A Playful Path, and DeKoven's Advice for Getting Back on It
As the great Oaqui says: "A playful path is the shortest route to happiness."
Posted March 13, 2014 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
I’m going to tell you here about a book by Bernard DeKoven, called A Playful Path, and why you should read it. But first, a couple of relevant stories.
Two stories about playfulness
A few years ago, I had an experience that helped me see the difference between play and play. I was invited by two 10-year-old girls, whom I knew well, to play a game of Scrabble.
I’ve played a fair amount of Scrabble in my life and am not bad at it. (In fact, some might even say I play a pretty mean game of Scrabble; and, depending on who says it, mean could have any of its common adjectival meanings here.) The two girls, in contrast, were complete novices. So, I saw this as an opportunity to teach; I would teach them the rules and some of the strategy of Scrabble. I would be their Scrabble mentor!
But, as it turned out, they taught me something way more important than Scrabble.
They loved the basic situation—taking turns at putting down letters in an organized way on the board, with sets of letters interlocking with other sets in crossword fashion, making interesting designs. But they had no interest at all in keeping score, and the idea of limiting themselves to real, actual words—words that can be found in the dictionary—bored them. They very quickly and effortlessly, with no overt discussion at all, and despite my initial protests, developed their own rules and strategy.
Their unstated but obvious goal, on each turn, was to put down the longest, funniest nonsense word that they could, using as many letters as possible from their rack combined with at least one letter on the board. It had to follow the rules of English phonology (or, as they would have put it, it had to sound like it could be a word), but it could not be an actual word.
The object was not to score points but to make each other laugh, and laugh they did! They laughed like only two high-spirited 10-year-old girls who have long been best friends can laugh. Sometimes one would "challenge" the other's "word," asking for a definition, and the other would offer a hysterical definition that somehow seemed to fit with the way the "word" sounded; and then they would laugh even harder.
I realized, as I pulled back and watched them and began to laugh along with them, that my way of playing was something like what we usually call work. Their way of playing was play. I realized, too, that I used to play like that, as a child. What had happened to me in the interim?
The second story is not mine, but one told by Jean Liedloff near the beginning of her now-classic book, The Continuum Concept.
As a young and adventurous woman, Liedloff was invited by two Italian men to go diamond hunting along a river in Venezuela. They had hired several South American Indians—who were not quite hunter-gatherers but close to it—as guides and helpers on the trip. They were traveling in a huge, heavy dugout canoe, and at one point they had to portage this monstrous pirogue (boat) a long distance over jagged rocks under the blazing hot sun. Here, in Liedloff’s words, is what happened:
“When it swung sideways, so heavy was the rogue pirogue, it several times pinned one of us to the burning rock until the others could move it off. A quarter of the way across all ankles were bleeding. Partly by way of begging off for a minute, I jumped up on a high rock to photograph the scene. From my vantage point and momentary dis-involvement, I noticed a most interesting fact. Here before me were several men engaged in a single task. Two, the Italians, were tense, frowning, losing their tempers at everything and swearing non-stop in the distinctive manner of the Tuscan. The rest, Indians, were having a fine time. They were laughing at the unwieldiness of the canoe, making a game of the battle: they relaxed between pushes, laughing at their own scrapes and were especially amused when the canoe, as it wobbled forward, pinned one, then another, underneath it. The fellow held barebacked against the scorching granite, when he could breathe again, invariably laughed the loudest, enjoying his relief.
“All were doing the same work; all were experiencing strain and pain. There was no difference in our situations except that we had been conditioned by our culture to believe that such a combination of circumstances constituted an unquestionable low on the scale of well-being and were quite unaware that we had any option in the matter.
“The Indians, on the other hand, equally unconscious of making a choice, were in a particularly merry state of mind, reveling in the camaraderie; and, of course, they had had no long build-up of dread to mar the preceding days. Each forward move was for them a little victory. As I finished photographing and rejoined the team, I opted out of the civilized choice and enjoyed, quite genuinely, the rest of the portage. Even the barks and bruises I sustained were reduced with remarkable ease to nothing more significant than what they indeed were: small hurts which would soon heal and which required neither an unpleasant emotional reaction, such as anger, self pity or resentment, nor anxiety at how many more there might be before the end of the haul. On the contrary, I found myself appreciative of my excellently designed body, which would patch itself up with no instructions or decisions from me.”
Now, finally, we come to Bernard DeKoven’s new book, A Playful Path. It is, for me at least, the best self-help book I’ve ever read.
Bernie—I’ll call him Bernie (which is what he calls himself), as if he’s my close friend, though I’ve never met him—is a maestro of play. He’s spent at least 45 years developing games (games that are fun, not competitive), collecting games, teaching play to those who’ve forgotten it, organizing play events including massive ones, and generally, doing his bit to increase the level of fun in the universe or make people more aware of it. One of his previous books, The Well-Played Game, originally published in 1978, is still in much demand and was republished in 2013 by MIT press. And now, in A Playful Path, he brings his experience, wisdom, and (especially) playfulness (and even silliness) to bear in helping all of us, who choose, to rediscover our innate playfulness. Bernie invites us out to play—out of our culture-hardened shells to play as we humans are designed to play.
Where is your playful path?
Early in the book (p 14), Bernie writes, of the playful path:
“It’s not like one of those paths you read about, like a spiritual path, or anything to get religious about. It’s more like a way to be on whatever path you happen to be on at the time: a, you know, playful way. You’re walking down a street. It’s the same street you’ve walked down before. It’s not like you have to find a different street. But this time, you walk a little more playfully. You step on cracks. You walk around a tree, twice. You wave at a bird.”
Bernie says here that it’s not a spiritual path, but later on, he talks about it as if, in a way, it is. I think it is a spiritual path; it’s a spiritual path I can believe in, a spiritual path that lifts my spirits like no other path I can imagine. I think what Bernie means, in saying it’s not like a spiritual path, is that it’s not something we have to seek or work hard to obtain. We don’t have to change course. All we have to do is allow our innate playfulness to emerge. Allow it to come out; don’t force it.
In Bernie’s words (p. 17):
“So when I talk and write about a Playful Path, I’m neither talking nor writing about how we can or should become playful, because we already are. Or how we can become more playful, because our playfulness is immeasurable. I’m talking, rather, about trusting our playfulness, believing in our playfulness, having faith in our playfulness, letting ourselves be guided by our playfulness—because our playfulness will lead us back to life itself. All of life. As much life as we can let in. To the embrace of all-embracing life. To, yes, joy.”
Bernie suggests that we start by simply noticing the playfulness and fun around us and already in us, whenever it emerges, and that we allow ourselves to experience it. The book is chock full of games and techniques that can help us appreciate our playfulness (where appreciate means not only enjoy, but also expand upon, as in the financial world’s use of the term), but there is no implication that we have to use these games or techniques. Whatever works for us works for us. Bernie just gives us ideas, in a style that almost automatically leads us to think of ways that we are already playful and how we can allow more of our playfulness to emerge.
He writes (p. 34):
“You don’t have to play to be playful. You don’t need toys or games or costumes or joke books. But you do have to be open, vulnerable, you do have to let go… Playfulness is all about being vulnerable, responsive, yielding to the moment… You are loose. Responsive. Present. You have to be present to enjoy the sunrise, to delight in the light of your child’s delight, because otherwise you simply aren’t there to catch it. It goes by you as if it and you aren’t even there.”
Why do we lose sight of our playful paths?
We are all born to be playful, to follow a playful path, but most of us, in our culture, lose sight of it along the way. Why do we lose it?
According to Bernie (p 17):
“We have been taught to distrust play. Worse, we have been taught that we are not and should not be playful. We have been taught that play is childish, immature, destructive. Taught by people who have themselves lost the path, who were themselves taught by people who believed that fun was, can you believe this: sinful. Taught by people who have inherited a broken culture where common sense has been replaced by common senselessness. Taught that if we work hard enough and long enough and live a life that is dull enough, we will be rewarded – when fun is the reward.”
Bernie suggests that such teaching begins with full force in first grade (though I might add that maybe now it begins with kindergarten or pre-kindergarten).
He writes (p. 227), with perhaps just a bit of exaggeration: “For most of us, the last time we exercised our capacity for generating fun was around the end of the first week of first grade.”
What school might be
School is a big part of what teaches us not to be playful. Near the end of the book (p. 242-243), Bernie asks us to imagine, with him, how school might be different, how it might be what he calls “The School O’Fun.” In his words:
“This place that we’re imagining probably has no grades – there’s no K-12, freshman to post-graduate, there’s no A-F, failing or magna cum summa. Kids, students of all ages can be found together, talking, painting, building, reading, writing, experimenting, playing, even. There aren’t any teachers – but rather people who have found deep, profound fun in doing whatever it is that they do: artists, scientists, mathematicians, healers, thinkers, each brought to their station in life by the fun they find in their work.
“Let’s dare to imagine that the whole school isn’t even about learning, but about fun. Not even about games or play or art. And if there’s a learning component to it all, it’s about having fun, finding fun, creating fun, discovering fun. About discovering what is really fun for you – really, really fun. And then discovering what is really fun for other people. And then about discovering what is really fun for you and the people around you.
“Suppose that the closest equivalent you can find to a math class is a conversation you have between you and someone who loves math, who spends as much time as she can find playing with numbers and theories of numbers and, OK, so maybe she does have a Nobel Prize in, what, topology? But she’s in it for the fun, entirely. And when you talk with her about math, she talks with you about the fun of it all.
“And the people you do art with, and read literature with, and explore dance with, and science with, and politics, and, well, you get the picture. All for fun.
“I think this would be a place where a lot of learning would happen. A lot more than the learning that supposedly happens in our accredited institutions of learning. I think this kind of learning would be far more profound than the actual topics or disciplines that people play with together. I think the learning would be about our selves as much as it would be about the world, about each other as much as about a field of study. I think it would be a place where a lot of inventing would be happening – inventing of new fields of study, of new ways of teaching and learning and sharing, of new paths to play, new definitions for what it means to become a fully functioning human being.”
Wow. Amazing. What a wild dream. Might anything like this school actually exist? [If you are wondering, see my blog post here.]
Fun = freedom
The last main section (before the appendix) of Bernie’s book is entitled Fun. A question he asks here is what is it that we experience when we experience fun. I like his tentative answer. He suggests that, perhaps, what we experience is the feeling of freedom. In his words:
“Maybe, I’m asking, maybe it’s the freedom itself that’s fun. Like people sitting in the street, playing dominoes together in the aftermath of a flood, just because they can, just because it frees them a little from the vicissitudes of it all. Not just that you have the ability to free yourself like that – which is gift enough, amazing enough… but maybe because freedom itself is fun. Maybe fun itself is freedom. Maybe that’s why it’s so much fun to watch kids at play. Maybe that’s why we think kids are having so much fun. Or puppies for that matter. Because they seem so free from fear and worry and hunger and illness. Or young springboks springing the way they do, seeming freed from gravity. Maybe it’s the freedom.”
When we play together, we are free together, and that multiplies our freedom and fun. Bernie calls it co-liberation. I like that. Collaboration, in play, is co-liberation.
Wild, crazy, and profound
If you read Bernie’s book, which surely you should, don’t omit the last section. He entitles that section “Appendix,” but it isn’t like a typical appendix (it’s not where all the boring stuff is put). In Bernie’s appendix, the book gets wild and especially fun, as he talks about the various playthings and playmates inside our heads, in little sections with such titles as Your inner seesaw, Your inner sandbox, Serious and Silly play hide and seek with God, Serious and Silly meet Naughty and Nice and learn to play kick the can, and Silly plays grownup.
A companion, with Bernie throughout the whole book, is a spiritual entity referred to as “the Oaqui.” I love the fact that this god of play, if you will, has a name that is pronounced “wacky.” Playfulness is bound up with humility; it can never take itself or even its god too seriously. Each major section of the book starts off with a quotation from the Oaqui. I end, now, with a few of them:
“A playful path is the shortest road to happiness.”
“It’s easier to change the game than to change the people playing it.”
“...for the truth will make you laugh.”
“Ask not what fun does for you. Ask rather what you do for fun.”
“Play is how the mind minds, and how the soul soars.”
And here’s my favorite Oaqui saying:
“In the beginning it was fun. In the end, it was all for fun. And in between is where it tickles most.
Note added 2/21/2022. In the years since I wrote this post, Bernie has passed into the great beyond. I picture him there, playing joyfully with the great Oaqui.
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Bernard Louis DeKoven (2014). A playful path. ETC Press.
Jean Liedloff(1977). The continuum concept, rev. ed. Knopf.