Thinking About Play, and the Practice of Attention

photo by Sara Dorweiler at Unsplash, CC0 license
I  have no “intentions” or “resolutions” about what to do in the future, since I have come to appreciate that we have absolutely no free will or control over what we do. So in the process of thinking about how my time in 2017 might be spent, I looked for clues from what I did in 2o16. I specifically wanted to know how I spent my ‘play’ time in 2016, my seventh year of retirement.

Almost everything written about play is focused on what motivates it, what its “purpose” is, how to do it or encourage it, what is or is not play, and other absurd psychological “analysis” of it. Even most definitions of play by so-called scholars presuppose its purpose and the psychology behind it. Since we’re all utterly different, and none of us has any choice over what we do, I find such analysis specious and sterile.

So let me start with my simple, bald definition of play: Play is any activity that provides its participant(s) with fun, delight, joy, and/or pleasure. Doesn’t matter if you’re alone or in a MMRPG with thousands of others. Doesn’t matter if it’s highly organized or unorganized, competitive or not, structured or not, or whether “winning” is even a part of it. If it meets the above definition, for you, then it’s play, for you; if it doesn’t, it’s not.

So, for me, some activities that are play are:


  • just wandering around and paying attention in beautiful, warm places
  • enjoying stimulating music, smells, tastes, touch, sights, sounds and the play of light (the hedonist in me)
  • reading and participating in other ‘transporting’ arts, including watching well-crafted documentaries, non-formulaic imaginative works, and clever comedy
  • composing music, and writing (when I am in a space where I think I have something novel to express)
  • meeting, and enjoying the company of, animals and exceptional people
  • anything else that I discover makes me laugh or smile a lot

I hope one day to add swimming and dancing to this list, but my current incompetence prevents either of these from being ‘play’.

One challenge I face is that I’m really fussy about quality and the use of my time. I can’t and don’t take much pleasure in simple things — a walk in the forest, watching an ‘ordinary’ sunset. It’s not that I’m bored; it’s just that I’m easily distracted, not very attentive, and easily become anxious or fearful (Am I lost? Is there something I forgot to do or ‘should’ be doing?). Just as my taste in food runs to bold flavours, I also struggle to appreciate subtlety, nuance, the small wonders of life. I struggle to just pay attention.

The thing about play is that something can happen that will change an activity that is play into one that is not, at least for some of the participants. For me, these include: situations arising that make me feel anxious, pressured, annoyed, self-conscious, frustrated, manipulated, threatened, judged or self-judging, or when the activity becomes stressfully competitive, compulsive, causes others discomfort or distress, or has too many constraints. (Again, this is about play for me. I know some people for whom fierce competition, winning, stress and “extreme” excitement are essential to play as defined above, for them. I generally don’t play with them, because when they’re playing, it’s no longer play for me.)

So all too soon, crossword puzzles become a contest, as I track how many mistakes I made — a competition with myself. I quickly reach a plateau in online games that signal it’s time to move on to something new, but I don’t — what was originally play becomes a distraction from current anxieties, a compulsion. I take up a new hobby (a personal weather station that I won in a charity auction) and it too becomes an obsession, a statistics-gathering exercise that provides ever-diminishing pleasure. What’s the next form of play, quickly — this one is getting tedious! Play can often be (for me) a form of escapism from general anxiety, a distraction from all the things I have even more time to stress about now that I’m retired. This anxiety can prevent me from doing things (like more adventuroud forms of play) I would probably really enjoy, and cajoles me into doing things (like obsessing about when the power is going to come back on) that I don’t. Pretty unhealthy.

I recognize this is a coping mechanism. When I’m feeling stressed, I look for a distraction — any screen or game is a port in the storm of anxiety. It’s understandable. But it is not play, not useful, and not good for me.

I’m not alone in this. Many of those in my age-group are retired, but they have never learned to play. They don’t play at golf, they work at it. They get furious when they lose games or make a mistake or don’t “improve”. And many young people I know are addicted to video games, or other screen “entertainment”. I’m sure it seemed like play at first, and maybe it still meets the definition to them, but they “seem to be enjoying it less and less” even while it consumes them.

Play can also get tricky in some cases. If I’m playing poker with people who are just playing and not taking the game seriously, I can bluff and it’s still play. But the minute some player takes it very seriously and gets angry, it’s game over for me. Not play anymore.

Likewise I love to flirt, as long as it’s above-board and everyone knows and appreciates the rules. But many people have never learned them, and are deaf to the play signals, and mistake teasing or gentle provocation for manipulation, serious or unhealthy intent, deceit or hurtfulness. If it’s not play for them, it’s not play for me. Unfortunately it’s often hard to know, especially when people are anxious to please, or lack self-awareness, or are desperate — the opportunities for misunderstandings are huge. So I don’t flirt much anymore, unless I’ve made it clear in advance that’s what I’m doing and the “flirtee” signals unambiguously that they’re fine with it. Modern cultures are so complicated to navigate!

If we have no free will anyway, why does any of this matter? The main issue I think is that for many of us it’s hard to find forms of play we genuinely enjoy, and even when we do they can quickly turn into not-play either because of others’ actions or our own internal stuff. That ‘internal stuff’, at least for me, often boils down to a lack of self-awareness (I’m working on that) and an incapacity for attention, appreciation and wonder.

How can we find forms of play that are sustainably enjoyable? And how can we increase our capacity for attention, appreciation and wonder? Here are some of my thoughts on these questions:

  1. By making a list of types of play we enjoy, and keeping them in front of us when ‘free’ time becomes available, we at least increase the likelihood that we will end up doing something on the list rather than something that is just mindless, easy and distracting. I’ve put a copy of my “play-list” (the six bullets above) on my laptop, and as I write this I am listening to music (to my music “playlist”), which I normally wouldn’t do at this time of day — and I’m singing and dancing along and enjoying it.
  2. If we self-assess, after an activity we think of as play, whether it was really play (using the definition above), and if not, why not, that might help us hone our “play list” to ensure that our play time is actually “playful”. Example: When I came up with the name “play-list” for my personal play activities and started thinking about an “attention practice” in writing this post, this post started out as fun. It was play. But as the challenge of identifying a personal “attention practice” became clear, writing this post became challenging and frustrating. The writing stopped flowing out of me and became work.
  3. Perhaps it’s possible to develop an “attention practice”. I’m not a fan of CBT-type “mind mastery” exercises for increasing attention; I think they cruelly set up unreasonable expectations, ignore individuals’ differences in situation and natural behaviour, blame the victim without understanding what underlies their inattentiveness, and presuppose free will and choice over what we do. But there likely are some personalized practices that we can each discover that work for us. But I have no idea what an “attention practice” for me would entail. It would have to be things I could practice while already doing other things that needed doing, that could benefit from good attention skills (eg taking notes of meetings I have to attend could improve my listening and attention skills). The practice would have to be play, not work. It would have to be in my nature to do, or otherwise I’d quickly give it up. And it would have to enable me to be promptly aware that something I’m doing has ceased to be fun, so I can understand why and switch to another activity. It’s possible that along with increased awareness will come increased appreciation, and even an increased sense of wonder. But what such a practice would entail precisely is still a mystery to me. Maybe tomorrow defining such a practice will seem like play again, but I’m doubtful.

Exploring all this is part of the larger question I am asking about everything I do this year: How can I make everything I do easier and more fun, so I have the energy and enthusiasm to persevere doing things that seem useful to others and to the world, and do more of them, willingly.


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3 Responses to Thinking About Play, and the Practice of Attention

  1. Paul Heft says:

    It’s hard for me to reconcile “we have absolutely no free will or control over what we do” with “How can I make everything I do easier and more fun”. But as long as you’re having fun, why should I quibble?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hard for me to reconcile too, Paul. While I still think I have no free will, it seems to be in my inherent nature to make lists, to refer to them from time to time, and to consequently, inevitably, do things on those lists rather than what would be done without the list. So “I” am not making anything more fun, but “I” am changing the conditions under which this creature does what it was going to do anyway. That probably doesn’t make any more sense, but it seems to be what happens.

  3. Gretchen says:

    This spoke to me. All the things that I need constant reminders on and rarely do for myself.

    Thank you.

    Once again, I am glad I follow your trail of crumbs.

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