Magic the Gathering, the card game, has become a pretty big past-time of mine when I am not studying Sanskrit, or just raising the kids, and as part of that I spend time online reading strategy articles or podcasts. Recently, on this episode of the Limited Resources podcast, I learned the term “tilting”.
“Tilting” is a psychological phenomenon, first described in poker playing, where a player becomes frustrated or distraught and then either checks out mentally, or just becomes increasingly upset until they can no longer rationally play. Either way, they are no longer an effective player and might gamble away their money trying to regain something they lost, or just continue making bad choices until they lose further.
Further a “tiltbox” is someone who’s more prone to tilting than other people.
Tilting also happens a lot in Magic, speaking from experience. When I put together what I feel is a good deck, challenge a friend, but then get thoroughly clobbered not once but 3 games in a row, I get frustrated. Even the best players lose sometimes, since Magic has such a random element to it, but when you lose consistently it is a real beating for the ego.
But, after listening to the LR podcast above, I really started to think how there’s a Buddhist component to this too.
Since it is a competitive game by nature, it’s very easy to project your ego into the game. When you’re winning, you feel like a clever person, but when you lose regularly, you feel like a moron, and it hurts. You want to make the pain go away, and that’s when you’re likely to tilt.
But through Buddhism, I’ve also learned some things:
First, the mind naturally projects itself onto the world. An artist sees the world differently than a career soldier might, but it’s also based on one’s upbringing, joys and traumas, etc. So, everyone projects their self onto the world in a slightly different way, but in the end, we’re all projecting ourself onto the world. This isn’t just in Magic. It happens whenever we debate politics or religion with others, when we argue with people at work over a project, or just whenever you feel your way is the right way over others.
Second, while we project our ego, its hopes and its desires onto the world, we have relatively little control over the world around us. When external causes and conditions align with our desires, we become happy, or think we are lucky. When they diverge we become unhappy, frustrated or think the world is against us.
Third, any win or loss, like all phenomena, is a temporary thing. Even if you managed to win a Magic Pro Tour tournament, sooner or later your fortunes will take a turn for the worse. Similarly, if you are having a bad slump, things will inevitably take a turn for the better.
The tendency to “tilt” affects all people, and not just in cards games. It can happen in so many other ways in life.
In the case of Magic, my current Sealed pool (Amonkhet) that I play with friends hasn’t gone well. But this isn’t really a reflection of me one way or another. I had 6 random packs to choose, and somehow build an effective deck to challenge my friends who are also buulding similar decks. For the Amonkhet set, I got some neato cards (including a rare Nissa, Steward of Elements), but I also have very few removal spells, no Trial cards, etc. In short, the pool I randomly selected feels a but subpar. It’s important to do my best, if even after that I still lose, then it’s no big deal. Better luck next pool.
With Buddhism this is also true. I find myself giving up too easily on a certain practice at the first sign of trouble, or bouncing around visiting this or that temple until I find something that annoys me, and soon leave after that. In the end, this just makes me go around and around in the same circle with no real progress, no real sense of spiritual growth.
As with my Magic sealed pool, I have to make the best of the limited options I have with regard to practice or temple communities.
So, what to do? Cope with failure better and not be such a tiltbox.
Practicing meditation for 5 minutes a day is a heck of a lot better than 0 minutes, isn’t it? Why should I worry what others might think if I don’t practice a full 15 in zazen style? Why should I worry what other people might think if I don’t have a fancy Buddhist name, title or robes? Why do I need the sense of validation? Why should I expect any temple community to be the way I want it to be? Why should I get frustrated when it isn’t?
Is all this not just me and my ego at work?
In the end, what makes someone not a tiltbox is their resistance to tilting, and their ability to let go when things outside their control aren’t going well, take a step back, and calmly reevaluate the situation, then press forward. The sooner one learns how to cope with adversity and maintain equanimity the sooner one can avoid a lot of self-inflicted misery.
P.S. Magic in general isn’t a very Buddhist hobby since even under the best of circumstances it still involves a lot of ego and competition, two things that are antithetical to the Buddhist way of life, but I do enjoy having creative hobby again, and also an opportunity to play with friends and learn from more experienced players.
P.P.S. A great article by the Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi on self-transformation that touches on this too.