28. Play

     Spiritual freedom is also, ultimately, the freedom to play. Having a conscious relationship to experience means being able to treat experience as an artistic medium, a challenging game. The child plays with imaginary companions; the artist plays with materials, forms, light and color; the athlete plays within a sport and with the limits of the body; the actor plays a role and with the audience's "willing suspension of disbelief"; the mathematician and the philosopher play with concepts.

     By definition, reality is the mind's serious business. Spiritual freedom is liberation from the personal seriousness of the mind's presumed grasp of reality. As products of the natural world, we defer to the real. But the dreams of science and technology and the dreams of spiritual liberation both fly in the face of the power of reality. Though we find ourselves pawns in the vast game of Nature which we did not create, submissive to rules and even motivations which do not seem to be ours, subjective consciousness implies the ability to choose whether and how to take experience seriously. The path of spiritual freedom and the path of technology both seek liberation from the power of the game of survival to determine our experience and action.

     One can play either to win or for the sheer experience. Winning means bringing play to a close. What is the goal in playing to win is therefore but an obstacle to play for its own sake, whose only goal is to prolong the delight of play. Playing to win means playing according to rules and within defined boundaries, while playing to play means playing with rules and boundaries. In the one case, the game determines the moves we shall make toward the goal. In the other, we ourselves define the game as we go along. One demonstrates the power and independent reality of the game. The other reflects the creative self-possession of the player.

     Playing to win, one's attention is on the payoff of material or symbolic gratification. Such satisfactions, being elusive and ephemeral, can prove empty. The prize is something to strive for, not to have. Winning is self-defeating because it destroys the game, and we are then obliged to find another goal, always just over a receding horizon.

     When we have seriously embraced the goals, rules and premises of a game, we come to think of it not as play at all, but as real and necessary-- as serious. To play a game, in the ordinary sense, means to play in earnest, to do your best to win. In general, the interest of games lies in pitting oneself against equals, or against time or chance or some other worthy adversary. One tests oneself and, if successful, wins status among others.

     No matter how serious one gets about a recreational game, it is always only a game. In the games of life, however, it is largely in cynical, poetic, or specially lucid moments that we view our serious pursuits as games at all. We are not usually at play in life but at work.

     Seriousness and play are complementary dimensions of experience. Life is played out or seriously pursued between these poles. It is always a balance, a mixture. Seriousness refers ultimately to survival value. What we are serious about appears to us as necessary, because it is perceived and justified as some feature of reality. Seriousness, reality and necessity have to do with the context of being an organism. From this point of view play, like consciousness, is an afterthought. Even so, in our gravest moments there is a part of us that remains faithful to the spirit of play. Humor is the irruption of that spirit into consciousness. If we didn't sometimes take things seriously, there would be nothing to laugh at the rest of the time. If we didn't sometimes laugh at our seriousness, we would be driven automatons. Neither machine nor disembodied spirit, one is immersed in the urgencies of life and yet capable of standing back, amused.

     It is tempting to treat play as a phenomenon, a behavior that is functional in the survival of the organism. There have been many explanations of play in serious frameworks-- inquiries into its biological, social or psychological value. Interesting as these may be, it must be admitted that to reduce the phenomenon of play to something serious is scarcely a playful gesture. Whatever else it may be, play is primarily an irreducible mode of being, an attitude or stance.

     While pure play refuses to be circumscribed, always giving the slip to any fence drawn around it, as soon as play turns serious it becomes crystallized in a finite and rigid structure with a limited goal: a game. A game is play structured-- consciously or not-- by serious intent, a compromise between the poles of seriousness and play, a synthesis of the necessary and the gratuitous, of reality and imagination.

     A game to earnest eyes appears serious. But one's earnestness can in turn be circumscribed, appearing to others-- or to oneself at another time-- as mere play. Viewed externally, a game is a limiting, arbitrary, gratuitous construction, until some larger context is found in which to restore its inner sense. But this larger context can in turn be circumscribed. Anything can be done, not only for some purpose or as a result of some cause, but for no reason at all. Conversely, anything done can be lent purpose and significance. Of course, seriousness and play are relative dimensions of behavior rather than separate activities. Nothing is inherently urgent or trivial but that some value makes it so. It is always possible to stand apart from such a value. One is always in a position to play, however serious the situation. Conversely, because the world is a whole fabric, it is always possible to find significance and broad implications for any detail, however gratuitous or trivial it may seem.

     Freud's concept of the child's "polymorphously perverse" sexuality is upside down-- a view of play framed from the point of view of adult genital sexuality. The child's state of universal bodily enjoyment comes first in time and is logically primary. Genital sexuality focuses this energy, which is appropriated by the purposes of the adult ego. Men are particularly conditioned to channel the energy of eternal delight into desire for specific objects of satisfaction. Free ranging energy is organized into a disturbing pressure to be released, a goal to be attained, and games of seduction.

     Though I may like one person more than another (because one brings me more personal pleasure or delight), it is logical that I should behave lovingly toward all. The expression of love may differ from person to person, but in all cases will be for the good of the other, rather than being merely a response to qualities believed to reside in the other. Such personal response, while apparently to the other, is actually a response to the criteria for one's pleasure. Our likes and dislikes are reactions to the object, reflecting the dependency of the organism on the environment. Love or compassion, on the other hand, is a response originating unilaterally with the subject, free and distinct from the organism. Since love represents freedom both from the the object and from the organism's programming, if I desire such freedom it is logical to love as an assertion of it. Love is how we express freedom from self-centeredness. More generally, play is how we express freedom from reality and the conditioning of the organism. And love is an expression of play.