The Spirit of Play

“To be 'viable,' livable, or merely practical, life must be lived as a game and the 'must' here expresses a condition, not a commandment. It must be lived in the spirit of play rather than work.”

Alan Watts in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, 1966

The above quote was the Interlude “Thought of the Day” and our good friend wrote:

“Alan Watts was clearly delusional and in need of a real job.  Tell that to real people who have real bills to pay!  :-)”
It is hard to tell in email, but we assume our friend had his tongue in his cheek when he sent this, given that his job looks like nothing'so much as a great board game.  To be fair to Alan Watts, the quote is a snippet, and not even a complete one from a chapter in a book where he lays out his premises with considerable elaboration. Context can be important to understanding a quote.

In The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts suggests that we question basic premises we hold about who we are and what life is all about. He is encouraging us to step outside our usual ego based ways of looking at ourselves, our society and our circumstances. He draws on Hinduism, Taoism and Zen to pull back the curtain on the conventional way of understanding life.

From the perspective of ego, my life is deadly serious and my death is a tragedy. And as I watch a film, the suffering and death of the protagonist on screen is tragedy. Then I get up and go home knowing that it was just a play. Watts seems to suggest that just as we can recognize the context of a theatrical play and not take it so seriously, we can recognize the illusory quality of our ego constructed view of reality and not be taken in by it.

 We can take life seriously in the sense that we work hard and protect our family and still live life as a game. We lose the spirit of play when we think we are the center of the universe and the world must bow to our desires. In truth, there is nothing in life that says any one of us must succeed or even keep on living. Our individual interests are not what it is about.

At birth the cards are shuffled and we play our hand. As the other billions of players play theirs, we adjust and try to discern the best way to play our particular game of life. If we play well, we do so because we understand the rules of play and we hone the skills it takes. To play well, we play with spontaneity and good humor. We must recognize that all the contestants are interdependent. We recognize that there are rules and we keep them within bounds. When we are done, perhaps the cards are shuffled again and we play again. Or not. In any case the game goes on.

For many of us the game we play has to do with getting more possessions and amassing experiences, or it may be about gaining power or knowledge. Watts suggests that we as individuals and as a culture consider focusing more upon contemplation instead of action—knowing and being rather than seeking and becoming.

We can take life so very seriously, or we can get in on the cosmic joke. We can see it as the dance of god, or a divine game of hide and seek in which we hide from ourselves what we really are.

“I understood it all…I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often the hell of my inner being.

One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh.”

Harry Haller in Steppenwolf, by Hermann Hesse

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© 2009 Tom Barrett