“Ritual for me is a kind of like serious play. It’s play that you take seriously. As play, though, it doesn’t have an end outside of itself. It’s not like work or labor then in that sense, where you might be doing something now that may be grueling and difficult in order to produce a finished product…with play its about what’s happening in the act of doing it. I think ritual should be understood in the same way. And I think in our modern context, those people that still do participate in religious ritual think of it as a kind of work where you’re trying to prove yourself as a dedicated member of this or that religion, you’re trying to look good in God’s eyes, or whatever, and by approaching ritual in that way you’re blocking what actually functions as sort of the saving grace that one is trying to produce in the ritual state.”
The above is a transcribed quote from process influenced eco-philosopher, Matthew David Segall, who I recently got the opportunity to chat with and interview for an upcoming episode of Homebrewed Christianity.
Matthew was talking about ritual in relation to the historical use of psychedelics in religion. He gets into more detail about that in this recent lecture he gave, but I’ve really been ruminating on the general view he puts forth here of what ritual should be. Namely, ritual should be “serious play.” Describing ritual in this way, as a type of play, really resonates with me and I think Matt is right to connect the two.
I’m willing to bet, however, that a lot of people would have a serious problem with equating ritual with play. What I mean is that I think it’s pretty obvious that our society is very dismissive of play…for adults anyway. Commonly, play is thought of as unproductive, petty or even as some type of guilty pleasure. Personally speaking, it was definitely drilled into me as a child that once one reaches adulthood there would simply be no time to play anymore. Adults need to “put their toys away,” be serious, and mind their personal and professional responsibilities.
This is understandable I suppose. Responsible parents and teachers have always tried to prepare children for the world in which they will live, and in order to “make it” in our late consumer capitalist society, one needs to maintain the corporate profit margins, which in turn means being “responsible” and working to the point of destroying the entire planetary ecosystem.
I’ve kind of always had problems with “work” as its commonly understood. Marx’s concept of alienation really helped me understand what’s going on with labor under capitalism, but this idea of doing something “just for the hell of it” is also important to me. Interestingly though, the tension and anxiety this notion of unproductive play seems to illicit in Westernized people is very telling.
Brené Brown talks about the importance of play in her very popular book The Gifts of Imperfection. Obviously, she doesn’t get into the contradictions and tensions that arise between her emphasis on the importance of purposeless play and our consumer/producer driven capitalist economic system, but nevertheless, she has great things to say in this HuffPo article she wrote (notice how she feels when entertaining the notion of being “unproductive”):
“Researcher Stuart Brown, MD, describes play as time spent without purpose. To me this sounds like the definition of an anxiety attack. I feel behind if I’m not using every last moment to be productive, whether that means working, cleaning the house or taking my son to baseball practice. But I can’t ignore what the research (mine and others’) tells us: Play — doing things just because they’re fun and not because they’ll help achieve a goal — is vital to human development. Brown believes that play is at the core of creativity and innovation.”
As Brown points out, it seems play is important for creativity. Wow. This validates my life!
Without knowing why, I’ve always had a deep impulse to push back against this nose-to-the-grindstone, no-fun, hard-work dogma I consistently encountered (I later realized that this had something to do with me being a creative/imaginative type person). I think the research that Brown and others are turning up, though, has definitely been intuited by creative people for a very long time.
For instance, play affects the ability to be creative in at least two important ways that I have come to see.
1) Removal of Fear and Constraints
Fear is what keeps so many of us from doing great things. But when people are pretending or fantasizing, it suddenly seems ok to explore the unknown. Removing the psychological and cultural barriers of the real world, play allows one to more openly explore new possibilities.
2) Ambiguity and Diversity of Perspective
I’ve often felt that play walks the line between reality and unreality. Victor Tuner says that play occupies a “liminal space.” Play is the beach between the land and sea.
In other words, ambiguity is OK! And honestly, I love this dimension of play.
Brian Sutton-Smith has written about this too. He explains how play, by nature, involves a multitude of ambiguity and (as a result) this leads to opening ourselves to greater diversity.
For instance, play/pretending/fantasizing/imagining, allows us to, in a very real but not yet real way, put ourselves in another persons shoes. Actors, writers and improvisers are masters at doing this. Through play we can (sort of) be anyone or anything (a monster, an explorer, a president, a superhero, a cat, a frog, the sun, the moon, a time traveler) which may indeed open our eyes to other worlds beside our own.
So back to the importance of ritual as serious play. I defer back to Matt Segall, who puts it better than I ever could in his book Integral Imaginings:
“Work will always be necessary for survival, but the questions remains: why survive? If not to play, then for what?”
“Ritual performance, and the creative efflorescence it encourages, is at the existential core of our lives, and indeed is the beating heart at the center of creation.”
“The meaning of the world and the order of the cosmos must be enacted, or imaginably bodied forth. The human imagination, the Seal of creation, does not receive the world’s meaning ready-made, but must participate in its making…The meaning of earthly life soon dissolves unless we are willing to play, to make imaginably present what would not otherwise be so. Imagination is the soul’s temple, the holy of holies within which immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. In this way, everyday is made holy, and all our work becomes a form of worship. Religion, science, art, and indeed, culture in general, are all born out of playfulness. Humans may not be the only creatures who play, but surely only we take play seriously.”
Illustration above by Miranda Lorikeet