ZEN Tiles Solo

I’m not good at talking about my emotions and have never gotten the hang of meditating. That’s why I bought this game and why I’m sharing it with you on January One.

I’m reminded of one of my first visits to my therapist a few years ago. I had one remaining grandparent, and we’d just come back from visiting her, a few hours away. She was…getting on in years, in her early 90s I think, and had lived a full life. But as happens, her memory and other faculties were not what they once were.

As we went to leave this particular visit, and I wish I could recall her exact words, but she asked something like “Are you leaving already?” or “Are you leaving me?” or “Do you have to go?” or “Are you coming back tomorrow?” or something that just breaks your heart. The despair in her voice.

So I was relating it to my therapist and he asked how it made me feel and I said something like ‘you know, what do you do? We had to get home for-‘ and he cut me off. But how did it make you feel? See, I had heard, or at least interpreted, his question as “So what happened?” but that wasn’t the question. And at 36 or 37 or however old I was, it felt like the first time anyone had pointed out the importance of talking about your emotions.

I struggled that day to label how I felt and I do today, at almost 39.5. (You celebrate “half” birthdays, right?)

New Year’s and its resolutions fall into a category with Halloween for me, of “fun” holidays that inexplicably…I was going to say “don’t work for me” or “don’t click for me”, but no. We’re going with emotions. I think they inexplicably make me sad. I can’t put my finger on why (but that’s probably related to my fear of being “wrong” as to things that don’t have right and wrong answers.)

I typically write about a game because I want to spread whimsy and have some words to get out. Since I stopped pottery many years ago, and baking a few years after that (and have never really taken up the ukelele that sits on the piano in my living room), I don’t have much of a creative outlet, and, for me, these are more of a public diary. I acknowledge that many of the games I choose to talk about are problematically niche and unavailable, but I’m not…I’m here not for, or especially interested in, followers or review copies or networking. It’s a personal creative outlet for me, and if even one of you finds something I share useful, I’ll sleep fine (I don’t, but that’s a different topic.)

For once though, I’m writing this review for you.  

We’re going to talk about emotions and I’m going to couch it in the trappings of it being January One because I’m a full convert to the importance of talking about your emotions in the full sun and while it may not be a holiday that holds a lot of sway in my life, it could in yours.  Maybe you have resolutions to make.

Friday, May 22nd. I was in full pandemic exhaustion and after two months of working at home and not getting out of the house enough, needed to go. There were times then and times now, when even walking outside to check the mail feels so refreshing. That outside air. Direct sunlight.

But that night we went on a walk. Bored of walking up and down our street, we drove a mile or so and went on a walk somewhere else. In one direction, along the top of a floodwall, in the other, through a disturbed area adjacent, always poking around for a bit of nature. Sure enough, there were a few killdeer scurrying about. It’s a bird that loves to nest in open areas and doesn’t mind driveways or gravel piles. My wife advised that if we walked near, we might see a characteristic behaviour the adults do: a broken wing dance. The conceit is that if a predator sees a wounded adult bird, that’s an easy meal that won’t put up a fight; the ruse is that in eating the parent, you miss the eggs that they’ve lured you from.

So we approached. (And carefully, as she advised that the nest would be difficult to spot). We sneaked and snucked, and then saw it. Not the dance of nest distraction, but a flock of Canadian geese slowly waddling our way. Without a care for the traffic, sidewalk, grass, or gravel, a phalanx of birds was slowly headed our way, and our more immediate concern was now to not be the target of any unnecessary pecking.

But as we stood mostly still, the killdeer started to move towards the geese and do their thing! Who had suddenly broken their wings? Almost simultaneously the geese took flight, paying the killdeer no mind, and we had what we needed: a clear stretch of gravel, an inkling of where the nest must be, and no more geese.

I don’t know how I didn’t step on it, but we eventually found the nest.

Saturday, May 23rd. We went out again. This time for a reading picnic of sorts. I don’t think we brought any food, but some book(s), journals, and this game that had arrived recently in the mail: ZEN Tiles Solo.

The image below, from May 23rd, reflecting my day from May 22nd, shows you how the game plays.

Piece together the three-segment timeline; then, one at a time, draw an emotion tile and place it above the line for a positive emotion, and below for negative. The distance from the timeline indicates the intensity of the emotion. The stone denotes the emotion you’re most proud of. Those tiles off to the side are ones I wasn’t able to recall having the day before. (It’s a “game” because you score points on how many you are able to place.)

Let’s go through my day. I had some negative tired emotions around 3 or 4 AM? I should’ve been asleep, but I probably couldn’t. These days I wake up around 2 or 2:30 nearly every night for a bit. In May it was 3 or 4. If it ever made it to 4:30 or 5 I was just going to wake up rather than fight trying to return to sleep.

Embarrassed around 10 or 11? I must have made a mistake at work or let someone down. (We recently were working on a life priority exercise and it fell out that “follow-through” is a characteristic of others that I really admire; it’s also something I feel embarrassed by when I fail to exhibit it.)

Passion and tasty at noon? I must’ve made a good lunch!

Nervous, lonely, and dislike in the late afternoon? The whole day is a graph. With a series of these you could look at the patterns. Maybe I would’ve realized I needed to speak up sooner about the pressure I was feeling at work. How can I structure my day, my department, the relationships I have with co-workers, to not repeat these feelings each afternoon. (One of the answers will simply be speaking up at all. Talk more about emotions and also what you want.)

What’s that 5:00 hope? I imagine I had a nice chat with my wife after we both got out of work that day. Talked about the struggles I had in the afternoon and planned our evening walk.

And there it is. The tower of happiness, surprise, fun, and healing that was the killdeer nest encounter. (Along with the scariness of the goose march and the love of talking about our encounter afterwards. But I’ll note it was a good scary – the game doesn’t tell you that any given emotion should be on the positive or negative side of the timeline; that’s up to you and each instance.)

May 22

I did mine the next day, as it seems like the best way to work the timeline. It’s also a treat of a meditative way to process your memories and emotions from the day before. Slow down time a bit. Reflect on where you’ve been; how’ve you been.

I liked looking at the emotions that went “unused” the day before. I didn’t often use “jealous” or “anger”. Should I work on those? As in, an emotional exercise to work on my vocabulary. Like stretching before a workout. I don’t want to falsely feel them, but can I limber up my emotion sensor to make sure it is sufficiently sensitive to those feelings and isn’t overlooking or misclassifying them.

May 23

In February, we went to an open house at a local zen center and it worked for me in ways that other meditation attempts haven’t. At home, sitting in silence, or with calming music or whatnot, my mind just wanders. I squirm physically and mentally. If anything comes of it, I’m more anxious as I feel I’ve wasted time I could’ve been acting on the things that were preoccupying my mind (though in reality I probably would have wasted the time doomscrolling or whatever.)

But this was different. It was meditating as a group. With your eyes open. And I think that’s why it worked!

After trying app-based meditation at home again afterwards, there was a dissonance (for me) between the “beat” of any soothing music, the mantra, and my breath. It was as if the music was causing me to cut my breaths short.

With silence, my mind was better able to enter a groove, the mantra and breath aligned. Moreover, something about eyes open and placed on a busy street corner locked me into place. Maybe it’s a competitive spirit, but if I moved, somebody would know. Everybody would know. There was a communal sense to it, as if I would be letting them down. 

Embarrassment tile.

But it was the street corner and the traffic. The town around us kept proceeding at one speed of time and pace of life while the 20 to 25 of us sat still and quiet with almost a sense of obstinance, that if we did this long enough, the Earth would lose momentum and everything would stop. There was a resistance and pressure, like a weighted blanket, that locked me into silence and stillness.

Then there was a pandemic and I haven’t been back.

May 24

But I haven’t been back for other reasons too.

The leader of the center, I don’t remember his title, is an old boss of mine. Well, my boss’s boss. He encouraged me to apply for a promotion and then didn’t grant me an interview. I put in a lot of work on my own initiative that had great results and didn’t hear a word from him until a few minutes after I heard it would be his last day at the company.

That was all 9 years ago. I felt abandoned. It takes me a while to warm up to new people, to trust them. I barely trusted him until he acknowledged the work I’d done, and then he left. I didn’t make a lot of friends in Kindergarten, but towards the end of the year, started to click with this kid Ryan. Then he got held back. I felt abandoned.

So if I tune in to their online sessions or return to the zen center on a day when he’s there in the aftertimes, we’re going to have to talk about it. He’s going to ask how I’ve been and I won’t know if he wants the once sentence, five minute, or three hour answer. (I never know which one you want.)

May 25

Geez, where are we? There’s more killdeer in a minute. We have to go check to see if the eggs have hatched right? (We found eggs!)

So the meditation at the center clicked for me and I felt a sense of relaxation and calmness when I was finished. In general, I have a cloud of anxiety and fear that limits some of my potential, not to the point of medicating, but at times it paralyzes me from responding to your e-mail or text. I’d like to not have that.

I’ve had chronic headaches off and on since I was a teenager and there’s been various prescriptions and scans and whatnot, but in practice, there’s just a bottle of Excedrin everywhere: my car, my desk, my backpack, the bathroom, my snack drawer, and by my bedside. (Remember a few years ago when there was a recall and it wasn’t available for a few months? I had driven to Toronto to see Einstein on the Beach and went impulsively into some corner stores thinking maybe across-the-border, a smaller shop, maybe somebody didn’t get or might have missed a memo. No luck.)

Anyway, there’s a certain invincibility I feel a few hours after I take two. Maybe it’s the headache receding and maybe it’s something else, but that’s the closest I feel to anxiety-less-ness. (It’s astonishing to me that the feeling hasn’t turned into some type of addiction.) I wish I had that control over my emotions intentionally. Not repression, but control and awareness. 

The meditating helped.

May 26

The game helps too.

The photos of my plays are going to stop in a minute, and, to be frank, I haven’t played it since May. That was seven months ago.

When I played it, it did give me some of that same relaxation. From a distance of a night’s sleep, it lets me reflect on the events of the previous day. Emotions – not events, the emotions. Not just the positive ones, or the negative ones, or the ones I have a predilection to focus on, but a range of 20, with positive or negative nuanced inflections.

Somedays it was work! I struggled to remember what happened – for me, it always went in that order: (1) what did I do (2) how did I feel. For you does it happen the other way? But the meditative act of remembering and walking through my experience helped me process.

But it didn’t form a habit.

I hope I haven’t led you on that this review will come to some sort of conclusion about if I like this game, as the concept feels not applicable. The personal short coming of the game for my life, is that it didn’t click as a habit. I wasn’t able to fall into a routine with it.

I’m having the same experience with a meditation app right now. My wife and I like to try periodically to have a “book club” of sorts and work through the same material together. She knows I don’t take to a certain meditation source she’s fond of, but she wanted me to try a new one and so I did recently. (That’s when I figured out the dissonance of the beat and the breath.) I fought against the music, as if it was the traffic going by on the street, and it was easier to maintain my breathing. But moreover, there were some journal questions at the end about the relationships in your life. It’s a lot of talking about emotions and other softer skills that I’m not especially comfortable with, but I’m finding it rewarding and worthwhile.

But I started a month ago and I’ve done it three or four times. I struggle to form a habit with these things.

When I tell you I’ll do the meditations, and then don’t follow through, I feel embarrassed.

Was that too heavy? (No. We’re talking about our emotions today, everyday, and being vulnerable)

Let’s check in on the killdeer.

Look closely. Yep – we went back and there were 4! I was keeping my eyes peeled for baby’s running about, and probably had brought binoculars, but instead of two less eggs, there were two more eggs!

Speaking of being vulnerable, let’s talk about The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. (I mean, let’s rip all of the band-aids off things we don’t talk about.)

Those shows are great. I mean, they aren’t without their warts, but I especially want to highlight the season that just ended with Tayshia as the Bachelorette. It is a cliche on the show for the lead to try to get their suitors to “open up”, “let their walls down”, “be vulnerable”, and things like that.

As I continue to explore the more subjective and softer side of my mind, those conversations on the show have more meaning and are easier to empathize with. When you talk about your emotions -using the actual words and not dancing around them- and without the facade of deflecting humor, you make deeper connections and have more meaningful relationships. Let people know you – even if it means admitting things you’d rather keep private.

This last season was especially good as the men that were cast were done so for an older-than-usual lead, and their deeper and richer life experiences led to a different class of discussion: prison; race; drug addiction; divorce; male eating disorders; and suicide attempts.

May 27

But you need to be able to talk about your emotions and have that vocabulary and it’s tough. You may, and I do, feel embarrassed and vulnerable and scared. I always think I’m talking about them, but I don’t. I talk around it, but there’s something magical about the actual emotion words that I underestimate. I forget to use the formula:

When _______, I feel ______.

It’s another habit I should focus on.

May 28

I’m currently reading the book Getting the Love You Want and it’s eye opening. A sort of “why wasn’t this required reading earlier in my life?” paradigm shift. The authors posit that people are attracted to partners that reflect their parents, with a hope that they’ll “fix” the short-comings their parents left, not realizing that subconsciously the attraction is because they have the same deficit behaviors.  That coming out of a “honeymoon phase” is part of your mind coming to this realization: this person won’t make up for things my parents did (or, more aptly, didn’t do). 

But I’ve never felt more hopeful. It gives me a framework for analyzing why I feel certain ways.  When I read passages in the book, I feel reassured. I feel comforted.  I don’t feel judged. 

Remember back on May 22nd and before when I didn’t speak up about issues I was having at work and how that resulted in negative emotions most afternoons.  That’s not about my relationship with this person or that person or the other department.  There are bright lines to memories of learning it was moot to speak up about what I wanted as a kid.

Now I’ve got a village encouraging me to be vulnerable and talk about my feelings: my wife, meditation, this game, the book, The Bachelor, and Woody Guthrie… and I feel loved.

May 29

I’ll leave you with the only positive association I have with New Year’s: Woody Guthrie’s inspirational resolutions from 1943.

2. WORK BY A SCHEDULE. Another “why didn’t somebody tell me before I was 39” kind of thing. It feels unnecessary to schedule a Saturday – wake up here, head to the farmers market then, read from this time to that time, and what not.  But I’m astonished at my productivity every time I do.  Time-leaks everywhere just get plugged.

5. TAKE BATH. It won’t solve all of my sleep problems, but geez, I should do better at showering and bathing regularly.

17. DON’T GET LONESOME.  Let people get to know you.  Be vulnerable.  More advice from that book – it’s not enough to wait on people to make friends with you, you can make friends with them!  #TellMeBeforeI’m39


A few years ago was the year of making mistakes.  This year is the year of leveling up.

We don’t go to check the nest anymore. We don’t need to. It’s a construction site and it’s all gone.

33. WAKE UP AND FIGHT. For yourself, your relationships, and the killdeer.

and let me add:



  • Designer: Yoichiro Kawaguchi
  • Publisher: ChagaChaga
  • Players: 1
  • Age: 12-99
  • Time: 5 min
  • Plays: Forever on a purchased copy
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2 Responses to ZEN Tiles Solo

  1. Jonathan says:

    Thank you so much for putting this out there. I do think that gamers and rule-based environments inherently make it challenging to color outside the lines. I appreciate you and our friendship.

  2. I do imagine that gamers and rule-based conditions characteristically make it trying to shading outside the lines.

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