The Play of Life (Leela)

 by Jeff Martens

photos by Richard Norberg

Several years ago Norbert Rosing, a photographer, was traveling with a dog handler around Hudson Bay near the Arctic Circle.  Rosing was photographing a group of tethered huskies at sunset when a hungry 1200 pound male polar bear stalked onto the scene.  Now polar bears and huskies are considered to be natural enemies in the wild and this bear began moving straight toward the sled dogs with a fixed, predatory gaze.  The frantic dogs barked and pulled mightily at their chains, but one of the huskies named Hudson stood up wagging his tail.  As the polar bear lowered his head and plowed toward Hudson, the husky actually bowed into a ‘play’ stance.  The bear stood up on its hindquarters as if considering the husky’s invitation, and then something amazing happened: the two animals touched noses.  The polar bears eyes became soft, claws were retracted, muzzles were opened without bared teeth and the two animals began to play!  They jumped and bowed and rolled on the ground, baring necks and swiping the air with playful paws.  And after several minutes of this the polar bear leaves.

Now if that husky had taken an aggressive stance or if that husky had taken a cowering stance, chances are that husky may not have survived.  The polar bear could have easily killed the husky.  Either stance, aggressive or cowering, and that dog would have been history.  But because the much less-dominant husky assumed a playful position, the much stronger more dominant polar bear was also free to assume the attitude of play.

There is a lab study that had two different groups of rats.  One group was allowed to play all they wanted.  They would pin each other and squeal, they would tumble and roughhouse.  The other group of rats, every time they started to play they were interrupted, they weren’t allowed to play.  After several months of one group allowed to play and one not allowed to play, a collar permeated with the scent of a cat was placed into each of the two group’s enclosures.  All of the rats hid from the strong scent almost immediately with one key difference between the groups.  After a while the group of rats that had been allowed to play started coming our of hiding and began looking around, started exploring.  Was the cat there?  What was up?  The other group of rats that had never been allowed to play, they never came out of hiding.  They stayed hidden and did not come out.  In fact they would have died there if they weren’t made to come out.

Play is something that seems to have no external purpose.  If you ever see otters frisking or dolphins pirouetting or Japanese monkeys rolling a snowball down a hill, if you ever see dogs playing, you can tell there is nothing overt that is trying to be accomplished.  Play has no rational purpose, which can be very good because a lot of times our purposes can be confused or muddled, a little bit messed up or even contrary to what we are seeking in life.  Most animals will play, and what is interesting is the response of the husky to the polar bear.  At first glance you have such an apparent imbalance of nature.  You have a predator, not just any predator but one of the most dangerous powerful predators on earth coming towards you, and your response is ‘Let’s play!”

Such a response hints at how play can be evolutionary.  Because it takes us out of the duality of aggressor or victim, out of the duality of growling and attacking the threat or just whimpering and curling up getting ready to die.  Play is a third option, and this is what Masters use throughout history when they are challenged or people ask them questions.  They don’t respond quite the way that people think they should answer, they choose instead some third option beyond expectations, and this inspired way is play.  For example when Christ was asked if a man was blind because of his own sins or the sins of his father’s, he went beyond the equality and answered the man was blind so the works of God may be made manifest.  Answers like this comes from an awareness of absolute power and a living trust that does not take things too seriously.  The Master’s answer plays with reality, it play with the circumstances until it sees a deeper reality, a different possibility.

In developmental terms, the basis of human trust and the basis of building that trust is largely established through play and experiencing play signals as we are growing up.  So play has the potential to take us out of that paradigm of returning like for like or getting lost in that battle of opposites.  Play takes us out of the extremes of ‘either-or’, ‘all-or-nothing’.  Play allows us to perceive a situation differently beyond judgement, you’re not trying to master or control or dominate or submit, at least not with life-or-death seriousness.  If you do find yourself in such positions within play, these positions are merely roles or masks that you are trying on without identifying these qualities as yourself or using them to define who you are.  Exploring such extremes without clinging to them as yourself is evolutionary because it has the potential to change everything including animosity and conflict that seems hardwired into the very fabric of our beings.

This is what you are looking for in life.  You are looking for ways no to get caught up in the storm, ways not to be a rope that is being pulled in two directions, not to be the candle that is being burned at both ends.  In the practice of yoga this is what abhaya mudra means.  It is just a play, just a dance.  Don’t take it too seriously.  And there is no wrong way to play.  The play is the thing.  Evolution does not keep anything that is not imperative for existence on this planet.  If play has survived, if almost all animals play, then it is somehow important, it somehow has an importance beyond its insignificance and meaninglessness.

The husky is so small compared to the polar bear.  Yet the husky bares its throat in play.  And the polar bear has the husky’s throat in its jaws but its teeth are not bared and its eyes are soft.  They are playing.  When you remember that something is a play you stay out of that duality, that push-pull.  You don’t get caught up in right – wrong, day – night, black – white, victim – tyrant.  Even if you are facing odds or a foe or obstacles that seem formidable and insurmountable, you don’t get caught up, you don’t get steamrolled, you don’t get eaten alive.

Now what if we took that response of the husky, and that knowledge that the rats that didn’t learn to play when encountered with a predatory situation remained the victim and would have just died, would have stayed there hidden starving to death until they died… What if we take that understanding and instead of turning it into the outside world, which in and of itself can be incredibly powerful, and instead, what if we turned that inside?  What if you have an internal polar bear coming at you?  What if you have some crisis in your life or some difficult situation or some ailment or illness, or some circumstance coming up at you with a predatory gaze, looking right at you, about to make you lunch?  And the urge to fight or to just cower is so powerful that we may not even see the third option?

What then?

So you have this situation coming at you from within, what do you do if the polar bear is inside?  You have nowhere to run, right?  You can’t go anywhere, you are tethered, chained up.  Well you can fight it.  Sure you can fight!  But remember you only weigh a fraction of that polar bear.  That polar bear weighs TEN times as much as you.  And it is ten times bigger than you.  Fighting it is not really going to do that much, you are just going to make that thing – whatever it is – a little hungrier before it swallows you whole.  And cowering isn’t going to do anything either.  It will just make you a quicker meal.  But what if you were to bow your head and lift your rear-end and wag your tail?  What would happen then?  That choice is a game-changer.  It completely alters the orientation of everything.  It even transforms the polar bear’s orientation.  The polar bear stands up and says “What is this?!?”

Remember if you fight it you make it stronger.  It just gets more determined.  If you cower it continues on its course and you are finished.  That is why the cowering one fights, because it is hopeless if you cower.  But it is hopeless if you fight as well, they are both hopeless.  So how the heck do you play with an illness?  Or with rent that needs to be paid or with some personal or societal tragedy, how in the world are you supposed to play with something like that?

The way to know how to play with it is not going to come from your mind.  If the husky had stopped and thought, “Hmm, I’m going to be eaten, what should I do?  I know.  I’m going to pretend to play,” the husky would have perished.  Play has to be authentic.  Which means that you can’t preplan it, you can’t think it out.  In fact thinking and taking things too seriously is what brought that internal polar bear in the first place.

So what do we do with this internal polar bear?  The clue is that play does not have to have anything to do with facts.  You ever see two kids playing?  Playing war, space aliens, house or superheroes?  They don’t have to have all the props, they don’t need costumes, they don’t have to have everything perfect before they begin, they just begin.  Maybe they just have sticks or a piece of tin-foil.  Or nothing.  Just their imagination.  In fact that’s the only thing essential in play — your imagination.  Now if that husky had been locked into facts, the husky would not have been able to play.  If it truly knew the outer ‘facts’ of what was about to happen it would probably have turned its belly up and quit.  But the husky had something else.  It was able to sense something, feel something beyond the appearance of things.  And this is play as a survival mechanism.

As a human being you can consciously use your imagination, you can call it into focus.  As a human being, what you imagine with focus creates an experience, even if the experience isn’t here.  So you have some ailment or illness and you feel the symptom of it, and normally you’d be like a terrified husky pulling frantically at the chains of your current condition.  Oh my God, here comes the polar bear, I’m dead.  But instead of doing that you crouch, and you become open to play, and as the sensation of dread fades, you feel “Oh, this experience is somehow helping me!  This sensation is somehow supporting me, it is somehow furthering me on my path of healing and wholeness.”

Now the rational mind will look at such a response and say that you are nuts – that you’re crazy!  This is not reality!  But perception and ‘reality’ are very closely bound.  If the husky had tried to rationally figure it out beforehand, the husky would have never tried it.  Its husky brain would have said “You have got to be kidding me.  Play with that thing?!  You are going to expose your throat, EXPOSE YOUR THROAT to that thing?!  You’re going to play and romp around, you are going to turn your back to that thing, you’re going to jump up and down and yip and bark and play with that?!  You’re NUTS!”  The rational mind will say that the ‘facts’ are actually telling you that everything is going down the drain.  That doctor’s report, that evidence, that past due bill, those final words are telling you that it is all over.  And that is exactly what the “facts” were saying to that husky.

But did you notice?  Something strange happened to the polar bear when the husky began to play.   Claws are retracted, muzzle soft, eyes playful.  And something strange will also happen to the ailment or the illness or the financial affliction or the relationship condition or whatever it is that is the polar bear within you when you refuse to fight or to cower.  All you need is to change the inner feeling from one of dread or worry or futility to one of play.  The husky’s action changed the outer circumstance completely from an authentic inner feeling.  Luckily, the husky didn’t try to change the polar bear first or figure anything out.  And luckily your imagination doesn’t require you to change the outside first or figure anything out.  You have two six-year-olds who want to play ‘space alien invading’, they don’t need to have an actual astronaut helmet or an actual laser blaster to play that.  They do not have to wait for the outside to change in order to play.

And neither do you.

You don’t need external evidence.  You don’t have to have external proof before you start playing.   The one thing that you CAN know for certain, guaranteed, is that if you fight it you will make it stronger and if you quit or cower, then you are lunch.  That you can know for sure.  These are real FACTS.  Because both of these reactions are reaffirming the reality and the formidability of what is stalking you.  Those reactions affirm the reality of you as prey.   And so you look at your bank account and you say, “It’s hopeless,” or “Life is so unfair, I always get the short end of the stick, I hate  being poor!”  Or you could respond with something like this:

“Well, there is only one zero after that two right now, but I see three or four zeroes after that two.  I can feel it. It feels good.”

You’re nuts, the rational mind will shriek frantically.  You’re crazy!  You don’t have $20,000, what are you doing???  Ok, well let me ask you another question: Which person will have the better attitude, the one who thinks life sucks and is hopeless or the one playing?  Which person will experience less worry and stress?  Which person is more likely to find an odd job, which person is  more likely to find $20 in the parking lot, which person is more likely to have someone help them out with a gift or a loan?  Is it the person who is grumbling and whining how poor they are all the time or the person who has faith, the person who sees $20,000 in their $20 bank account?  Which person would YOU want to model?  Which person would YOU want to buy a lunch?  Which person would YOU want to hang out with?  Become a person that you would want to hang out with.  That is what Norman Cousins did when he laughed his cancer away. (See: Anatomy of an Illness, Norman Cousins, 1979)

Wherever you are, you always have the ability to imagine that you are in a movie called the “Titanic”.  But with a different ending.  That movie is rereleased in 3D, by the way.  Every movie is being re-released in 3D now.  Star Wars, Titanic, Disney classics, everything is going through the 3D treatment.  Your imagination is your own 3D movie studio.  Remember the rats that stayed in hiding forever after a scare?  Do you know what happens to human beings that don’t play, who don’t have playtime or healthy socialization as kids?  They become mass murderers, they become psychopaths, they take things way to seriously.  And when you are taking things too seriously you have to choose to be either the prey or the predator.  And ultimately these two choices are one and the same.  The predator always turns into the prey.

Now when you don’t react by fighting or numbing or cowering, that attacking energy is going to stop, it is going to stand up puzzled on its hind legs and look at you. You’re no longer the victim you are no longer being attacked.  It is confusing.  The situation and the attacking energy becomes confused because the traditional habitual roles are not being played anymore.  And that is a doorway that you step through, and in the stepping through that doorway you then change the perception of the situation with your imagination.  This is helping me to get better, I now see THIS.  I now experience something different then appearances seem to dictate.  A response like this not ignoring the appearance of things, it is a deeper vision rich with play and creativity.  In observing the facts that are here in this moment without reaction, I am now choosing consciously to perceive things differently.  I am perceiving it differently.  And in perceiving it differently, everything begins to change…  EVERYTHING.

Because you have changed, everything you perceive MUST change.

And suddenly you are doing the impossible and playing with a polar bear.  In fact it is now your playmate, your teacher, your helper.  It is helping you to become stronger, more resilient, more alive than ever before.

So we all know what the result is in the outside world of meeting force with force.  Or of cowering and slinking away.  But to stay present in the face of it, all those other huskies reacted and were out of the picture but that one husky stayed present and played.  No running away, so its not ignoring the situation, right?  It’s not like you are saying “Oh there’s nothing happening here, I have nothing to worry about, I don’t have any issue with my bank account, I don’t have to be concerned about this illness or dis-ease, there’s nothing I need to do at all, everything will just take care of itself.”  No it won’t.  Or more accurately, yes it will take care of itself, but it will be ‘taken care of’ based on your reaction of avoidance.  Because ignoring and numbing out is just another form of cowering.  So instead of cowering, you face it.  But you face it in a different way without confrontational energy.  Cowering is confrontational energy just as attacking is confrontational energy because it reinforces the validity of what is preying upon you.  Which then reinforces your role as the prey.

Everything is play.  Anything can be a play.  Anything.  You are consciousness playing in a field of consciousness.  You can perceive anything differently.  And when the play is over, you will not be eaten because you are no longer prey and you are no longer a threat.  You are now friends, you are now companions and you just part ways.  After the initial encounter, that polar bear came back for 10 days in a row to play some more.  So even if the polar bear hangs around it is no longer a threat to you.  And because you have played you can explore new situations, you don’t hide and stay hiding forever, you come out and you explore possibility in your play.  Look at me I can dominate a polar bear!  I can be in the jaws of a polar bear and be okay!  And you move and you make it all a play.  And you discover new things because you are willing to explore and play.  You discover new possibilities, new frontiers within yourself.

Now if you have ever had a dog, and that dog gets into that bowing playful position and looks at you with sparkling eyes, front paws spread out, seat raised, it is extremely hard to resist playing.  You would have to be Scrooge, or very late for work to not play with that dog.  Every cell in your body wants to play with that dog and say “Who’s the good dog?  YOU are, yes you are yesyouareyesyouare!”  That is YOU responding to the invitation to play, that is you wanting to play also.  And that is what will happen to the energy around you when you choose the third option, when you choose to play.

If you remember it is all a play or leela (“divine play” in Sanskrit), then you remember yourself.  You remember that you are the play-maker.  And this “You” cannot be hurt.  Fire cannot burn it, Krishna says in the Gita.  Ultimately this you is invulnerable because it is real.  To believe that you can be attacked, that this invulnerability can be attacked, means that you will also attack things in your world.  When the space alien dies to the cosmic ray blast, the six year-old gets up to play some more.  When you play instead of attacking, your invulnerability remains intact.

So go inside and find something to play with.  And have fun.

With thanks for the inspiration from Stuart Brown.  See below for his full talk on play.