Playing the Game

 
by Clark Zimmerman, L.Ac.

One of the first games that my daughter learned to play was Candyland.  She could sit for hours picking cards and moving around the board; she loved the colors and the pictures of sweets.  Unlike most people who play board games, she didn’t know that the object was to get to the gingerbread house and “win”.  In fact, if she were nearing the end of the rainbow path, she would start to get worried that the game would soon be over. She would get excited if she drew the Candy Cane or Gingerbread card that took her back to the beginning.  She simply loved playing the game.

    Sometime in our childhoods, most of us start to get more competitive.  Maybe it is an offshoot of evolution.  For millennia, the winner in the game of life got to survive and pass on their genes, whereas the loser would perish.  Whatever the reason, at some point we typically begin playing more to win than to enjoy the game.  While there is nothing wrong with wanting to win, a lot of times we come up on the losing side of the game.  If we happen to lose, does that take all of the fun out of the time we spent playing the game?  If so, it seems that the game would appear to be a waste of time.
 
    This makes me think of playing cards–I used to play a lot of cards.  One of my favorite games was Euchre, which is a game similar to Bridge.  In my 20s, I used to take it pretty seriously.  My friends and I would have Euchre tournaments in which the prize was bragging rights.  Some of the games got really heated.  I remember getting upset when my partner didn’t play the right strategy, or when the cards wouldn’t fall my way.  Eventually I began to see the absurdity in this approach to the game.  When I became less attached to winning a funny thing happened: instead of having the overall quality of my night depend on what the scorecards read, I began to enjoy the conversation more. I started to enjoy the company more.  I even began cheering on my opponent when he got a really good hand or made an especially good play of the cards.  My ability to have fun on Euchre nights was greatly improved.  

    This is similar to life in general.  We often think of “winning” as finishing or succeeding.  We may think that we will win once we reach retirement, or when we finally purchase that certain car.  When we orient ourselves towards such goals, we look so far ahead that we miss the moment. Though it can be helpful to have goals, we must be careful not to define happiness or success by these measurements alone.  If we forget that the present moment is all we truly have, we are constantly motivated by our clinging to the past or desire for a certain future.  This is a recipe for suffering.  Sometimes things go the way we want them to go, sometimes they do not.  It is often the case that even when we get to the goal that we have dreamed about, whether we retire or get that dream car, the “success” that we experience eventually seems hollow or less grand than we imagined it would be.  When we untether our happiness from a certain outcome we allow the fullness of life to express itself in beautifully unexpected ways.  We make it less about winning and more about enjoying the game. Then the real winner is the one who has the most fun.  The real winner is the one who fully plays the game.
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Developing a Photographic Memory

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.


  My grandpa was a character.  By the time I knew him he had retired from a university professorship and moved to a farm in southern Illinois.  He chain-smoked generic cigarettes and drank cheap beer in front of a small television set in his basement.  He was indeed from a different era.  He was also an exceptional card player.  I remember countless games of Gin Rummy in that smoky basement.  Even though my siblings and I were his grandkids, he never let us win.  Grandpa was nearly impossible to beat because he had a photographic memory.

Needless to say, I grew up intrigued with the idea of having a photographic memory.  I loved the idea of being able to remember everything that I read.  Fast-forward thirty years:  it seems that a different sort of “photographic memory” is becoming more common.  This sort of memory is influenced by the widespread use of digital cameras and smart phones.  Research conducted by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University has demonstrated what she refers to as “photo-taking impairment effect.”  This term describes how taking more pictures is related to a decrease in people’s ability to remember an event.  It seems that the brain doesn’t work as hard at remembering something if you can count on a picture to remind you of details.  Like our muscles, the brain benefits from being challenged with tasks.  It’s like the saying goes: “use it or lose it.”  When we rely on something to do a task for us, we risk an increased likelihood of atrophy.  It’s like if a healthy person refused to walk and chose instead to use a wheelchair to get around, it wouldn’t be too long before the person actually needed the wheelchair because their body would lose the ability to walk.  So when we use a tool to remember things, we gradually lose our ability to recall things in an optimal way.  Henkel also pointed out that when we document everything with photographs, we compromise the elastic nature of memory.  A photograph is a “snap-shot” of a specific moment in time, but the shot is fixed in that it is only one perspective.  When we look back at a photo of an event, we tend to see it through that limited, one-dimensional view.  This can compromise the wholeness of a memory, confining it to an overly streamlined view.  In addition to these things, relying on photos to remember things means that our memory of an event doesn’t have room to evolve.  We think of our memories are being fixed in stone, but research has shown that our memories of events actually change over time.  As we grow and our understanding and wisdom continue to develop, our relationship with the past changes with it.  This allows us to mine new information from our past that helps us evolve into more complete human beings.

   Of course, there are other potential issues with the overuse of digital photography.  Most of us know of the overwhelm that happens when we begin to unpack all of the photos that we have taken.  The process of sorting through and deleting photos and videos can take hours.  We can be so intimidated by the process that we avoid it altogether, until we have thousands of photos that we never look at.  Then we simply collect photos without them meaning much.  Another issue is that rather than being present in the moment, too often people experience a place through the lens of a camera.  This myopic view limits the fullness of the moment.  I recently witnessed this on a trip to the Grand Canyon:  everyone was looking at this amazing vista through a small screen.  It seemed to me to be a missed opportunity to take in the real magic of this special place.

     To be honest, I take pictures with my phone.  I’m sure that there are times that I overdo it.  As I think about maintaining balance in my life, I have been increasingly leaving the camera in my pocket, or at home.  If I do use it I am practicing taking one or two photos and realizing that this is enough.  I am more frequently focusing on being in the moment, rather than photographing the moment and trying to experience it later.  If I ever were to develop a photographic memory, I would want it to be like the one my grandfather had, not the diminished capacity that is more typical of modern times.

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Perfect is the Enemy of Good

by Clark Zimmerman, L.Ac.

Years ago my wife and I spent a month in Tibet.  We traveled to a sacred mountain called Mt. Kailash in the far western part of the country.   It was remarkable being in the thin air and the barren landscape of the high Tibetan plateau.  The natural beauty of the Himalayan mountains was breathtaking: bright colors adorned the temples, the people, and even the yaks as they plowed the fields.  It was all so foreign that it was almost as if we had been transported to an entirely different world.  With all of these unusual sights and experiences, the thing that stood out the most to us was the grace and apparent comfort of the Tibetan people.  When I say comfort I don’t mean that they lived comfortable lives–rather, they were comfortable in who they were.  With no mirrors or Facebook accounts, people didn’t fixate on how they looked.  The lack of dentistry meant most people past a certain age were noticeably missing teeth, and people were wrinkled and weathered by the elements.  With the constant wind and yak dung fires that provided warmth, along with the lack of showers, most people were covered with dust and smelled of smoke.  Despite all of this, the people were so kind and welcoming.  They really were comfortable in their own skin. 


  When I contrast this with so many Americans that I know, it amazes me how different our cultures are.  Though our culture is so abundant, so many of us are preoccupied with a sort of perfection that was absent in Tibet.  As we have become wealthier as a nation, we are becoming increasingly fixated on image and appearance.  Social media feeds show us a never-ending procession of perfect bodies, meals, and vacations.  They encourage us to compare our insides with everyone else’s outsides.  So many people get caught up in how to craft and maintain an image that is bigger than life.  We pursue a certain look, a perfectly manicured lawn, or a shiny car, but it doesn’t bring us more happiness.  It doesn’t improve our quality of life.  In fact, rates of anxiety and depression are increasing at an alarming rate, as are the use of the medications that treat them.  People are also spending more money in an effort to “keep up with the Jones’s.”  We are chasing a state of perfection that doesn’t exist, and we are making ourselves sick doing it.  While adults are struggling, kids are having an even harder time.  Without the reference point of a childhood before the constant messages of social media, children and young adults have been taught to believe that image is the most important thing.  How you look, how appealing the package is what gets you the most “likes.”  It’s like those Hollywood facades that they used in the old western movies:  The front is put together, but there is nothing inside the saloon. 


  So what is the solution?  As a society we need to reevaluate our priorities.  This involves finding ways to encourage substance over packaging.  People who don’t know any better are fooled by the package and the bling.  Reality stars whose claims to fame are how good of a shopper they are or how they apply their makeup, need to be turned off.   People who teach of patience and presence need to reclaim a place in our daily lives.  This involves turning off the phone or the computer once in awhile, and tuning into things that teach peace of mind.  For some, this is a good church that preaches the real gospel of love and service.  Others find it in a yoga, meditation class or a good self help book.  Wherever you find it, peace comes with the realization that none of us are perfect.  We each get to acknowledge our human flaws:  each wrinkle, pimple or bad mood.  We get to see ourselves as a true reflection of the divine, living in an imperfect body and mind.  The work involves witnessing each of our imperfections and finding a way to embrace them and using them to catalyze growth.  When we remember that life never was and never will be perfect, we get to put our energy into acceptance and growth.  In Tibet crooked teeth aren’t crooked, they’re  just teeth.

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