First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Deep Play

June 7, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

Brian La Doone is a musher – a sled dog racer - in far northern Canada, which is polar bear country. He says he keeps a working distance of about 70 feet from the bears. His Canadian Eskimo sled dogs don’t always do likewise. On one occasion La Doone warily witnessed a polar bear loping toward one of his sled dogs. The dog wagged his tail and bowed. This happened during a time when the polar bears were particularly hungry. The sea hadn’t yet frozen and the bears couldn’t reach the seals they typically hunted on the ice. 

To La Doone’s surprise, the two began to play, to frolic. They rolled around and wrestled in the snow. They embraced and nipped at each other. The dog knew something La Doone didn’t know. The bear had signaled its playful intent while it approached. The dog in turn had signaled its playful intent. The bear actually returned every day for the next week to romp with the dog. And then, when the ice finally thickened enough, the bear headed off for its hunting ground. (Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Stuart Brown)

What possessed the polar bear to want to play with the dog rather than making a meal of him? Why did the dog take the risk? Why did these two unlikely creatures become playmates? Why?

Because play is as vital to true aliveness as breath is to being alive. Children and animals know this. They engage in play naturally. If left to their own devices, they play. That’s what they do. They intuitively and instinctively play. Too often, for adults, play comes to be seen as a waste of time, goofing off, or something to do in our spare time. At best, we set aside time for play – times of the day or week or year. The Protestant work ethic, our culture of busyness, and drive for achievement keep a tight grip on us. Many of us are frantically trying to keep up with the day-to-day demands of work, family, and household demands. There is a constant urge and encouragement to demonstrate our worthiness and productivity. We need to get things done. And church can sometimes feel that way too. “Go for a walk” or “take a vacation” get added to the bottom of a “to do” list. The lack of play is no longer just an adult concern. There’s increasing evidence that children are becoming play deprived. Parents are often the ones most aware of this. Ironically, research suggests that the adults most worried about their children’s lack of play are also the ones most likely to lack play in their own lives. Parents, take note. The solution is obvious. Start playing more yourself.

The greatest danger in play deprivation may not be obvious at first. It may just seem like life is a little less fun and a little more serious. But observing those who have stopped playing makes it clear that there are more troublesome repercussions. A person or animal that stops playing becomes disinterested in new activities. When play stops, little pleasure is found in the world. When play stops, our creativity, adaptability, and intelligence get thwarted. 

The opposite also occurs. When animals and people stop finding pleasure in the world, they stop playing. Anyone who has a pet has witnessed this behavior. One of my cats was recently unwell. He was having what looked like seizures and overall lacked his usual pep. A vet visit and blood work revealed a urinary tract infection. He got an antibiotic shot. After only one day, he was bouncing around like he had springs in his feet, livelier than ever – age 14. That’s geriatric for a cat.

Play puts an added bounce into our step. Play also animates the mind. Play has physical, social, intellectual, and psychological benefits. Play aids in survival. It makes us smarter and more adaptable. It makes us more creative and innovative. It fosters empathy and enables us to form complex social relationships and groups. (Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Stuart Brown)

This month, as we consider what it means to live a life of play, it’s a good time to take a personal inventory. How much are you playing? How playful are you? Are you bringing a playful spirit to your work life, to your relationships, to worship? Is there a particular form of play you might engage in more often?

I’ve been reading a lot about play, and trying to practice it more. There are many benefits and attributes. I want to highlight just three that aren’t immediately obvious.

For one thing, purposelessness is consistently named as a central quality of play. In other words, play isn’t goal-driven. Margaret Guenther, an Episcopal priest and spiritual director, describes play as unhurried. She says, “Play exists for its own sake. Play is for the moment; it is not hurried.” During play, there’s a sense of timelessness.

As a child, and it’s still true, I loved anything artsy-craftsy – coloring, drawing, making things. At Sunday School and in regular school I got so absorbed in my projects that I lost track of time. I struggled with the time limits on arts and crafts projects. I wanted to keep on practicing “holy uselessness.” That’s a phrase Guenther uses to describe this sense of purposelessness. She says:

When we play, we also celebrate holy uselessness. Like the calf frolicking in the meadow, we need no pretense or excuses. Work is productive; play, in its disinterestedness and self-forgetting, can be fruitful. (Toward Holy Ground)

Similarly, Stuart Brown says, “[Play] doesn't have a particular purpose, and that's what's great about play. If its purpose is more important than the act of doing it, it's probably not play.” That’s a great distinction. I can’t tell you how often I have tried to multitask my play time. If I go running to lose weight or be healthy, that’s great. But it’s probably not play. It’s possible it will become play while I’m running, but maybe not. On the other hand, if I run just for the sheer sake of running, for its own sake, for the pleasure of it, that’s play, deep play.

A second, striking aspect of play is that it is deep. Soul level deep. It has its own reality. It runs counter to cultural norms, rules, and expectations. Maybe that’s part of what scares and thrills us about it. In her book Deep Play, author and poet Diane Ackerman says,

One sheds much of one’s culture, with its countless technical and moral demands, as one draws on a wholly new and sense-ravishing way of life. … . we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles. …. When it happens we experience a sense of revelation and gratitude. (Deep Play)

Deep play invites us to give up control, give up certainty, and give up our preconceived ideas and rules. That’s because deep play arises from deep within us not from the world’s standards for us. It is an authentic expression of self. Play taps into one’s own creativity and innovation. Special equipment and fancy toys can actually get in the way. They can suppress the inner expression of self, one’s own creativity, rather than cultivating it.

Religion is the third quality of play I want to talk about. Diane Ackerman writes that: “Deep play … reveals our need to seek a special brand of transcendence, with a passion that makes thrill-seeking [understandable], creativity possible, and religion inevitable.” Religion may seem an unlikely playground. So often we think of religion as being stiff, boring, structured, dogmatic, and serious. That has a lot to do with the kind of religious upbringing and experiences we’ve had. I don’t think of our Unitarian Universalist religion as stiff or boring. And we certainly aren’t dogmatic. But too much focus sometimes gets placed on church “work” rather than church “play.”

UUs can be a driven group of people who want to save the world. That’s part of the reason for religion. But we do well to remember that play helps us do that even better. Play helps build the beloved community we long for. It deepens relationships, builds bridges across our differences, promotes belonging, grows our souls, and cultivates harmony and love.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles and sources don’t mention play. Not explicitly, anyway. But the first and sixth sources of our faith are suggestive of play. The first source draws on direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to forces that create and uphold life. Play and wonder go hand in hand. Play renews the spirit. Play opens us to creative forces. The sixth source draws on earth-centered teachings which celebrate the sacred circle of life. To celebrate the circle of life is to sing, play musical instruments, tell stories, enact pageants, share in rituals, share our joys and our sorrows, hear poetry, pray, and meditate. Through these and other forms of play, Unitarian Universalism calls us back to ourselves, to holy uselessness, to the spontaneous expression of true self, where creativity, joy, and gratitude abound.  

This month, as we consider what it means to live a life of play, let’s play more. Let’s be more playful in all we do – whether at church, at home, at work. Play is as vital to our aliveness, as breath is to being alive. “Let’s get lost inside the joy of this day” (lyrics from Let’s Play, Cookie Long) - and every day. In the words of our opening hymn: “arise and greet the day. Dance with joy and sing a song of gladness.”

Amen. Blessed be.