Shortly after I first arrived in Colorado I was driving through the Rockies, nature at its finest, when out of nowhere arose an enormous apartment block. I thought I was dreaming (which I was, as always); but, as I kept driving, more and more incongruous city buildings towered above the road until it dawned on me that I’d stumbled into a casino town slap bang in the middle of the mountains. Its name, “Black Hawk”.
Last week, on the way home from an unspoiled scenic drive with two delightfully enthusiastic guests, on a whim I decided to drive through Black Hawk — just to see their faces.
They were as amazed as I, and M went one further – he wanted us to look inside. This is how we came to leave a place of spacious beauty to enter a grim chaotic dungeon.
We were greeted by a cacophony of clashing noises from the varying soundtracks playing in different parts of the casino, the loud voices of the people calling the numbers on the Blackjack table, and, most of all, the endless whirring of slot machines. Even the carpet was painful on the eyes – deliberately discordant so that you would keep your eyes on the screen.
People had evidently been in there for hours, possibly days – time flies when there are no windows or clocks and everything is engineered to stop you leaving. The machines are rigged – deceptive — as are all objects of attachment. No one looked at us as we walked right by, let alone smiled. I couldn’t see one person who looked as if they were enjoying themselves. An interesting Atlantic article I read later describes what we saw:
It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and here inside the windowless, clockless, cavernous space, a few patrons are clustered around a craps table, a roulette table, and a handful of card tables. But the vast majority sit at the slot machines. Slots and video poker have become the lifeblood of the American casino.
We helped ourselves to the free coffees – noting that if we sat there long enough, a server would be by to offer us all kinds of free drinks and food so that we would have no reason to get up. The comfortable ergonomic seats were theoretically swivel chairs, but, left to their own devices, returned us firmly to face the screen.
That same article also said that players can become so absorbed in the machines that they leave young children unattended, wet themselves without noticing, and neglect to eat for hours. Even after 10 minutes, I could see how this could happen.
This visit has stayed with me, and my intention in writing about it is not to judge gamblers or even those who prey on them – what has really struck me is that all attachment is like this to a greater or lesser degree, including my own.
For example, for those same guests — it being our day off but also minus 17 degrees — I was googling the top 10 Indoor Things to Do in Denver. There’s actually loads of fun things to do around here — hundreds and hundreds. But most of them primarily involve some kind of sensory stimulation (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and/or tactile sensations), meaning that after a little excitement which inevitably wears off, we are no better off than when we started. This is very different to finding peace and happiness from inner development, which grows the more we do it.
The definition of desirous attachment is a deluded mental factor (or state of mind) that observes its contaminated object, regards it as a cause of happiness, and wishes for it.
You can read all about how it develops and its different types in How to Understand the Mind. With attachment we’re generally seeking happiness from sense pleasures, as opposed to from mental awareness; and from objects perceived to be external to the mind. Attachment believes that happiness lies in objects (including people) outside the mind, and inheres in those objects, meaning that there is always some sense of dualism: My mind is over here and the inherently happy-making thing is over there, so I need and want it for my happiness.
With attachment, it seems to me that there is usually a moreorless excited or nervous anticipation of something happening, of the object of attachment delivering in some way. This might be in the form of a pay out, as in a slot machine. Or a delicious taste, as in “that first sip feeling” of a latte. Or the thrill of movement, as in launching ourselves down a mountain on some skis. Or the frisson of desire, as in our partner sending us a romantic text. And so on. At the casino, we saw a woman get the blaring message “You’ve won!!!” – she looked up to smile at her neighbor for all of 10 seconds before her facial expression changed right back to grim nervousness as her fingers returned to the buttons. Instead of leaving it there, she was encouraged now to anticipate however long it took for another “You’ve Won!” Or perhaps she saw through the dupery but couldn’t muster enough energy or self-confidence to leave and find an alternative.
I have seen that play out in my own and others’ relationships, for example, when part of us knows full well that the “love” is not going to be reciprocated, but we still hold out just in case – prepared to keep pressing that button for the occasional times we do get some attention, “You’ve Won!” Some of the regulars in that casino were playing two or even three machines at the same time – the level of stimulation needing to be ramped up continually, ending up in just as much dissatisfaction. Rather than peace, attachment leads to at best a buzz, often followed by disappointment or depression.
Many gamblers are addicted – in fact the industry relies mainly on the addicts, not on those who can tear themselves away. Addiction is an extreme form of attachment. Sometimes it’s good to look at the extreme forms of our delusions in order to understand the mechanics and faults of that particular delusion. For example, we can see the results of extreme hate in the war on Ukraine; and this helps us understand the faults of dislike and hatred in general because they are part of the same continuum or spectrum. This is turn can encourage us to identify and get rid of hatred altogether from our own mind, replacing it with a positive opponent such as loving kindness.
In the case of attachment, we can learn to replace it with the pursuit of actual happiness — the true happiness that comes from inner peace, contentment, or bliss. As Venerable Atisha says:
Friends, the things you desire give no more satisfaction than drinking seawater, therefore practice contentment.
One of my favorite ancient Tibetan Yogis is Khachen Yeshe Gyaltsan, whose story is told in Meaningful to Behold — whenever I find myself becoming consumed by attachment, I like reading it. If you have time and are having problems with attachment, I recommend reading that whole chapter on Concentration – it provides strong and welcome medicine. In there, Venerable Geshe-la says:
Without a doubt Yogis like Milarepa experience bliss that is a thousand times greater than anything we ever experience. Their unsurpassed happiness is due to their inner calm and their complete lack of attachment to external objects, while our suffering and dissatisfaction is due to our complete submersion in attitudes of attachment and aversion to external objects.
Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive
All enlightened beings, Bodhisattvas, and other wise beings are continually warning us against the dangers of attachment. For example, Je Tsongkhapa says:
Samsara’s pleasures are deceptive.
Give no contentment, only torment.
Later on, I asked M to describe what he had seen in the casino, and he replied: “People with a desperate plea to be happy, grasping at happiness, in the midst of an overwhelming sensory bombardment that is literally the opposite of meditative. No mental awareness at all, really, no actual peace anywhere to be seen. Also, people didn’t have to think — all the behavior felt automated, you look like you’re doing something but you’re just a spending machine, programmed to spend. They seemed absorbed in the causes of pain.”
In Modern Buddhism, Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:
The source of all our daily problems and suffering is our uncontrolled desire, also known as “attachment.” … There is not a single problem experienced by living beings that does not come from their uncontrolled desire.
When I first drove through Black Hawk and saw the heaviness on pedestrians’ faces as they scuttled back to the casinos, I felt there was evil in the air. And, indeed, the electronic gaming machines, offering variations on slots and video poker, are designed explicitly to lull players into a trancelike state that the industry refers to as “continuous gaming productivity.” These aren’t your regular Whitby seaside little slot machines where you fool around for 20 minutes and then leave for an ice cream; this is full on “Let’s get their money. Let’s get as much out of these dupes as we can.” Machine upon machine upon machine is rigged to deceive their players, to prey on their weakness, to make them into literal losers. For example, the EGMs are configured to show loads of pretend near-miss results, duping people into thinking, “I was so close. Maybe next time.” As that Atlantic article put it:
Wander through a casino at almost any hour, and you’ll see people transfixed before the machines, their fingers poised over the buttons, jabbing at them like rats in cages.
In the anticipation of illusory rewards, gamblers lose all judgment. Once addicted, which apparently doesn’t take that many sessions, players simply cannot stop themselves, regardless of the consequences. Attachment exaggerates the power of its object to make us happy, and it leads to a lack of judgment — all delusions are distorted and lack good judgment. These are some apparent symptoms of addiction, or strong attachment:
Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money to get the same thrill. Trying to control, cut back or stop gambling, without success. Feeling restless or irritable when you try to cut down on gambling. Gambling to escape problems or relieve feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression.
Something similar can be applied to any kind of overpowering attachment. Check out this sobering video:
With respect to a gambling addiction, nowadays it is easier than ever to keep going because you don’t get real coins coming out of the slots, instead you earn credits that you immediately plug back into the game. Indeed, I saw people with their literal credit cards stuck into the EGMs. No wonder players can lose thousands of dollars in a few hours. They can end up destitute, stealing to feed the addiction, even losing everything. This attachment can lead to profound despair. One in five addicts attempts suicide.
All attachment is deceptive
When we fall for the deception, with attachment to anything we always end up losing, not least because what we are trying to grab hold of is entirely illusory to begin with. Therefore, I would like to see through all my objects of attachment in the way that I saw right through that casino. Samsara is not and never can be a pleasure garden.
This visit also reminded me that it is very hard to manage objects of attachment once they have overpowered us, it is very hard to control our behavior around them. We all need help. We need all three objects of refuge, we need a lot of blessings.
I was thinking how when Buddhas and other holy beings watch us pursuing objects of attachment, they can see how self-destructive we’re about to be; and I bet they are willing us to just walk away from these deceptive objects before we engage in them in the first place. I was not inclined to press even one button when I was in the casino because, given that I could see no one enjoying themselves, what was the point? However, what about all my own objects of attachment that seem to have a lot of point?! Attachment arises from so-called “inappropriate attention” – that is what hooks us. So the moment we first start to exaggerate the power of that object to give us something we think we want is the moment we need to get in there and derail those thoughts, thinking about the faults of attachment instead, for example. This is because once inappropriate attention has taken over our mind, it feels near impossible to walk away.
I could maybe have understood the appeal more if the casino was in a really ugly place where there was nothing else to see or do. But, ironically, Black Hawk is right next to the Golden Gate Canyon State Park,which is a place of unbelievable beauty. As we drove home through this Park there was no one else around – no one simply sitting in the clear air and harmonious vistas, feeling at peace. All the other cars had turned off on the road to Black Hawk – thousands of people were going to spend all weekend in that dystopian place, barely seeing daylight.
We find ourselves in the prison of samsara due to our self-grasping ignorance, but we are chained to its walls by our attachment. I was reminded of this in the casino, where people seemed invisibly chained to the machines by their attachment, making not even the slightest effort to walk the few steps it would take to deliver them into the glorious fresh air. Even if we could find the door to liberation, with attachment we have no desire to go through it. Liberation and enlightenment are pervasive reality – they are a trick of the mind away – but for the mind of ignorance and attachment they may as well be non-existent. We have to develop renunciation, to believe Atisha for example:
Friends, there is no happiness in this swamp of samsara, so move to the firm ground of liberation.
(What would happen if the New Kadampa Tradition offered meditation classes in Black Hawk, we were wondering. But I think I know – nobody would go. Buddha himself could appear in his body of light and people would barely look up.)
It may seem counterintuitive at first, but renunciation does make us happier. We’re no longer trying to make something work that can’t work. We understand that we need to change our thoughts if we want to become happier. We cannot wait for something or someone to deliver before we become happy, for in that way we disempower ourselves.
A lot of people apparently take up gambling to get away from their seemingly ordinary boring lives, to have a bit of excitement, to live on the edge. I get it. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting a change. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a vacation. We often want to get away from our lives. And the very best way to do this is not to frequent a casino but to meditate on renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom. These will give us all the space, relaxation, and escape from boredem that we need.
Also, it can help to address the “selfish” part of uncontrolled aka selfish desires. So often we go through the whole day simply hoping that everything will go our way or worried that it may not. In a way, we want to reverse this so that we are more interested in what we’re bringing to the day — rather than needing everything to work out, we’re focused on how we can bring love and wisdom to every situation and help the people we meet. This takes a lot of worry out of the day because it actually puts us in control. Things don’t need to go our way — we’re bringing it. And therefore there is naturally less need for escapism.
So much happiness to be had
My guests and I were comparing the casino to the endless non-dual satisfaction, joy, and happiness we get from simply allowing our minds to be still, spacious, and peaceful, even via a simple breathing meditation; let alone from starting to plumb the limitless depths of the bliss we have inside us, a method that always delivers. Deep peace is possible. It also turns out to be a lot less effort than falling for our attachment over and over again.
For me, the casino was an example or perhaps a metaphor for attachment and the hold it exerts over us. Every time we get attached to something or someone, it is like pulling the lever of a slot machine (or pressing the button on an EGM). We might get “lucky” and offset our losses for a few moments, be relieved enough to smile for a few seconds – but the rest of the time we feel nervous and unsmiling as we invariably have to keep coming back for more. Attachment creates the cause for us to be reborn as hungry ghosts — sometimes you can just see that. On the other hand, when we know how to develop happiness from inner peace, we can learn to enjoy everything and everyone all the time, including our relationships, with none of the grasping or itchiness. We create the cause for the endless enjoyments of a Pure Land.
It can help to recall that things have always been like this. The world of samsara has always been a mess due to our attachment, and we need that perspective. If we were aware that we have lived for millions upon countless millions of years, we’d know there is, as the saying goes, nothing new under the sun — nothing that has ever satisfied us for very long.
It is easier to squeeze water from stone than to squeeze happiness out of inherently existent things. So instead of falling for it and just coming back for more and more and more, I have been thinking about how we all need to make our escape into the fresh air just outside that door. Our peaceful mind is even closer than the clear Colorado skies — it is already in our heart.
Over to you, I’d love your comments (not attached to receiving them, though, or am I?!)