Last week here in Bali, our guest house owner mentioned there would be a ‘money ceremony’ that coming Wednesday. At first, I was excited by the prospect, and nearly suggested we change our plans in order to witness it. I didn’t realize, however, that even if we missed this ceremony, there would be another one, slightly different the following week. And the week after. In this culture, there’s never a month that goes by without some form of elaborate, often costly religious event.

I often find myself judging this massive expenditure of time and money as a waste. Sure, these events are very playful and fun to watch. But I sometimes feel like I’m witnessing something rather primitive that Western society largely grew out of centuries ago. To be caught up in a religious structure where you must part with a substantial portion of your income in order to ensure harmonious functioning of the universe: how superstitious, exploitative, and juvenile!

Then, just as I was preparing my reflections on play last week, a Balinese man came up to speak with me about the ceremony taking place this week.  For me, as I was sitting there thinking about the folly of spending $50 billion on two weeks of Olympic games, the connection couldn’t have been clearer.

Although the West seems like it has moved beyond frequent religious ceremony, we still have the need for other types of ceremony- like sport- to take us out of ourselves.

Is the Balinese trip to the temple all that different that a pilgrimage to a soccer stadium? Don’t they both satisfy the need to experience something outside the boundaries of mundane, everyday experience and connect us with a larger community in space and time? And the holy men who ensure that everything is done properly according to a set of rules: are they all that different than referees?

Could we not see both types of ceremony as forms of play?

The play of both sport and religious ceremony needs structure to work. Hockey, soccer, or Balinese rituals wouldn’t as much fun to watch (or play) if players or priests could simply do whatever they wanted to all the time. For the game to work,the players need to remain within certain boundaries.

Similarly, to accomplish most tasks in life, rhythm, structure, and boundaries are necessary. Most days in the morning, I relinquish certain possibilities (taking walks, reading, etc.) in order to come to write. Not everybody works in such a methodical way, but I think nearly everyone can identify certain elements that must be present (and others that need to be removed) to make the environment more conducive for work.  In this sense, constraints and boundaries actually lead to freedom.

When I first heard about the five Buddhist ethical precepts (refraining from taking life, false speech, stealing, sexual misconduct, and intoxication), I remember thinking that my life would become dull if I imposed such restrictions on my behavior. Now that I’ve tried to put those precepts into practice for the past few years, I feel that these boundaries are useful and necessary in the cultivation of a mindful and happy life, just a soccer field needs margins for the game to work.

Yet sometimes it is necessary to transcend boundaries. Watching sports can remind us that true skill consists as much of intuition and improvisation as technical mastery. Truly great hockey players know how to skate and handle the stick with dexterity, but they also know how to catch the other team off guard by doing something completely unexpected (see greatest assists compilation). Any truly inspiring or exciting art combines technical perfection with what we call ‘heart.’

Similarly, imagine a religious life without innovation, where all the rituals and ceremonies remain exactly the same for thousands of years (a fundamentalist’s dream!). Religions occasionally need to be shaken up and reinvigorated in ways that often break or bend the established rules. In your personal life, sometimes you also need to push the boundaries of ethical behavior to see why it is necessary  (though this is, of course, a slippery slope). In all domains of play, we need to know when to obey authority and tradition and when to go beyond them.

There are of course risks to this. It’s tough to know when you’re pushing the boundaries to justify selfishness and when you’re doing it because the existing structure has become dull and lifeless and needs to be shaken up.

That’s why in all domains of play, before you can transcend structure, you need to be fully immersed and internalize it. Great artists or sports pros usually need to spend thousands of hours in repetitive and often tedious practice before they can be truly innovative. Religious reformers are often the ones who have studied their tradition better than anyone else. And in order to  know when you need to go beyond the structure you’ve set for yourself (professional, ethical, or otherwise), you first need a great deal of self insight and honesty.

Maybe the Balinese, with all their talk of spirits and all their trips to the temple, are playing in a way I don’t understand. Maybe what I’m seeing here is like going to a foreign game whose rules I’m unfamiliar with, and if I just stuck around long enough, I would begin to see the sense behind every move. Until then, I have to remind myself that I really haven’t immersed myself fully enough in their culture to justify making any judgements one way or another.