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/shutterstock.com

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less
Sponsored

Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less

Bespoke suicide pods now available for death in style

Sarco assisted suicide pods come in three different styles, and allow you to die quickly and painlessly. They're even quite beautiful to look at.

The Sarco assisted suicide pod
Technology & Innovation

Death: it happens to everyone (except, apparently, Keanu Reeves). But while the impoverished and lower-class people of the world die in the same ol' ways—cancer, heart disease, and so forth—the upper classes can choose hip and cool new ways to die. Now, there's an assisted-suicide pod so chic and so stylin' that peeps (young people still say peeps, right?) are calling it the "Tesla" of death... it's called... the Sarco! 

Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.