The Anapanasati Game
Play Fool, Vol. 2, Ch. 2
Welcome to Play Fool, a newsletter about the games we play and the games which play us. If you’re reading this as it was published, I’ve just finished a ten-day silent meditation retreat. Although these retreats are an annual tradition for me, I’ve always been sceptical about meditation as a panacea for well-being. This piece asks us to look at meditation as a specialised kind of game, and asks us to consider other games we might play instead. If you enjoy it, please consider sharing and subscribing.
I’ll begin this post with a claim that could scaffold a seperate post in its own right: Meditative practices are, essentially, games we play by ourselves.
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The core conceit of this newsletter is that the notion of the ‘game’ can cover off vast swaths of human experience, that the ‘game’ is not just a category of experiences (containing things like backgammon, hopskotch or Mario Kart) but a fundamental way our experience is structured. We are, I believe, always playing some game or another. Johan Huizinga, the Dutch Anthropologist, defined a game as a spatially and temporally bounded experience with clearly articulated rules1. I have my own perspective on Huizinga’s definition, but it is good enough for the argument that meditation is a kind of game.
In Zen Buddhism, junior meditators are sometimes given a breath counting exercise as a way to train focused awareness. The meditator is told to try to count ten consecutive breaths without the mind wandering. If their mind wanders, they return to the breath and begin counting from zero. All of the criteria that constitute a game are in those two instructions. The game is bounded with a clear beginning and end, and the central rule—to reset the count if the mind wanders—animates the game and provides the player with something to struggle towards.
If you have ever tried to meditate, you will know the breath counting game is tremendously difficult. In the Vipassana tradition of S.N. Goenka, being able to sustain focus on the breath for one mere minute—around 10-15 breaths—is the goal of intermediate meditators who have around 1,000 hours of accumulated practice. Another interpretation of this is that for a casual meditator, practicing around half an hour per day, it takes around 5 or 6 years to be able to comfortably ‘beat’ the Zen Buddhist game.
Between the first hour and the one thousandth, every meditator is forced to repeatedly confront the obscene absurdity of a mind bent on wandering. Wandering, indeed, doesn’t quite cut it. The mind doesn’t so much wander as stampede, like wild animals spooked by a rustling bush. To see the wandering mind as this insane menagerie of idiots is confronting. The explicit, rule-based game of breath counting quickly unfurls into the tacit game of managing the frustration of coming to know our own minds. Learning to meditate is learning to bear frustration.
In the meditation tradition of S.N. Goenka, the breath counting game is skipped over entirely—Goenka believes, fairly, I think—that people too easily confuse counting the numbers with counting the breath. Goenka’s focused awareness meditation technique, Anapanasati, drops the counting exercise and makes explicit the game of bearing frustration. Goenka, more grandfather than guru, has a kind and somniferous baritone with which he constantly reminds the meditator that the goal of the game is equanimous awareness. The goal is to cultivate a particular kind of seeing and being where life’s difficulties are experienced with clarity and without judgment. “You cannot tame an elephant by throwing stones at it,” Goenka instructs. The game is to tame the obscene, rampaging elephant in our minds by responding to it with equanimous awareness.
One way to think about the equanimous awareness of Anapanasati is that it is a kind of existential stance2. I use the term to draw on fighting video games where players can switch between, say, a ‘defensive’ stance (good for blocking attacks and conserving energy), an ‘attack’ stance (good for landing attacks on the opponent), or a ‘dodging’ stance (good for creating openings for attacks while minimising damage). The existential stance is, neurologically, something like a ragtag coalition of neurons which operate well below conscious experience and help to organise our experience in productive ways. Goenka’s equanimous awareness is a kind of existential stance which helps us to deal with how little control we have over our conscious minds. It reminds me of a paradoxical quote from Yuval Noah Harari: “We don’t have free will, but when we realise this, we gain a little bit.3”
My interest here is in the existential stance trained by Anapanasati rather than the practice itself. To shift our focus from the practice to the existential stance opens up some useful questions.
When I teach Community Psychology, we conclude the semester with a reflexive exercise which invites students to consider what practices and behaviours they are being invited to let go of, and what practices and behaviours they are being invited to let in. I remember sitting with one student who, when I asked her what she was invited to let in, looked forlorn and said: “Oh, you know, all those things you’re supposed to do: exercise, meditate, quit social media, and so on…”
In contemporary Western culture, meditation has secured a privileged place in the canon of transformative practices (It is notable, for example, that my student said “exercise,” and not “tennis” or “bouldering.”) The reasons for this are complex and multiple, but I’m partial to Evan Thomson’s argument4 that contemporary meditation practices are best understood as central to a kind of missionary Buddhism, in the way that we have missionary Christianity. A missionary religion is one which sets conversion as the normative goal. In Buddhism, this manifests as an injunction to spread the Dhamma, the Buddhist capital-T Truth, primarily by inviting others to attend meditation retreats.
Meditation, particularly the Anapanasati meditation of S.N. Goenka and Zen Buddhism, has been particularly successful as a vessel of missionary Buddhism. It aligns with contemporary society’s focus on individualism, productivity, and self-regulation. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism has also, to an extent, ingrained itself within the Western scientific establishment. As a result, the idea that one should meditate twice a day is seen as totally reasonable, but the idea that one ought to pray twice a day is seen as ridiculous. Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism Is True was a bestseller of popular science, but if someone dared to write Why Islam is True it would pad the pages of every right-wing news outlet.
The idea of the existential stance removes meditation from the spotlight and invites useful questions. How else might we be able to work towards equanimous awareness? What other practices exist which might be conducive to developing productive existential stances?
Compelling evidence suggests, for example, that learning a complex musical instrument produces many benefits analogous to meditation5. The experience of learning a complex instrument is akin to practicing Anapanasati in that it is riddled with small frustrations. The junior musician must constantly confront failure and the limitations of their agency. The off-key irruption of a missed note, the protest of the tendons in reaching for an octave, and the fine-tuning of experience in hitting a complex polyrhythm all demand constant equanimous awareness. Children who learn a complex musical instrument show a number of benefits in emotional regulation and executive functioning. Unlike meditation, music education can also be scaffolded up into complex forms of social play—there is no such thing as ensemble meditation.
It is also worth noting that in most traditional societies, intense periods of focused sitting meditation were either not practiced or were the providence of a religious elite. Even in Nepal, monkhood was for the few—the average Nepalese street vendor wasn’t expected to meditate two hours per day, or even ten minutes. There are many cultures which have sustained and survived without the kinds of meditative practice we consider essential for self-development today.
When my student considered things she was ‘supposed to do,’ she never felt guilty for failing to learn the piano or the violin. She didn’t feel guilty for failing to engage with her own religion’s traditions for cultivating equanimity and awareness, like quiet prayer or honouring the Sabbath. We have privileged meditation over what it offers and who it enables us to be. We have privileged the form of the game over the struggles it occasions and the existential stances it engenders.
Homo Ludens (Huizinga, J. 1938).
A great deal of this newsletter is begged, borrowed or stolen. This term, I think, is as close as something will get to “mine.” I owe it to the fact that very few people are both serious meditators and fans of Soul Calibur IV.
Paraphrased, and (I believe) from his novel Homo Deus (2015).
Why I Am Not a Buddhist (Thompson, E., 2020).
Music Education: A Sound Investment (Collins, A., Dwyer, R., and Date, A. (me!), 2019).