Dhamma Games

Hey, friends! Today I want to share a new game I learned from a fellow member of my dhamma study group. It’s a Buddhist game, sort of. Here’s how it works.


Team up with a partner and take turns asking each other the following question-pair.

What are you noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

Is that pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral?

[Partner responds]

Thank you.

. . . What are you noticing now?

Keep up the exercise for about 2-3 minutes, then switch roles.


Now ask the following question-pairs:

What is something pleasant that you’re noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

What is your reaction to it?

[Partner responds]

Thank you. What is something neutral that you’re noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

What is your reaction to it?

[Partner responds]

Thank you. What is something unpleasant that you’re noticing right now?

[Partner responds]

What is your reaction to it?

[Partner responds]

Thank you.

Keep repeating the cycle (doesn’t really matter what order) for 2-3 minutes, then switch roles.

The responses to the questions can be internal or external — “I’m noticing that I’m having anxious thoughts about finding a job;” “I’m noticing the pillowy clouds out the window;” “I’m noticing a slight coldness in my hands.”  It doesn’t matter whether they are pleasant, unpleasant or neutral in some objective sense (for instance, I might call the odor of skunks or gasoline pleasant, while my mom finds them nauseating).  What matters is your own subjective experience.

The point is not to get all deep or articulate with the observations, but to keep it as stream-of-consciousness as possible. I think the game originates from the “noting” practice common among many Buddhists (particularly, if I’m not mistaken, Theravada/Thai Forest/Insight? Zen folks, Tibetan peeps, help me out?). With “noting,” you meditate while bringing awareness to different sensations in the body, and also to the umbrella category of “thinking.” Some forms involve naming or labeling the sensations; others advise against that.

For me, these exercises and games, and the logic behind them, have been quite useful.  They bring our calm attention to what Buddhists call vedanā: a Pali word for “sensations.”  Typically, the teachings say, our habit is to react to vedanā with various types of attachment or ignorance.  When we experience a pleasant sensation, we often crave more of it.  We want it to continue.  When we experience something unpleasant, we wish it would go away as fast as possible.  Neutral sensations, which make up a huge part of our everyday life, often escape our notice altogether; we don’t find them worthy or interesting enough to pay attention to.

What happens when we start bringing investigative attention to vedanā?  It allows us to decouple our experiences from our reactions.

Who says we need to hate unpleasant sensations?  Who says we have to crave pleasant ones?  What are the consequences of these habit-patterns of craving, aversion, and ignorance toward sensation?  (Buddhist hint: suffering.)

Let’s say I do a really tough workout one day — biking up and down San Francisco hills, hitting up an intense yoga class, and lifting rare hardcover copies of Capital, Volume 1 as freeweights — and the next day my muscles are sore.  My body is in pain.  I might label that pain as unpleasant or maybe neutral, depending on its severity.  But does my reaction need to be woeful?  Am I filled with regret?  Do I despise that siren-voiced yoga teacher for ushering me into this world of corporeal discomfort?

Or am I happy about the difficulty?  Do I feel proud of myself?  Am I comforted knowing that the pain will fade, my strength will grow, and my exercise capacity will increase?

Do I even, perhaps, feel a compulsive need to work out some more, and increase the uncomfortable pain as an index of my success?  Do I put a lot of stock in my athletic soreness as an indispensable means of controlling my own body, and shaping it the way I want?  Do I crave more physical discomfort as a way of soothing myself?

You might be thinking: Okay, well, pain is a tricky example because some people just enjoy it, while others don’t.  So even though it’s “pain,” it might not be unpleasant at all for a particular individual. Good point!  Hence the emphasis on one’s own subjective experience of pleasantness and unpleasantness.  The goal isn’t to develop the world’s highest pain tolerance.  Nor is it to crave pain and hate pleasure.  Rather, the larger aim is to investigate the mechanisms of our own reactions and attachments.  So each person has their own metric, their own baseline, their own course to chart.  Over time, we begin to notice more spaciousness between vedanā and our response to it.  Rather than falling back on our same old knee-jerk reactions, we take in information and decide what to do with it.

Pleasant — okay, this is pleasant.  I know it’s ephemeral.  I know it’s going to end.  It’s merely pleasant: nothing more, nothing less.  Knowing this, I’ll to my best to share the benefits and promote well-being in myself and others.

Neutral — hmm, how can I remain curious about what is neutral?  How can I bring mindful awareness to neutral experiences instead of taking them for granted?  What might I discover that I didn’t recognize before?

Unpleasant  — well, this feels crappy.  But it’s also ephemeral.  It’s also going to end.  Knowing this, I’ll do the best I can to reduce harm in the situation, for myself and for others.

What I also appreciate about these games, and especially Phase 2, is that they give equal weight to all three types of experience.  So if I’m someone who tends to perceive things negatively and critically (which I am), this helps me balance that out.  If I were someone who always gravitated toward joyful, beautiful, pleasant experience, this might help ground me in mild unpleasantness that I’d otherwise be wary of approaching.

With that in mind, on a final note, I’d ask anyone playing this game, or introducing it to someone else, to please be mindful of what emotional difficulties or traumas it might bring up.  You never know what folks are going through.  If it feels too scary to name unpleasant thoughts in the mind, maybe try focusing on external objects or only mildly unpleasant physical sensations.  Take care of yourself, and don’t push yourself too much.

Questions?  Comments?  I’ll try to find out the original sources of the exercises and update with info.  In the meantime, if you try it out, let me know what you think!

2 thoughts on “Dhamma Games

  1. leorasf March 22, 2011 / 2:50 pm

    I have been teaching multiple folks this game lately, friend :)

  2. kloncke March 22, 2011 / 3:11 pm

    It was so nice playing it with you while awaiting the guy with my phone!

    I’m so grateful that we got to spend some time around this particular full moon. And I’m looking forward to noa’s discovery of our surprise.

    love you in quantities of water in the oceans,


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