Play is not what we think

When we think of play, we think of fun moments from our past, especially when we were kids. We remember water parks, we remember Disney World, we remember the jungle gym… the kind of activities where we had fun and felt lots of joy.

When we look at kids playing, we look at them playing with the same of eyes. So, play has become about fun. But I would like to challenge this notion.

I would like to suggest that play is the act of full engagement.

When children are playing, what is always true is that they are fully engaged. They are not caught up. They are present. Sometimes they are frustrated and sometimes they are angry, or they might be having fun or any variation of emotions. But one things is for sure. They are fully engaged and they are absorbed.

I would like to postulate that we don’t remember this because we are not designed to remember the common things. We are designed the remember the significant moments in our lives, the highlights, the really good and the really bad. We don’t remember the in-between because they don’t have any learning value and they don’t help us create targets. Remembering the mundane common stuff is redundant. It doesn’t help us strive for anything. The really good stuff, we always strive to achieve, such as joy. The really bad stuff, we strive to avoid, such as fear, grief, or any negative emotions. But once it becomes common we stop remembering it.

People who live in war zone, one war day is no different from another war day. Those people only remember the especially bad days. Memory normalizes. If we know how to handle something really well then, except for those things we feel we have difficulty handling, we will not really remember. There will be things in your life that used to cause you pain that you have long forgotten because it no longer causes you pain anymore.

So, the reason we don’t remember play as the act of full engagement is because we are designed to remember the highlight and forget the things we already mastered so we can keep growing. This is a good design.

This the reason you don’t remember practicing pouring liquid from one container into another (most likely from one cup into another cup), hour after hour to gain control of your fine motor skills. For some reason, this super mundane task of pouring water from one cup to another was super engaging. Now, we don’t remember that we did it. There are thousands of other small task like this that you practiced that you don’t remember. It has all become unconscious competency.

The Buddhist have a great practice that demonstrates this. They have this sand garden where you rake it until it looks beautiful. Everything is so straight and peaceful looking. They do it for hours to complete the whole garden. Then when they are done, without much ado, they just undo everything they have done.

When you first do this, you have so much attachment, there is so much pain for having wasted all that effort on nothing, with nothing to show for it. But then the pain subsides, and the realization comes that the pleasure is in staying present. You see, the sand garden shows the state of your mind. When you are not present, you can’t draw a straight line. You need to maintain a certain level of focus to draw a straight line. You have to be fully engaged. You realized that the real gift is not the result of that effort, but the opportunity to be fully engaged.

Soon, you start feeling a sense of freedom from not being bound to the results. You start realizing that the gift is the opportunity to be present and be fully engaged. You also start realizing that your attachments come from memory. The reason we get attached is because of the memory of how much effort and time we have already put into it. We unreasonably value the effort we put into things. We get really attached to things when we have put in a lot of effort, even if we should give them up. This realization that attachment is nothing but a memory, and this realization that the real gift is not the results but the opportunity to be fully engaged, give us powerful lives.

It allows us to make decisions that are free from attachment.

Often times when people make decisions, they take effort into account. For instance, they say “we already put in this much time and this much effort into it.” But sometimes, they need to make a decision where they have to completely undo all the work they have done because it will yield the results that they ultimately want. Most of the time, people can’t give up this pain of the time and effort already put in, and rationalize that it would be a waste of time to undo all the work they have done and redo it when in fact, it wouldn’t be the case. It is indeed a powerful life to not be attached, but to be fully engaged to the truth that reveals itself in each moment.

A high leverage point to practice this in our lives is where we have trouble feeling play in our lives.

All that means is that we are having trouble being fully engaged, that we are having trouble staying present, staying focused on whatever it is we are trying to do. This could be for a number of reasons. It could be because we are not good at it, it could be because it a menial task where it has be done over and over again and it seems so pointless and mundane, it could be because we feel we have something better to do, or more important things to do, it could be because we feel we are not living our life, we are wasting it, it could be because we are thinking that we should have been done with it yesterday, a week ago, or however long our mind thinks it should have been completed. The list is as long as the creativity of our mind.

When we come to the parts of our lives where there is suffering, where there is no play, we will find ourselves caught up in our thoughts. That is where we go when we can’t be present. We start thinking, why did we do it this way, we must be bad, there must be something wrong with me, I should be more positive, etc., etc., etc… We think and we think, and we go into our memory, again and again. But if the answer was in our memory, we would already have the solution since we keep churning these habitual thoughts over and over again. But there is no real new information in memory. So, therefore, there is no real answer in thinking.

When we are not enjoying what we are doing, we don’t stay present and escape into our thoughts to solve the problem. The issue is that the problems that we could have solved with out thoughts we already did and the unpleasant things that continue to cause us pain were the kind of problems we couldn’t solve with our thinking alone.

When things are unpleasant and we stay with them, we stay present, and use our awareness to consciously notice what is not making it pleasant for us, while also noticing what kind of things makes it easier for us to stay engaged, this new awareness produces new thinking, and this new thinking produces new action and this new action coupled with the continuing awareness allows you to become more and more fully engaged until you feel there is play.

For instance, I used to hate vacuuming. Once I learned this concept, I stayed present with vacuuming. I focused on looking at where I was vacuuming and I realized it was like the sand garden. I could see the straight lines I was making on the carpet. I started just staying with the experience of my carpet visually getting cleaner and I started enjoying the straight lines I was creating in my carpet garden. While I was having this divine experience vacuuming, I realized I couldn’t enjoy this experience before because I was too caught up in my thoughts thinking about not having enough time, how if I didn’t have to vacuum I would have more time, and how vacuuming was a waste of time since it was this meaningless task that had to be done over and over again, etc… I realized what was really happening was that I was overwhelmed and my brain was scattered from chasing too many tasks in order to be productive and what I really needed was a focusing exercise to focus and calm my brain. Ironically, my carpet garden was exactly what I needed. It helped me focus. These kinds of experiences helped me realize that when I am focused, there is play.

When we were children, we kept working to conquer the things we were not good at, that were difficult for us. We became fully engaged because we wanted to learn, we wanted to grow. When something didn’t work, we didn’t only think, we’d try things, we’d experiment, we’d observe until we could do it. This kind of full engagement with life is play.

I feel play for us adults is to continue that spirit of Love and passion into every aspect of our lives using our ever expanding conscious awareness to be more and more fully engaged with all that we are doing.

Alexis Neuhaus