Book Bits

Alan Watts and Divine Play

“The kind of seriousness which drags man down to the earth and kills the life of the spirit is not the child of sorrow but of a sort of playacting in which the player is deceived into identifying himself with his part.”

– Alan Watts


In this short essay from his book Become What You Are, Alan Watts delves into one of his favorite and recurring subjects – the way in which we over-identify with the parts we play. The pitfall of this tendency is that we take these essentially superficial forms to be real, and believe that we need to exert effort to hold on to them. It is crucial, Watts asserts, to maintain a sense of levity and to recognize the intrinsic nature of the universe as a divine game.


Lightness of Touch

Chesterton once said that, because they take themselves lightly, angels can fly. One sees so many faces dulled by a seriousness which, if it were born of grief, would be understandable. But the kind of seriousness which drags man down to the earth and kills the life of the spirit is not the child of sorrow but of a sort of playacting in which the player is deceived into identifying himself with his part. There is a seriousness in the play of children, but even this is different, for the child is aware that it is only playing and its seriousness is an indirect form of fun. But this seriousness becomes a vice in the adult, because he makes a religion of the game, so identifying himself with his part or position in life that he fears to lose it. This is especially so when the unenlightened man attains to any degree of responsibility; he develops a heaviness of touch, a lack of abandon, a stiffness which indicates that he is using his dignity as stilts to keep his head above adversity.

He is enlightened who joins in this play knowing it as play, for man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun. Thus man only becomes man when he loses the gods’ sense of levity.

His trouble is that instead of playing his part, his part plays him and makes him the laughingstock of all who see through his guise. The message of the Eastern wisdom is that the forms of life are maya and therefore profoundly lacking in seriousness from the viewpoint of Reality. For the world of form and illusion which the majority take to be the real world is none other than the play of the Spirit, or, as the Hindus have called it, the Dance of Shiva. He is enlightened who joins in this play knowing it as play, for man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun. Thus man only becomes man when he loses the gods’ sense of levity. For the gods (or buddhas, or what you will) are simply our own innermost essence, and this could shatter the universe to nothingness in a moment if it willed. But it does not, and it keeps the worlds moving for the divine purpose of play, because, like a musician, it is a creator and delights in the fashioning of a rhythm and a melody. To play with it is therefore not a duty but a joy, and he who does not see it as a joy can neither do it nor understand it.

Alan Watts (1915-1973)
From: Become What You Are

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