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.
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
A NASA astronomer explains how astronauts dispose of their, uh, dark matter.
- When nature calls in micro-gravity, astronauts must answer. Space agencies have developed suction-based toilets – with a camera built in to ensure all the waste is contained before "flushing".
- Yes, there have been floaters in space. The early days of space exploration were a learning curve!
- Amazingly, you don't need gravity to digest food. Peristalsis, the process by which your throat and intestines squeeze themselves, actually moves food and water through your digestive system without gravity at all.
She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.
- For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
- These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
- Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.
- The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
- Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
- Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.