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The art of playful action

In the beginning of the Bhagavad Gītā (2.50) we encounter the following short definition: yogaḥ karmasu kuśalam, which might be translated as ‘yoga is [the method of] skillful action.’ This statement is not meant to be sectarian in nature. It summarizes and encompasses a fundamental insight that grew within the ancient Indian culture, including the Buddhist tradition, and which the Gītā frames in a somehow more general and ecumenical context. While it is always possible to find points of disagreement and divergence between different expositions, philosophies, systems or texts, it could be helpful to put differences aside momentarily and unpack the broader and sharable meaning of this statement.

Karma means action. To act is to bring about a change, to bring forth something, to make a difference. At some point, in the Sophist, Plato even suggested that the ability to act can be taken to define the very meaning of ‘being’ since we know that something is only whether, and insofar as, it does something, it acts. To act is perhaps the most widespread feature of reality. Although we might craft specific notions of agency to single out certain ways of acting that are unique to certain kind of entities, in a broader and looser sense, we can also see how both animate and inanimate things act in their own ways. Rather than putting sharp boundaries between different sorts of agents (rational or non-rational, human or non-human, living or non-living), we might rather see action as continuum, which overlap with the continuum of reality itself. To be real (or just ‘to be’) means to act in some way, and different things having their own sort of reality express it in different ways of acting. The conclusion that can be drawn from this view is that anything that is real not only acts, but it could not be what it is without its ability to act. In other words, acting (in whichever way that is further specified) is not an accidental feature of entities or things, but their own constitutive feature, their essential core. This core is not a stable, fixed, immutable state, but a process, a flow of activity, a stream headed in a certain direction. Things are their own actions. There is no escaping of the domain of action.

Since actions are processes, they are conditional structures, namely, they require and presuppose other elements that can support them as scaffolds. For instance, all actions have a teleological orientation, since all actions aim at bringing about a certain goal. However, more complex actions usually require also something that can unify and integrate the various components and (sub-)agents concurring to their performance, steer them, coordinate them, and make the performance itself more effective. The subject or ‘self’ is what plays this role. Understood in this way, selfhood is a tool for action, rather than its underpinning ontological foundation. However, in ordinary daily experience, selfhood is ontologized and hypostatized as an underpinning entity that originates, carries on, and enjoys the actions themselves. This leads to flip the perspective, and invert the order of things: what was a tool becomes an underlying ground and condition.

The problem with this inversion is that actions, depending on various conditions, are inherently uncertain and always ultimately beyond one’s own exclusive control. But if the imputed existence of the self is based on its actions, then the uncertainty of these actions becomes a direct threat for the self. Failures and successes become my failures and successes, namely, not just how an action turn out to unfold, but they entail something about my own being, power, and reality as their agent. Add to the picture the inborn tendency for things to persevere in their being and avoid their own destruction (as Spinoza would add), and ‘self-powered actions’ quickly start to whirlpool around whatever can preserve and enhance the existence of their subject, or limit (if not prevent) any damage to it. Sadly, this attempt is always going to fail in the end (everything that takes birth, is going to die). The initial inversion of having taken the self as a subject rather than as a tool, made eventually the self into a fool: someone who desperately strive to save itself from itself.

This is where the issue of ‘skillfulness’ (kuśalam) comes into play. Two opposite routes are barred. Taking the self at face value as the ontological substratum and real subject of agency reinforces the circle of attempts and failures that inevitably unfolds given the constitutively uncertain structure of any activity. In the discourses of the Buddha, this would be the path of bhavataṇhā or thirst for existence. However, also trying to get rid of the self and remove it from the structure of action is not going to work, precisely because selfhood is not just a random or unnecessary component. Selfhood does perform a function, it provides complex actions with a center of coordination and unification, which supports their correct execution. Erase entirely any sense of selfhood from your experience and you should not be able to identify any of your limbs as yours, nor any of them as forming a whole body, and you’ll then end there, because you won’t be able to survive for long. Trying to eject selfhood altogether or denying it any possible role, place, or value is also another extreme, which in the discourses would be vibhavataṇhā or thirst for non-existence.

Skillful action requires some enaction of selfhood, which can navigate between these two extremes, by keeping the self in its instrumental role as a facilitator for action, without letting it become the basis for unnecessary inversions of perspective and all that follows from them. How is this possible? There is an Indian sacred text, the Bhāgavada Purāṇa, which especially in its tenth book (which is mostly about the stories connected with Kṛṣṇa, the same divine teacher who speaks in the Gītā), provides a radical, ground-breaking, and mind-blowing solution. Skillful action requires playfulness. Especially the first part of the tenth book of the Bhāgavada Purāṇa portrays Kṛṣṇa in his early days as a baby and then as a young child and boy, playing around in the idyllic forest of Vraj, enjoying himself while hunting demons from time to time. Kṛṣṇa is the personification of the ultimate divine principle of reality (pure consciousness). But in the Bhāgavada Purāṇa, he is presented as something that deliberately decides to take a human form for the sake of playing with the inhabitants of Vraj. They have to see him as just a boy, and when occasionally they get hints of his true divine nature (like his mom, when she wants to inspect Kṛṣṇa’s mouth and gets a vision of the whole universe!), Kṛṣṇa uses the power of his yogamāyā or ‘divine illusion’ in order to make them forget about that. If his mother would see him as God, she could not take him on her lap with the same spontaneous attitude of any other human mother towards her child, and if his companions and friends would discover his true nature, their game would be ruined by them staring to worship him all the time and no longer seeing him as a peer. In the narrative, there is a constant meta-play between these layers of awareness, in which both Kṛṣṇa and the people of Vraj dance on the border that separates the experience of intimacy with an ultimate and transcendent reality and the full immersion in the immanent lived experience of their daily ordinary activities.

There is something very profound in this poetic representation (and the poetry of the Bhāgavada Purāṇa is gorgeous) of the ‘divine plays or God’s pastimes’ (līlā). In order to act skillfully, namely, by taking up a certain identity or self as a tool for action without being dragged away by it, one needs to act playfully. Playing a game entails a double layer of awareness: on the one hand, one takes up a certain identity or character, follows certain rules, and engages in the actions that are possible within the game for the sake of achieving the goals that one can gain in the game; and yet, one never entirely forgets that this remains just a game. Its reality is as genuinely real as anything enacted might ever be, and yet it also remains dependent and conditioned by the framework provided by the game itself. The game sets its own boundaries and all players engaged with it will retain a foot out of those boundaries in order to fully enjoy it. In other words, one cannot really be playful if one takes the game too seriously (loosing completely the sense that the game is just a game), and yet one cannot really enjoy the game if one does not take pleasure and leisure with it (keep remembering themselves that that just a game, a fiction, something unreal).

Skillful action is based on the principle that one should play life without forgetting that one is playing. This is an act of balancing (or dancing) between opposite possibilities, both to be avoided, and as such it is something that one can learn, and even master. How? By adopting the right method, or yoga.

The word yoga is common in Indian literature (including the discourses of the Buddha) and has both technical and non-technical usages. In one of its technical meanings, it defines one of the six schools of philosophy in classical Indian thought, usually associated with Patañjali. But in the present context it is best understood as referring to a certain method, based on clear criteria and principles, which can be used as a scaffold to make action skillful, or rather playful. Distilling and summarizing from the synthesis of the yoga approach hinted at in the Gītā and presented more systematically by Patañjali in his Yoga Sūtra, the method can be presented succinctly as the balancing and integration of three guiding principles.

(1) Practice. Any action demands some energy, and in order to act methodically, one needs to steer energy in a certain direction rather than another. This takes various forms, depending on how it is implemented (and by whom, and at which stage of their development, and in which context), but it is usually expressed in terms of ‘practice’ (abhyasa), ‘heat’ or ‘ascetic effort’ (tapas), moral restraint (yama), or at more refined and mental level, the attitude of ‘holding’ and ‘keeping’ a certain theme or object in the focus of attention (dhāraṇā).

Practice, in this sense, is a deliberate effort aiming at steering experience in a specific direction (in this sense, it is comparable to the factor of ‘right effort’ in the Buddhist eightfold path, or to the awakening factor of ‘energy’).

Generally speaking, practice challenge the natural inertia of one’s ordinary condition. At the level of inter-personal relations, basic moral restraints (such as non-killing, non-stealing, or sexual restraint) might put up resistance against an otherwise obvious and thus invisible tendency to indulge in heedlessness and overlooking the consequences of one’s actions upon others. Besides the moral value of these restraints, the mental effort of practicing it requires one to critically observe one’s intentional acts and one’s way of interacting with others, constantly keeping in mind the boundaries within which one’s motions have to be restrained. Inevitably, one will fail from time to time, and this is precisely what practice is about. A failure in restraint reveals the greater force that a certain acquired tendency or habit has on one’s fresher moral commitments. One will then witness at the very center of one’s own conscious experience a clash between different streams of intentions, and will experience the powerful force of inertia that habits have, which demands energy and even greater effort in order to be changed or resisted.

While social interactions might be complex to analyze and can easily entail multiple nuances that sometimes create dilemmas about what to do (the Gītā opens precisely with one of these dilemmas), the physical practice of bodily postures provides perhaps an even clearer template for understanding how the principle of practice works. The body too is shaped by habits and inertia. Ordinarily we tend to repeat the same sort of motions and stick to a relatively narrow comfort zone (bed, kitchen table, desk, car, couch, and repeat). Postures can be used to systematically open the body in all directions. This has three connected effects:

(i) It counters the inertia of the habitual ways of moving, by thus revealing that we might aspire to a greater range of motion (and hence of freedom) than what we made ourselves used to.

(ii) It inevitably reveals the current limits (they might change later) of our bodily constitution, which sort of things we cannot do at the moment, or where do we lack flexibility or strength. This way of uncovering limits is usually more honest than a purely mental examination, in which chances of being overly critical or overly indulgent are much higher.

(iii) It allows us to observe how we face these limitations. If we follow inertial habits (like those connected with the first point), we will probably try to shy away from our limits, be afraid of them, get angry about having to face them, or maybe start craving for overcoming them (which are all variations of aversion, greed, ignorance). But if we practice for the sake of shaking off inertial habits and resist their pull (i), then when we meet our current and real limits face to face (ii), we might develop a new attitude towards them. We are going to find limits anyway, the body is limited by definition, and no matter how proficient we might become in any posture (or in anything else, for that matter), there will always be further degrees of proficiency that we will never achieve. So, what should we do? Hold on, and keep working hard? No! Once we meet our current limits, we should honestly acknowledge them and hence embracing them, by thus letting them go, letting ourselves go, surrendering.

– And by the way, this attitude might create the conditions for overcoming some of those limits in due time. By letting them go, we become less bounded and constricted by those limits, and hence they are less limiting. Practice goes as far as to uncover where the hedge is, to make the limit apparent, then relinquishes effort and accepts it. A sloppy practice will never push hard enough to reveal where the real limits are, hence precluding the opportunity to face them. A too strenuous practice will try to jump beyond them without really understanding what they are telling us. Skillful practice remains between these two extremes.

(2) Surrender. Action requires selfhood as a tool, and practice necessarily enacts a selfhood. But in order to prevent this selfhood to be inverted as an ontological foundation and thus weight down with it the rest of experience, spoiling its playfulness, one needs to balancing practice with surrender. This is expressed as an attitude of dispassion and letting go with respect to external objects and internal states (vairagya, analogous to the Pāli virāga), but more fundamentally as an act of surrendering to pure consciousness, seen as the ultimate background and context within which any possible experience or action might take place.

In orthodox Indian context, yoga takes most often a theistic flavor. Patañjali speaks of Īśvara praṇidhāna or ‘surrendering to the Divine’ (Īśvara is the philosophical place-holder name for any divine principle), while the Bhagavad Gītā phrases this more explicitly in terms of devotion towards Kṛṣṇa (one of the personifications of the divine). This devotion is called bhakti, which literally means ‘sharing’. One allows oneself to share one’s own experience with the divine, or to see oneself as a conduit through which the divine expresses its own playful nature (or, to put it with Spinoza, as a mode of the divine substance). Note that this attitude has little to do with socially and politically organized religious structures, more or less elaborated rituals, or other forms of orthopraxis. Surrender is a mental attitude used to see that the player in the game is just that, and exists only within the game, for the sake of the game. Ultimately, surrender is synonym with self-irony and humor, which is necessarily powered and supported by a profound and sincere opening towards an ultimate Other. At a more refined mental level, this becomes composure (samādhi).

(3) Understanding. The first two principles need to be balanced and integrated with one another, and this requires a certain degree of understanding. For instance, one needs to reflect on the nature of action in order to realize that, while activity as such cannot be avoid, not all ways of acting are equal; how one acts makes a whole difference. One needs to see not only how to act, but also how to apply these general principles to specific areas and domains, how to adjust them. The same with surrendering: one needs to understand why that is needed, and what does it mean (or what does it take) to surrender to something superior that might be named ‘divine’. Understanding is what mediates between the first two principles, allowing them to coalesce and merge in harmony. Understanding is sometimes presented as ‘self-study’ or ‘study of the scriptures’ (svādhyāya), since without receiving some sort of direction, information, or guidance from the outside, it will be extremely hard to figure it out all by oneself, and in any case, very time-inefficient (in the discourses, it would find its equivalent in the awakening factors of recollection, sati, and investigation, dhammavicaya).

More broadly, this principle can be interpreted also as the attitude of listening and learning from others, or as the ability to assume the receptive mind-set of a disciple (in Pāli a sāvaka, someone who hears), and become open to instruction. Being in a learning position is a difficult and humbling task, since it demands first to acknowledge one’s limitations, lack of understanding, confusion, and possibly lack of time to remedy all of that (ironically, the same applies to those who happen to be in a teaching position). And yet, learn from others we must. It is through learning that knowledge and understanding unearthed by others can become our own. At the subtler mental level, understanding becomes the ability to sustain the continuity of one’s own contemplation, dhyāna.

The three principles are all equally necessary to one another. Practice without surrendering becomes effortful and extenuating, and without understanding it can be misdirected or just fruitless. Surrendering without practice can become a ground for laziness or indolence, and without understanding it might degenerate in sheer orthopraxis or superstition. Understanding without practice is barren, and without surrendering is blind.

However, the three principles need also to be implemented methodically and systematically to all possible domains of experience. The yoga tradition counts four of them: external actions towards others (or the domain of morality or restraint, yāma; or sīla in the discourses of the Buddha), the body (covered in the practice of āsana), the breath (covered by prāṇāyāma), and the mental domain (covered by unison of dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi, which Patañjali calls saṃyama, or ‘integration’). In each domain, the practice is formally the same, in the sense that it entails the same principles. But since each domain has a different degree of subtlety, it demands a different declension of these principles, while allowing a gradual deepening of their way of operating. For instance, holding a physical posture, sustaining it, and relinquishing effort while in it, might be more clearly intelligible (although not necessarily easier!) than understanding how the same might be done in a deeper and purely meditative state based on a certain mental object. But once the gist of the play is understood, it can be replicated and exported to other domains, by eventually making the implementation of the method all-encompassing.

The ordinary, untrained and unskillful way of acting tends to take the self at face value as the underpinning subject and ontological basis for action. This inversion of perspective is itself supported by actions that are repeatedly aimed at preserving this view, feeding the sense of self, and protecting it. And these actions are themselves in turn supported and perpetrated by the repetition of similar actions. The ordinary way of life is just a game based on unskillful actions, or rather a game in which one has lost any sense of playfulness by thus turning it into a drama. In their deepest forms, these actions are basic seeds or imprints, kleśa (Pāli kilesa, ‘defilements’). In their more explicit and active form, they become coactions, samskarā (Pāli saṇkhārā). These activities are all based on the inverted perspective that leads to take the self as the center of action, forgetting that it is just a tool, and thus appropriating anything else as belonging to that finite self, forgetting that consciousness, for instance, is not something that belongs to the self, but it is the other way around. Hence, Patañjali could say that yogas chitta vritti nirodha, which is usually translated as ‘yoga is the cessation of the activities of the mind.’ However, anybody who tried a few foundational asanas, like Parivrtta Trikonasana (the ‘inverted triangle posture’) knows that vritti is more than activity, is an inverted activity. The inversion is powered by unskillful actions, feeding themselves and leading to further unskillful actions. What has to cease is not any mind activity tout court (which would mean just a shutdown of all experience, a complete game over), but rather the inversion of the ordinary activity of the mind that supports unskillfulness and fools any proper understanding or interpretation of experience. How would you stop that? By methodically learning how to act playfully in all domains and poses of life.

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