Stop Playing To Win And Start Dancing

“It is a dance, and when you are dancing you are not intent on getting somewhere. You go round and round, but not under the illusion that you are pursuing something, or fleeing from the jaws of hell.” – Alan Watts

In his book ‘The Wisdom Of Insecurity’ Alan Watts pondered on how to live mindfully, be present and find happiness. Dancing is never about moving from A to B. It’s one movement to another, one moment after another. This, he suggests, is a metaphor for living mindfully and escaping the rat race of modern life.

Written when he was 36, it became be a theme he’d visit repeatedly throughout his life, with increasing clarity and depth. After his death, his son and chief archivist Mark Watts would compile a series of talks from the early 70s into the short book ‘Still The Mind’.

This book reveals how Watts continued to work with the metaphor of dance and go deeper on what it meant to live this way:

“Everything goes around, just as when we dance we go around — and it is tremendously important to get hold of this principle of going around. We are in a phase of the life of mankind when we seem to have forgotten that cyclic quality; instead of going around we all think we are going somewhere, and that implies there is somewhere else to go. But as I wander along, I can’t help but wonder where that other place would be.” – Alan Watts

Watts seems to have a natural feeling for the ‘being here’ quality that he describes. I’m as caught up as anyone in the concept of progress and the idea that things get better and better. But I don’t think I’m alone in sometimes feeling how hollow and temporary this philosophy of life can be.

And so Watts guides us toward another possible way of being.

Two Kinds Of Games

“There are two kinds of games — the game you play to win and the game you play to play. There is a difference between the two, in the same sense as there is a difference between travelling to get somewhere and travelling just to travel, which we might call wandering.” – Alan Watts

It’s possible to play both of these games in our life. But my feeling is that we tend to play one more often than the other. That’s because the concept of wandering is the antithesis of modern life.

Since we entered school we’ve been taught that playing to win is how you get anything out of life. We go to school, then university, then we get a job and the whole time we’re aiming ‘onwards’ and ‘upwards’.

This isn’t an inherently bad way to live, but it becomes an issue when it’s the only way we live. This philosophy is so dominant as to be almost invisible. We’ve lost our ability to just be, and we were told that was something to aim for.

The problem with playing to win

Watts suggests that on the one hand, we have ambition. On the other, we have Nishkarma, which translates to “action or doing (karma) without attachment, especially without attachment to the results of action”.

Most of us are busy with ambition. But there’s a built-in checkmate because the results of our ambitions never totally satisfy us:

“On the other hand, all those forms of energy that have us moving to get somewhere tend to become frantic, and have a quality of urgency that moves us faster and faster until we simply can’t go fast enough to accomplish the object.” – Alan Watts

When we always play to win, it’s impossible for us to enjoy the moment. There’s always another message at the top of our inbox, so it’s hard to be mindful when we’re working. Our technology is quantifying our every move, making your morning run an eternal competition. Our social networks encourage us to search for more connections and more likes.

We’re running on a treadmill and there’s no off button.

Where do you think you’re going, anyway?

Playing to win generally suggests that there is something missing from the present moment. You have to get from A to B because B is a very different, and we assume, much better place to be. It’s a ‘grass is greener’ mentality. Watts thinks we can pop the logic of this quite easily when we realise, there’s actually nowhere else for us to go:

“But has it occurred to you that there may be really nowhere to go, because you take yourself with you if you go somewhere else? And if you have a problem here, you will have a problem somewhere else, because you are the problem. So there is no hurry, and in a way there is no future. It is all here — so take it easy, take your time, and get acquainted with it.” – Alan Watts

This is the big insight of meditation. We already have everything we’re searching for inside of us. We just haven’t realised this yet. But you don’t need to be meditating to make this work for you.

Take a moment to ask yourself where you think you’re going and if arriving there will solve all your problems. Could find a way to enjoy what you’re doing now and not always load everything up with expectations?

Doing for the joy of it

“If you really enjoy swimming, you swim not to get to the other side of a river, or to complete a certain number of laps, or to go so far out into the ocean, or to compete in any way with yourself or with other people. You swim to experience the water rippling past you, and to enjoy the floating sensation when you lie on your back and look at the blue sky and the birds circling about. Every moment of it you are simply absorbed in this ripply, luminous world, looking at the patterns and the shifting net of sunlight underneath, and the sand way down below — that’s what swimming is about.” – Alan Watts

There are moments when playing to win just doesn’t make sense. A good example being time spent with children. Playing with kids can’t be hurried because it’s not about getting the task over and done with. No one can have fun if that’s how you go about playtime. It becomes too pointed and pressured. The great thing about children is that they have a much easier time doing this than we do. So we can take their lead and absorb ourselves in the moment. That’s when the fun really begins.

Playing for the sake of playing seems like a nice idea. And when we’re with our kids, then sure, we can probably make that happen. But all too often we treat it as a luxury rather than a necessity. We allow ourselves a moment or two of ‘play time’ before returning to serious business. But what is this serious business and what makes it so important? To give us some perspective, Watts shows us how this attitude kind of misses the point when we apply it to the universe at large:

“How long have the planets been circling the sun? Are they getting anywhere, and do they go faster and faster in order to arrive? How often has the spring returned to the earth? Does it come faster and fancier every year, to be sure to be better than last spring, and to hurry on its way to the spring that shall out-spring all springs?” – Alan Watts

Get On The Dance Floor

Writing from Mount Tamalpais in the last few years of his life, Watts outlined his perspective on mindfulness, joy and how to carve a path toward happiness. His message: when life is a dance we don’t need to justify why something is enjoyable or valuable, because it becomes self-evident.

The path Watts chose to take was not an uphill battle toward a fixed point, but rather an endless pirouette, forever shifting and responding to experience. One that doesn’t promise endless riches but rather, an endless richness of life.

When we dance we say to ourselves: this moment is what it’s all about and I’m going to squeeze out every last drop it has to offer me.

So go shake a leg. I’ll see you on the dance floor.

Put your oxygen mask on first

How many times have you ignored the cabin crew on a plane as they explain safety procedures? By the time they get started, I’m usually half way through the in-flight magazine and trying to decide which small sandwich I’d like to order.

Despite being life-saving information I’ve heard it all before. So it’s easy to ignore. From memory, I think you’re only meant to inflate the life jacket after jumping out of the plane. But one thing is easy to remember: put your oxygen mask on first. I think this is some of the best life advice you’ll ever hear.

Life and death situations need simple logic. It’s no good trying to help other people if you can’t breath yourself. To be useful, you first need to fix your oxygen supply. But I think this has a broader application too. We can use it as a guiding principle for many other areas of our life. Because the only way you’ll make the world a better place is if you’re fighting fit.

How can you best serve others?

Personal growth and self-improvement seem more popular than ever before. As more people begin to take an interest, more authors, yoga teachers and coaches begin to appear. There are a thousand ways to find the kind of inner peace you’re after. Some of it is great stuff. A lot of it isn’t. Much of the work I find online is full of shallow advice and misleading ideas. To top it all off, it’s easy to become hooked on this stuff and read more of it than you practice.

This is all to say that personal growth gets a bad wrap. It’s easy to point the finger and laugh at someone who’s trying to level up. But poor advice and clickbait articles aside, self-improvement is critical to our wellbeing. After all, making a better society first requires that we improve ourselves. It’s no wonder that in the past 100 years, as change has accelerated so rapidly, we’ve begun to look for tools to navigate this new territory.

Sam Harris has observed how being selflessly wise and wisely selfish often amount to the same thing. This is what putting your oxygen mask on first is about. Being wisely selfish means knowing when you must attend to your individual needs. It means knowing when failing to do so will put your ability to serve others at risk.

No human can maintain a life of selflessness and martyrdom forever. Something has to feed the loop. We’ll do well not to forget that serving others starts by serving ourselves.

Why balance is important

I’m trying to figure out how to find the balance between being there for my family, focusing at work and doing things for myself. Balance is important. Because if I don’t do things for myself, regular maintenance and upgrades, then I begin to get rusty and less effective in other areas of my life. Despite this, I often find it hard to get the balance right.

I know that I’m no saint. Far from it. And I know that despite my best intentions I’m prone to getting annoyed, distracted and argumentative. Let me tell you – if the toothbrushes aren’t put in the right place after being used, I’m half an inch from melting down. When I get to this point, I realise I’ve lost my balance.

Extremes are sexy. The middle is less exciting. So we often obsess over the extremes at the expense of everything else. When it comes to looking after your own needs, in the one extreme, we might spoil ourselves. Letting-loose (whatever that might mean for us personally) for a weekend allows us to shrug off the pressure of ‘getting it right’. But the other extreme sees us aiming to be hyper-productive and über efficient. Focusing on work helps give us something meaningful to fill our time with.

These extremes have become commodified. The entrepreneurial spirit is an aspiration so hyped that we’re addicted to productivity hacks. And social media has got us all lusting after indulgences most of us will never be able to afford. If you ask me, this hamster wheel is getting tiring real quick.

What, I hear you ask, is the alternative? Drudgery? Complacency? Settling for the average? There is a way forward that includes both of these extremes but aims to balance them. You could describe it as a life of modesty. The Buddhists call it the middle path. I call it simplicity. And yeah, it isn’t sexy.

But what it lacks in va-va-voom it makes up for in sustainability. The more we achieve balance the more likely it is we’ll be able to maintain it long term.

What drains you & what fills you up?

Making sure you’re fit to serve others is a good idea. Helping out others is a great idea. But to do either, you’ve got to know what things trigger burn out and which bring you joy. Try this quick exercise:

  1. Make two lists – number them 1 and 2.
  2. Under list 1 write down 3 things that require lots of mental or emotional energy. The kind of things that leave you feeling tired.
  3. Under list 2 write down 3 things that give you inspiration and verve. The kind of things that leave you feeling energised.

Now imagine your internal balance as a large lake. The things on list 1 are like the rivers that flow away from the lake. They drain the lake dry if it’s not filled up regularly. The things on list 2 are like the mountain streams that trickle down to the lake. They are responsible for keeping the lake full.

A lake, just like you, has all these things going on inside and around it. For the fish to survive, the lake needs to be supplied with fresh water regularly. The supply of minerals from mountain springs keeps the lake vibrant and allows it to support an internal ecosystem. However, if all we do is full the lake up, it floods and begins to drown the land around it. Too much of a good thing can be bad.

But when the there’s a drought, the lake begins to dry up and things die. Not just in the lake, but also around it. Because without the lake being fresh and topped up, we begin to see how interconnected it is with the landscape. The forest nearby struggles for water. The birds that rely on the lake leave and trigger food shortages elsewhere in the chain. When the lake dries up, everyone suffers.

You are the lake and these are things you need to pay attention to. If your job leaves you drained, how long can you keep doing this work for before you bottom out? Can you counter-act that by making sure you commit time towards doing something that fills you up? We need to be aware of these things otherwise it’s easy to let particular activities override and derail others. Urgency is often an excuse, lack of time is often another. Both are just a means of prioritising one thing over another. The real trick is to know what level your lake is at and prioritise based on that.

Whether you prefer the metaphor of the lake or the practical advice of fixing your oxygen mask first, the message is the same. Looking after our internal equilibrium is not only important, it’s essential. Especially when we hope to leave the world a better place than we found it.

A special thank you to Chrissy for inspiring the oxygen mask metaphor and my father for that of the lake.