensors could only tell if there was a lot of brain activity or very little.

"When can we use the apparatus?" Dennis asked.

"The first tournament is ending now. You've been watching it. We're in the next to last match. It'll be about half an hour until the next. Don't go far."

The monks watched the rest of the competition brackets fill up for a few minutes. They decided to walk around the brain science exhibition while they waited. They saw the three mindball competition tables side by side so that each player might be distracted by the sight of the others. It could get difficult. In a corner not too far away, the staff had set aside a special, smaller table where only the youngest children were allowed to practice. Unfortunately, the headbands at the table were too small for an adult. The monks checked.

Beyond the mindball tables, they saw an optical illusion game with holograms. The monks shook their heads at that. It was poorly lit. The illusions gave Langsam a headache. Farther on there were memory games, followed by a maze race made from lines on the floor that changed. At the far end of the exhibits, they came to a rock wall that had been transformed into a game organized around exploring and finding clues.

In half an hour, they returned to find a crowd milling around the mindball exhibit. The staff were assigning matches to the teams.

The monks meditated for a few minutes until they were told it was their turn. They rose to go to the tables. At the same time, they found their opponents striding up to meet them. These adults, conventionally dressed, found the monks' robes amusing. They all wanted to shake hands and introduce themselves.

"You are schoolteachers?" Langsam smiled as they finished shaking. "That is good, very noble."

In the first match, the least experienced and most experienced of the monks moved their balls with ease. Only Dennis struggled. He couldn't tell if it was because his opponent was calm-minded or because he was not as good at calming himself as other monks.

"How do you know each other?" Kwen asked their opponents before their second match. The computer scientist, his homemaker wife, and the young woman with them were all members of the same family. The young woman was a college student. She was also good at this sort of meditation. She started out beating the Kwen. She moved the ball in his direction so fast, in fact, that Dennis noticed and grew alarmed. He started to lose, too.

Fortunately, the monks were able to calm their minds. Dennis and Kwen stopped the balls from going the wrong direction and turned them around. It happened so fast that their opponents gave up. The college student was a good sport about it. She shook hands afterward.

"I know you," said the eldest, Langsam, as they bowed to their next opponents t the beginning of the third round. "You came to our meditation class."

"You are the yoga teacher, yes?" said Kwen to the thin woman in front of him.

"You're the psychology professor who told us about this," said Dennis to his opponent. "Are you a meditator as well?"

"I practice now and then." The professor nodded.

This team of three meditators appeared to be the most difficult. However, the two who should have been the strongest seemed to be the most intimidated. The man who knew the eldest monk switched to play against the youngest, Kwen. The professor had trouble sitting in his seat. He sweated profusely and couldn't calm himself, not even when Dennis took pity and ended his meditation. The professor simply couldn't calm his mind from his excited state.

All of the monks succeeded in moving the balls into their opponents goals. The yoga teacher put up the most resistance. It took a long time for her to lose to Langsam. She was not gracious in her defeat.

"I see that our next opponents are children," Langsam said as the yoga teacher turned her back on him. "So I think we will stop here."

"Oh, you can't!" The staff member who had arranged the brackets hurried over. She pounded her fist into her hand. "The children and parents will be disappointed. They've all stayed to watch."

"What, to see us?" Langsam looked aghast at the crowd.

"Yes. Well, partly. The next match is for the championship. The children are waiting for prizes."

They pondered the throng of waiting children. The smallest ones were hopping in place or pulling on their parents' arms. The mothers gave them brave smiles. They tried to be patient. The fathers paced or talked to one another. They sweated, generally unsmiling, in their collared shirts. The teenagers stood in clusters, except for a few on their own, and they seemed to be in good spirits despite losing to younger children. Off to one side of the crowd, the monks noticed, for the first time, a stack of museum gift shop prizes. The littlest children ogled the colored boxes.

"There were only four rounds?" Langsam sighed as he contemplated the inevitable. It served him right for taking meditation lightly in the first place.

"That's forty-eight people in a tournament." The contest organizer raised her voice. "Even with six to a match, that's fourteen matches all together. It's as much as we can organize."

"You will have another contest later."

"After a break, in another hour." Her tone softened. "Please don't sign up again unless we need you. Try some other games first. Come back late in the day after more people have had a chance."

"Can't our previous opponents play these children?"

The team of lay meditators had already left. After another minute of discussion, the monks agreed to play the last round. The children on the opposing team didn't want the monks to forfeit, nor did the parents. The monks tried to gently dissuade the mother of one of the pre-teen opponents but she didn't seem to understand the monks' reluctance.

"We should simply finish this," said Kwen. The others nodded.

"We should not really meditate," Langsam muttered.

"That would be a disaster." Dennis, who'd lived many years as a father, knew that everyone else in the contest would sense the difference and get angry. It was not in the spirit of the game. Besides, the children vying for the championship had to have good self-discipline to have beaten so many others. They would likely consider anything less than a strong effort against them to be an insult. "We should take this as seriously as any other match."

"It's too easy," Kwen protested. He flapped his arms for emphasis. "Not a challenge at all."

"I don't want to discourage anyone." Langsam shook his head.

"Let's meet them."

Dennis found himself alone as he walked to the other side of the mindball tables. The others hadn't stepped forward. The children hadn't come over to introduce themselves. Nevertheless, he shook the hand of the closest boy.

"You look pleased," he said. "What makes you so calm within yourself?"

"I like games. I like winning."

"Excellent!" This was a boy who, when he saw his teammates losing, might find his calmness would disappear.

"And why are you so happy?" Dennis strode to the next spot. The girl who occupied it was as tall as he although she seemed fresh-faced and energetic. The brightness of her clothes and her smile dazzled him.

"My friends." She laughed. "They're cheering for me. I can see them waving. See?"

He bowed his head toward her friends. He knew the crowd around the game would press close. This was a throng larger than the rest. Her friends would not be visible. Perhaps, they would not even be audible.

"And you?" He stuck out his hand to the last contestant, the girl nearest to the prize table. "Why are you cheerful?"

As he said it, he realized that her expression wasn't as pleasant as he'd assumed. She didn't seem irritated with him or insulted. But as she processed his words, her brow creased just slightly.

"Is this a trick question?" she asked. Although she was short, she seemed older than the others. It was the way she carried herself. She dressed in dark hues. Her expression seemed more stern than happy. Her hands moved to her lap with a calm, precise sense of motion.

She reminded the monk of a woman he'd met at a meditation retreat. That one, too, had always seemed completely in control.

"No trick," said the monk. He frowned. "Maybe I am being unclear. What do you think makes you happy and peaceful?"

"I don't have a reason. I just learned how."

"If you have no reason to be happy," he said as he bowed his head. "Then I think we have a good match for you."

He meandered back to his own side of the tables. Along the way, he shook hands with one of the school teachers he'd played earlier.. The computer scientist in his white, collared shirt stepped forward, too, and shook. His family followed. The daughter gave Dennis a hug and wished him good luck.

When Dennis returned, he found his teammates waiting, hands on hips. They did not seem entirely patient. Kwen rolled his eyes.

"The contest would be over," the young man said. "If not for these interruptions."

"Perhaps," Dennis allowed.

"Did you learn anything? Are they ready to get on with it?"

"I did learn something." He rubbed his chin. "You see the child sitting nearest the prizes?"

"The short girl? The one who looks grumpy?"

"She's all yours," Dennis replied.

No comments:

Post a Comment