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Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

When You Stop Playing To Win You Can Start Dancing: Alan Watts On Living Life In The Moment

A Man Jumping Against A White Wall

“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.

Two children on a swing

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.