What I have Learned from Crusader Kings 2

We often find ourselves in discussions if activities such as reading, watching TV, browsing the Internet or playing video games are good for you or not. I think this is like asking if a government is a good thing or not. The question is for the most part pointless since it doesn’t matter so much if we do have a government or not but what kind of government it is.

The same is true for reading. You can read hundreds of books and not enrich your life by a penny. Conversely, just reading one book might change your life forever. The same principle applies to playing computer games. Like any form of art, they are very varied and some games might provide us with more benefits than others.

Recently I spent some time playing the game Crusader Kings 2. Personally I found this to be quite an enriching experience. I am certain not everyone will feel this way – but for me it was true. Here I want to list some of the things I have learned while playing this game:

One Life Doesn’t Amount to Much

In Crusader Kings 2 you follow the path of a dynasty in Medieval Europe. The game does not end when your character dies but when a certain date is reached or your whole dynasty has become extinct. That notwithstanding you always play as one particular character. When that character dies, you start playing as another one (your son or daughter, for instance).

By the end of the game, you might have played as dozens of different characters. One starts to understand that history is not shaped by any one life but by many. Even if one manages to achieve the most outstanding in one lifetime, it will only be a drop in the ocean of history. Moreover, no matter the achievement, one is always sure to perish.

A Deeper Understanding of the Political System in Medieval Europe

I always thought of medieval Europe as a kind of Wild West where the law of the strongest ruled supreme. However, playing Crusader Kings 2 made me realise that the political system governing Europe was in fact very static and rule based.

For instance, even if one has a stronger army than rulers in all surrounding territories, one cannot simply conquer them. It is only possible to invade other territories when one has a valid ‘casus belli’ – a justification for war. For instance, if my brother inherits the kingdom of England and I get nothing, well, I will have a valid reason to claim the throne for myself.

With a powerful army and no valid justification for war, power cannot be expanded. Likewise a valid justification without a powerful army will not yield any advantage. Only the combination of the two provides the necessary means to overpower ones opponents.

Power is Always a Balancing Act

A very important concept of the games is the management of vassals. For instance, a king might rule multiple dukes, which in turn rule over multiple counts. Vassals will provide their ruler with an army levy and/or taxes. The more powerful a vassal is, the more soldiers and income they provide.

However, as useful as powerful vassals can be, as dangerous they can be as well. Vassals will band together and demand laws more favourable to them or even demand independence from your benevolent rule.

This teaches that power is seldom absolute. You need to be able to rely on others to exercise power in a larger scale.

You Might Loose Even While You are Winning

Starting from a single county in Ireland, I managed to build up a sizeable realm consisting of multiple kingdoms (Ireland, Navarra, Aragon, Asturias, Galicia, Leon) and was about to take control over the remainder of Spain. I had built up a bank of over 4000 gold pieces and vassals which were too weak to oppose me but strong enough to bolster the aspiring empire. As luck would have it, I only had two daughters. In this game, that is bad news.

I had manged with much scheming and trickery to change the succession laws in all of the kingdoms I ruled to primogeniture, which should assure that all kingdoms would pass on to my oldest son, and in absence of such, to my oldest daughter. However, upon my death, either through a bug in the game or arcane medieval laws, my oldest daughter received one kingdom, and my youngest daughter all the others. The character I took control over was my oldest daughter, and thus, in an instant the aspiring empire I had built was lost.

before the downfall
My character’s titles before the downfall

This taught me the lesson that even if things are going very well, one must not start to be careless, unless one risks to loose everything.

When we think of computer gaming, we often think of first person shooters or adventure games. Aimed with the power of a controller, the player obliterates scores of enemies. While there is something to be learned from such games as well, specifically hand-eye coordination and systems thinking, there are many other types of games which can deliver their own rich experiences. I found Crusader Kings 2 to be such a game. While I have listed here what I have learned from it, I would encourage anyone to give this game a try; since the real power of games comes from their interactivity; in which they are able to teach us lessons words on a page never could.

Practice: Irrelevance and Impermanence

The universe is very big. We are very small. The universe exists for an immeasurably long time. Our lives are very short. These are simple facts that we often forget. An omission which easily leads us to overestimate the importance of our life, actions and feelings in the greater context of existence.

Western culture is built around the idea that  there lies tremendous value in each and every individual. The following two quotations from the Declaration of Independence and the German Basic law illustrate the Western focus on the individual and their protection from the area of Enlightenment and modernity respectively:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Declaration of Independence

Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority. […] Every person shall have the right to free development of his personality insofar as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral law. […] Every person shall have the right to life and physical integrity. Freedom of the person shall be inviolable. 

Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany

I believe that this understanding of basic human rights is the foundation of the peace and prosperity my generation enjoys. These documents provide a very robust legal framework for creating a peaceful and functioning society. However, they are a poor spiritual guide in that they omit some fundamental truths about our existence – that there is little factual grounds for imbuing our puny lives with such outsize importance (the original justification for this was found in Christianity – as God endowing the ‘unalienable rights’.)

We cannot find true enlightenment if we do not face what is fact to the best of our knowledge. Thus we need to overcome the basic assumption that each and every life, and especially our own life, is inherently immeasurably valuable. This thought at first might not sound very comforting; but it can be a source of tremendous strength. You don’t need to be special; there is no point. You can focus on what has been given to you, your simple, small and short life and embrace all that is good within it, without having to believe in some false higher purpose.

One of the key concepts in Buddhist philosophy is the understanding that life is suffering, and that the impermanence of everything – people, thoughts, objects – is one of the key drivers of this suffering. It is a truly inalienable fact of life and, to find peace and wisdom, we need to understand and acknowledge it:

The world is afflicted by death and decay. But the wise do not grieve, having realised the nature of the world. 

Salla Sutta: The Arrow

Impermanence and suffering are two of the ‘three marks of existence’ in Buddhism with the third one being the concept of non-self. Non-self in essence asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in any living beings. For me, it is one of the more esoteric theories in Buddhism and I tend to classify it into the category of deliberations which easily leads us around in circles while being of little use. What I like to take away from it is the insight that what we perceive as our ‘self’ is mostly an illusion and believing that we have an immortal, immeasurable valuable soul is a belief held easily only with a good helping of self-aggrandisement.

The following practice is based on two basic understandings: Firstly, that we are impermanent and, secondly, that we are irrelevant in the sense that there is no magic to our lives which make them meaningful beyond the observable. 

  1. Become aware of the place where you currently are.
  2. Grasp in your mind the people who are in your building, then your suburb, then your city, then your country and finally the whole earth; each one so very similar to you and you being such a small part of them all.
  3. Become aware of the moment in time that currently is. Realise that in a hundred years you will have ceased to exist and your moment and struggles will mean little to those succeeding you. (If you happen to think you are rich and famous or have the opportunity to become so, add one hundred thousand years to the time-frame in this exercise.)
  4. Understand that by realising this you are acknowledging a fundamental truth of who you are and your place in the world. Your impermanence and irrelevance notwithstanding embrace the miracle of your existence, the ability to think and feel; the miracle that you may behold the beauty of the world, and to cherish the opportunity to add your microscopic ripple to the ocean of time and matter surrounding your life.

This practice and its theoretical justification is similar to the practice of embracing interbeing discussed earlier. The practice for embracing interbeing is only different in that it focuses on the connectedness of things while this practice is more inward bound, in asserting our place and identity in what we know existence to be.

In contrast to the practices of love, forgiveness and gratitude this practice is not immediately comforting. In fact it can be quite disturbing. It might be easier to live our lives if indeed there was any form of evidence that there is something magical which makes each of our lives worthwhile and valuable. Alas there is not. Given this, we need to face the facts as we are able to comprehend them. True enlightenment requires to be truthful to ourselves and finding wisdom within the constraints brought to us by the observable world:

Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things.

Sahassavagga: The Thousands

Image credit: Earthrise by Bill Anders

Practice: Love

One of the most precious gift we have been given is our ability to love. Our love may encompass the big and small, our love may encompass the beautiful and ugly, our love may encompass ourselves and everything around us. Think about the many layers of your love; the romantic love for someone special, the love for something you like to do, the love for your family, the universal love which drives your desire to help those in need and protect everything in creation from harm.

Love is a central tenant of many world religions. In Christianity both the love of worshippers for God and Jesus as well as the love of God and Jesus for worshippers are often repeated themes. Likewise worshippers are encouraged to love one another and others:

May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else.

1 Thessalonians 3:12

In Buddhism love or loving-kindness is known as one of the four immeasurable minds. It is in essence the strong wish that all sentient beings be well and happy:

Radiate boundless love towards the entire world — above, below, and across — unhindered, without ill will, without enmity.

Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Discourse on Loving-kindness

While we should practice our ability to feel this kind of love in every action and thought, the following practice may help us to become more mindful of our ability to love and strengthen it:

  1. Take five deep breaths
  2. Think of the love you feel for someone close to you, such as your partner, parents, pets, children or friends.
  3. Think of someone who was wronged you – do you have the capacity to feel love for them?
  4. Think of yourself, with all your faults and shortcomings. Can you find love for yourself?
  5. Think of all of humankind, every single living soul. Can you find love for each and every one?
  6. Think of all sentient beings. Cows grooming their calves; lion brothers fighting for their territory; elephants wondering together. Can you find love for each and every one?
  7. Think of existence as a whole; every particle in the universe, every field and power, seemingly endless time itself. Can you find love for this vessel in which we exist?

Love just like gratitude and forgiveness is a powerful, deep emotion. We have a natural ability to love and using this ability may make us stronger and wiser. Unfortunately in times when we are weak, it is often difficult to find love, and much easier to find hatred and self-pity. If we find ourselves unable to love easily, we may follow some of the other practices to help us be stronger and unlock our ability to love unconditionally again.

Image credit: Dan Sudermann

Practice: Equanimity

A key insight of Buddhist philosophy is that the highest goal to strive for should not be boundless happiness – since that is bound to disappoint – but instead a sound evenness of mind, equanimity. Equanimity requires us to overcome attachment, to brace us against the loss of even what is most dear to us.

As part of our regular practice we may try to seek this evenness. Prepare ourselves for the struggles ahead and find solace in the belief that we must not be overly joyful to have a good life (although when joy does find us, we may embrace it).

  1. Take four deep breaths.
  2. Think of something that troubles you. This might be something that has happened, might happen or a general state of things.
  3. Accept that difficulties are a part of life. We may never be free of events or thoughts that trouble us.
  4. Imagine yourself in ten years time looking back at what concerns you now. Will you feel about it in the same way? Or will the sharpness of the feeling have subsided, will you be able to look at it in a calmer way?

This practice is motivated by something I came across in the book ‘Positive Intelligence‘ by Shirzad  Chamine. Here the technique of ‘Flash Forward’ was suggested as a possible way to become emotionally stronger. Essentially this technique involves imagining ourselves towards the end of our lives and looking back at a decision we are about to make. What decision would our older, hopefully wiser, self recommend us to take? I think this is a great way for us to think about what faces us in our lives right now and provides an excellent way to detach ourselves from seemingly pressing matters.

Finding equanimity though requires more than just following this practice or others. It requires finding a whole new perspective of life and our place in it. We need to become very good at recognising our own feelings and desires and becoming their master rather than being controlled by them.

Finding equanimity is also something which can hardly be achieved in isolation. Other practices such as finding compassion, love, understanding the nature of interbeing and impermanence are critical for us to achieve true and lasting equanimity.

Just as a mighty boulder
stirs not with the wind,
so the wise are never moved
either by praise or blame.

Dhammapada Verse 81

Image credits: Frank Winkler

Practice: Interbeing

We live in the illusion that we posses a self which is well delineated from the world around us. Whereas in fact, we are interwoven with everything around us in innumerable ways. No particle in the universe exists independently. Everything is affected by everything else.

Modern science has shown the inter-relatedness of many social and natural phenomena. However even in ancient times, interbeing has long been seen as one of the fundamental truths about existence, especially in Eastern cultures.

The principle of anatta is one of the foundations of Buddhist thought and asserts that there is no distinguishable self in any living being. As such, we each exist only within the context of everything that surrounds us. Pratītyasamutpāda is another principle which states that nothing is created in isolation. Anything is created in the context of something else which already exists. 

Just like embracing forgiveness and gratitude, I believe that meditating on the inter-dependence of all things aids us in expanding our consciousness and brings us joy and wisdom. To aid in this meditation, I have developed the following simple practice:

  1. Breathe in and out slowly three times.
  2. Become aware of your body and its current place in space.
  3. Expand your mind and attempt to become aware of everyone else who is currently in the same building as you, then of everyone in the same city, then in the same country and then on the whole of earth. Realise how you are not so much different to everyone else but just one minuscule piece of an incomprehensibly large whole.
  4. Become aware of your body in its current place in time.
  5. Expand your mind and attempt to feel and become aware of everything that has happened to you since yesterday, then since last week, then since last year. Expand your mind further and become aware of all that has happened in the last one hundred years. Realise that everything you are in this moment is the result of a long chain of events, and your moment now is but a drop in the ocean pulled by the tides of time.

I believe it is essential for embracing the truth of interbeing that we acknowledge what an infinitesimal piece of existence we are. We are bound to overestimate our own importance and agency and underestimate the torrential power of the context that surrounds us. If we accept our own irrelevance, it is easier to realise we are but a part of a very big whole. This I believe can be a great source of comfort and strength, since it fulfils our natural desire for something in our lives that is larger than us, such as a divine power.

There may not be a god who cares about our fate and desires but being part of something so grand, so incomprehensible as our world is a miracle nonetheless. Embrace the beauty of being part of this miracle and relieve yourself from the need to be something special; we all are, together.

Practice: Gratitude

Positive psychology is a branch of psychology which focuses on what makes people happy and well. Gratitude has featured prominently in many studies in the field of positive psychology (see chapter Gratitude and the Science of Positive Psychology) since it has been shown that being grateful has many benefits for our emotional well-being.

Many world religions feature gratitude as an essential component to faith. One should express gratitude towards a higher being for all the good things experienced. Anyone who has felt gratitude can appreciate that it has a deep, spiritual quality just like forgiveness. Gratitude washes over us and gives us a glimpse of a higher, happier and more balanced state of being.

As such, practising gratitude is a prudent exercise to undertake in order to become more mindful and enlightened. The following simple practice aids with that:

  1. Take a deep breath in, then slowly exhale. Repeat for three times.
  2. Think about what a wonder it is that you are alive. Be grateful for the ability to think and feel and just be.

Many gratitude exercises suggested by positive psychology focus on identifying persons or events for which we should be grateful for. I do not doubt that this will help us to foster more virtuous emotions within ourselves and improve our relationships. However, I think that contemplating the very nature of our existence and finding within us gratefulness for the miracle of our being helps us become grateful in a deeper and more meaningful way. If we embrace this kind of gratitude, we are on the way to truly become more wise and enlightened.

If in contrast we would be grateful for particular things in our life, the question arises how to react if these are taken from us. For instance, one might be grateful for the good health of ones children – but what do we do if a child falls sick?

Buddhist teachings recognise this difficulty and instead encourage us to seek detachment and equanimity. This gratitude practise is somewhat in alignment with this strive for equanimity since we are less likely to focus on ephemeral situations in our lives. However we need to keep in mind that being grateful for being alive should not turn into an unhealthy attachment to our continued existence. To achieve true enlightenment, we must not be attached to being alive but accept in full that our lives are transient.

Image Credit: johnhain

Practices for Enlightenment

I believe we all have moments in which we become the best versions of ourselves; moments in which we are ever so slightly closer to true and deep enlightenment.

Unfortunately, these moments are rare and we digress from whatever insights we have gained easily. For instance, we might realise that binge watching television brings little happiness into our lives but comes with significant costs such as less time to spent with family and friends or for our health. We might then decide to spent less time watching television and more time on more meaningful endeavours.

This decision alone, however, is not sufficient for the outcome we decide upon to manifest. Often, we will try for a few days but then the hustle and bustle of life engulfs us and we quickly forget what we have set out to do.

I believe that to attain wisdom and foster goodness in our lives, we need to constantly remind ourselves of what is most important to us. So that, once we have decided to be good and happy, we can stand a chance against the demands of everyday life. One of the ways to do that is by following a set of practices: sequences of steps we do regularly and with a spiritual purpose.

This has motivated me to design the following simple practices, which may help in achieving a more balanced, meaningful and enlightened life:

I believe these practices can enable us to be stronger and wiser. Of course, we need to find a way to embed them into our lives in a regular manner, for instance every morning or every evening; since a practice can only unfold its power when practised repeatedly.

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