The Undiscovered Country

I was at a launch the other evening for the new book by Charlie Morley. Charlie is an expert on Lucid Dreaming which as you may know is the phenomenon whereby while sleeping, you become aware within the dream that you are dreaming and actively shape whatever course of action that you then choose to take.

It’s a fascinating subject and although Charlie comes from a Tibetan Buddhist background, it’s definitely not something which is restricted to those of a – to use the dread word – ‘spiritual’ bent. It’s nothing ‘woo’ and certainly doesn’t have to be anything weird or esoteric. It’s just the brain with all its mysterious power and untapped potential. And is yet another example of how little we understand about what is often referred to as being akin to an undiscovered country.

And although I don’t have as much personal experience of becoming lucid within my dreams as I would like, it’s happened enough for me to understand the varied benefits that it can bring. It is as Charlie says, a chance to ‘meet’ with one’s own mind and explore whatever desires and more importantly issues – psychological, emotional, intellectual etc – which we may wish to face and tackle in a totally safe environment. For what could be safer and more comfortable than within the ultimate virtual reality that is your own mind?

I am just glad to report that one of the most memorable ‘encounters’ with my own sub-conscious demonstrated the sort of humour that I would hope to find there. One of the techniques for encouraging lucid dreaming as part of a pre-sleep practise, is to ‘ask’ the sub-conscious to manifest itself as some form of guide or teacher within the dream. This can often be expressed as someone who we personally regard as a trustworthy voice in our lives.

Again, I must emphasise, this is not something magical. You’re not asking for help from an exterior force or being. Instead, this is simply addressing one’s own brain as you drift into sleep – rather like the process of hypnosis – to encourage a particularly receptive state of mind as you enter the deep sleep phase.

So when I did this, you can imagine my surprise and amusement on becoming lucid, I should find James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton of EPT fame floating into my dream. “What are you doing?” they asked.

“Um, lucid Dreaming?” I replied hesitantly.

“Sounds like a load of rubbish,” mutters James.

“I’d just stick to poker if I were you,” adds Joe. “Much more EV than lucid dreaming…whatever that is!?”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in the end, my brain will always suggest poker as the best course of action 🙂

But the reason why I mention the other night’s book launch is that it got me thinking again about this deeply mysterious and still vastly uncharted territory that is the brain. I say ‘again’ as it’s been a subject that has been particularly on my mind – as it were! – since my last post and the reason why to some extent, I have rather neglected this blog lately.

Around the beginning of December last year, my mother had a stroke and with that, she – along with all of us around her – were forced to contemplate in very real terms those aforementioned mysteries and complexities of the human brain.

As I said to my mother when trying to reassure her in the midst of her distress – “It’s like all those problems you had with Windows 7. Your operating system has gone haywire and the reboot is going to take a while… ”

Or for a slightly more scientific perspective on what a stroke feels like, if you have a little time, I strongly urge you to check out this amazing and very inspirational TED talk describing a stroke from the inside.

Which all served to remind me of what should be obvious to all of us – what an incredible and amazing asset our brain is. Something that in particular we as poker players must give thanks for. As I touched upon before in my comparison with Five-a-side Football one of the great virtues of poker is that it’s a past-time which at no point does the dream of success ever truly die. It may become more and more unlikely but – thanks to our potentially ever inquisitive minds  – the possibility of reaching the top is always technically within our grasp.

I was playing at my local pub tourney recently and there was the World Darts Championship on the TV. And the guy next to me nodded towards the fine figure of a man on the screen and says, “Look at that! Isn’t that great?! What other sport can you think of where you can be unfit, old, lead a degenerate lifestyle and still be a world professional…?”

I paused for the appropriate effect while gesturing around us…”Er, poker?”

“Oh yeah…Ha, forgot that!” came the sheepish reply.

I guess in my innocent poker buddy’s defence, in recent times there has definitely been more of a movement away from that classic bad boy lifestyle that was the norm for poker players. Although as I have touched upon before in this blog, there are enough Bilzerians out there to make sure the stereotypes don’t totally go away. But it’s much more common now for professionals to argue that poker is as much about the physical as it is about the mental; and the likes of Eugene Katchalov and Jonathan Little have been vocal advocates of the benefits of health and fitness for their game.

But of course, although physical stamina definitely plays a vital role especially for tournament players, in the end it’s the ability to maintain concentration and phenomenal levels of psychological equilibrium that really distinguishes the top level players. Although needless to say, the two are often linked in the sense that with physical fatigue, mental fatigue will soon follow.

Either way over the past few years there has been a lot more awareness of the necessity of mind training and a healthy psychological approach to the game. In fact just as I wrote that sentence, I note a tweet from Daniel Negreanu with a link to his article on the Buddhist Practise of Mindfulness and how it can help your game.

It’s fitting then to this discussion that just before Christmas I won in a  Red Chip Poker competition a copy of a book by Dr Patricia Cardner and the aforementioned Jonathan Little: Positive Poker which is at the forefront of recent texts detailing that push to recognise the importance of the mental aspect of the game.

Granted there are those who are always going to be cynical about something that can look a little bit too ‘new age’ or esoteric. And I am aware that even just in this post, I have used both ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ interchangeably when admittedly, the two words don’t necessarily point to the same thing, depending on where you stand scientifically, psychologically, spiritually etc. But I don’t think I have the space, time or for that matter intelligence to do justice to that whole debate as to brain vs mind so I hope you let me off that big philosophical hook for now!

Suffice to say, at least from a spiritual point of view, the nature of ‘mind’ and what that means is something that Buddhists have been exploring for centuries before science joined the discussion. So I will leave those finer points to such higher authorities 😉

Instead, to return to Charlie Morley, I am reminded of something he said at the book launch. “When I tell people about some of the benefits – even physical – that lucid dreaming can have, they say to me dismissively,  ‘Ah well that’s just the placebo effect.’ And I say to them, Just?! Just the placebo effect?! Don’t you realise how amazing the placebo effect is? It’s never just!! It has the power to change and heal in ways that we are only just beginning to understand!”

His point being that saying something is  ‘all in the mind’ is not necessarily a way of dismissing a result. The fact that it is all in the mind – whatever we may decide the ‘mind’ is – may be the very reason why it’s changing things for the better in someone’s life.

For example, as someone who volunteers at a hospice and so naturally has an interest in issues around pain relief, I love some of the studies that have been done with gaming and how patients need less pain medication when engrossed in a game. Which will come as no surprise to any gamer not to mention poker players for whom all sorts of discomfort and urgent bodily functions can be totally ignored for hours at a stretch 🙂 And what is that but the power of the mind to choose what should be worthy of attention at any given time?

After I wrote the above paragraph, I am reminded of the following quote from a professor of clinical psychology Paul Salkovskis, that I stumbled across in a newspaper article discussing depression.

Pain is an almost entirely psychological phenomenon, What is happening in your life will impact on pain. A fine example is soldiers in wartime getting a finger shot off and being carried off the field in a state of euphoria, laughing. For most of us, if our finger was shot off, we wouldn’t be laughing. Pain is made worse or better depending on your psychological state.

This is something that Buddhists were telling us long before any scientific studies had been done into the placebo effect and/or the ability to through suggestion,  train the brain to ‘switch off’ its pain receptors. Not surprising then so many poker players now realise that mindfulness and meditation practises are perfect answers to the problem of the ‘pain’ of tilt not to mention the challenge of maintaining concentration over long periods of time.

Indeed, the core teaching of the Buddha was concerning the unlimited power of the mind to shape and change the environment both within and without. The only restrictions are those that we choose to place upon ourselves. The horizon of opportunity is vast if we can only wake up to that reality.

So to finish, I want to leave you with one of my favourite images from that stressful period as my mother began her road to recovery. It was around two weeks after the stroke and although she had been discharged from hospital, she was going through a difficult time adjusting to the situation at home. But with some tough love – and a fair bit of nagging from me and my sister – we called upon those impressive reserves of mental strength, positivity and willpower that  we knew my mother possessed. With that, we got the promise that the next day she’d put on the make-up and her glad-rags and show that in spite of any physical debilitation, her mind was still ready for the fight. So you find below the proof of that determination to not be bowed by circumstance. And I know she will curse me for saying it, but for a woman of 82 – not to mention the stroke – I think she certainly showed herself worthy of that battle…

fruity lady

A reminder again that our mind’s power is boundless. That all of us can go wherever our imagination chooses to take us. And we are only limited by the limits that we have decided to attach to our thoughts. So here’s my belated New Year toast looking forward to a mindful year ahead with all its possibilities and opportunities. And as we celebrate that incredible muscle which is our brain, let’s put it to work and discover ever more of that undiscovered country.