Learning to Play

Last night my tai chi teacher made one of those cryptic remarks that should be reserved for mysterious elders who hang out on the top of inaccessible mountains and certainly don’t speak English. He said, “You follow the form until there is no form.”

He was describing how you progress as a student in tai chi—a much more serious student than I will ever be—from a prescribed set of movements to following your sparring partner’s energy wherever it leads. Though sparring with God may be ill advised, it struck me that this is a good metaphor for spiritual practice as well, or life in general.

We start life off with many sets of rules—at home, at school, in society in general. As kids, we need these guidelines to help us learn how to live together. Sometimes, though, we get too attached to them, especially the unwritten societal teachings about what indicates success. The problem is, at some point, following the rules ceases to satisfy. We start looking for something beyond the form, but we may not be ready to step outside the lines quite yet.

Though living by the rules ensures failure—we’re all going to give in to the temptation to eat bacon on the Sabbath some day—rules have an enviable certainty. I know the order of the movements in tai chi, and if I stick to that order, I’ve done it right.

Unfortunately, getting the moves right isn’t the point, but we can’t know that until we’ve learned the form so well it’s part of us. We can’t know there’s something more than the rules until we’ve followed them for a while.

It’s difficult to know when to leave the form behind. An English professor once told me that poets need to learn to write poems that follow prescribed rhyme and meter so that they know how to break the rules in a way that creates something new and different. But how do we know when the moment comes to make that break?

In Chinese, the verb for doing tai chi is dă, which in this context means “play.” When our footing is sure enough, when we’ve internalized the form to the extent that we can sense the intent behind it, then we can move beyond the form. When we’ve entered into life deeply enough that nothing but joy will do, when we don’t mind losing because we know it’s all part of a bigger game, then we can begin to play.

Let’s Play!

The answer to the world’s problems might be a good game of tag.

Everyone who walks into my office comments on how good the view is. It takes in our shiny new science building, the nearby volcanic peak, and a range of hills farther off. Earlier this week, all that was eclipsed by between fifty and a hundred grade school kids running around on the lawn outside the building, playing tag and laughing.

It looked like so much fun just to chase someone. College students don’t do that, and neither do university employees. Which I think is mostly too bad because joy was spilling off those kids. (OK, a friend and I chased each other down a hallway in the new building before it opened, and it was awesome.)

I think that would be one of the great gifts of parenthood—the excuse and the opportunity your child gives you to play and be silly. I don’t think we stop needing to do this as we get older, but sometimes we forget we need it.

Play renews us. It loosens our hearts and spirits and helps us take everything a little less seriously. There are plenty of serious things in this world—disease, the loss of a job—but there are many more things that we blow out of proportion. I suspect that many of my catastrophes would melt away after chasing someone around the yard, having a tickling match, or jumping on the trampoline.

It’s so easy to forget the importance of having fun, and I am grateful to those giggling kids for reminding me that running can be much more than exercise, that life is more fun when we’re not worrying about who’s watching, and that joy is as easy to find as a game of tag.

Word Play

Reading a lot of poetry reminds me how much fun language is.

Words get a bad rap sometimes: unable to express the ineffable, “apple” never quite getting at the crispness and juiciness of the real thing, inconsistent and illogical spellings—at least in English.

On the other hand, just consider how entertaining a thesaurus can be. I recently looked up the adjective “visionary,” and the synonyms ranged from “astral” to “noble.” I got a kick out of inserting some of the synonyms into my sentence: “His astral leadership moved the university in a completely new direction.” I bet it did.

I love how some words can’t be translated, like “douce” in French, which means soft, but also sweet and gentle at the same time. It means both the light after sunset on a perfect day and the way it feels at that moment, and we don’t have a word for that in English.

I love that the structure of a language reflects the way a culture thinks. You really can’t say, “When the rain began falling, Jane had been planning to go to the grocery store” in Chinese because the Chinese don’t see the point of obsessing about time in quite the same way Americans do.

I love that, aside from using it to tell jokes, language can be the joke: A mushroom walks into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve mushrooms here.” The mushroom says, “Why not? I’m a fungi.”

And I love that words can be hung together so beautifully, with such poise and precision, that they can make us weep.

Like most things human, language won’t get us all the way to wherever we’re going, but it’s a wonderful companion along the way.

In keeping with the National Poetry Month theme, here’s one I’m sure the poet enjoyed writing. It is a little less straightforward than the others I’ve posted this month, but just skip the parts you don’t understand and dance with cummings through the rest of it.


i thank You God for most this amazing…
by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)


Warning: There are a couple of poems I’d like to share that I didn’t get posted, so National Poetry Month may extend slightly into May.