The Virtue of Play: Purposeful Play – Part I

Many a year ago, someone of us said something to the effect that playfulness is a humans highest call to action. The some one’s name was Schiller.

This week I am contemplating the truth of this suggestion. And to do so I’m running an experiment. Each day I’ll be finding ways to realise greater playfulness while I go about my day.

I’ve been wondering lately. What is play?

What is it? How do we do it? Why do we do it? And why would we want to do it more? For the next seven days I will be reflecting on the experience of play in my own life, and recording my reflections on this process. This is coinciding with a 28 Days of Video Challenge in which I record one video on my YouTube Channel a day. Check them out here.

‘How can I be playful now?’ I ask myself before you now. The first thing that comes to me is simply to look out of the window and I smile.

As I mentioned, one or more clever people throughout history have said that purposeful play is the source of all human genius. And though intuitively I sense something true in this statement, I want to practice it, to test it, and to see what results it brings in my own relation to the world.

From here where I write on the North Downs, I look out of the window and see rabbits chasing one another other and smile (internally making a bet about which of the nimble looking creatures might make a good dinner.)

But jokes aside, there’s something to see in this act. Something deeper. These rabbits chasing each other for no apparent reason. Are the rabbits going to catch and eat one another? Not likely. Far more likely they’ll mate. Or even more likely they’ll chase each other a little ways – and then stop – for no apparent reason.

Or perhaps they’re chasing one another due to the same reasons humans do – purposeful play – a means to train themselves for evading predators when the crucial moment comes. Do we not do the same with children’s games like tag and hide-and-seek? What is the purpose of these games? If you ask a child or a parent they might answer, ‘What a funny question, they’re just playing. Can’t you see that?’

And Yes. They’re right. I can see that. But what is weird thing we call play? What is the purpose of it? When I think of play I see children running after one another. I see chess players and board gamers thinking hard, calculating and intuiting their next moves, deciphering the structure of the game itself, relating their thoughts to it and the players enjoined in the effort with them. I’m reminded of story told by Alan Watts of the great Hindu sage Sri Ramana, who would smile as he questioned those who came to him to ask about their previous life on the Earth, how is said to have chuckled at them, then ask ‘Who is asking?’

What is common to each of these images for me is the quality of concentration and awareness. An absorption with the present. It is a relaxed exertion. We ‘play’ a sport, such as a football. Yet do we ‘play’ mathematics? Not in the vernacular perhaps. In that we solve sums. We proof theorems. But that aside I believe we play with mathematics. We play numbers and abstractions.

We play that the world has a logical, simple and rational basis to it. And in some instances, we’re ingenious enough to discover that the map we create with numbers works, it explains that there’s a scheme to things we can navigate somehow. This reveals a purpose to playing with numbers and theories. A navigation into the ever-deepening groove of reality. Or in other words: innovation.

And what about when we tease one another? I know in my own life, the greatest time I spend playing is on teasing, making jokes, playing with language, crude animal gestures. What is the purpose of this? For me, when I think about it, it serves many purposes. Firstly it makes me laugh and enjoy life, as that same philosopher Alan Watts once said, the shudder anxiety and the shudder of laughter are produced by seeing the same thing from a different perspective. I believe this is true.

When I tease another it is usually because I’ve chosen to interpret the act and feeling as moves in an enjoyable game. As a natural process of being humbled and teased by life and practiced by life. This transforms something which could irk or upset me into energy and a practical joy. As a rabbit might when being chased by a mate. It would be an inconvenience, if the intention was misread.

So I tease back. Mercutio the wise said, ‘if love be rough with thee, be rough with love’, and Marcus Aurelius also wrote of life being, ‘more a wrestle than a dance’. Yet a wrestle is also still a dance. I believe this is a perspective worth exploring. Life is enjoyable and productive for me when I go about it as a wrestling with reality in good faith. It keeps me psychologically sound and in good health.

It also enables me to maintain a sense of safety which keeps me sane when I take risks. For example, I know that the reality around me contains the power to destroy my physical body. Instantly – under some circumstances. Yet it does not have the power to destroy me utterly. Because I and it are the same. Deep down the mass of molecules and the energy contained within it are transient.

A layman’s understanding of the second law of thermodynamics and entropy leads me to believe this. Without me, there is no it. So I am free to play and tease reality, (which is myself in an immediate and very far out way) all the same. To tease back is natural and good. It is a form of play with the purpose of realising strength within an organism and the system within which it lives.

And I believe this is essential to the character of play. Universality. Or perhaps play is essential to the character of the Universe. Seems to me that play is embodied in the fabric of the cosmos itself. Why else would everything be in perpetual motion? Why inertia? There’s nothing to guard in infinite space.

Play on. Play on.

Purposeful play. Now let me see – there is purposeful play in what I am doing here. Speech is a form of play. I’ll admit here and now that I love the sound of my own voice. I’m curious about and experiment with how gesture paints the picture of the words.

The way that timbre and tone give resonance and emotive quality to what is being said. How the same words, said a different way, will produce an entirely different effect. That’s play. And it’s purpose is ultimately in mastery of expression. In communicating emotions and narratives, in communicating ideas.

Writing. Writing is a way for me to play. It’s how I grapple with, tease and touch the world. It a means through which I train myself and challenge myself and others to grow and think. I believe play is a vehicle for this. The end in itself is learning.

Play leads to performance. And performance is practice. And consistent practice equals mastery. And mastery leads to one of two things, transcendence of a particular state or obstacle, or the readiness, preparation to transcend a particular state or obstacle when the conditions arise.

What else is playful for me in the here and now?

To learn. All learning is playful. It is essentially useless to know anything intellectually. But to act on knowledge, to test and understand it, to integrate it into an embodied experience, this requires a form of play, a willingness to risk being beaten or make a wrong move, a willingness to invest time and effort into an activity with no direct guarantee of survival improvement.

And that may be true. Except that according to probability it isn’t. It’s clear from the behaviour of animals that play is deep in the genetic pool. Nature, ingenious as it is, has made it so that play produces requisite variety. That surplus of methods for solving a particular or series of problems.

And that without such system, there would be no investment in higher cognition, and no surplus of life from requisite variety, no additional means through which to tackle a problem like, ‘hungry buzzard coming at you’. There can be no innovation without play and risk. There would be no requisite variety from which to draw on for the evolutionary dynamic.

In short, play keeps us alive, it trains us to approach life as something to be ever evolving, ever new, a challenge to wrestle and dance with.

For example. Our bunnies outside. When they chase each other, either to mate or for the sheer thrill of it, they are exercising that delicate mastery of life over death.

The purpose of their play is either to transcend death by bringing forth new versions of their lives through their offspring or to provide the thrilling simulation of what it is and is needed to escape the talons of the buzzards which circle overhead by late afternoon.

Diving left and right as the chase each other informs them of the hazards in their immediate terrain. It mobilises and trains their motor functions and muscles to react when the urgent moment strikes.

It is the very practice of emerging into life, moment by moment.

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