Learn To Play

Illustration from Play-to-Play by David Robinson

Illustration from Play-to-Play by David Robinson

This is from a yet-to-be-published children’s book I wrote and illustrated based on concepts from James Carse’s book, Finite And Infinite Games. The girl wants to play but the gorilla is reticent to start a game until he knows what she means by the word, “play.” Are they playing to win or playing to play? The gorilla helps the young girl make the distinction and set an intention to play to play.

At first glance this might seem like a ridiculous distinction until considering that one definition of play (playing to play) leads to mastery and the other definition (playing to win) leads to an outcome that might include a temporary sense of gratification (or despair if you lose). Do you remember the school lesson about angles? At the inception of the angle, a single point, vector variance seems minute but the further the vectors travel from their source the greater the paths diverge. Artists that play to win inevitably stop making art: losing is a painful business. Artists that play to play master their technique; mastery, in James Carse’s terminology, is an infinite game. There is no such thing as losing if mastery is the aim. If mastery is the aim, how an artist creates is as important as what they create. A life of mastery is a simple matter of where the focus is placed at the beginning of the journey.

This distinction is at the core of what ails many organizations. When the focus drops to the bottom line and stays there, organizations play to win and lose their reason for being. In fact, in today’s world, the rules of the game modify every few months amidst the rapid pace of change; playing to win is a great strategy for losing everything. Playing to play makes an organization nimble enough to survive and thrive amidst ever changing circumstances. Business, like learning, like art, is primarily centered on relationship and gets lost at sea when the focus becomes achievement. Relationship is an infinite game.

The power is in a choice made before the game begins. Are you going to play to win? Or, will you walk a mastery path and play to become a better and better player?

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Begin And Begin Again

766. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Today, one and a half years since I started my tai chi practice, we learned the 37th move of the Cheng Man Ch’ing’s 37 posture T’ai Chi Ch’uan form. It is incorrect to suggest that we finished anything. In truth, we have only just begun. This type of practice is never finished. It is like a fine art form. There is no end to the study. It is an infinite game. The actual sequence of movements is merely the armature upon which the real learning of the practice is constructed. I’ve learned the sequence and now am ready to learn.

After the session we went across the street to celebrate completing the cycle at the teahouse. Saul-The-Chi-Lantern told us his daughter scolded his choice for celebration. She thought cupcakes or chocolate cake was more appropriate for celebrating. She told Saul that tea was no way to celebrate anything! The notion of a tai chi celebration makes me laugh. It seems like a paradox or perhaps fodder for a cartoon that might be found in the New Yorker.

During our tea celebration I talked with the other David who has been a student of Saul’s for over thirteen years. David is a life long meditator and sought Saul when his meditation practice plateaued. He told me that meditation is not something that happens in your head. Meditation is embodiment, dropping into the body. It made sense to me as meditation often begins with a focus on the breath. Years ago he felt stuck in his sitting meditation and happened upon Saul. He told me that this tai chi practice has changed his life. It restored and invigorated his meditation practice (another paradox). To David, there is no separation of spiritual and the every day. “It is all a spiritual practice,” he said.

I can’t explain it and would have a hard time providing details but this practice has changed me, too. I am more grounded. I am less stressed. I am easier in the world and feel more clear about what is really important and what is not. I’m less apt to rush. I don’t keep lists anymore. I’ve stopped watching the news or any television for that matter. I don’t want to be distracted from living. Rather than fill it up with stuff I want to open it, taste it, touch it, and feel it.

Earlier in class Saul talked of emptying ourselves. “When you empty yourself it will be as if you catch a current of energy or air and it will carry you along,” he said. “Ride the air.” He told us that it often happens after practicing for a few hours that he thinks the world has gone mad. “I go into the world or go home and there is so much stress to get things done. There is always a list, a bulb to be changed or a hole to be dug. I feel as if I just returned from the monastery to a frantic world lost in preoccupation.”

Be The Game

756. Join me in inspiring truly powerful people. Each day I will add a new thought, story or idea to support your quest and mine.

Bodhi the dog and I have a special game. It’s ours and we can only play when no one else is around. It’s a hybrid chase-wrestle-pet game and is unique in its pivot capacity. One moment we are chasing and with less than a heartbeat he is on his back and I am scratching his belly. Then, with no notice, we are in full wrestle mania, and on and on we play until the wrestle and the chase disappear into final awesome belly scratch.

This game with Bodhi is teaching me many things. First, it is very improvisational. Advanced thinking has no place in our game. Planning is impossible. The less we plan the more we play. 2) It is hyper relational. We must play with the impulse, play in the moment, and take pleasure in each other. We must tune into the impulse of the other. That’s the game. In other words, we are the game. We are the play. 3) Our game never ends. It is infinite. Our game has no winner or loser. It has play. It has us. Our goal is to become better players together. 4) Our game, just like any relationship, is unique to us. Yet, our game is also universal. All living things have the capacity to to play together and can create games unique to the players; all that is required is a suspension of the control impulse, a release of the need to predict the next second or the coming year.

When our game is suspended Bodhi gets a cookie and I get a coffee and we sit. I do the petting and he does the receiving. Of course, one that takes so much pleasure (no resistance to receiving) in receiving love, gifts it back a hundred fold so Bodhi actually does the giving and I enjoy the receiving. This back and forth of giving and receiving becomes exponential and this resonance defines the special game we play. The wrestling, chasing, and petting are just the visible parts of the game.

Prepare For Surprise

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Serendipity and a project brought me back to Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse. In rereading it I wonder why I do not read passages from this playful and profound book everyday. Here’s a snippet from passage 44:

“…Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed it can be only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.

Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.

Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing as costumes, its rule as conventional, its crises as arranged, it’s conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.”