top of page
  • Karl Thunemann

Nirvana Is a 7-Letter Word; So Is Samsara

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Playing Scrabble on a frigid front porch—wearing masks, hoping to frustrate the corona virus—I excuse myself for a potty break. My Favorite Scrabble Partner remarks that she hopes that I win this game.

Why is that? I wonder. Because you want to win so much more than I do, she explains.

This observation—which I cannot contest—triggers a question that has long been at the edge of my consciousness. Because Scrabble occupies such a large part of my consciousness, how could it be cast as a meditation? The answer should be obvious: It cannot be so cast because competition—winning—is at its heart. Meditation is about being, not winning: ipso facto, Scrabble cannot occupy a common ground.

Where would I start? I would have to re-orient my mind. I tend to anthropomorphize the opponent within the disc. I visualize “him” gloating over a triumphant play, then muttering in chagrin when I make a creative response.

But I persist. My relationship with Scrabble is so peculiar. These days, I have only one live opponent, My Favorite Scrabble Partner. As a rule, we meet every two or three weeks to play—usually three or four games. But the bulk of Scrabble’s presence for me lies in playing solitaire “against” an archaic compact disc. It isn’t manufactured anymore, although apparently you can pay an outlandish price to acquire a copy on E-Bay. I am addicted to this form of the game. To argue otherwise would be foolish. Addiction and meditation are not bosom buddies. But my friend’s observation spurred me to go home and give it a try.

Where would I start? I would have to re-orient my mind. I tend to anthropomorphize the opponent within the disc. I visualize “him” gloating over a triumphant play, then muttering in chagrin when I make a creative response. So, challenge No. 1: There is no opponent. It has no personality. It is, I suppose, a less- than-sophisticated algorithm. Personality aside, this solitaire invites interaction with the whole of the English language—at least as conceived at the time this disc was created. I can marvel at how often I have chosen a word the CD anoints as the “best.” Once you remove the opponent, the meditation can begin. If I feel a moment of anger or annoyance—such a regrettable part of my nature! –I can teach myself to set it aside and resume, as one must learn to do in any form of meditation. The game becomes an exercise of perceiving the vast array of possibilities lying within the language.

So far I have been doing this for only a few days, so it is too soon to draw even tentative conclusions.

Which brings me to challenge No. 2. How can I stop using this solitaire game as a means to measure the status of Miss Otis? You might recall it is she who wears the persona of my diagnosis of “mild cognitive impairment.” Sometimes when I open a game Miss Otis is completely disengaged. Surveying the tiles, she spots only the obvious and none of the sublime. After I have selected my play, I am astonished to see the words I could have played. These words that are familiar to me yet—just a moment ago—appeared outside the realm of possibility. Sometimes I can redirect the attention of Miss Otis, but not always. Sometimes she is simply not available. This status can change from one game to the next. Miss Otis can go on a tear for three or four games—in which I recognize and intuitively play words I am not even conscious of “knowing.” That Miss O can be a deep one!

But the bottom line is this: I must find a way to diminish the role of measuring and diagnosis in this game. I believe these are essential tools for managing my impaired brain. But perhaps introducing a spirit of meditation can alleviate the harmful aspects introduced by measuring and diagnosis.

Challenge No. 3 is different. How can I title this epistle so Scrabble players will intuitively recognize it? The other morning I awoke with an “aha” moment concerning the importance of seven-letter words to the game. Nirvana came to me immediately because I have a long history with this word. (I hasten to add that by “nirvana” I mean the ancient Buddhist transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self—not the American Grunge band.) When I became a Feldenkrais student more than 20 years ago, I began to have a magical experience. I would be lying on Adrienne’s table, and we would be talking, when suddenly I felt myself retreating—still conscious but beyond words. Sometimes this would last for the remainder of the session. And sometimes I would fall asleep. Please trust that I know the difference.

And there was another seven-letter word that became familiar to me years later as I studied The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. It is closely associated with nirvana. Why does it refuse to come to mind? Eventually it comes: samsara. To me, it has profound Scrabble nuances. I tend to despair when I have even two A’s in my Scrabble rack. This word has three A’s! And, of course, two esses. The CD’s algorithm is committed to avoid leaving two of any letter unplayed. So it often jettisons that second unplayed S, creating a useless plural and scuttling the many possibilities for using two esses in seven-letter words. Here, if you found an open third S on the board, you could play samsaras! Who would guess it could be plural? Your samsara, my samsara, their … Tada!

Fortunately, I have found an entry on that concisely defines samsara and explains its relationship to nirvana. I have reprinted it here as a sidebar. May we all spend more time contemplating nirvana, and less mired in samsara.


Yogapedia explains Samsara

The literal translation of samsara would be “a wandering through." This refers to the way in which everyone passes through a number of lives and states.

The goal of nearly all religions that believe in samsara is to end its cycle of reincarnation by reaching nirvana, or moksha. This can be done by perceiving reality and the eternal Truth.

By understanding what samsara is, a yogi can use their meditation sessions to even greater effect. Focusing on samsara can not only help the practitioner keep the ultimate goal of liberation in mind, but it can also help them let go of current troubles and traumas as they remember that this life is just one of many, and everything is transient.


bottom of page