Monday, February 20, 2012

Real Life Tao - Upside Down and Inside Out

Trey Smith

Back when I still used Microsoft Windows as my computer's operating system, one of my favorite diversionary activities was playing word games. I had a wide variety of them and spent many hours playing with words. When I switched over to Linux, I quickly discovered that, while there are scads of games to download, very few of them were word games. In fact, I only have two words games on my computer today: Tanglet and Pynagram.

Since playing the same games day after day can get a bit boring, I was forced to branch out to find other games to challenge me [that don't involve violence]. Since I use the Gnome Desktop on my Linux Mint, I decided to try out Gnome's version of solitaire Mahjongg. I liked it immediately and it is now one of my favored games.

Here's a brief summary of how the game is played from the Gnome Library:
You start with five levels of tiles which are stacked so some are covered up by the tiles on top. The harder the level you set in the Preferences dialog, the more tiles are covered when the game starts. The object of Mahjongg is to remove all the tiles from the game. To remove tiles you have to find matching pairs which look alike.
Well, there is a bit more to it than that, but that should provide you with the basic framework.

Here's what I have found to be the interesting part. There are 9 different board configurations from Easy all the way to the most difficult level. I complete the puzzles in the least amount of time for the hardest level. I am not sharing this as a way to boast about my obvious effing brilliance and you folks should feel honored that I am willing to share a small bit of my effing intellect with you. ;-)

While I seem able to breeze my way through the puzzle configuration that external sources have identified as the most challenging and difficult, I struggle mightily with the puzzle configuration that these same external sources have identified as the easiest! There have been several occasions in which I have the completed the most difficult level in under 3 minutes, but I typically struggle to complete the elementary level in 5 minutes. More than one-half of the time I end up with a hung board.

This upside down and inside out proficiency/deficiency perplexed me for quite some time. Why is it that the configuration which hides the identity of a greater percentage of tiles ends up being easy for my mind to navigate, while the configuration which hides the identity of the fewest number of tiles stumps me again and again?

After much consideration, I think the Taoist concept of wu wei holds the answer!

I am a very analytical fellow who tends grossly to over think things. I don't simply weigh options; I weigh them countless times and then weigh what I've already weighed!! So, the board configuration that is most out in the open provides my mind with a staggering number of variables to consider.

Since Gnome Mahjongg is a timed game, I'm trying to analyze a large amount of information as well as formulate educated guesses as quickly as possible. These bits of information are streaming so fast that they invariably start bumping into each other. In no time at all, the bits of information become scrambled and so I need to take the time to step back to unscramble them.

Unfortunately, a good deal of the time, the bits of info become so scrambled that I end up frustrated with my inability to unscramble them. Frustration -- even when playing a silly computer game -- can lead to desperation. As I frantically try to get my head on straight, I become blind to what my eyes are seeing and either it takes me an inordinate amount of time to complete the puzzle or I reach a dead end.

But I rarely encounter ANY of these problems when playing the game at its most difficult level. Since nearly 50 percent of the tiles are partially or completely hidden at the start, there truly is no way to know or even make an educated guess about the identity of most of them. So, I don't even try.

Instead of my penchant for analysis and over thinking, I play far more by intuition and simply react to the tiles as they become uncovered. By not beginning the game with any preconceived notions or expectations, I don't set up hurdles that I must deal with later. Due to the fact my analytical mind is turned off, I easily flow with the game as the tiles present themselves.

Put another way, non-action -- not over thinking the process -- allows me to undertake effortless action which, in my mind, is the very essence of wu wei.


Just let me note that it is often overlooked that the lessons contained in philosophical Taoism (or any belief framework, for that matter) can be found in almost everything we do in life. So often, people look for dramatic epiphanies or bolts of lightening from the heavens to serve as a celestial neon sign that reads: Look at this! It's damn important! But if we keep our heart-minds open, we can glean these valuable lessons from something as trivial as a computer board game.

That's the whole point of this ongoing series.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. I have always loved the computer mahjongg games. I don't play so much anymore (I would like to play real, noisy mahjongg with the Chinese aunties) but there is a kind of wu wei thing...enhanced if you are not driven by a compulsion to "win". (Sometimes you can't in the configurations.) Have you ever played blackjack?

  2. Blackjack-Mahjongg? Or just plain 'ol blackjack?

  3. Blackjack/21. I was just thinking that if you are very intuitive it would be very impossible not to count cards.

  4. Try this Trey

  5. Very nice post. Since words are your thing, you might be interested in a series of posts I have been doing on the word play involved in cryptic crosswords. The first one is:
    It has now evolved into a daily series. I find it great fun - much better than ordinary crosswords.


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