Playing at enlightenment

The fourth of my re-vamped blogs from 2014. This one on play touches on the vexed question of boredom in meditation which usually surfaces in the form of: “Is this it?”

Sucitto’s emphasis on play puts me in mind of Stephen Porges’ insight into play and the autonomic nervous system. I think my discovery of Porges was some years in the future when I originally wrote this blog, but looking back from 2022, I can see that the ventral vagal state of being that Polyvagal Theory prizes so highly is akin to the more awakened meditations that I experience: awake, alert, playful.

Porges theorizes that when the energy or ‘fizz’ of the sympathetic state (fight or flight) takes place within the benign safety of the ventral vagal state, then it results in the experience of play. i.e. safe pushing at the boundaries by play-fighting, running around, enjoying the energy. This is what is often missing in meditation which can have a clamped-down and a rather stuffy feeling to it. This is why I often encourage my student to stand up and shake if their meditation is getting too heavy.

Overall in life, we need to bring the play back. Not just on the meditation cushion but in our day-to-day interactions with other beings and also within our own minds. Playing with thoughts, playing with memories, playing with consciousness.

Anyway, now let’s whiz back eight years to 2014…


One of the challenges of meditation is the dance we do with “the Path”.

On the one hand, we are told to rest, uncontrived in the present moment. And then we are simultaneously exhorted to aim towards Nibbana and practice assiduously to that aspiration.

Stay still. Get somewhere.

Accept how you are. Become something better.

Ouch.

A Portuguese practitioner in Lisbon asked Ajahn Sucitto something about this. It was a very heartfelt question. He had been practising for many years, being mindful, following the precepts, cultivating composure – but he’d got to a stage where he was calm and focused and SO WHAT? There was no movement, no uplift. Just a very focused boredom.

As soon as we are contriving a future then we are out of the present

I really resonated with the questioner sitting on the other side of the room on my cushion. Recently my practice has gone through a similar slough of despond. “Is this it?” was often in my mind. And so I was interested in what Sucitto would answer.

His response was inspired. He spoke about how we all grow up in a WORK mentality: we do something and we will get a return. If we want to be better then we must work at it. Things must be done, changed, improved. This is, of course, beneficial in certain circumstances but not, he said, in meditation.

As soon as we are contriving a future then we are out of the present. As soon as the slightest desire for otherness arises then we are creating stress and dukkha. So, how the hell do we generate happiness AND stay in the present?

We do it by cultivating a PLAY mentality.

Children are unburdened by a sense of ‘knowing themselves’

I grinned when I heard this because I wasn’t quite expecting it from the mouth of this very austere monk. But he is exactly right. He went on:

When we are children, play is the natural modality for staying absolutely absorbed in the present but also alive and enjoying. Enjoyment – he gently suggested, – was the missing piece of the questioner’s practice. When we practice we should practice in the spirit of play – absorbed and interested in what is arising in us and able to play around with it: try things out, loosen the control, imagine new constellations, trust in creativity.

Although the samadhi practice – dropping down into the breathing body – seems (from the outside) to be the opposite of a toddler romping around with old cardboard boxes, there is a similarity. Children are unburdened by a sense of ‘knowing themselves’ and indeed of having tired categories of what unfolds around them. In play, they can be absorbed into something very simple and repetitive without seeming to get tired of it.

We practice to liberate ourselves

When I practice samadhi, it sometimes feels like I am dropping down into a world I have forgotten about for 38+ years. Breathing, inhabiting the body, not the thinking brain. It does feel weirdly fresh. Like the Secret Garden.

Sucitto comes from the Theravadan tradition which sees the Path to Nibbana as a personal event. We practice to liberate ourselves. Later ‘turnings’ of the Buddhist wheel changed the framework of the path. Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings speak of a ‘Buddha Nature’ or Tatagathagartha which is actually our natural state – enlightened, luminous, wise and compassionate – and it is only our deluded mind formations that stop us from existing in that form. Within that paradigm, the Path ceases to be a path into the future and more a dropping down (spiralling perhaps) into our true nature.

Perhaps, this path of play is a way back into that. Enlightened beings are famous for bursting out into laughter when they have their breakthrough. Perhaps it’s all about cultivating a sense of playfulness in life.

I’d love to know your thoughts about meditation and play. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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