Occasionally I sketch. Sketching was something I used to do even in my early years as a bhikkhu. It took me out of the linear narrative of ideas that always raced onwards to arrive at no sure conclusion. And it opened up a way of more fully sensing and appreciating the ordinary. It was enjoyable, and got the mind to give up its preoccupations and be tethered to the movement of the hand. The sketches weren’t and aren’t attempts at high art, but through encouraging receptivity rather than self-importance, they serve a purpose. Held with attention, this empty ink-bottle still says something: schooldays; hand-writing that was always as unique as it was personal and untidy; life as the unfinished and the openness to learn. And its empty ‘uselessness’ reminds me to stay light rather than full.
It is an observable fact that all of the higher forms of life participate in activities that aren’t functional – especially, but not exclusively, when they are young. We call such activities ‘play’. True play (rather than manufactured entertainment) isn’t frivolous; although one of its primary results is enjoyment, it’s about learning. Predators play at hunting, and prey chase after each other, to best equip themselves with life-skills. Children used to play a lot, especially after child-labour became less common. It offered an opportunity for young people to find themselves by entering the community of other youngsters, unsupervised by adults. In the human sphere, play is the activity that educates the young, and re-educates the adult in terms of engagement and cooperation. By the challenges that it presents, whether they be physical (as in sport) or mental (as in games), play encourages an imagination, and the willingness to take risks and be tested. Unlike synthetic entertainment, TV, computer games, etc. such play engages us in the world of human interaction. Then what was played out through mock-threat, cunning or anger, explores and integrates these energies in the real world. Playing anger for example, gets the player to know how to maintain personal boundaries and resist pressure. This is useful in accessing and handling emotions and roles: if you can play anger, or play the wicked tyrant, you’re less likely to blow up with these energies when they’re triggered in real life. But if these energies don't get integrated, they will manifest in terms of fantasies, obsessions and sociopathic behaviour. If a boy doesn’t have play battles, the chances are that a few years later he takes an assault rifle into the classroom. So learning by inner exploration is important; and through play children learn to find their interiors, to deepen, empathize and integrate. Learning to be fully human isn’t a trivial matter.
However, a recent paper (http://www.aeonmagazine.com/being-human/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play/) Peter Gray suggests that play has been in decline for a couple of generations. And he notes that since the 1960s (when playtime progressively gave way to homework and adult-directed sports) childhood mental disorders began increasing – to the level where anxiety and depression are now five to eight times greater among children than they were in the 1950s. Suicide rates for the age group fifteen to twenty-four has doubled; it has quadrupled amongst those under age fifteen. Also, when schooling fosters competition rather than cooperation, empathy declines and narcissistic self-interest grows. And if the overriding aim is to prepare children for life as exterior (= work, material resources), but not life as interior (empathy, full present awareness and balance), people learn what they’re supposed to do and have, but not how to be.
The mistake is to confuse livelihood for life and skip the development of consciousness (aka ‘interior’ – the subjective experience of being fully with what's happening.) Consequently, as the appreciative depth of awareness is exchanged for touchscreen gratification, enjoyment becomes a shallow gratification that is bound to an exterior and fleeting world. There is a divorce of interiors ( = subjective experiences which feel essentially ‘me’) from exteriors (= function, sense-contact, object-orientation). So the interior becomes dysfunctional and dark, losing flow and balance, and the exterior becomes flat and meaningless.
Healthy activity should bring the two together – so that we live a meaningful life in the world of others ‘out there’. However if our lives are prioritized in terms of achievements or possessions, they lose play and become work. The work ethic prioritizes end-result: an activity is made worthwhile if it produces something external such as money, praise, or promotion. Work is impersonal and involves as few subjective qualities as possible, so the worker’s mood doesn’t affect the job, and the worker can be replaced. In fact, work is best done by a reliable machine. When an occupation blends ‘external’ work with ‘internal’ play – such as sharing a project with colleagues, or prioritizing personal experimentation and ingenuity over time-boundaries, it is an enjoyable craft. But when it doesn’t, it causes a loss of personal meaning and value for the worker. This is because, whether we’re factory-workers, surgeons or journalists, we’re humans with interiors that need to be engaged. We need to be fully and imaginatively conscious in order to enjoy. And enjoyment is a psychological need. We may imagine that through paying the bills and getting a few nice accessories to our lives we will arrive at satisfaction and a sense of fulfilment, but fullness, enjoyment and contentment are aspects of our interior. So we can't get there through exterior value, no matter what the reward. As one friend commented on his retirement, the 'golden sunset' isn't there. We should have known: if the day’s activities leave us feeling exhausted and empty so that we need synthetic entertainment; if our daily actions don’t connect to and endorse our intrinsic worth – then what are the chances of such activities doing so at the end of a working life? It’s play, not work, that gives our lives their deepest satisfaction.
So reconsider play as the non-linear approach, an intention to meet, open to, and respond to what arises in the moment. Sounds like Dhamma practice? I hope so. This is because whereas work just brings forth willpower and ratiocination, play calls up the full range of mind – reason, yes, but also the detached perspective ( ‘this is just play’) that gives scope for imagination and self-inquiry ( ‘how am I being affected by this, how do I stay balanced?’). Play brings forth creative energy, the experience of flow. Play is enjoyment that needs no end-product. Play enriches us because it reveals aspects of our interior that work can't. Therefore, because of the fullness of mind that it demands, play has always been a gateway to the sacred.
In religious cultures, the play element manifests as art, architecture, literature, and song. Even sober Theravada has its chanting and rituals that you participate in as a community rather then observe; sacred play that brings forth the ability to put aside self-image and then merge in the Deathless. In this way, spiritual play is a profound resource: when an exterior form mirrors an interior meaning, it generates vigour and uplift and steers the intention. Play matures into spiritual craft.
In the field of Dhamma practice, meditation is the aspect that is specifically about deepening our interior – although in external terms it doesn’t look like doing more than just sitting there. But even with that, just disengaging from externally-oriented activity opens you to your interior; and the more skilful your actions are in that domain, the more you learn. At first the interior seems to be just thoughts (‘in my head’) and emotions (‘in my heart’) but through meditation, mental awareness can deepen beyond these to finer and more profound levels where the familiar monologues, attitudes and reactions of self fade out. The interior is then revealed as a multi-layered domain, containing memories, attitudes and energies – in the same way as the sea may have bands of cool water or tides running through it. Even more of a revelation is that the interior goes beyond all content. It has a boundless, still capacity that touches us with peace and contentment. As with the ink-bottle, emptiness is fuller than the full.
As it is about the interior, it makes sense that meditation should be more akin to play than work. That is, the interior is deepened through a subjective, felt and creative process. It’s less about goal-orientation, aim and achievement, and more about fully sensing and discerning what is in line with one’s present-moment harmony. In this way adopting the play ethic modifies how we meditate: we contemplate what arises in awareness with the fullness of mind (aka mindfulness) rather than just noting it. Yet with the notion that meditation is an important activity, our work ethic can move in and demand wilful goal-orientation and progress. And once that mind-set kicks in, awareness loses sensitivity, responsive strength and present-moment enjoyment. Meditation becomes another work project that divorces us from our interior. To say that meditation isn’t an activity would confine it to something best undertaken by vegetables, but to limit action to the work ethic is to both create an obstacle and lessen one’s capacities at the same time. Meditation is something you have to play, often by ear.
The Buddhist perspective on action (or kamma) expands the significance of work and play. Any activity has to come from an intention, but in many cases the intention is only half-conscious. People go on automatic, react, or act on hasty assumptions. Yet, all this is kamma, and it creates a result. One result, for good or bad, is the laying down of reflex actions and psychological programs called saṇkhārā – variously translated as ‘activities’ or ‘formations’. They’re both: as these activities (or more accurately reactivities) become familiar, they become who I am, and ‘my way’ – they form a self. For example, through constantly running a victim program, or an entitlement program, or an indebted ‘got to work’ program we form ourselves as victims, or someone who as the right to have what he/she wants, or the one who has to keep working to justify their existence. And so on. There is a fixated and fixing quality about these programs; they run on auto-pilot and they give us a clear self-image. So saṇkhārā are of central importance to the topic of liberation. They’re not always based on our external actions: we also get programmed to internally act dependent on how others behave and misbehave towards us. The ‘activity that becomes a formation’ then is our half-conscious rerunning of programs such as ‘not-good enough’, ‘have to do all the work to be accepted’, ‘only worthy if I get results’. What may have been triggered by the social exterior becomes an interior activity and forms our self-image. If not carefully contemplated and resolved, these saṇkhārā can become programs that lasts a lifetime – and beyond. There is no self or consciousness that undergoes rebirth: but saṇkhārā carry the message from life to life.
Their basic message is: there’s something better that you could be if you keep doing (something) and moving onwards (somewhere). We follow this, but only find that whatever we do, it doesn't quite work (so try harder!); and wherever we get to, there’s somewhere better, a little further down the track. This is what is meant by saṁsara, and is why the Buddha used the word ‘nibbāna’ to describe our highest welfare. Like many of the Buddha’s references the word ‘nibbāna’ is suggestive and metaphorical rather than literal. Related to a background image of fire, it means ‘blown out’; nibbāna is the extinguishing of deadening activities.
To bring this about takes activity, but for liberation play is the truest way to work. The Buddha’s creative use of metaphors and similes suggests that spiritual practice requires an awareness that is attuned to images and to how things strike the mind. Rather than give a lot of technical instruction, the Buddha likens the attention required in meditation to holding a bird (M.103.22) – if you grip it too tightly, you crush and kill it; if you’re not firm enough it flies away. Got it? And what about concentration: the Buddha describes the first level of absorption to be like someone mixing bathpowder and water and then working it through the body (M.119.18 ). Don’t tighten up and don’t space out: keep working ease into the tissues. On the negative side, the mind obsessed with sense pleasure is like a leper who derives fleeting gratification from cauterizing his sores (M.75.17). On the other hand skillfully working the mind renders it pure and malleable as fine gold, ready to form any kind of ornament (A.5.23). My advice is to dwell on the images and take them in; the imaginative instructs you at a deep level.
In meditation, the play is to meet what arises in the mind. First meet it and include it whether you like it or should be experiencing it or not. While stepping back, be curious, be more fully conscious. How is this anger, how does it feel? How am I with it? What’s it like when I don’t stiffen against it, lecture it? What’s it like when I don’t believe in the stories it tells me about them and me and how it should be, but distill all that down to one reference point: anger, simmering, burning? Can I see it as a trapped energy that needs some generous handling? Visualise it – what does it look like? Above all prioritize present engagement, feel it in your body, breathe into it. Abandon the idea of getting through it, or that you should be some other way. Then, when I’m not superior or inferior to my anger; when I am neither denying not justifying it – then I’m not overwhelmed and the anger is held with mindfulness. Deprived of further food, it reconnects to bodily vitality. So the mind becomes calm and bright. And something deep has been learned about sankhārā: they’re triggered rather than fixed and personal, they can switch off – and when they do you feel all the richer for it.
You also get to know the tools and mode of Dhamma-as-craft. Keep your wits about you, learn to get grounded yet flexible through imagining the textures of your body as earth, fire, air and water. Assess what’s going on through sensing how it feels. Relax into presence: what would it be like to be welcome, to have all the time in the world. Bring up your strengths: how is it when you imagine tethering the passions and pulls of the mind like fastening wild animals to a stake until they lie down. These are the means that the Buddha encouraged. So enjoy the challenge; he was here too. And when things settle down, learn to really enjoy that and drink it in.
Furthermore, you learn the rules of interiors. You can formulate your own, but for me the first rule may be: you can’t fix the surface except by deepening. In other words, thinking – the most superficial aspect of the interior (it’s the exterior aspect of mind)– can’t resolve its own narratives and obsessions. It can't deal with emotions. You can’t think yourself out of jealous thoughts, guilt or worthlessness. You have to penetrate the web of thought and enter the felt senses of need or fear or sadness that they stem from. And you enter the felt sense when you’re receptive, flexible and responsive.
Another rule may be: you can’t release/let go of saṇkhārā by being superior or inferior to them. Trying to be above your compulsions and fears, or assuming you are burdened by greed and anxiety, will always lessen your capacity to meet these as energies. When you play with demons, you have to give them respect but hold your ground. And finally: the surest result is not measured in terms of content, but of capacity. Rather than expecting to be on top all the time, we discover the capacity to receive conflict, and the world in general, without getting fazed. In this very capacity, rather than in a transitory mind-state, is the unshakeable deliverance. Like an empty ink-bottle – ordinary, just there, and at first glance nothing useful at all.