Is Play The Most Important Religious Component?

Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.—Alan Watts

Yesterday the NY Times published an article about the importance of play in the evolutionary development of our species. Over the years I've read numerous essays and research confirming such. Play helps us problem-solve, binds us as social creatures and helps us develop critical thinking skills.

The basic summation of David Dobbs' piece—focused on the work of psychology professor Dr. Alison Gopnik—centers on the difference between 'exploring' and 'exploiting' new environments. Gopnik found that children predominantly explore until age 5, when new biases manifest; they slowly become exploiters from that point. 

As Dobbs writes, we maintain a sense of play as we age—some better than others—and it is a crucial component of our evolution, even if many are more concerned with exploitation than exploration.

Studies suggest that free, self-directed play in safe environments enhances resilience, creativity, flexibility, social understanding, emotional and cognitive control, and resistance to stress, depression and anxiety.

I thought about this study while teaching my yoga class this morning in Marina del Rey. The class culminated in a challenging version of headstand. I generally do not teach many inversions; in group classes they can be intimidating. For those who felt overwhelmed, I offered a safe alternative in which their legs would not go off the ground, though they would still be practicing a preparatory posture. 

A few yogis were able to get into the full headstand. Most tried the alternative. A few, however, decided to not even try. That's when I told the story of play described in the Times article: as we grow older, we risk not trying new things out of a habit of complacence or fear, instead of being open to the possibilites.

This translates off the mat. The real key to understanding one's religious or spiritual choices is not in what they say, but how they act. There is plenty of lip service paid to concepts like compassion, empathy, freedom and love; they are useless if not acted out in the real world. When they are acted out, they need not be talked about. 

That has long been my main contention about every religion: words over actions, or, more succinctly put, beliefs over actions. Not that I'm against imagination, which I consider the tool that created mythology in the first place. The stories of our ancestors and those of today—Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and so forth—are popular because they feed that intense quest for play that we crave; a return, in the language of Gopnik's research, of the 'and' instead of the 'or' world.

Asian mythologies were steeped in the 'and' thought process. Shiva, the lord of yoga, was an abstinent ascetic who would sojourn into the forest to dally with forest nymphs despite his wife's protestations. Krishna, ruler supreme, seduced lower caste girls with his flute, then told the warrior Arjuna to kill his cousins. Ganesha, the trickiest of them all, was a befuddled, lazy overeater who, it turns out, ruled the entire planet because it resided in his stomach (main ingredients: rose water and sugar).

As Watts above points out, these gods had fun. Krishna's main role was to engage in lila, or play. Shiva danced and destroyed the world just so his Trimurti companions Brahma could remake and Vishnu sustain it. Sure, you might not find consistency among the mythologies, but that's because they, and all religious texts, have been a product of the human imagination, and humans are not consistent creatures. (Louis C.K. recently tackled this topic brilliantly in his 'Of Course, But Maybe' skit.)

We need to have more fun with our religion and spirituality. Now that it has come out that the Boston bombing was religiously motivated, we have yet another example of gods that have no fun whatsoever—of humans who believe their gods tell them to kill. An even more disturbing example of this can be watched on HBO's Vice Episode One, in which jihadists tell child suicide bombers that their vest will only explode outwards, or that it contains documents, to wait on those steps until someone retrieves them. 

Those are games we cannot afford to play. Fortunately, a choice exists, but it depends upon us remaining open to many possibilities. It requires a deep sense of play, in which our imagination opens up new worlds without forgetting to cherish the one we have.

Image: conrado/

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