Zen and the art of Ingress

Ingress is an augmented reality game from Google. It features portals, points of significance in people’s lives: statues, buildings etc. and two teams. The teams vie for control of portals by capturing them for their colour. They then form links between three portals in a triangle to colour it as a field for their team.

This article is a light hearted look at the philosophy of the game. Just like the game it shouldn’t be taken too seriously :-).

Ingress has to be played by going to places so is intended to promote exercise. It is like a mix of geo-caching, orienteering and a social network since the game rules promote cooperative play. Google are experimenting with technology here and maybe people too. There will be more that a few sociology papers on it, no doubt.

In Zen, one is taught among other things to eschew attachments to things, and live in the transience of life.

This is good advice for Ingress. Portals can change hands many times a day and perceiving them as belonging to you is likely to lead to psychological distress. Some players live or work within range of a portal and this can lead to strong feelings of possessiveness. In turn this can lead to serious resentment when the portal is captured, especially repeatedly.

This leads to an interesting conflict. A player having access to a portal can use it to “farm” lots of resources for the game. If the portal is well established and several team members have helped they can often get much more valuable resources.

As Ingress is a game all about resources one can rapidly see that such a portal becomes an important target for the other team. But when they destroy it are they attacking the resource or the player? And what is the perception of the current owner, who may believe they have a right to this portal.

The two teams are reminiscent of the residents of Swift’s Lilliput and Blegescu, trapped in a struggle over something of uncertain consequence. But the division is even more arbitrary. The two factions live among each other and come from an almost identical demographic.

And yet it takes little time for a bias of perception to creep in between the teams. All human life is here, the good, bad and ugly, with some of the latter reminiscent of the Stanford prison experiment in a darkly comic way.

It is good to, as in all things, try not to offend, and try not to be offended.

The Tao of Ingress


Ingress is really like the Tao, the symbol of Yin and Yang that represents a dynamic equilibrium between two halves.

This is what it should be, one team rises and the other falls but for the pattern to reverse the next day.

The other thing the Tao reminds is that both halves are essential and complimentary. Each half is meaningless on its own.

In Ingress this is literally true. A static tableau of one team is dull and destroys gameplay which is about creation and destruction in a cycle. There will be islands that are habitually one colour or the other and this must also be in approximate balance so that both teams can resource themselves somewhat. But these will also rise and fall.

An attempt at outright dominance from either team is futile for gameplay, but if semi-successful will perturb the balance of the game to deprive the other side of resource so that equilibrium is slow in returning. Of course if players on the other side become frustrated and bored they are likely to stop play leading to a Pyrrhic victory for the first side. It’s not dissimilar to the Fox / Rabbit population problem, populations will recover from extreme predation, but slowly.

Even the most Enlightened players need to work hard on their Resistance against possessiveness. It is ultimately an illusion that they own a portal, an area or a given place. Feeling this way will bring misery and frustration. On the other hand it’s hard not to feel fed up of being deliberately lorded over by the other faction on your home turf if that becomes excessive.

An exercise in training for players: walk fully armed with your scanner open through your own “enemy” occupied area. Don’t destroy anything, just for one walk. Not as a tactic against “them” but to see how it makes you feel to tolerate this. Trash the place another day once you have learned about yourself.

On the flip side, as you enter territory in an area normally occupied by the other side or where you know one of them lives. A useful exercise might be to destroy and build but still leave something. Not because you have to but because you can and because it will let the opposition player more quickly provide a new canvas for you.

Ingress is above all a game of time. The person who can throw the most time at it can win nine times out of ten, but if there isn’t an approximate balance between the factions and the time they are willing to throw at it locally the game play will come to a halt soon enough.

If you (perhaps because you are starved of action) leap on everything that appears from the other faction within minutes, don’t be surprised if they get bored and play somewhere else or not at all. If you keep doing that over and over, you might actually “win”. But it’s not total war. It’s a game.

If you respect the Tao of Ingress it is more likely to remain fun for everyone. Have fun and obey Wheaton’s Law :-).


I wrote this essay almost eight years ago. I’m just republishing it in a web format.

In many eastern religions, and indeed their occidental counterparts, great emphasis is placed in reaching states of personal enlightenment or self-improvement. In Zen, this is often approached from several angles (See D.T. Suzuki [2]), but perhaps the most well known is that of zazen meditation. In this practice the mind is encouraged to have no attachments, it may move freely, neither forced to consider thoughts, not forced to leave them.

This state of mind could be described by the word mushin meaning literally “no mind”. In this state the mind is truly focused on the present moment, not anticipating the future and not pondering on the past. The martial arts of Japan have long been looked upon as an alternative, or perhaps at least parallel, means of progressing to this goal. In Budo this can be thought of as a form of meditation in motion, always acting in the present.

This prevents fearful anticipation of the future and also misinterpreting such future events. Although the idea of a budo is that of a way without destination, this goal of mushin should be constantly striven for. Perhaps an intermediary goal is that of fudoshin. This means “immovable mind” although this translation fails to carry the positive implications in this word. For me this means that the mind is immovable by outside influence, or to put it another way the mind can only be “moved” when one desires it.

As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture
or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop any-
where within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he
simply meets the attack without anything in mind.
As he studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of
how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword and how where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted.
Later, as days pass and time piles up, in accordance with his
practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighed in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning when he knew nothing and had yet to be taught anything at all.

extract from the Unfettered Mind, Takuan Soho

So here in “The Mysterious Record of Immovable Wisdom”, a letter written by the famous monk Takuan Soho to the equally famous swordsman Yagyu Munenori, Soho advises that a person with no martial experience may be better off than those who embark upon such a path. The person with no such training at least behaves naturally, even if possibly foolishly.

Their mind may be affected by many outside influences, but at least they themselves do not cause it to “freeze”.

When one begins training in a martial way, one often begins by learning basic skills and body movements and then, of course, waza. When attempting to refine performance of a kata or waza, one’s mind may focus on the future – in the hope of attaining the perfect form – or it may focus on the past, in the recollections of past successes or failures.

Unfortunately these moments of locked focus, the states of “fushin” or frozen mind, however brief cause the body which is forever locked in the present to be deprived of command. In severe cases then, fushin is manifested by the locking in position of the whole body.

How then can we move towards this state of fudoshin, and thus ultimately to mushin? At this stage in my journey it seems that the following are true, whether during the execution of a kata, waza or a more free action.

  • One most resist the urge to anticipate the future except by observing the present. It follows that ultimately waza should not be “selected” but eventually will arise without conscious thought (mushin).
  • One must avoid lingering in the past. Recollections of past encounters and their success or failure are false as the past moment will never truly match the present.
  • One should not let your eyes and mind become locked on the opponents eyes, their weapon, fist or any other point. Gaze should take it the whole person as well and the mind should observe all things.


    Some teachers say that you should always stare at the
    enemy’s weapons, or at his eyes, or at his feet. This is not
    a good idea because it fixes your spirit in place and is easily
    read by an experienced fighter.

    – extract from the Book of
    Five Rings – Minamoto Musashi

  • Forced aggression may cause the mind to focus too greatly on the future desire for victory and thus ironically deprive the body of the mind in the present to help obtain it. One should not delay the cut, or throw, but neither should one rush it in too great a desire to bring the future more quickly. Indeed it seems from the books “Zen and the art of archery” (see [1]) and the “Unfettered mind” (see [4]) that we wish to obtain a state in which the cut happens because it is natural or the throw happens because nothing else can happen.
  • Such considerations occur outside the dojo when considering our progress along the Way or in other matters. Of course we must always strive to improve and progress, but if we are too desperate we risk placing our mind in the future and not the here and now. Similarly we must have the patience and some tolerance about our state of current imperfection. Focusing too much on the failures of the past denies us the chance to observe ourselves in the present to make us better in the future.

These comments are of course, immensely subjective. However these thoughts map my current way of thinking a short way into a long journey and at this time it seems the best way for me to continue to refine myself.


[1] Herrigel, Eugen: Zen in the Art of Archery, Arkana 1988.
[2] Suzuki, D.T.: Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, Double-day 1996.
[3] Musashi, Minamoto: The Martial Artist’s Book of Five Rings, (trans. Stephen F. Kaufman), Tuttle 1994.
[4] Soho, Takuan: The Unfettered Mind, (trans. William Scott Wilson) Kodansha 1995.