Rest until you feel like playing, then play until you feel like resting, period. Never do anything else. —Martha Beck
I was sitting here reading an article about Diane Ackerman on the evolutionary and existential purpose of deep play when the computer dinged, telling me that an email had arrived. I am obsessive about checking my email even if I don’t read them right away. I’m always afraid of missing that one that’s vitally important. This one wasn’t what most people would consider critical but I found the timing interesting. Our invitation from Killing Kittens to their Day of the Dead Halloween party in Madrid had just arrived.
“Make sure our private jet is ready,” I joked with Kat. I have to admit, even without the sex the party sounds intriguing. The dress code calls for La Calavera Catrina, elegant skulls and fine attire. Given the type of clientele that normally attends these parties, I can just imagine some very elaborate and sexy costumes. Just don’t ask anyone where they got their skull. You probably don’t want to know.
Truth is, with all the time Kat’s spent at school and I’ve spent keeping the little ones alive, we’ve not been playing as much as we should. Chances are, you haven’t either. Playing is more than just indulging in a pastime for a few minutes. Deep playing is achieving a state where nothing else exists in our minds but the play. No thinking about work. Problems at school disappear. Financial worries don’t exist. Playing takes over and for the duration, our minds are allowed to be free.
Deep Playing Is Part Of Existing
I’ve mentioned before that we rescued a couple of abandoned kittens a couple of weeks ago. When we found them, they were malnourished, stunted, and barely alive. To look at them now, though, one would never know they had been in such perilous danger. They frolick around the house, jumping and playing, climbing here and there, testing their skills in ways that are hilarious to observe. This kind of deep playing is important to their development, though. This is where they learn how to cat. They observe the older cats in the house and then use play to mimic them and test out their own skills.
What is “deep play?” Ms. Ackerman defines it this way: “In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles.”
If you have small children in the house, watch and listen to how they play when they think no one is looking. Children indulge in playing deep on a daily basis. They create their own worlds. They sing their own songs. Looking at books, they create their own stories. Chances are, you were very much like them once. Playing deep is what made you happy. You found who you were, defined who you wanted to be, all through the act of playing. Unfortunately, as we grow older, we begin looking at play time as a waste. We find “more important” things to do. There are chores that cannot be ignored. Work beckons us to be serious and focused. Playtime gets shoved to the side and, too often, becomes completely ignored.
Deep Playing Is Critical To Development
A long quote from Ms. Ackerman is necessary here:
It’s so familiar to us, so deeply ingrained in the matrix of our childhood, that we take it for granted. But consider this: ants don’t play. They don’t need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills, and ingenuity isn’t required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play…
What we call intelligence … may not be life’s pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.
Think for a moment about what Ms. Ackerman is actually saying. When we stop playing, we stop learning. Without play, deep play, we stop evolving both as a person and as a species. Play is where we first push the boundaries, search the unknown, and test out theories. We may then take our playtime activities and incorporate them into the rest of our life, but playtime is where some of our greatest and most creative moments begin.
The Deeper Meaning of Playing
Etymology can be a tremendous amount of fun, but in this particular case understanding the origins of the word play is especially helpful. Again, I defer to Ms. Ackerman’s words:
But when we peer even farther back into its origins, we discover that play’s original meaning was quite different, something altogether more urgent and abstract. In Indo-European, plegan meant to risk, chance, expose oneself to hazard. A pledge was integral to the act of play, as was danger (cognate words are peril and plight). Play’s original purpose was to make a pledge to someone or something by risking one’s life. Who or what might that someone or something be? Possibilities abound, including a relative, a tribal leader, a god, or a moral trait such as honor or courage. At its heart, plegan reverberated with ethical or religious values. It also contained the idea of being tightly fastened or engaged. Soon plegan became associated with performing a sacred act or administering justice, and it often appeared in ceremonies.
We play deep in many ways: reading a book, watching an especially engaging movie, hobbies, crafting, enthralling conversations with friends and, of course, sex. Each of those forms of play still holds, in some form, that original sense of plegan. Our minds go where our bodies cannot. We imagine being and doing more than we are, more than what we currently are capable of doing. We lose ourselves in something other than what actually is present and in doing so we grow.
Playing Is Spiritual
Look around your community this weekend and notice all the different places of worship. Religion has long demanded its followers to set aside a day in which they might focus on matters of a more spiritual nature. Muslims worship on Fridays. The Jewish Shabat encompasses most of Saturday. Christians fill their churches on Sunday. Regardless of one’s belief system, such times of spiritual focus are important not only in terms of devotion but in better understanding who we are and our relationship to all that is around us.
Deep play accomplishes the same thing on a universal plane. Playing takes us to a spiritual place where there is no racism, no violence, no shaming, and no hunger. Playing gives us, in many ways, what church can’t, or won’t. Ms. Ackerman spends a lot of time on this particular aspect and, I think, deservedly so. Consider what she has to say:
In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles… When it happens we experience a sense of revelation and gratitude. Nothing need be thought or said. There is a way of beholding that is a form of prayer.
When one enters the realm of deep play, the sacred playground where only the present moment matters, one’s history and future vanish. One doesn’t remember one’s past, needs, expectations, worries, real or imaginary sins. The deep-play world is fresh, wholly absorbing, and full of its own unique wisdom and demands. Being able to temporarily step outside of normal life—while keeping one’s senses alert — is indeed like being reborn. To erase all memories and yearnings — to be vigorously alive without self-awareness — can provide a brief return to innocence.
Weekends Are For Playing
As a fully ordained minister in the Church of the Latter-Day Dude, I would charge you to spend a significant portion of your time playing. Deep play, mind you. Make your play spiritual. Escape. Immerse yourself in a book, or a game. Let the aroma and flavors of an exotic food take you deep into a culinary adventure. Surround yourself with friends and let their joy and happiness create a barrier between you and your worries. Explore your sexual curiosity and find pleasure in a new experience. There are so many different ways to play deep.
Don’t let the kids have all the fun. Don’t stop growing. Weekends are for playing. Play on.