Play With Deadly Seriousness
Updated: Jan 26
“When you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely. If you do not burn yourself completely, a trace of yourself will be left in what you do.” ― Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind
In my first year of theater school I had a class with a teacher named Michael Hackett. He'd usually arrive in a suit and tie. However, after he walked in the door he'd often remove his coat, loosen the tie, take off his shoes and socks, and roll up his pants. He'd then grab a hand drum and with no instructions to the students begin banging and bounding around the room. We quickly followed and joined the jaunt. At some points we'd be singing or wailing, at others we'd be crawling or mimicking animals, and sometimes we'd begin impromptu scenes with whoever was closest to us. He'd regularly stop and say, "We must play with deadly seriousness," before continuing to bang away on the drum. In the context of the class, I understood what he was saying. He was asking us to fully commit. Obviously, this made sense in relation to acting. What I didn't understand was how powerful this statement was. At the time, those words fit within those walls. However, as the years have passed this statement has stayed with me and developed a deeper meaning.
Look around and you'll see animals and children playing everywhere. Play is not just for fun, it is how we develop empathy, social skills, creativity, a healthy awarenesses of fear and risk, and an understanding of our physicality. If it weren't important, evolution would have done away with it. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt state in The Coddling of the American Mind, "Play is essential for wiring a mammal's brain to create a functioning adult. Mammals that are deprived of play won't develop to their full capacity."
Witness animals or children playing and you'll see that it's performed with deadly seriousness. When children play tag or pretend that parts of the ground are hot lava, they care only about not getting tagged or burning their feet . When dogs play, they are so committed to, and invested in, the game that sometimes it appears as if they are fighting. This seriousness in play is not something that we have to teach children or dogs. It is innate. It is how we learn and grow. But, as we get older and are programmed by societal norms surrounding winning and success, we lose that ability to play for the sake of play. This process is only accelerated by the introduction of technology and screen time to humans at a young age.
We must be willing to play if we want to learn, grow, and evolve. The best games have no winners. As James P. Carse says in Finite and Infinite Games, “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” Thankfully, play is not just for children, and games are about more than winning.
Everything we do at Movement Brooklyn is a game. Sometimes it's the bounce the tennis ball game, the handstand game, the touch your opponents foot game, or the crawl like a lizard game. And each game has doorways to new games. The challenge for me as a teacher is not conveying the skills to "win", but instilling, and in some ways reinstalling, the spirit of play in adults.
I can see when students are playing with a childlike spirit and I can see when they are not. The students who play like children are thinking and moving in the present. As a result, the lessons, tools, and feedback of the game become available to them. I find that students who are motivated strictly by winning rob themselves of this growth. Students focussed on winning, or who play apathetically, take no risks. They stay in their comfort zone. They beat themselves up when they don't achieve a goal, dwell on past failures and ruminate on potential outcomes, or don't play at all. They are not present, they are time travelers rather than players in the current game. It is a challenging message to instill.
"We must play with deadly seriousness." I think and say this sentence often. I can't be certain that Hackett meant these words in the way that I've explained them. Regardless, his phrase has helped guide my view on life and the human experience. Hackett was asking us to be fully present in play in order to provide an honest interaction with the scenario. I've come to believe that life is play and we are living one game after another. Play is an interaction and seriousness is focus. Every interaction with a person, place, or thing is a game. At the moment, I'm playing the "write a blog" game, and I must play with vigor to potentially find my truth in the moment. Any scenario we find ourselves in deserves this kind of attention. Funny and joyful play deserves the same investment as scary and uncomfortable play. We must play the game of life with deadly seriousness.