The Wisdom of Play

If you spend any time reading wisdom literature, you’ll find that almost every great text agrees on one thing: perfect wisdom can’t be found. It is difficult to think of a wisdom book from the Judaic, Christian, Islamic, Classical Greek and Roman, Taoic, or Dharmic traditions in which this theme of human limitation is not heavily emphasized. For instance, if you read Koheleth, more commonly referred to as The Book of Ecclesiastes, you’ll find a man who was genuinely pissed off about his inability to find wisdom and happiness. So, he cried out to God that “all is vanity and vexation of the spirit.” Many years later, as if to drive the point home, his agonizing lament became the chart-topping 1965 Byrds hit, “Turn! Turn! Turn!”

The consensus of philosophers, theologians, poets, and folk musicians seems to be that we can’t have wisdom, and that many of our attempts to find it actually make us dumber, because they rely on inflated estimations of our own understanding, intelligence, and power. If you think about this message, it has the makings of a bad joke: A guy finally obtains an audience with God. He says, “God, I have struggled my whole life to find wisdom and I am still lost. What should I do?” And God replies, “Just know that you don’t know squat. That’s as smart as you’ll ever be.” That’s a brutal kind of wisdom. Or a funny kind of wisdom, depending upon your attitude. It is really our attitude toward the limits of our wisdom that I would like to talk about, as I think it is intimately connected with a subtle message of wisdom literature and, perhaps, with the spirit of Hatha.

As a teacher, I try to encourage a spirit of playfulness in my courses, a spirit in which ideas become our playthings, and we theirs. That is because playing with an idea requires that we develop a facility with that idea, while also giving something up. What we give up when we play with an idea, or with anything else for that matter, is the need for total understanding, intelligence, and power that wisdom books warn against. A wonderfully playful psychoanalyst named D.W. Winnicott understood that when we play, we inhabit a mysterious “transitional” space that is both real and unreal. Part of us remains tied to our identities and experiences, while another part goes off somewhere else, into unreality, fantasy, or the imagination. Although this idea might seem obvious, play, itself, is a fairly complex balancing act, for if we step too far in either direction, we can ruin play, especially when playing with others.

Photo by Sukanto Debnath

Imagine playing a creative game with a child and his favorite stuffed animal. There are two main ways to go wrong. In the first, the child might say, “Now Mr. Elephant wants to go to school!,” and you might say, “That’s impossible. Elephants don’t go to school.” If you did, your insistence upon realism would crush the life out of the game. On the other hand, if you are too imaginative, losing touch with anything real and shared between you and the child, something equally important about the play is destroyed. In this scenario:

Child: “Now Mr. Elephant wants to go to school!”

You: “Yes and on the way Mr. Elephant turns into an invisible jet plane and everybody goes back in time one zillion years and the school is really another planet with Martian dinosaurs and…”

Child: “No, that’s not the game.”

To be able to play with this child requires that you inhabit a world in which elephants can go to school, but where many other rules of reality apply. If your insistence upon realism is too great, there is no room for imagination. But if all constraints of time, space, identity, and order are thrown away, then the play becomes disengaged and ephemeral.

Or consider the example of sports. In a game of soccer (football to everyone else around the world), the rules are what sustain the play. At any time, a player could stop what she is doing, grab the ball, and say, “The rules of this game are artificial. I don’t really have to use my feet. You see, I can hold the ball and throw it around and even take it out of bounds if I want.” If she were ejected for this behavior, she could, of course, continue along the same lines by arguing, “I don’t recognize your penalties. I don’t want to leave, so I’m going to sit right here and read my book.” Perhaps security would have to drag her from the pitch. If this kind of thing happened regularly, the contest would become totally chaotic, players would never know who was going to grab the ball next, and anything playful about the game would be lost.

The point of all this is that playfulness can be destroyed not only by error, but by truth. The realistic adult who declares that elephants can’t go to school and the soccer player who discovers that the rules are arbitrary are both correct: the rules of play don’t really make sense. But what they have failed to recognize is that playing means giving up on making sense for a while. If we can do that, something magical happens: play becomes a real experience in our lives that is nevertheless made possible by a suspension of our real experience. Play becomes a part of our selves that is nevertheless made possible by the suspension of the normal demands of our selves. We accept a limitation, and we give something up, only to get something different back through play.

In this dance between play and limitation I always hear refrains of the Tao Te Ching: “If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial. If you want to become straight, let yourself be crooked. If you want to become full, let yourself be empty. If you want to be reborn, let yourself die. If you want to be given everything, give everything up.” What this suggests to me is that the seemingly cruel lesson of wisdom literature, that we shall never know wisdom, may also be read as an invitation to play. Without our ignorance and limitation, we would be condemned to make sense all the time, and every movement of our bodies and minds would be perfectly efficient work, but never play. Perhaps this is why so many traditions of wisdom recommend the emulation of children. After all, children aren’t really very wise. But they do have an almost instinctive understanding of the balance between knowledge and ignorance required for play.

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Matt holds a Ph.D. in Political Theory and teaches courses in social theory, politics, and philosophy at Medaille College in Buffalo, NY. Matt's research explores the psychosocial dynamics underlying ethical and political ideals, such as autonomy, freedom, revolt, and equality. Inasmuch as these ideals have shaped political and cultural practices, his work examines the emotional needs, fears, and desires (at both individual and collective levels) that influence political and social change. Click here to visit Matt's page in the Yoga Modern Community.

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