“A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?”
Arthur C. Clarke
As I watched little Gabriel devour a woven cup holder for a good fifteen minutes, I began to wonder if I have lost the ability to play.
I realized that play has slipped out my life slowly, almost imperceptibly, to the point where I need a small child to remind me of a way of living I have forgotten. I have slowly lost interest in team sports, board games, music, novels, and waterparks in favor of using my time more ‘productively.’ It sometimes feels like finding new ways to rearrange words is the closest thing I do that still resembles something playful.
Play is not something superfluous or something that humans grow out of as we get older. It is an absolute necessity for mental and physical wellbeing, evidenced by the fact that most people spend at least a few hours a week involved either watching or participating in games. The Russian government just spent $50 billion to host a massive two week event where competitors from all over the world to see who could skate, ski, or shoot the best.
Humans may be the most intelligent species on the planet (though that’s subject to debate) not despite but in spite of the fact that we play so much. There is, in fact, a correlation between the length of childhood and brain size. Nature has programmed us to need at least a decade where we do nothing more than experiment, imagine, and construct. Even though the scope and definition of play is vast, all play, whether in theatre, sport, or playground, involves an activity done for its own sake, usually because it’s fun.
Play is such an integral part of life and is all around us all the time, but the idea of looking at it as a metaphor only came to me when I attended a professional hockey game in November. Along with 18,000 others, I sat with my father and brother cheering on the Colorado Avalanche in their quest to defeat the Minnesota Wild.
Seen one way, the situation in front of us was completely absurd: a bunch of grown men skating around with wooden sticks trying to put a puck in a net (and getting paid millions of dollars to do so). At the end of the season, the ultimate victor of this competition gets the distinction of their names engraved on a metal cup.
For legions of fans, these games seem vitally important. But what do they really amount to? Can anyone actually remember who won the Stanley Cup (or the World Series, or the Super Bowl) in 1987? How many people outside of North America have even heard of these competitions?
This larger intellectual perspective, however, misses the point of the game.
The purpose of play is to get sucked into it. It’s not fun if you don’t take it seriously or think about it too much. Sit back, drink a beer, and cheer the team on. Playing well, in everything from sex to cinema to watching sports, demands full immersion in the activity.
This is something that may be as true of a hockey game as it is of the universe itself.
In Hinduism, play is the ultimate metaphor for the nature of the universe (lila). To put it somewhat simplistically, Hinduism asserts that God became the universe in order to have fun, to play a game of hide and seek with Him/Herself.
Contrary to the western tendency to imagine a distinction between man and God, Hinduism posits that you are God (tat tvam asi). At the deepest level, you (along with everyone and everything else) are a manifestation of the ultimate ground of the universe. Only this isn’t the you who you think you are. Most of us identify ourselves with our personality, mind, and body, but all that changes over time (see who am I for a more in-depth discussion). The identity with God is something that underlies all this, yet most of the time this deeper dimension of our identity is hidden.
God/You has taken Him/Herself in so completely that you have forgotten Who you really are because you feel yourself as Mr. [X] and nothing more.You’re immersed in the role to the point where you don’t even realize you’re playing a role, kind of like getting caught up in watching or playing a hockey game where the hours pass by and you get emotionally involved in every twist and turn. We will fight, argue and defend the integrity of our role against any perceived attack. That’s how strong the spell is, that’s how far the game has gone.
In this way of looking at things, both the actor and audience are the same. You are the one who is playing the role, as well as the one who is enthralled by watching the show.
To combine this perspective with the question I posed at the outset, then, perhaps I needn’t think that I’ve lost the ability to play. I simply need to alter my perspective to see that everything I do is a form of play, including reflecting seriously on the ultimate nature of existence and thinking that I can’t play. And if I need any reminder of how absolutely everything can be playful, I need only to look at the small child in front of me.