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Playing is the Way

There's a koan that goes like this:

You go to wild places in search of your true nature. Where is your true nature?

Getting Sick
I've been thinking recently about work and play. A month or so ago I got sick, the kind of sick that seems to be the body trying to get a little attention, kind of like it's going on strike. It got my attention enough that I realized sometimes people, no different than I am, get sick and then they just up and die. And there's no time for them to say, okay body, I promise I'll do better, I won't take you for granted anymore. So I began to think about how I needed a vacation. Working too hard. Time to play. And this led me to an exploration of what a vacation is, and by extension, what it is to play.

What's a vacation?
I notice in my body that there's a real difference in how I anticipate a day of work, even work I love, and a vacation. When I think *vacation* there's an excitement and lightness that I feel. Try it for yourself. Anticipation of a vacation is scientifically proven to make people happy. When I think vacation, my whole body spreads out, parts of me that I had no idea were tense are suddenly at ease. but what makes something a vacation? Why isn't tomorrow a vacation? Probably because there's something I have to do tomorrow, maybe a whole pile of things. If tomorow I was going on vacation, the things I'd have to do would be different, and they might be optional. I might look inside and ask myself, what about it? What shall I do today?

What's play?
Let me first say that I think that play is a very deep thing. I think that Zen, at its best, is a kind of playing. And also that koans are the best toys ever.

The koan that I started with speaks of a "true nature", and play seems to be that. That moment when I look inside and say to myself, "what shall I do today?" is where play begins. If I'm really interested in the answer then I just begin to follow my nose. I give myself the luxury of permission to do whatever I want. I notice I can even do this when facing a deadline. If I think how awful it is and how late I will have to stay up to finish, I feel hopeless, but when I tell myself, "I wonder what I'll write? I can stay up all night! I can do whatever I want!" then everything shifts, I'm not tired, I'm on the lam, suddenly I'm playing.

In play, it feels as if I have all the time in the world, the present spreads out before me.

Play can be done with others, but there's something individual, even solitary about play. Because even if I'm playing with other people, it's not for someone else, it's for me. I'm not looking to fit into someone else's idea, I'm exploring something for myself. I once came upon a squirrel who was pouncing on something (or nothing) in the grass, the squirrel clearly didn't see me, it climbed a few feet up a tree and then jumped, over and over as I watched. I could make up a story about how it had a purpose, but in that moment the purpose was clear, it was having fun.

What's a toy?
Donald Winnicott, a child psychologist, coined the term "transitional object". A transitional object is something that has no fixed identity for the child, it can be many things, it can be a rocket ship or a hippopotamus at a tea party. In true play we look at the object, the toy, and decide what we want it to be, we try it out and see what it does, then we try something else. We take our time and let our relationship with the object grow. As we grow, so does our imaginative interaction with the toy, with the world.

Koans and meditation are like this. I begin to trust myself and I get interested in my own responses. I have all the time in the world. And I'm interested in where I find myself.

Wild places
Wild places means I don't know where I'm going. I lose myself in the tall grass, I'm curious, I ask myself what I love, what I want, where I will put my foot. I can do this anywhere.




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