Initially I wanted to call this post “waves of devotion” but then I thought it would be presumptuous. We already have “waves” in books like Bhakti-rasāmṛta-sindhu and Bhakti-ratnakara, I don’t want to introduce “waves” that would practically desecrate the subject. Besides, I’m onto Flappy Bird today.
Flappy Bird is a game for mobile phones that at one point was the most popular in the world, only a few weeks ago. It was developed by a young Vietnamese guy who didn’t expect it to become such a phenomenon. At its height the game brought him fifty thousand dollars per day in ad revenue, not a trivial number by any count. It proved to be too much for the developer though. We don’t know the story but he ran into some personal problems, decided that the game was not worth the aggravation, and pulled it off the internet.
His decision can be a fertile ground for speculation – what went wrong if he had so much money coming in? Did this wealth created jealousy and envy in his family? Did he lost his girlfriend? Was he simply not prepared to deal with fame and glory? This doesn’t happen in America, maybe it was something about Vietnamese culture, possibly Buddhist values. We’ll never know.
The game itself is as simple as they come, all you have to do is tap the screen to make the bird “flap” its wings and fly. All you have to do is time this flapping so that the bird flies through the obstacles. If you don’t flap in time the bird loses altitude, if you flap too often it soars too high. That’s all there’s to it.
What made the game popular is that it is also impossibly difficult. Stupid bird crashes all the time no matter how hard you try, and you don’t really have to try hard at anything – just tap the screen. This combination between simplicity and difficulty hooked millions of people on.
Giving it up without getting some respectable score feels like a defeat and no one wants to admit it, and getting a respectable score takes a lot of effort and practice. I don’t even know what respectable score is, I asked a teenage girl and she said she got 21 so I got an idea what to aim for. It is a genuine time waster, that game, but I noticed something very illuminating about it and decided to run an experiment.
Success in this game requires concentration, it requires some basic motor skills but nothing major, it doesn’t give you breaks and leaves no room for failure, and you get better as you play along. Sounds like our attempts at self-realization.
Developing skills required to play well is a mechanical process – as you practice your body (eye, mind, finger) learns certain patterns of behavior as obstacles come in patterns, too. Some of them might appear scary and impossible at first but soon you’ll learn how to navigate through, it’s just a matter of trying and spotting them early on.
Hitting the obstacles is like our falldowns – they end the game. In our devotional life we don’t accumulate strikes either, we either follow our vows or we don’t. If we fail it’s not the end of the world but, like in the game, we have to start over. Might not sound terribly important to older devotees but if you are waiting for first or second initiation then no slip ups allowed, you have to start your probationary period again.
Even if we talk about little falldowns, like eating chocolate, the same principle still applies – we have to pick ourselves up and lead an absolutely clean life if we want to achieve any success in developing genuine devotion. We cannot maintain any material attachments and hope to progress – there’s no progress for those who commit offenses against the Holy Name, just stumbling around in the same place, breathing the smoke from wet wood and not getting any fire or warmth.
Yet following our principles and vows as well as restraining our material aspirations is a mechanical process, our body and mind can be trained for it and we get better with time. We can foresee patterns in our falldowns and we can learn how to avoid these traps as well as what to do in emergency situations.
It’s exactly the same as navigating through this game.
Then there’s a question of “level”. In our books devotees are remembered by their best achievements. We don’t know how Pahlāda Mahārāja lived the rest of his life, or Bali Mahārāja, or what devotees from Caitanya Caritāmṛta did between their visits to Jagannātha Purī. When we tell stories about our contemporary devotees we talk about their best achievements, too, unless you are one of those who’d rather dwell on others’ mistakes.
When you ask people about their level in the game they’d assume it means their record score, that’s how all games judge players progress. No one judges himself by lowest scores but sometime we judge others by their early exits, just like in real life.
So, for the experiment, I decided to play the game for an hour and enter each score into a spreadsheet and then make a chart. It looks like this:
I’ve played 200 rounds which was just a few minutes over an hour, my best score is 22 and the red line is my average. It’s not a “moving average” of the last five rounds, for example, but the average of all values from the start up until that particular point. At the end of the hour my average was 4.
What level am I?
You can see that I have hit plenty of zeroes, those are like hard falldowns, and that my post popular scores were two to five, which are like eating chocolate or ice cream.
You can also see that high scores repeat at roughly the same intervals. It was uncanny – as I was recording the scores I practically knew when the next high was going to come up. It was roughly at the bottom of each page before I had to scroll down as I entered numbers into a column.
This is what happens with my chanting, too – good days come at intervals and in between I don’t even expect much anymore, nor do I get super excited about short periods of really good japa.
What’s my level then?
The average line is interesting, too – it went up in the first half an hour or so but then got stable, just as it happens with devotees – they make a lot of quick progress in the first couple of years but then hit the wall, or rather reach the ceiling. As I got tired the average even started to decline, which is what we observe after many years of devotional practice, too.
Now, I started the hour with a number 21 in my head as a reasonable score. After I hit 22 I thought I had achieved my goal and didn’t really try anymore. Isn’t it what happens with our devotional lives, too? When we don’t expect any miracles anymore and think that our best years of service are behind us?
Also, the last few rounds people expect to be the best of all – go out with a bang, as they say. That’s not what happened to me at all. Would it be the same when death comes knocking? We expect to be on our best behavior, to be totally absorbed in Kṛṣṇa but in reality it could be worst time of our lives and we go out with a whimper instead.
The more I look at this chart the more I see how everything in this world acts under the same laws and follows the same patterns. What does it mean for our devotion? Or should we, perhaps, approach it quite differently if usual patterns don’t look promising? This needs to be explored.
There’s another thing that I didn’t get to see today – how after playing enough rounds one can develop a real skill that seems impossible to ordinary people like me. It’s like sure, everybody knows how to run but running on the Olympic level is done on a completely different level. Is it possible to observe this transition with this little game? If so, would it be possible to achieve this in our devotional lives, too? How would that work? How long would I have to practice? Will it come as one monumental shift or would the rise be slow?
Looks like I need more experiments. It’s for the science of Kṛṣṇa consciousness so it’s okay