"In his inspired, evocative book, Homo Ludens: The Play Element in Culture, the Dutch philosopher Johan Huizinga shows how what we call play operates in music and poetry, war and law, ritual and sacrifice, courtship and fashion, art and philosophy—in practically every aspect of life. He argues that other things can be explained in terms of play but that play, being primordial, can’t be explained in terms of other things. Play precedes culture. It extends beyond the rational, beyond abstractions, beyond matter. Play, in short, is irreducible.
Let’s simply say that play is whatever absorbs us fully, whatever creates purpose and order, whatever involves us in as much meaningful interaction as is possible. In our best games, there’s always a certain edge to that interaction, a fine balance between victory and defeat. We like close calls, tight races. In baseball, for example, second base is exactly ninety feet from first base. Were the bases five feet closer together, almost every runner would be able to steal second. Were they five feet farther apart, hardly any runner would make it. We have chosen the precise distance that creates the greatest chance of a close call. When a good base runner makes it to first base, the pulses of all those involved—players, spectators, members of the television audience—quicken. Colors become warmer, more vivid. A delicious suspense heightens all our senses. The player on first base takes off for second. The catcher stands and fires the ball, and time slows down as the runner slides into second only a split second before the ball.
Why are we so fascinated with the exquisite balance of forces, with close calls, near brushes with disaster in our games? Why have we arranged our games to maximize these factors? Perhaps it’s because that’s the way it is and has been since the birth of time and space, a defining characteristic of all existence. Consider what goes on within our own bodies: the fine and sometimes precarious balance between heat and cold, glucose and insulin, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, positive and negative charges across the cell membrane. Note the play involved in the vast armies of immune cells searching out enemies, engaging in epic life-and-death contests; the urgent messages cascading through networks of nerve fibers; oscillations dancing in the brain to create virtual switchboards that last only seconds; neuropeptides swimming through veins and arteries to solace the heart and hearten the gut; red blood cells dying, others being born, two and a-half million of them every second.
“One’s body,” Aikido’s founder said again and again, never tiring of the words, “is a miniature universe.” The evolution of the physical universe has involved the same sorts of interactions as those within the body: the almost impossibly delicate balances of forces, close calls, near brushes with disaster. No wonder, then, that our best myths and dramas as well as our best games involve precarious moments of suspense during which all seems lost and then, somehow, against all odds, is saved. Could it be that the universe itself is a vast conspiracy to maximize the play?
If so, how sad it is, as we leave childhood behind, that we are taught in countless explicit and implicit ways to work hard rather than to play joyfully. We are taught to do one thing only to achieve another thing. Study hard so you’ll get good grades. Get good grades so you can get into a good college. Get into a good college so you’ll get a good job. Get a good job and work hard so you can have the good things in life.By the time you get the “good things,” however, you can barely remember how to play.
Aikido summons all of us, whether we do Aikido or not, to play and keep playing from childhood to old age, to seek out the possibilities of play in every aspect of living—in what we call “work,” in love and sex, in relationships with family and friends, even in taking a walk around the block. The strange thing is that when we approach anything, any activity at all, in the spirit of play—that is, fully, joyfully, and primarily for its own sake—we are likely to achieve not only the greatest happiness but also the best results, the most enduring success."
—Adapted from George Leonard’s new book, The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei (Dutton), Copyright 2000 by George Leonard.