Fun and Games (written 2015)
I was witness to the scene many times as a mother of young children. Small bodies tumbling, running, squealing and laughing. Falling over each other to be first, scrambling for coveted toys, wrestling and rolling in sweet smelling grass or working industriously together to build some fortress from boxes and blankets and chairs. At first everything is fine. Faces shine with smiles. Brows furrow with concentration. Voices rise in an effort to be heard. Someone pushes too hard, moves a carefully positioned box or toy, ignores someone else's idea. Two reach for something at the same time. A push in a tag game knocks someone to the ground. Whatever it is, the balance tips.
Adolescents carry it further. Dares. Taunts. Teasing and pushing. Roughhousing. Play-fighting. Upping the ante on some risky new game.
Bedtime for little ones can come to the same struggle. Enjoying some game or show or activity and refusing to acknowledge when it has to end. Holding with all their tiny wills and every ounce of being to the enjoyment they're experiencing until it dissolves in tears and tantrums.
“It's all fun and games till someone loses an eye,” the old tongue-in-cheek adage goes. Young human beings seem to push the pendulum too far often before letting it swing back. And as we age, though we may refine this tendency a little...leave the party early sometimes because we have to work the next day, bite our tongues when a rough accusation runs through our heads during a friendly debate with a friend, choose not to make another run down the ski hill when we know we're too tired, get a taxi when we've had too much to drink...still, we hold to our pleasures, our sense of being right, our pride in our abilities and our sense of invincibility, often so long that the outcome is painful for ourselves or for others or for all.
Very often, as with children, this tendency to hold on too long and too tightly is made more fierce in an interaction. We're nearly out the door at some party and someone teases that we're getting old. What the heck. One more drink and one more hour. We're keeping our thoughts to ourselves on a controversial subject till someone pushes their opposing opinion and we feel compelled to set them straight. We know it's time to quit, but the playful urging of others leads us to continue.
In solitude, in a quiet rhythm, perhaps of working alone, time slows if we let it. If we do not pump up the pace with a flurry of texts and phone calls, if we really allow the solitude, and turn the attention inward, the mind becomes lucid and clear. We can see the rise and fall of thoughts and sensation. This is possible, of course, and sometimes even easy, in company. In a yoga class, on retreat, spending a day with another with whom one can fall into a space where silence is comfortable, no press for conversation.
But mostly, in interactions things move quickly and we can't always see clearly what our minds are doing, how desire and aversion hook us. We banter, we talk of frivolous things, we play, we race. And we lose our sense of how things are going, of our own motivations, of what right action and right speech might be in the moment.
This is why, I suppose, a good dhamma friend of mine who spends long stretches in solitary retreat, calls practice in daily life, the “hard work” of this path to peace and freedom. Most of us won't choose to live in solitude, or to enter a monastic community. We'll practice here in the midst of the laughter, the scrambling, the pride and the chaos. As we do, it is good to remember to keep the balance. If no one is going to lose a metaphorical eye, we need to remember the hard work of mindfully monitoring our words and actions. This means committing to a continuity of practice and using our mistakes not to punish ourselves but as reminders that bring us back on track.