Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Discipline of Playfulness

Meditation Garden

Yesterday, while reading one of my favorite books of Buddhists essays, I was particularly struck by this insight:

People who work from Monday to Friday often think they have to wait until the weekend to be happy. After five days of suffering through work, they try to make up for it with two days of being happy - what kind of life is that?

I was so stuck by this comment, not only because the weekend has begun, but also because it rings so true to me.

Just yesterday I had a conversation with a young professional couple. They both like their jobs but they also work incessantly - from early morning until 8 o'clock at night (or sometimes even later than that). Their jobs are demanding and often quite stressful - deadlines, endless meetings, power-point presentations and "Excel" reports. They yearn for the breather the weekend gives them, and even then,  they are often compelled to answer emails and take work-related phone calls. 

There are lots of busy people like that couple I spoke with yesterday. They wake up on a Saturday morning and, at  least at some level, they breath a sigh of relief and say to themselves:  "Ahh, now we can finally be happy - at least for a little while." 

As I sit in my garden on a Saturday morning and look at the Buddha figure under my olive tree, I am reminded that there is so much more to life than "putting up with the bad stuff while always looking forward to the good stuff."  I think we (especially in a Western culture) can learn much from Buddhist teaching about developing a "discipline of playfulness." 

There is  an ancient Zen story about a Buddhist monk who took a long walk in the mountains. Back at the monastery a large group of students had assembled,  and were anxiously waiting for their teacher who was scheduled to be with them for spiritual training. They waited and waited for hours before their teacher eventually arrived for their class,  and many of the students were angry and perturbed that they had been kept waiting while the teacher was wandering around up in the mountains.
The teacher simply responded:

First, I went following the fragrant grasses
Now I return chasing falling leaves

The fact is that, like many Zen teachers, the old monk walking in the mountains was hardly wandering around aimlessly while frustrated students waited for him. His mountain walk was in fact a lesson for his students impatiently waiting for his class. He was teaching them something about embracing the "moment." He was teaching them something about the importance of "playfulness" as a spiritual discipline.

We may think of "playfulness" as a frivolous act - perhaps even a waste of precious time. However, when we are playful, we are spontaneously living within every moment in life. When we can learn how to respond to life "playfully," we ultimately discover that we can be happy and serene even Monday through Friday, and not just on a longed-for weekend. As my book of Buddhist essays explains, we are "playful" when, 

We keep our sight on each footstep and live fully and thoroughly in each second. When each and every moment is true, then in each and every moment we will find deep wonder and amazement, and the value of life will be clear.

In a future-oriented, goal-directed, results-demanding culture such as ours, it's hard to be playful. Maybe  that's why it's called a "discipline" - you have to work at it. 

my book on amazon

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