Crossroads Conversations: Sylvanas Windrunner, Buddhist Empress

“I teach suffering. Its origin, cessation and path. That’s all I teach.” — Buddha

Due to an internet outage there was no Crossroads Podcast last week, so I’m going to use this opportunity to revisit a discussion we had on the show a while back. Before the latest World of Warcraft expansion came out, the pre-patch caused quite a stir among the community.

Many were outraged by the direction the story was headed. I saw something beautiful.

Whether you play Warcraft or not, read on for a counterintuitive discussion of philosophy. If you do play, I’m primarily examining the character of Warchief Sylvanas Windrunner and the burning of Teldrassil.

Life Is Pain

“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” — Seneca

Aesthetic is key to how we judge morality. My favorite example: in Norse mythology, light elves and dark elves had no inherent morality. Not until outsiders discovered and interpreted their stories through the modern Western worldview, which assumes that white-skinned beings are good and black-skinned beings are evil. Thanks for that, Tolkien.

In Warcraft, the pandaren have a very Buddhist “feel”. They speak with Chinese accents and like to sit cross-legged on lily pads. Not to say they don’t represent Buddhist values–I actually love their in-game culture and the views they express. The point is, the limited amount of actual philosophy worked into the game is magnified by their aesthetic.

Then we have Sylvanas Windrunner, Warchief of the Horde, an undead dark elf straight out of Norse mythology. When I propose to fellow Warcraft fans she might be Buddhist, they laugh. They don’t notice the signifcance of a statement she makes right before the Burning of Teldrassil: “Life is pain. Hope fails.” Sylvanas explicitly states the core tenets of Buddhism, nearly word for word straight out of Siddhartha’s notebook. The beliefs are right, but the aesthetic is wrong. To many, the key elements of Buddhism are tea and cherry blossoms, rather than the practice of living without attachment.

Aside from Buddha, another philosopher comes to mind at the statement that “life is pain”: Seneca. Well, any of the Stoic philosophers would work, such as Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. I just happen to be most familiar with Seneca.

Stoicism is a Western parallel to Buddhism. It, too, starts with the assumption that life is suffering, but differs slightly in how one should deal with that fact. Buddhism teaches you to let go of attachment: if you let go of pleasure you’ll be free from pain; let go of hope to be free from fear; and so on. Stoicism teaches you to embrace everything. Love pain as much as you love pleasure. Love fear as much as you love hope. I think both are valid paths to peace and happiness, Stoicism just speaks more to me personally.

I think it’s safe to say practices at least a small measure of Stoicism. It would be impossible to function on a day-to-day basis if she didn’t. She’s died three times, had her soul ripped from her body, failed her people in their darkest hour, been turned into a puppet and forced to watch herself murder those she’d sworn to protect, and for a brief moment, after attaining the one thing she truly desired and having nothing left to live for, she committed suicide and managed to experience true oblivion.

What Buddha would call Nirvana. The cessation of self. The true loss of attachment and desire.

Then she faced a choice: to find freedom from the eternal pain of life, or to be brought back and serve selflessly.

She chose pain and service. Seneca would be proud.

Hope Fails

“If you stay in the center and embrace death with your whole heart, you will endure forever.” — Lao Tzu

Buddha teaches that attachment is a sure path to suffering. Since nothing lasts forever, you will inevitably lose anything you are attached to. Many recognize how this applies to material possessions, but fail to see it applies also to ideas, art, morals, traditions, philosophies, relationships, personal identities, goals, life, societies, worlds, and probably even the universe itself.

Hope is an attachment to something in the future that has not come to pass yet. It is a lose-lose situation: you’ll suffer because you never get what you hope for, or you’ll get it and suffer when you lose it.

Lao Tzu, another Chinese philosopher who predates Buddha by just a generation or two, also talks about hope in his Tao Te Ching. I’ve been getting really into his brand of Taoism recently and have already talked about it at length on this blog, so I’ll try to keep this short, even though just about every verse in the book seems to be written about Sylvanas specifically.

The Tao Te Ching warns that hope is dangerous, but does not advocate withdrawing from the world like Buddhism. Instead, Lao Tzu teaches wei wu wei, doing not-doing, which sounds like not doing anything but is the opposite. Wei wu wei is doing your work for its own sake, pouring your whole heart into it without attachment to outcomes. It’s the difference between writing a book because you want to be a rich and famous bestselling author and writing because you’re a writer and writing is what you do regardless of whether you receive any reward or recognition for your effort. You don’t hope for anything. You simply do.

Sylvanas Windrunner’s work is to lead the Horde. She is not a popular leader. The majority of the entire world hates her. Leadership has its own rewards, of course. Many despots enjoy the material luxuries of their station, or simply enjoy power. Sylvanas, a living corpse, does not eat nor drink, only breathes when the mood strikes her (usually in order to sigh), and lacks the ability to enjoy consorts. She doesn’t even sleep, so silk bedsheets wouldn’t do much for her.

What about power? It’s a humorous-yet-not-untrue observation that many of the world’s worst tyrants used power to compensate for a lack of sexual function. Deprived of all physical pleasures, does Sylvanas crave a different kind of fulfillment?

Not really, no. Thanks to books and short stories narrated from her perspective, we do not have to speculate about what goes on in the Warchief’s mind. She does not enjoy her position. Sylvanas came back from oblivion to take on the task of leading the Forsaken–a collection of undead like her–after being shown a vision of their bleak future without her. She rose to leadership of the entire Horde after being ordered to do so by her dying predecessor. It was the last thing she wanted, but duty demanded it.

Sylvanas does the work of Warchief devoid of hope. What is there to hope for? She will always be reviled, and there is no possible reward in it for her. There is not even any chance of success. The duties of the Warchief are ongoing, not something that can ever be completed. Sylvanas has embraced doing not-doing for as long as she holds her position. As she cannot die of natural causes, there is a non-zero chance she has signed up to struggle and suffer for eternity.

Her work is exemplified in the War of the Thorns, the campaign leading up to the conquest of Teldrassil. Many in her Horde questioned the decision to rekindle war with the Alliance so quickly. Most accepted that the war was inevitable, but urged her enjoy peace for as long as it might last.

For one who knows that life is pain and who holds no hope in her heart, there is only work. Sylvanas does not desire a reprieve from her work. Her work is to ensure that her people endure, and she accepted no delays.

The conquest of Teldrassil was one of the most ambitious campaigns waged in the history of the Horde. It had to be. The Horde has always been somewhat on the back foot, somewhat at the mercy of the Alliance. That state of the world is one of those attachments Buddha warns about. The Alliance takes the distribution of power.

Teldrassil is another example. The World Tree, the capital of night elf civilization. A living attachment which is never questioned. By taking it, Sylvanas shatters the established order, creates chaos and confusion. She acts according to Lao Tzu, dumping the water from the bowl so it may be filled anew, tearing down the established order to make room for a new one. To make space for the Horde’s future.

Only Sylvanas didn’t quite conquer Teldrassil, did she?

Now He’ll Understand

“You must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame. How could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?” — Friedrich Nietzsche

We relate the aesthetic of Buddhism to pretty and peaceful things, which makes us forget it is a philosophy primarily concerned with suffering, despair, and the quest for annihilation. Friedrich Nietzsche gets the opposite treatment, being associated with the aesthetic of nihilism and angst-fueled teenagers. Yet I’ve not found a philosophy more full of beauty and laughter than Nietzsche’s.

In the moments before she commits an act that changes Azeroth forever, Sylvanas Windrunner stands on a beach, in the shadow of the World Tree, in the dissonant calm that follows a desperate battle. She engages in a philosophical debate with a defeated night elf captain, who questions her motives.

“Life is pain. Hope fails. Now he’ll understand.”

“He” is High King Anduin Wrynn, Windrunner’s counterpart on the Alliance. Though he is her main enemy, and has certainly grown to hate her, she has no hatred for him. She views him only with mild exasperation, as if he were a wayward child. Which he arguably is, especially in comparison to Sylvanas.

Anduin, just on the cusp of adulthood, is naive, emotional, and a religious zealot. Though he has high-minded ideals, many of his decisions are poorly thought out, and Sylvanas bemoans the positions he puts her in. She misses his capable father, Varian. It speaks volumes that Sylvanas would rather face off against an opponent with a great chance of defeating than one who exposes his own weak spots. She chooses to take advantage of his weakness–her duty to the Horde demands it–but she would prefer a fair fight.

Though she wins the War of the Thorns, Sylvanas loses the debate on the beach. Sylvanas argues that the taking of Teldrassil will make Anduin “understand”. Her dying opponent tells her she is wrong. Sylvanas reconsiders her own position, then concedes defeat. Her campaign, for which so much blood has been shed, will fail to accomplish what she needs to accomplish. It takes a measure of grace and humility worthy of a Buddhist Empress to concede defeat to an enemy who is already at your mercy. Many commanders would have blocked out the criticism and charged ahead with their plan, resulting in disaster.

Sylvanas suppresses her ego and changes the plan to accomplish the mission.

What is the mission? What does she want King Anduin Wrynn to understand?

Nietzsche gets mistaken for a nihilist, but really is concerned with transcending nihilism. To create your own destiny and unlock the true beauty life has to offer, you must first plunge into the abyss of nihilism. It is a trying ordeal, in which you discard everything you know and confront the meaningless darkness of your own existence. Those who emerge from the abyss are on the path to becoming the “ubermensch” and a life of fulfillment and peace. Many never emerge, however, and wallow in nihilism forever.

I would advise anyone who wants to take the plunge to do so with the utmost care, so the journey does not break you. Sylvanas, unfortunately, does not have time to lead Anduin through the ordeal by hand. His naive zealotry is a threat to her Horde. She needs to make him understand that the established order is wrong, that he is not seeing the world accurately, that life is pain and hope fails and they must embrace these truths.

She needs him to understand that now.

Sylvanas thought taking Teldrassil would be enough. She was wrong. Instead of taking it, she lights it on fire, watches it burn to ash before her. Her expression is zen. She is at peace.

Sylvanas understands.

Will Anduin?

Real Talk 08/10/18: The Breaking Point

In which I reach the breaking point and pull a trigger I should have pulled a long time ago.

Doing Not-Doing

Before we get to what’s going on in my life, I want to talk about what I’ve been reading. The Tao Te Ching, a philosophical work by Taoist godfather Lao Tzu, has been on my to-read list for a very long time. After finishing the first half of Ray Dalio’s Principles, which is really two complete books plus an extended preface, I decided to mix it up and read a completely opposite kind of book.

Or so I thought.

Principles, an excellent guide for anyone who wants to do anything more effectively, is a practical instruction manual written by the CEO of a highly successful stock market investing firm. Dalio distills his vast knowledge of economics, science, and psychology into a set of basic ground rules for life and work, relying on logic and evidence each step of the way.

Nobody knows much about Lao Tzu, but the conventional wisdom is that he wrote his Tao in a cave somewhere in rural China a few thousand years ago. The Tao Te Ching is a collection of contradictory statements about the nature of reality, arranged in short verses which almost read as poems.

I’m only twelve verses in to the Tao, but so far, it’s similarity to Principles is striking. Both books are about living your life according to the most basic principles, which should be distilled by observing the world accurately rather than seeing what you want to see. Both are about learning behaviors that will serve you well in all possible situations, rather than reacting to events on a case-by-case basis.

I’ve talked about my love for oxymoron, dichotomies, and the contradictory nature of reality, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m loving the Tao Te Ching. I’m treating the book like a series of logic puzzles, meditating on each 50-word verse for anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes. You could read the whole book in that time, but I don’t think you’d get much from it.

Each verse sparks some kind of revelation in me, even–especially–the verses that seem completely unintelligible at first glance. If you decide to give it a read, approach it with an open mind. The verses read like the kind of empty nonsense statements people post on Facebook to look enlightened, but the wisdom in this book is highly practical stuff that you can apply to your life. I’m sure I’ll talk more about it as I continue puzzling my way through it, but for now I want to mention a few of the lessons that have struck me most powerfully.

Disclaimer: I have no clue if any of my thoughts about this book are accurate. My understanding of Eastern philosophy in general is limited, so treat the following as an eight-year old trying to explain the themes of a Shakespeare play.

The core of the work seems to be the concept of wei wu wei, “doing not-doing”, which is very different than doing nothing. It’s similar to the “flow state” discussed in modern psychology: finding enlightenment by disappearing into your work, entering a state where your conscious mind ceases to exist and you blend seamlessly into whatever you are doing. As a writer, for example, my goal shouldn’t be to write a book or earn fame and fortune as a result. The aim is to write and to disappear into my writing, reaching a state where my books essentially write themselves and I am simply a vessel through which words pass. Okay, that sounds really abstract and out there, but psychologists agree you work most efficiently when you enter a flow state, so it is a practical technique.

Another concept I like is the emphasis on emptiness. The Tao, or Way, which is the subject of the whole work is referred to as infinite emptiness with limitless potential. Talking about the power of nothingness sounds like another abstract truism, but Lao Tzu demonstrates its truth very practically. The useful quality of a bowl is that it is empty; having nothing in it allows it to hold whatever we want. When we build a house, we are enclosing a certain amount of nothingness and claiming it as our own. We use wood and concrete and so on to build with, but can only live in empty space, so emptiness is the most important building material. If you yearn for a bigger house or apartment, you’re really longing for extra nothing to work with.

I just finished a verse today which really struck me. It talks about how sensation blinds the senses: for example you can’t see anything when blinded by color, you can’t hear anything when deafened by noise, and so on. At first, I thought it was about living in a more quiet, muted environment, so you could learn to pick up more subtle, nuanced sensations. A practical example is how fancy restaurants will serve bland Swiss cheese as an appetizer to reset your palette and allow you to taste nuanced flavors. Then the verse added the heart and mind as sensory organs, which perceive the stimuli of desire and thought. The idea that desires and thoughts are not things that we create but things we “see” or “feel” is fascinating to me, and really drives home the importance of mindfulness meditation.

Más Megas Por Favor

Since moving to Mexico nearly two years ago, I’ve rented a small room in a house shared by about a billion people. I’ve learned to love my room since then, but one issue has continued to bother me: poor internet. There are three internet lines into the house already, but they’re all a fair distance from my room, and all being used by multiple people already. I don’t know what speed the connections actually are, but seeing as none of my housemates have need of a powerful connection, I’m guessing they sprung for the cheaper plans. I have functional internet most of the time, but it’s slow and unreliable, as anyone who has watched me tried to record the Crossroad podcast knows.

I’ve lived with this under the assumption that I’ll be getting my own apartment at some point and should just live with it until then. Recently, though, I’ve rethought my plans and think I might stay in this little room for a few years longer. In that case, it might be worthwhile to install yet another line into this house, this time straight into my room (or as close as it can get, I don’t really know what the wiring situation is yet). I’ve been thinking about it for a bit but hadn’t decided if the expense was worth it.

Then, last Thursday, the internet was out completely. I still don’t know why, though it may have been weather related. In any case, we had to skip doing the podcast entirely last week, and that was the last straw.

I’ve ordered a new line to be installed tomorrow. If all goes well, I should have my very own 100 megabyte per second connection up and running by tomorrow night. That means a more reliable and higher quality podcast, but it also means I can look into streaming video games and other content without having to rely on my brother to do the streaming. In other words, there might be a lot more Desdenada content headed our way.

Twenty-Five Years Later

Last week, Venezia’s parents had their twenty-five year wedding anniversary. In Mexico, they celebrate that by basically doing the wedding ceremony over again, so I basically got the experience of being a groomsman at a wedding. The ceremony took place in beautiful Cuernavaca, City of the Eternal Spring, and marks the first time in my life I’ve worn a suit (I dropped out of high school before prom and don’t go to enough high-society events, apparently).

Venezia’s sister also came back from Paris for the event, and I got to meet her boyfriend. Venezia and I tend to communicate in Spanglish anyway, but we took it to a new level with Sprenchlish, using our incomplete grasp of French to make up for his incomplete grasp of Spanish or English. We also taught him to drink mezcal, although there was no worm salt handy, so he sadly missed out on the full experience.

The past two days were a nice breather after the hectic weekend previous. Now it’s time to look ahead to next weekend, though, which features both Venezia’s birthday and the two-year anniversary of when we first met–not to be confused with the two-year anniversary of when we started going out, which is on the same day exactly one month later. We’re still nailing down the birthday plans, but brunch and an escape room are definitely in the picture.

Meanwhile we’re working on getting our Hallowe’en costumes together. The plan is to go as Éponine and Marius from Les Misérables, which is a little tragic as far as couples’ costumes go, but should also be a lot of fun.

What are you going as this year?

Crossroads Conversations: The Tavern

I mentioned yesterday that the idea behind my new columns is that each could grow into its own independent project. Crossroads conversations is the exception: the Crossroads podcast came first and this column grew out of it.

Continuing the Conversation

If you already listen to the podcast, Crossroads Conversations will be the place to get a deeper look into the discussions had on the show. If you don’t listen, here’s where you can get some of that content in a much shorter format.

In the final segment of each week of Crossroads, Alaric and I each bring one topic and get a chance to lead the conversation on whatever is on our minds. There are no rules about what we can bring to the table, but because of who we are, Alaric’s segment tends to be about science, nutrition, and medicine while mine gravitates toward philosophy and big-yet-hazy-ideas.

We try not to discuss these topics beforehand. The upside is that we have an organic conversation on the podcast that, in my opinion, makes it the most interesting part of the show. On the other hand, when I reflect on the conversation later, I often find I have more to say.

I have a very limited understanding of the science Alaric talks about, so his segments are learning experiences for me. That’s great because I end up asking him the same questions that listeners probably would. Only later when I have processed and absorbed all this learning do I have anything intelligent to add to this conversation, so one of the functions of Crossroads Conversations will be to add my thoughts to Alaric’s topic of the week.

The other function is to expand on my own topic. I use my segment to talk about ideas or theories I have, asking Alaric to poke holes in my logic or help me work out the fuzzy details. I come out of the conversation with a much clearer idea of my own thoughts than I have going in. After reflecting on Alaric’s insights, I’ll lay out more polished versions of my ideas here.

An Evening at the Tavern

Since this week is all about introductions, I won’t actually be doing the above today. I’ve already explained the point of this column and still have about six-hundred words left to fill, so if you’ll indulge me, I’ll talk a little about the thematic ideas behind the Crossroads podcast.

I’ve always loved the lonely crossroads trope. Traditionally, the crossroads is a place to meet the devil, selling him your soul in exchange for you heart’s desire. Many ghost stories involve haunted crossroads, including some versions of La Malora, an old Mexican folk tale. It’s not hard to speculate about where these stories come from. A place in the middle of nowhere where all sorts of people are bound to run into each other? Some weird stuff is sure to happen there.

Now imagine a tavern at such a lonely crossroads, where travelers stop to rest on their way to far-off places. People who have no business ever meeting each other rub shoulders and share a drink. In such a place, you meet people from spheres you’ve never interacted with, and if you’re willing to listen, they might share their ideas with you.

These are ideas you’ve never heard before. Chances are nobody in your sphere has heard these ideas, either. That gives you an edge. At the same time, many of these ideas are going to make you uncomfortable. You’ve never met people who think this way. You didn’t think there were people who think this way. Part of you will want to excuse yourself, go to bed, and be on your way back to people who think the way you do at first light.

If you’re wise and brave, though, you’ll stay until the end. In the dark hours of the morning, when everyone is drunk and the cares of the real world seem a thousand hours away, something magical happens. People begin to really talk. To bare their souls. After a night of debating radically different ideas and viewpoints, you realize that the deepest, darkest parts of each person are exactly the same.

The aim of Crossroads is to capture that magic. By exploring the radically different, we discover what makes us radically the same.

The Road Ahead

Now, in no particular order, is a list of topics I plan to cover in future editions of both the podcast and this column. If any of them sound particularly interesting to you, let me know and I’ll try to address it sooner!

  • Transcendental Capitalism: why I think capitalism is not a movement or an ideology but a physical and inevitable manifestation of the human condition
  • Norse Mythology: why giants are not big, dwarves are not small, and the entire fantasy genre is based on a lie
  • The Crucible Method: a self-improvement system I designed for myself, built on a foundation of pain and failure
  • The Importance of Aesthetic: why everything we consider shallow might be key to our happiness and survival
  • Core Values Remastered: my continuing struggle to define Desdenada’s Core Values, building on our conversation in the first episode of Crossroads
  • Favorite Philosophers: a crash course on the thinkers and ideas who continue to shape my life
  • Favorite Podcasts: a breakdown of the voices I spend an inordinate amount of my time listening to
  • Hall of Heroes: the contemporaries I follow and strive to emulate and what each has taught me
  • Hall of Legends: those who are no longer with us yet whose legacy provides lasting value for us all
  • Apps and Tools: the rare tools I’ve found that actually simplify my life instead of adding unnecessary complexity
  • Anticipation: my system for ensuring the future is always bright and I’m always excited for the days to come
  • Literary Étude: my bizarre technique for infusing my writing with the essence of my favorite authors while creating something fresh and original
  • Skyrim Life Skills: an effective self-improvement gamification system I came up with after sinking untold hours into the Elder Scrolls V

Of course, that’s only half the story. Who knows what topics Alaric will come up with in the intervening weeks, and the conversations they’ll inspire!