Embracing the Art of Play

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We often look back on our childhood with great reverence and adoration. A time when we were not yet burdened with the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. When the only limitations and boundaries we faced were the limits of our imagination.

Learning about the world and experiencing things for the first time we were often in a perpetual state of awe and wonder. A state of play.

This essence of euphoria and enjoyment for the world however starts to fade as we transition into adulthood. We are no longer able to find joy and awe in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Life transforms into something that must be taken seriously, and the idea of play becomes trivialized. Something we only feel justified engaging in if we have spare time after completing our work, responsibilities and obligations.

Furthermore, we are told that time is money and conflate ‘busyness’ with importance. Thus, we feel guilty in indulging in leisure or any sort of ‘unproductive’ activity.

Every minute must be planned and calculated. No time must be wasted.

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Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values

We can divide our motivations for pursuing certain activities/things into two categories – instrumental and intrinsic values. 

Instrumental value is something that we pursue to achieve some other goal. To illustrate this point, we can look at our incentives for work. Many of us work not because we enjoy doing so[1] but rather out of necessity – to earn a living and survive.  Other examples of instrumental thinking include:

  • Getting an education to get a good job;
  • Working a prestigious career because it brings you high status;
  • Jogging for the health benefits it brings you.

I want to emphasize that these are all valid reasons for pursuing worthy goals. The point is however is that they are not done for sake of themselves. They are simply means to ends.

The logic is, only after achieving X {dream job, promotion, a certain salary, marriage etc.} I can be content. Happiness is deferred to the future.

On the other hand, intrinsic value is something that is appreciated in and of itself. These are the core reasons why we pursue certain goals. One way to get at what is intrinsically valuable is to ask a series of questions which get at the root cause of your motivations.

Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else.

Mark Rowlands, Tennis with Plato

For Aristotle, his notion of eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is something that has intrinsic value. Things such as having a successful career where one enjoys their work or having financial freedom are sought after because they allow for one to attain happiness.

Let us look at some other examples:


The Rise of Machines

So how does this tie into some of the current issues we face today?

The prominent sociologist Max Weber claimed that modern societies were trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of rationalization. With the loss of traditional values and social ties, the modern era is governed by the ethic of efficiency and rationality.

The ideal of material progress has allowed us to create effective and innovative corporations and bureaucracies which have enabled significant increases in our living standards. However, it has come at the cost of the stripping away of human sympathy, emotion and dignity.  We are transformed into numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine and mere instruments required to keep the system running.

Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings.  The intrinsic value and dignity as a human being is all but lost.

Weber’s critique of modern society is that it is governed by instrumental reason and utilitarian values.  For the sake of greater efficiency and productivity, we transform human activity and interactions into something measurable and quantifiable. Social media fosters intense competition for status as we chase after more likes, comments and shares then our peers.  

A consequence of this mode of existence is that our relationship to the world becomes primarily extractive. Our focus becomes consuming or having things rather then experiencing them in and of itself.

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Reclaiming Play

It’s a cliché in our culture to hear the phrase ‘do what you love’, what does that even mean?

On a deeper level I think it is connected to play. We play when are deeply engaged in something because we truly enjoy it, irrespective of any reward or social benefit it may bring us. It awakens us to the present moment.

 Diane Ackerman in her book Deep Play discusses moments of play when we are completely immersed in the moment. It bears resemblance to the concept of flow which I have written about before.  She writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

Diane Ackerman – Deep Play

This is not to say we must detach from our obligations and responsibilities as adults. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of carving out a space or time to immerse yourself in play. A space where you can temporarily forget about expectations and the world around you.

Where you can feel alive.

When you can to let go, be in the present and be free.

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Play, you see, in the sense that I am using it is a musical thing. It is a dance. It is an expression of delight

Alan Watts

[1] According to a 2017 global Gallup poll, 85% of workers surveyed were not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

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The Awesomeness of Awe

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I can still vividly remember the crisp morning air, and the mountain range that faded far into the horizon. Miles away from the busyness and obnoxious sounds of the big city, I was on a vacation in Banff, Alberta.

It was on a hike in beautiful Lake Louise where the anxieties and trivialities of modern life faded into the abyss. Gazing at the crystal blue water, I was filled with a sense of wonder and reverence for the beauty of the natural landscape.

We often fail to find the right words to describe these temporary encounters with the sublime, however one term that does come to mind is ‘awe’.

Be it the grandeur and beauty of a medieval cathedral or the peaceful solitude of spending time in alone in nature, many of us have had moments which leave us speechless. Moments which jolt us in to the present moment and connect us with something greater than ourselves.

It is only after these experiences we can more deeply appreciate the seemingly esoteric language of the great poets and mystics. For the transcendentalist writers (Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson) of the 19th century, the divine was to be found in the natural world.

As Emerson famously writes in his essay Nature,

Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed in the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I become a particle of God.

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So, what exactly is this feeling of awe, and why does humanity yearn for these ecstatic events? 

While the moments and events which elicit awe differ from person to person, the psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Dacher Keltner classify two key attributes which one feels during an experience of awe – the need for accommodation and vastness.

Need for Accommodation

Breath taking moments of awe shatter our existing mental models of the world. They force us to shift our perspectives to accommodate these new cognitive paradigms

This temporarily puts a pause our rote automatic thinking we have been accustomed to in our adult lives. We are filled with a sense of wonder, and as Michael Pollan puts it, “precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself.”’    

Vastness

Looking at earth miles away in space, astronauts have reported that seeing the planet from this vantage point is a highly transformative, and one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. From this perspective, one reveres in the beauty of our planet, is overwhelmed by its vastness and is more deeply connected to all the species which inhabit earth.

As Yuri Artyushkin from the Russian space program notes,

The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it…. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.

                                                                

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Philosopher Frank White coined the term the ‘overview effect’ to define the shift in awareness and perspective astronauts describe when they glance as the earth from space.

Overwhelmed by emotions and feelings of self-transcendence – many space explorers note that words are inadequate to describe what their feeling.

Our attention shifts from inwards towards the broader environment evoking a religious or spiritual sense of connectedness to the outside world.

This is akin to the mind of a child, a truly ‘Zen-like’ experience.

Humility

While connecting more deeply to the external environment, our egotistical self-interests seem a little less important. We feel small in comparison to the vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, studies have demonstrated that feelings of awe are associated with pro-social behaviour including greater altruism, and an overall increase in well-being.

In a time where our individualistic society increasingly drives us towards narcissistic tendencies, perhaps a bit more awe is just the right medicine we need.

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Shaking the Snow Globe: A Theory of Psychedelics

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Admittingly, I was first hesitant to write about psychedelics. For better of worse, these substances have become associated with the anti-establishment and counterculture movements of the 1960’s. Consequently, psychedelics carry a lot of stereotypes and cultural baggage from the past. Nonetheless, after reading Michael Pollan’s fantastic book, How to Change Your Mind and looking into additional research I became convinced of the potential of psychedelics to bring about transformative experiences. If used under the guidance and supervision of trained medical professionals, psychedelics have been shown to have significant positive effects in mental healthcare.

Psychedelics which include substances such as DMT, LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) produce altered states of consciousness resulting in temporary changes to cognition. At a rudimentary level, psychedelics appear affect the brain’s serotonin system, fostering new neural pathways in the brain.

You may still be wondering, how one experiencing these peculiar and strange altered states of consciousness can have lasting effects on one’s perspective of the world, and effectively address a range of mental health issues.

One of the leading theories that seeks to explain how psychedelics affect the brain is Robin Carhart-Harris’ Entropic Brain Hypothesis. The theory develops a model in which different states of consciousness are ordered based on their level of entropy, or rigidity they encompass.

Many mental illnesses including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessions and eating disorders are characterized by inflexible thought patterns and fixed narratives we develop based on how we conceptualize the world. These illnesses narrow of perspectives, in which we become terrorized by our own destructive ‘egos’. Our incessant fears or past traumas become filters to how we shape our lives and view reality.  

On the other end of the spectrum are high entropic states of consciousness which are embodied by chaos. These states are characterized by disorder and flexibility.  Examples of high entropy mental states include infant consciousness, sensory depravation and psychedelic states. A basic diagram depicting this model can be seen below.

Robin Carhart-Harris Entropic Brain Theory

Psychedelics are particularly useful for individuals with on the ‘low entropy’ side of the spectrum.  They help disrupt negative patterns of thought which have become ingrained in our minds by introducing more flexibility – more entropy. Observed by scientists, when an individual is on psilocyn “thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information.”  A visual representation of the difference between a placebo (image A) versus a brain on psilocyn (image B) can be seen below.    

Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks 2014

 A hallmark of the psychedelic experience is ‘ego dissolution’, the disappearance of our sense of ‘self’, and a feeling of ‘oneness’ with the universe.  Michael Pollan describes his experience with ‘ego dissolution’ on psilocybin

The sovereign ego, with all its armaments and fears, its backward-looking resentments and forward-looking worries, was simply no more. Yet something had succeeded it: this bare disembodied awareness, which gazed upon the scene of the self’s dissolution with benign indifference. I was present to reality but as something other than my self. And although there was no self left to feel, exactly, there was a feeling tone, which was calm, unburdened, content.

 From a neuroscience lens, psychedelics decrease activity in the default-mode network which is considered to be region of the brain which is synonymous with ‘the self’ or what we call ‘I’. When activity in the default mode network falls off, the ego disappears temporarily liberating us from the excessive and unproductive ruminations of the mind. When this occurs, we can rid ourselves of destructive stories and ideas we hold dear, and have the opportunity to craft new narratives. 

Psychedelics may be a shortcut to achieving what long experienced meditators have been training years to attain, the relief from what Buddhists call the ‘monkey mind’ or the ‘no-self.’ In this state we are liberated from attachment, and the separation between subject and object disappears. At a minimum, psychedelics show us that there exist many different forms of consciousness and unique perceptions of reality that we can experience throughout our lives. This offers us a unique opportunity to view the world from a different lens.

  To quote William James in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience,

Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness

William James: Author of The Varieties of Religious Experience

These are no doubt powerful substances which if used in the wrong context can have negative repercussions both on an individual and societal level. Nonetheless, if used in as a medicine rather than as a recreational drug in a safe and regulated environment, psychedelics can perhaps give us a momentary glimpse of enlightenment.

Next time I’ll explore in more detail what the clinical trials are revealing about the therapeutic use of psychedelics in mental health care. 

Till next time,

AA