By Diane Ackerman
Vintage Books USA Copyright © 2000 Diane Ackerman
All right reserved. ISBN: 0679771352
Deep. adj. 1. The most intense or extreme part. 2. Profoundly absorbed or immersed. 3. A distance estimated in fathoms.
--The American Heritage Dictionary of the
English Language, 3rd edition
PLAY. It is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action.
--Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens
Everyone understands play. If I were in the park, and a girl invited me to play beanbag toss, she might well get bored if I seemed clumsy and slow--just as a dog playing fetch might get bored and go looking for better company. But why play at all? Every element of the human saga requires play. We evolved through play. Our culture thrives on play. Courtship includes high theater, rituals, and ceremonies of play. Ideas are playful reverberations of the mind. Language is a playing with words until they can impersonate physical objects and abstract ideas.
Animal play serves many purposes. It can be a dress rehearsal for adult life, as when young mammals play courtship games, war games, socializing games, motor-skills games. Monk-seal pups playing rough-and-tumble in the surf and tiger cubs pouncing on one another in mock battle are perfecting techniques that will save their lives. Play is far older than humans. It's so familiar to us, so deeply ingrained in the matrix of our childhood, that we take it for granted. But consider this: ants don't play. They don't need to. Programmed for certain behaviors, they automatically perform them from birth. Learning through repetition, honed skills, and ingenuity isn't required in their heritage. The more an animal needs to learn in order to survive, the more it needs to play. The more leisure time it has, the more it can play. Do some higher animals--dolphins, chimpanzees--play with us because they're intelligent beings blessed with leisure time, or because they're playful in the same way tiger cubs are? For all we know, what we call intelligence may be a characteristic exclusively of primates. It may not be life's pinnacle at all, but simply one mode of knowing, one we happen to master and cherish. Play is widespread among animals because it invites problem-solving, allowing a creature to test its limits and develop strategies. In a dangerous world, where dramas change daily, survival belongs to the agile not the idle. We may think of play as optional, a casual activity. But play is fundamental to evolution. Without play, humans and many other animals would perish.
Animals play, in part, to stay active and fit. The exploring play of primates helps them gather information about their environment and food sources. The escape play of horses keeps them in shape for flight. Social play establishes rank, mate-finding, and cooperation when needed. Play probably helps to keep an animal's senses well informed and alert. The central nervous system needs a certain amount of stimulation. To a dynamic organism, monotony is unbearable. Young animals don't know what is important, what can be safely ignored; they have had fewer novel experiences, and their senses are fresh and highly sensitive. Everything matters.
Even crows play. When I'm out biking, I often see crows wearing plastic wing tags installed by researchers at the nearby ornithology lab. Do those colorful epaulets confer special status in the crow community, I wonder? But it does make them easier to study, and researchers have learned that crows are extraordinarily sociable and devoted to family. Five years' worth of offspring may help out around their parents' home nest during breeding season. When they mate, they nest close to home and are lifelong spouses. They help raise nieces and nephews, they often hunt with others, and they play all sorts of games. Two young crows will play tug-of-war with twigs, or crows will gang up to haze a greatly outnumbered cat. A crow may swing upside down on a branch, monkey style; or play drop-the-stick--flying down fast to catch it. One researcher saw a crow invent a logrolling game in which it balanced on a plastic cup and rolled it down a hill. Then a sibling watching these antics followed suit. A neighbor of mine was surprised one afternoon to find crows, perched on the frame of her skylight, dropping pebbles onto the glass and watching them skitter.
Other animals are equally playful. Here is Wendell Berry describing a bird at play:
I sat one summer evening and watched a great blue heron make his descent from the top of the hill into the valley. He came down at a measured deliberate pace, stately as always, like a dignitary going down a stair. And then, at a point I judged to be midway over the river, without at all varying his wingbeat he did a backward turn in the air, a loop-the-loop. It could only have been a gesture of pure exuberance, of joy--a speaking of his sense of the evening, the day's fulfillment, his descent homeward. He made just that one slow turn, and then flew on out of sight in the direction of the slew farther down in the bottom. The movement was incredibly beautiful, at once exultant and stately, a benediction on the evening and on the river and on me. It seemed so perfectly to confirm the presence of a free nonhuman joy in the world.
For humans, play is a refuge from ordinary life, a sanctuary of the mind, where one is exempt from life's customs, methods, and decrees. Play always has a sacred place--some version of a playground--in which it happens. The hallowed ground is usually outlined, so that it's clearly set off from the rest of reality. This place may be a classroom, a sports stadium, a stage, a courtroom, a coral reef, a workbench in a garage, a church or temple, a field where people clasp hands in a circle under the new moon. Play has a time limit, which may be an intense but fleeting moment, the flexible innings of a baseball game, or the exact span of a psychotherapy session. Sometimes the time limit is prearranged; at other times it's only recognizable in retrospect. The world of play favors exuberance, license, abandon. Shenanigans are allowed, strategies can be tried, selves can be revised. In the self-enclosed world of play, there is no hunger. It is its own goal, which it reaches in a richly satisfying way. Play has its own etiquette, rituals and ceremonies, its own absolute rules. As Johan Huizinga notes in Homo Ludens, a classic study of play and culture, play "creates order, is order. Into an imperfect world and into the confusion of life it brings a temporary, limited perfection. The least deviation from it spoils the game." These are the basic rules of all forms of play. But play also has its own distinctive psychology.
Above all, play requires freedom. One chooses to play. Play's rules may be enforced, but play is not like life's other dramas. It happens outside ordinary life, and it requires freedom. Even animals that play instinctively do so because they enjoy play, choose to play when the mood strikes them, or they are invited to by other animals. But freedom alone doesn't ensure a playful result; people often choose the work they do, and not everyone is lucky enough to regard their work as play. Players like to invent substitute worlds, more advantageous outcomes of events, supplemental versions of reality, other selves. Make-believe is at the heart of play, and also at the heart of much of what passes for work. Let's make-believe we can shoot a rocket to the moon.
Most forms of play involve competition, against oneself or others, and test one's skills, cunning, or courage. One might even argue that all play is a contest of one sort or another. The adversary may be a mountain, a chess-playing computer, or an incarnation of evil. To play is to risk: to risk is to play. The word fight derives from the word play. Medieval tournaments were ritualized battles that followed strict rules. So are wrestling, boxing, and fencing matches. Ceremonial violence--at a sacred place, in which special clothes are worn, time limits must be obeyed, rules are followed, rituals are performed, the action is alarmingly tense, and the outcome is unknown--is elemental to play. Festive dancing may seem peaceful by comparison, and indeed in Anglo-Saxon, play was plega, which meant singing or dancing gestures, clapping, quick movements.
But when we peer even farther back into its origins, we discover that play's original meaning was quite different, something altogether more urgent and abstract. In Indo-European, plegan meant to risk, chance, expose oneself to hazard. A pledge was integral to the act of play, as was danger (cognate words are peril and plight). Play's original purpose was to make a pledge to someone or something by risking one's life. Who or what might that someone or something be? Possibilities abound, including a relative, a tribal leader, a god, or a moral trait such as honor or courage. At its heart, plegan reverberated with ethical or religious values. It also contained the idea of being tightly fastened or engaged. Soon plegan became associated with performing a sacred act or administering justice, and it often appeared in ceremonies. In a later chapter, I'll talk about the importance of those ceremonies.
However, not all ethical play requires risk and hazard. For example, an elementary school teacher I know teaches ethics through community service, inspiring children to have fun while doing good works. One overcast day in late October, she brought a hundred children and their parents to plant bulbs at the local hospice. They had learned earlier about what a hospice is, and discussed how much the flowers would mean to its residents. These would probably be the last flowers they saw. So the children understood the value of what they were doing, as they playfully ripped out hundreds of frost-killed cosmos and other annuals, dug 2,000 holes, raked dirt, planted glossy bulbs, chased the occasional shrew. Children and dirt, what could be better? In that bulb-planting project, teacher and students captured the gentler side of plegan. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity, where bighearted people volunteer to build homes for others--while enjoying the outdoors, hard work, and socializing--do the same.
By far the most common use of play words, in many languages, is the erotic. The Sanskrit word for copulation is kridaratnam, which translates as "the jewel of games." In German, a Spielkind (literally a "play child") is a baby born out of wedlock. In English, we make a play for, play up to, indulge in love play. Our word lechery evolved from leik, a root word for play. Among native Americans of the Blackfoot tribe, the word koani could be applied either to child's play or to unlawful sex. Words for play mainly gave rise to words used in love play, battle, or religious rites (feast and festival also trace their etymology to play). What do these activities have in common? They all require daring, risk, concentration, the ability to live with uncertainty, a willingness to follow the rules of the game, and a desire for transcendence. They share the spirit of sacred play, where the child and the poet are at home with the savage.
The savage is what we sometimes long to be--living by cunning and raw emotion, attuned to nature, senses alert, eluding danger, thrilled by challenge. "One thinks of Tolstoy among the Cossacks," Peter Marin writes in Coevolution Quarterly, "learning from the raw power of a life stripped clean of possessions and exposed to the rock-hard facts of the world. There was an austerity to their existence so pure that it became for him a kind of sensuality, and no doubt later in his life, when he wanted to strip himself morally to the bone, there was a similar element involved. There is a connection between moral power and the sense of exposure to the mortal elements."
Facing trials and winning is essential, especially if one is pitting the forces of good against the forces of evil. At such high-stakes gambling, luck is an important ingredient, of course; in many myths, gods wager with human life. In the Sanskrit Mahabharata, for example, we find men, who represent the seasons, deciding the world's weather and crop yield by rolling gold and silver dice. But, aside from luck or the favor of the gods, the player succeeds by his or her own talents. It's astonishing really, the extremes people have gone to in search of praise--for reassurance that they're accomplished, excellent beings who are valued. A Freudian has rich ground here, as does an evolutionary psychologist. What fuels a need to be publicly celebrated and declared good? Suppose the drive is ravenous, involving nations? Because prestige is an unstable element, warriors must constantly prove their merit, in relentless deeds of valor, and it doesn't matter much these days if the battleground is an office or a boxing ring. A day passing without glory, however small, is cause for anxiety. Ranks may shuffle, face may be lost, resources may wane, potential mates may recede. Even apparently altruistic acts may in truth be deeply concerned with merit and glory. When a pilot recently flew his crippled jet into a mountain, killing himself rather than risking many lives in a heavily populated area where he might have lucked out landing on a highway, people exclaimed "How selfless of him!" But one of his motives, undoubtedly, was to act honorably; he couldn't live with himself as a man who caused the deaths of many civilians. We may call someone who sacrifices his life for another an altruist, but his real motives may be less selfless than we imagine; they may be profoundly concerned with valor and a coherent sense of self.
Physical strength has traditionally been one test of nobility. Also courage or great wealth. In twelfth-century Florence, the elite competed by constructing a forest of towers, each more spectacular than the next. Ostensibly created for defense, these artful structures became known as "swagger towers." But in the past, and in many cultures, contests usually included tests of knowledge and wit. Ancient heroes were given sacred riddles to solve, and a wrong answer meant death. Warriors battled one another with insults and boasts, as American street kids do today. China even held a "courtesy match," in which rivals fought by zealously out-politing each other. He whose manners were the most overwhelmingly polite won. In courtrooms, armies also battle with words. As became clear to multitudes of television viewers during the O. J. Simpson murder trial, winning a court case has little to do with right and wrong, but with how well one's lawyers control the game. All such rivalries involve the idea of trial, of publicly testing one's skill, nerve, or gifts. All this happens on the field of play. Huizinga argues that
[t]he rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living, were built up on play-patterns. We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its early phases, played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.... Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself.
I think he's right. We don't pursue and punish lawbreakers just to keep them from repeating their crimes. They threaten us at a more basic level.
We usually think of play as self-indulgent and irresponsible. "Stop playing around, be serious!" someone might demand, as if the two clashed. Yet sports are the height of seriousness. In ancient Rome, "the games" included bloodthirsty crowds and gruesome deaths; and they could be whimsical: let's see what happens if we pit a man against a bear or a crocodile. Children can be extremely serious about play. Their games, though "fun," aren't always silly or filled with laughter.
Play is an activity enjoyed for its own sake. It is our brain's favorite way of learning and maneuvering. Because we think of play as the opposite of seriousness, we don't notice that it governs most of society--political games, in-law games, money games, love games, advertising games, to list only a few spheres where gamesmanship is rampant. Play may have different strengths, not all of them mystical and soul-stealing. But even in its least intoxicating forms, play feels satisfying, absorbing, and has rules and a life of its own, while offering rare challenges. It gives us the opportunity to perfect ourselves. It's organic to who and what we are, a process as instinctive as breathing. Much of human life unfolds as play.
This book explores an element of the human saga that has thrilled and fascinated me throughout my life: transcendent play. Not just how children play--rejoicing in the delights of silliness, perfecting their coordination, or rehearsing the rules of courtship and society--but a special dimension of adult play. Something exquisitely human. Of course, adults often play in the same way and for the same reasons that children do; they act silly because it's fun; they play to socialize, and that can include besting a rival or developing a friendship. But there is a deeper form of play, akin to rapture and ecstasy, that humans relish, even require to feel whole.
A funny notion, feeling whole. If there is one thing a person knows for a fact, it is that he is trapped inside a suit of skin, that (unless he is a Siamese twin) he is not several, that if the armor of his body is pierced, he can bleed his innards away. He is a single self-contained entity. How peculiar not to feel whole. Plato's explanation is that each of us is, by design, only half a human, and therefore must search for a beloved to blend with to become whole. Feeling incomplete is an ancient delusion. Equally ancient is the attempt to feel whole by using drink, drugs, sex, prayer, mantras, sports, danger, and anything else one can think of to temporarily turn down the volume on the chatter in the brain. That absence of mental noise we find liberating, soothing, and exciting all at once.
Deep play is the ecstatic form of play. In its thrall, all the play elements are visible, but they're taken to intense and transcendent heights. Thus, deep play should really be classified by mood, not activity. It testifies to how something happens, not what happens. Games don't guarantee deep play, but some activities are prone to it: art, religion, risk-taking, and some sports--especially those that take place in relatively remote, silent, and floaty environments, such as scuba diving, parachuting, hang gliding, mountain climbing.
Deep play always involves the sacred and holy, sometimes hidden in the most unlikely or humble places--amid towering shelves of rock in Nepal; crouched over print in a dimly lit room; slipping on AstroTurf; wearing a coconut-shell mask. We spend our lives in pursuit of moments that will allow these altered states to happen. The Australian Aborigines search for it on wilderness treks called walkabouts, during which young men of the tribe go alone into the dangerous outback to gain strength and wisdom. Buddhist lamas and Hindu sadhus travel, nearly naked, to pray atop glacial mountains in Tibet. People from many cultures have gone on soul journeys into the wilderness, where risk, hunger, pain, exhaustion, and sometimes self-torture might inspire visions. Young Masai men set off on a pilgrimage to Mount Kilimanjaro, the sacred center of their world, as part of the initiation rite known as Moranism. Native Americans have often used ritualized running to scale mental heights. The Hopis stage many such races every year, featuring paint, costumes, fasts, and prayer. The Crow Indians run to exhaustion to persuade the gods that they deserve good luck. The Zuni run twenty to forty miles while kicking a sacred stick. The official purpose of these ordeals may be religious, but the physiological goal is to impel the initiate into a higher state of consciousness that kindles visions and insights, in a locale where survival may depend on a combination of ingenuity and nerve.
Shamans and extreme athletes alike court deep play with a sensuous rigor bordering on mania. Creativity, psychotherapy, sensation-seeking--all are ideal playgrounds for deep play. Of late, I find many such moments while biking, but in the past I have found them riding horses, piloting light aircraft, scuba diving, studying animals in the wild, and exploring unfamiliar landscapes. Those moments have powered my dreams and yearnings, inspired most of my writing, and formed the basis of my spirituality. Over the next few pages, I'll quote briefly from several of my journals spanning roughly a decade. Although I wasn't aware of deep play at the time, I often lived it, unknowingly recorded its features, and chronicled many of its moods. This comes in handy now, as I explore the mental habitat of deep play, which has enriched my life for so long and powered the lives of so many others.
For about five years I traveled little and seemed to have few obvious moments of deep play. However, I was also in psychotherapy at the time and, in retrospect, that experience satisfied some of my needs. How can psychotherapy be experienced as deep play? All play happens in a special mental place, with time limits and rules, beyond everyday life. It contains uncertainty, illusion, an element of make-believe or fantasy, and allows one to take risks, or explore new roles. Psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who spent a lifetime enthralled by the study of children, understood the value of engaging in the distinctive play of psychotherapy:
Psychotherapy takes place in the overlap of two areas of playing, that of the patient and that of the therapist. Psychotherapy has to do with two people playing together ... psychoanalysis has been developed as a highly specialized form of playing in the service of communication with oneself and others.
I was also a crisis counselor, a job that was full of intimate and tense dramas. So, in several ways, my life held an alternate reality outside the normal lull of routine, a high intensity and focus, perpetual risk, constant exposure to danger, fascination with another--all vital elements of deep play. British therapist Robin Skynner finds similarities between the dangerous exhilaration of his work and his experience flying Mosquito bombers during World War II. During counseling sessions, he would sometimes recognize the same "feeling of being absolutely attentive and completely there" that he used to feel at the moment when he was "going to drop a bomb. In both instances, I was dealing with something of an explosive nature. In therapy the aim is to defuse the bomb rather than try to escape from it or be blown up. It's very risky and exciting." I doubt that such high-wire intensity occurs in every session with every patient, but among the many rewards of his profession, therapy offers Skynner an opportunity for deep play.
The ancients wrote about and celebrated key elements of deep play, coining names for some of its moods. Because of them, for example, we know its "rapture" or its "ecstasy," and those words I too have used on the many occasions when I've felt deep play. Rapture and ecstasy are not themselves deep play, but they're central components of it.
Rapture means, literally, being "seized by force," as if one were a prey animal who is carried away. Caught in the talons of a transcendent rapture, one is gripped, elevated, and trapped at a fearsome height. To the ancient Greeks, this feeling often foretold malevolence and danger--other words that drink from the same rapturous source are rapacious, rabid, ravenous, ravage, rape, usurp, surreptitious. Birds of prey that plunge from the skies to gore their victims are known as raptors. Seized by a jagged and violent force, the enraptured are carried aloft to their ultimate doom.
Ecstasy also means to be gripped by passion, but from a slightly different perspective: rapture is vertical, ecstasy horizontal. Rapture is high-flying, ecstasy occurs on the ground. For some reason, the ancient Greeks were obsessed with the symbol of standing, and relied on that one image for countless ideas, feelings, and objects. As a result, a great many of our words today simply reflect where or how things stand: stanchion, status, stare, staunch, steadfast, statute, and constant. But there are also hundreds of unexpected ones, such as stank (standing water), stallion (standing in a stall), star (standing in the sky), restaurant (standing place for the wanderer), prostate (standing in front of the bladder), and so on. To the Greeks, ecstasy meant to stand outside onself. How is that possible? Through existential engineering. "Give me a place to stand," Archimedes proclaimed in the third century B.C., "and I will move the earth." Levered by ecstasy, one springs out of one's mind. Thrown free of one's normal self, a person stands in another place, on the limits of body, society, and reason, watching the known world dwindle in the distance (a spot standing far away). The euphoria of flying in dreams, or the longing to fly through the ocean with dolphins, fills us with rapture. Can one feel ecstasy and rapture at the same time? "The heart of standing is you cannot fly," William Empson muses in a poem about the simultaneous limits and grandeur of a love affair. These are two escape routes from the mundane, two paths to deep play, equally quenching, equally mystical, and subtly different. All roads may indeed lead to Rome, but one might be hilly, the other marshy.
In seventeenth-century France, the fashionably risque sometimes bragged about an "ecstasy of delight" or an "ecstasy of rage"--passions wild as a seizure, with just a tincture of blasphemy to add a little soul-fearing frisson. But the word mainly referred to mystics and deeply religious people entranced to the point of subtraction from the world. I suppose it's a telling sign of our times that we now regard both rapture and ecstasy as pleasurable, desirable, even enviable states.
Whichever word you choose--rapture or ecstasy--each is fundamental to the notion of deep play. So is transcendence, risk, obsession, pleasure, distractedness, timelessness, and a sense of the holy or sacred. Over the years, some writers have illuminated important facets of the human condition that are related in one way or another to deep play. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Emile Durkheim wrote about "collective effervescence," a group form of deep play that occurs during ritualized events; and Victor Turner later wrote similarly about a feeling of "communitas," when the usual social roles are temporarily suspended. Freud wrote of the infant's craving for an "oceanic feeling," during which it seems to merge with the beloved or its environment. D. W. Winnicott wrote about play as a creative state of withdrawal from everyday life. D. E. Berlyne argued that organisms don't strive for perfect calm and quiet, but, on the contrary, need an "optimal" amount of stimulation to feel well. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has written about "flow," a term commonly used by his research subjects to describe a mood of effortless enjoyment. Karl Groos and G. Murphy wrote about the special pleasure that comes from using one's body and senses to the fullest. Sartre, Heraclitus, Plato, and Nietzsche have emphasized the appeal of control and freedom in play. Dutch anthropologist Johan Huizinga wrote inspiringly about play and society. Abraham H. Maslow wrote of "peak experiences ... of ecstasy, rapture, bliss, the greatest joy," transcendent states that also include "awe, mystery, complete perfection, humility, surrender, and worship." Healthy ("self-actualizing") people often experience such inherently rewarding moments as they discover their capabilities and limits.
The spirit of deep play is central to the life of each person, and also to society, inspiring the visual, musical, and verbal arts; exploration and discovery; war; law; and other elements of culture we've come to cherish (or dread). Swept up by the deepest states of play, one feels balanced, creative, focused. Deep play is a fascinating hallmark of being human; it reveals our need to seek a special brand of transcendence, with a passion that makes thrill-seeking explicable, creativity possible, and religion inevitable. Perhaps religion seems an unlikely example of playing, but if you look at religious rites and festivals, you'll see all the play elements, and also how deep that play can become. Religious rituals usually include dance, worship, music, and decoration. They swallow time. They are ecstatic, absorbing, rejuvenating. The word "prayer" derives from the Latin precarius, and contains the idea of uncertainty and risk. Will the entreaty be answered? Life or death may depend on the outcome. Because a system of sacrificial rites is essentially the same the world over, Huizinga concludes
such customs must be rooted in a very fundamental, an aboriginal layer of the human mind ... the concept of play merges quite naturally with that of holiness ... archaic ritual is thus sacred play, indispensable for the community, fecund of cosmic insight and social development but always play in the sense Plato gave to it--an action accomplishing itself outside and above the necessities and seriousness of everyday life. In this sphere of sacred play the child and the poet are at home with the savage.
From time to time, this book becomes a fantasia on a theme by Huizinga, in which I play with some of his ideas, amplify them, follow their shadows and nuances. However, I've borrowed the phrase deep play from Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of utilitarianism, who dismisses as "deep play" any activity in which "the stakes are so high that ... it is irrational for anyone to engage in it at all, since the marginal utility of what you stand to win is grossly outweighed by the disutility of what you stand to lose." This is true of so many human endeavors that one can scarcely read the newspaper without marveling at what someone somewhere has decided she must do, come what may. Scratch the surface of an apparently low-key life, and you may find a passion for cross-country skiing that borders on frenzy, or a collection of stamps the owner pores over with monklike devotion as hours evaporate, because it contains the equivalent of holy relics.
Bentham despises deep play precisely for some of the reasons that I and others cherish it. For example, rock climber Mo Anthoine once confessed that a couple of times a year he had to feed his rat, as he put it, by which he meant that wonderful mad rodent inside him that demanded a challenge or a trip that would combine adventure, fun, wonder, risk, and ordeal. Although I'm not a rock climber, I know how the rat gnaws, and I agree there is nothing like deep play. Risk stimulates romance, and deep play thrives on a romance with life. Intense creativity is one form of deep play, whose origins psychologist Phyllis Greenacre helps illuminate. After years of clinical study of children, she concluded that often those destined to become artists were children who didn't have a reliable relationship with their caretakers. Instead, they developed (or made do with) "a love affair with the world." While in the Antarctic, I wrote in my journal:
Tonight the moon is invisible, darkness itself has nearly vanished, and the known world which we map with families, routines, and newspapers, floats somewhere beyond the horizon. Traveling to a strange, new landscape is a kind of romance. You become intensely aware of the world where you are, but also oblivious to the rest of the world at the same time. Like love, travel makes you innocent again. The only news I've heard for days has been the news of nature. Tomorrow, when we drift through the iceberg gardens of Gerlache Strait, I will be working--that is, writing prose. My mind will become a cyclone of intense alertness, in which details present themselves slowly, thoroughly, one at a time. I don't know how to describe what happens to me when I'm out in "nature" and "working"--it's a kind of rapture--but it's happened often enough that I know to expect it.
I was already on the threshold of a great adventure, ready for the rapture I knew awaited me in the morning. I knew it would be a cyclone of intense alertness, a marginally frightening state in which I would exist entirely in the tense present and feel quintessentially alive.
That journal entry reports many of the elements of deep play. One enters into an alternate reality with its own rules, values, and expectations. 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 think of "brainwashing" in the most negative terms, as a bizarre, powerfully effective ordeal that happens during wartime, when a prisoner is abducted and isolated. All contact with his past is severed, and he is forced to develop a different mental arcade, one exploitable by the enemy and including values opposite to those he previously cherished. However, there is another, positive form of that drama, in which one chooses to divest oneself of preconceptions, hand-me-down ideas, and shopworn opinions, chooses to wipe the mental slate clean, chooses to be naive and wholly open to the world, as one once was as a child. If cynicism is inevitable as one ages, so is the yearning for innocence. To children heaven is being an adult, and to adults heaven is being children again.
When lovers isolate themselves from others, desperate to be alone together, indeed when they decide to become "a couple," they escape to the sacred kingdom of their love affair, a private world with its own customs, dialect, values, and rules. Love is a voluntary mysticism. They become a cult of two. They often address each other in baby talk, using the same diminutives and endearments parents lavish on children. They tend to romp together, to become playmates. The lover is like a shaman who rises into steep ecstasy and thus is able to see into the heart and soul of the beloved. If one lover breaks up with the other, their secret world is shattered, its reality is disavowed, and in a sense the leaving partner becomes what children like to refer to as "a spoilsport," someone who ruins the game by rejecting its reality, essence, and appeal. Disavow the illusion and the game is over. Ignore a bully and he loses his power to frighten. Ignore a siren and she loses her power to enthrall. The word illusion literally means "in play." When the game of love is no longer in play, we say "the magic is gone," some of our best illusions have been shattered, and we return to the all-too-ordinary world.
This is not only true of lovers. People isolated in tense, dramatic situations of any kind--war, expeditions, initiation rituals, cruises, clubs--can dwell in a powerfully romantic and magical world set off from the rest of reality. Sometimes the players disguise themselves with masks, uniforms, or costumes. Sometimes they speak a private language. Sometimes they share holy secrets. Oscar Wilde said the essence of romance is uncertainty. And what could be more uncertain than danger? As many researchers have discovered, people fall in love far more readily when they're away from home, afraid of death, or both. Danger narrows and deepens your focus. So does love. So does prayer. As the world reduces to a small brilliant space, where every thought and move is vital to one's salvation, one's scattered energy suddenly has a center. Only then do all of our senses spring alert, and every sensation matters. At the same time, the rest of the world recedes. One is temporarily unshackled from life's chains--the family ones, the work ones, the ones we wear as self-imposed weights. In my pilot's journal in 1980, I wrote:
It isn't that I find danger ennobling, or that I require cheap excitation to cure the dullness of routine; but I do like the moment central to danger and to some sports, when you become so thoroughly concerned with acting deftly, in order to be safe, that only reaction is possible, not analysis. You shed the centuries and feel creatural. Of course, you do have to scan, assess, and make constant minute decisions. But there is nothing like thinking in the usual, methodical way. What takes its place is more akin to an informed instinct. For a pensive person, to be fully alert but free of thought is a form of ecstasy ... there is also a state when perception doesn't work, consciousness vanishes like the gorgeous fever it is, and you feel free of all mind-body constraints, suddenly so free of them you don't perceive yourself as being free, but vigilant, a seeing eye without judgment, history, or emotion. It's that shudder out of time, the central moment in so many sports, that one often feels, and perhaps becomes addicted to, while doing something dangerous.
In later years, on expeditions to extraordinary landscapes, I discovered it is possible to enter the mansions of nature so profoundly that time vibrates in a new way. Moments may sprawl for hours or race by in a panic, split into separate photographic stills presenting themselves one by one, or pile up, or whirl breathlessly like a beautiful tornado. In deep play, one's sense of time no longer originates within oneself. This shift in time often happens to people who work with wild animals, especially if they set out on expeditions to unknown lands.
On one such trip, to a remote Japanese island to find the last surviving short-tailed albatrosses, I fell on a cliff and broke three ribs. After that, life became terrifyingly dangerous. At twilight, when like monks we finished our silent beholding, we gathered up our knapsacks and considered the ascent. Hampered by a tight straitjacket of pain, I could not move the left side of my body. Yet somehow we had to climb back up the 400-foot cliff, hike across a volcano to the small, abandoned garrison that was our base camp, and then try to find a way off the island for medical help.
"A great day, despite everything," I told my companions, and meant it. "Who would drink from a cup when they can drink from the source?"
That drama highlights another facet of deep play. We want to muscle into life and feel its real power and sweep. We want to drink from the source. In rare moments of deep play, 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. No mind or heart hobbles. No analyzing or explaining. No questing for logic. No promises. No goals. No relationships. No worry. One is completely open to whatever drama may unfold. With innocent surprise, one regards life's spectacles and underpinnings. All one feels is affectionate curiosity for the whole bustling enterprise of creation. It doesn't matter what prompts the feeling--watching albatrosses court or following the sky-blown oasis of a tumultuous sunset. When it happens we experience a sense of revelation and gratitude. Nothing need be thought or said. There is a way of beholding that is a form of prayer.
Deep time isn't a realm into which one accidentally tumbles. Dozens of choices may lead up to it, normal time may surround it. There is usually a boundary or door at the edge of deep time. I think of such edges as "littoral moments" because they are like the thin skirtings of sand along seashores that connect the solid land to the fluency of waves. There are moments on the brink, when you can give yourself to a lover, or not; give in to self-doubt, uncertainty, and admonishment, or not; dive into a different culture, or not; set sail for the unknown, or not; walk out onto a stage, or not. A moment only a few seconds long, when your future hangs in the balance, poised above a chasm. It is a crossroads. Resist then, and there is no returning to the known world. If you turn back, there is only what might have been. Above that invisible crossroads are inscribed the words: Give up your will, all who travel here.
Giving up my will, self, uniqueness--happily, with a saint's devotion--has its own special appeal. As does lending my sensibility to someone else so that he or she may speak through it, sharing their vision in a coherent language. I suppose I try to be a translator of sorts, striving to translate emotion and vision into words, to express the life force of animals and landscapes, to give them voice. I pore over the lustrous details of nature and human nature. How different is this from a monk devoting his life to an illuminated manuscript?
What is the difference between simple play and deep play? Simple play can take many forms and have many purposes, but it goes only so far. When it starts focusing one's life and offering ecstatic moments, it becomes deep play. Evolution fiddling with one phenomenon--such as color or flight is an example of play at its most basic, where bare bones are revealed. Even without mind, it is still ingeniously varied and full of risk. When animals rehearse techniques they'll need as adults, or gambol about to keep their wits and muscles keen, another form of play becomes visible. But this is not deep play. Neither is something done because of obligation or threat. Concentrating for long hours in a demanding job is not deep play. Jogging because you know it's good for you is not deep play. Playing a sport hard because a lot of money and/or reputation is riding on your performance is not deep play. Repeating prayers or singing hymns that have grown stale is not deep play. Deep play is not always positive and uplifting. Gang members sometimes describe their exploits as a perverse rapture. However, in deep play's altered mental state one most often finds clarity, revelation, acceptance of self, and other life-affirming feelings.
There are times during deep play when one feels invincible, immortal, an ideal version of oneself. "One stands on the threshold of miracles," basketball player Patsy Neal writes about peak experiences during a game. "The power of the moment adds up to a certain amount of religion in the performance. Call it a state of grace, or an act of faith ... or an act of God.... The individual becomes swept up in the action around her--she almost floats through the performance, drawing on forces she has never previously been aware of. In those precious moments of pure ecstasy," Neal continues, one "runs and jumps and lives through the pure play process, which is composed of joy and pleasure and exuberance and laughter; even the pain seems completely tolerable in these few precious and rare moments of being, and of knowing that one is just that ... a oneness and a wholeness." Substitute gospel singing or painting for playing basketball in Neal's description, and it would be equally true.
Time and again, risk-seekers report a combination of heightened awareness and omnipotence. In Bone Games, climber Rob Schultheis recalls how he felt descending a mountain after a harrowing near-death fall: "The person I became on Neva was the best possible version of myself, the person I should have been throughout my life. No regrets, no hesitation; there were no false moves left in me. I really believe I could have hit a mosquito in the eye with a pine needle at thirty paces; I couldn't miss because there was no such thing as a miss." Charles Lindbergh wrote of seeing ghost companions who helped him navigate on his famous 1926 solo flight, and gave him "messages of importance unattainable in ordinary life." Swiss geologist Albert von St. Gallen Helm, who interviewed survivors of climbing falls for his 1892 monograph Remarks on Fatal Falls, found that they had had similar experiences:
... there was no anxiety, no trace of despair, no pain ... mental activity became enormous, rising to a hundredfold velocity or intensity. The relationship of events and their probable outcomes were overviewed with objective clarity. The individual acted with lightning quickness.
Schulteis credits "stress-triggered ecstasy" for transcendent experiences, the same rush produced by vision quests and sought by shamans. Moses climbed Mount Sinai to speak with God, Mohammed climbed Mount Hira, Buddha experienced years of deprivation in the lowlands. Pain, exhaustion, hunger, stress, isolation, risk--all are frequently used by shamans, extreme athletes, saints, and others to flog the body into enlightened states.
The sacred playground may be as grand as the Grand Canyon, as fluid as the ocean where dolphins swim, as crowded as a jazz club, or even as invisible as a cyberchurch on the Internet. Deep play's extreme versions may include death-defying feats, during which one tends to feel remarkably tranquil. "You feel a calmness through your body," motorcycle racer Malcolm Smith reports, "even though you know intellectually that you're right on the brink of disaster." Challenge, discovery, exploration, novelty, pushing one's limits, losing one's self in the activity--elements of deep play--occur for Smith when he races motorcycles. However, not all people who ride motorcycles undergo the same enthusiasm. For some, racing is work; for others it is play; but for Smith, it is deep play.
This book is not a conclusion but an exploration. It invites you to look closely at the human saga, and consider how much of it revolves around play. Basic play, elaborate play, crude play, sophisticated play, violent play, casual play. Most animals play. Evolution itself plays with lifeforms. Whole cultures play with customs, ideas, belief systems, and fashions. But it's a special caliber of play--deep--that leads to transcendence, creativity, and a need for the sacred. Indeed, it's our passion for deep play that makes us the puzzling and at times resplendent beings we are. By a happy coincidence, this book is itself an example of its theme. The writing of it includes many moments of play, some purer and more transcendent than others. I've allowed those moments to hover a bit, as they do in life, because that shudder out of time is how deep play always begins.
Excerpted from Deep Play by Diane Ackerman Copyright © 2000 by Diane Ackerman. Excerpted by permission.
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