Work and Play

Essential Lectures, Program 7


Alan Watts swirls an orange on a string and shoots an arrow high into the air before explaining why the art of living is being paid to play—and to the extent that we feel compelled to work and survive, life becomes a drag.



The Tibetan so-called prayer wheel: to all Westerners the supreme symbol of supersition. Just let it go round and it says the prayers for you, and you don’t have to do any work about it at all. And here it goes. But what’s fascinating about it? Any child would like to do this. Let’s keep it moving. In the same way, any child likes to do this. Swing it around! It’s curious. It doesn’t form a perfect circle because you have to make your hand go whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, and so its path is an ellipse. It’s the same as the path of the Earth around the Sun. It just swings; it goes around, around, and around, and around, and around. An orange on the end of a string. What’s the fascination of it? Why does one like to do this and just keep it up? You know, I’m sort of stuck with it right now and I can hardly let go of it. Now I’m supposed to go on with this program, but I’m so fascinated with spinning this orange on the end of a string that I don’t know if I’m going to make it.


Why do we like to do that? We’ll play music, we’ll dance, and we’ll do other things like… I happen to be a lover of archery. But I don’t like archery for killing things, I like it as a sport. But what I like most of all is to set an arrow free like it were a bird. You know, when it gets far up in the sky—wee!—you watch it, and it suddenly turns and drops. What is it that fascinates us about that? Because it’s not useful, it doesn’t really achieve anything that we would call purposive work, it simply is what we call play. But in our culture we make an extremely rigid division between work and play. You’re supposed to work in order to earn enough money, to give you sufficient leisure time for something entirely different called “having fun,” or “play.” And this is the most ridiculous division of things, because everything that we do—however tough it is, however strenuous—can be turned into the same kind of play as I was showing you when I was completely fascinated with spinning that orange around my head.


Let’s, for example, take the situation that I ran into a little while ago: I was in the New York subway at 59th Street near Columbus Circle and I wanted to get my shoe shined. (Actually, I don’t wear shoes except when I’m on the East Coast, because there one dresses respectably, and on the West Coast I wear Indian moccasins, because it’s the only comfortable shoe I can wear. But on the East Coast, you know, you wear an ordinary shoe.) So I went to get my shoe shined, and here was this black fellow who was making shoe shining a real art. He got his cloth—you know, which you spread out like this—and would go over my shoe: Da-doo-de-choo, da-boo-pa-da, dee-boo-pa, choo, choo, cha, da, boo-pe-da-be-doo-de-da, doo-daa-choo, like that, see? He was dancing while he was working. And he had just the same fascination in shining shoes as one has spinning this thing around one’s head.


Imagine, too, if you were a bus driver. A bus driver is ordinarily considered an absolutely harassed person. He’s got to watch out for all the laws, all the competing traffic, the cops, the people coming on board, giving their fares and he has to give them change. And if he has it in his head that this is work it will be hell. But let’s suppose he has a different thing in his head. Supposing he has the idea that moving this enormous conveyance through complicated traffic is a very, very subtle game, and he has the same feeling about it that you might have if you were playing the guitar or dancing. And so he goes through that traffic, avoiding this and avoiding that, and taking a fare like this, and he makes a music of the whole thing. Well, he’s not going to be tired out at the end of the day. He’s going to be full of energy when he gets through his job.


Or suppose, you know, you’re condemned to be a housewife—which is the most lowly of all occupations—and you have to clean up. You know, I’ve said that there are only four fundamental philosophical questions. The first is: “Who started it?” The second is: “Are we going to make it?” The third is: “Where are we going to put it?” And the fourth is: “Who’s going to clean up?” This is the lowliest of all occupations; the housewife who washes the dishes and the garbage collector who takes away the stuff. And he has to find out where we’re going to put it. So now, who’s going to clean up? Incidentally, if you ask yourself these four questions in order—Who started it? Are we going to make it? Where are we going to put it? And who’s going to clean up?—it prompts a fifth question, which is: “Is it serious?” Like, “Doctor, is it serious?”


Well, supposing it isn’t. Then, housewife—who’s going to clean up—approaches washing dishes in an entirely different spirit. And don’t think that I’m some sort of male chauvinist who’s trying to talk women into the idea of staying in their place, because I’m perfectly willing to wash dishes, too. Because the art of washing dishes is that you only have to wash one at a time. If you’re doing it day after day, you have in your mind’s eye an enormous stack of filthy dishes which you have washed up in years past, and an enormous stack of filthy dishes which you will wash up in years future. But if you bring in your mind to the state of reality—which is, as I’ve pointed out to you, only now: this is where we are, there is only now—you only have to wash one dish. It’s the only dish you’ll ever have to wash. This one. You ignore all the rest. Because in reality there is no past and there is no future, there is just now. So you wash this one. And instead of thinking, have I got it really clean as my mother taught me with an angry voice? That I had to get every little scrap off it, you know? And she got agh! Got angry at you. Instead, you turn the cleaning movement into a dance. Shwww, shwww, shwww, shwww, like this. And you dig that. And you swing that plate around and you let the rinsing water go over it, and you put it off in the rack. Tsk! Crazy. See? Take the next one. Shwww, shwww, shwww, shwww, and you get this rhythm going, see? And you’re not under compulsion all the time.


You know, when I was a little boy and went to school in England I had to learn the piano. They called it “playing” the piano, but actually they said, “You must play.” We had, in England, compulsory games. They used to post notices on the bulletin board in the school where I went to which said, “This afternoon everyone will go for a run.” And if you didn’t go for a run and it was found out that you hadn’t, you were flogged. So everybody hated going for a run, because they were under compulsion to play. Everybody must play. It’s like the whole game of life we’re all involved in. It’s only a game, but everybody has got to belong. So we went running.


I remember, one day, I was out on a run and I was trying to enjoy myself because I was running on the balls of my feet, dancing along. And a fellow came up behind me who was running on his heels; he was jogging. And he was going clump, clump, clump, clump, clump, clump, clump, clump. I said to him, “What’s the matter with you? You’re running on your heels and you’re jarring your whole body all the way through.” Okay. But he stuck to it, and he became the champion long-distance runner of the school. But he didn’t enjoy it; it was work. And all he enjoyed was the suffering that he endured that made him feel that he had really contributed to the human race because he suffered so much. He identified his existence and his worth with his suffering.


Now, really great runners dance when they run. They don’t necessarily follow a straight course, they may weave. And in the same way, if you happen to witness—in the year 1970—the world cup championship in soccer, you would’ve seen that the winning team from Brazil—which consisted mostly of spades—played soccer in a most extraordinary way. They played it like basketball. They played it dancing. The way we learned soccer in school when I was a boy was very, very formal and orderly, and we didn’t really enjoy it. But these fellows were bouncing balls off their shoulders, off every muscle, and they had astonishing teamwork, but at the same time were dancing the game. And the sportswriter in the London Times said that they danced their way to victory.


So the point is, therefore, that you can do everything you have to do in this spirit. Don’t make a distinction between work and play. Regard everything that you are doing as play, and don’t imagine for one minute that you’ve got to be serious about it. Let’s take, for example, the rest of the world other than ourselves. Think for a moment: what are vegetables doing? Let’s, for example, consider this. What’s it all about? I mean, it serves us human beings by being decorative, but what is it from its own point of view? See, because here is this stalk, and all these leaves come out: kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching, all the way up, then whrooops goes into this. And then it goes into flowers in the end, you see? And they go kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty all around. But I look at the thing and it’s like a symphony. It’s just like Bach doing a fugue with all the different movements going laa-laa-laa-laa la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la laa-laa-laa-laa-LAAA-laa, you know, it’s what it’s about.


Well, you say it’s using up air, it’s using up energy; it’s really not doing anything except being ornamental. And yet, here’s the whole vegetable world. Not only cactus plants like this, but all trees, roses, tulips, and edible vegetables: cabbages, celery, lettuce—they’re all doing this dance. And what is it all about? Why do they do it? Well, we say “One must live! It’s necessary to survive!” You know, you really must go on. It’s your duty. It’s your duty to your children. But you see, the thing I feel is: if you bring up your children that way and tell them that they ought to be grateful to you because you’re doing your duty towards them, they will learn to bring up their children in the same way and everybody will be depressed. There really is no necessity to go on living. We think—you know, it’s part of our Western philosophy that we think we have a drive to survive, that we must go on living because some big daddy said to us, “You’ve gotta go on living! See? And you better make it, or else!” Well, I’ve already explained to you on this show that there is… the fear of death is completely absurd, because if you’re dead you’ve got nothing to worry about. So you’ll be alright.


So, in the same way, you must not—no, I don’t want to use that word, “must not.” Because I’m not trying to talk to you as an authority. I’m trying to talk to you as somebody who’s opening your mind up; a helper, not a father-figure. This thing, here—this plant—I’m quite sure doesn’t say to itself, “You ought to go on living. You’ve got an instinct to survive, which is something other than yourself and which you have to obey.” See, I don’t think of my own instincts as drives, which is the proper psychological term for them nowadays. I think of my instincts as myself. I don’t say, “Excuse me, but I have an unfortunate desire to reproduce myself, and therefore I’m sexy and would you please accommodate me?” I don’t say, “Excuse me, but I have to eat. And really, it’s absolutely necessary that I eat.” I say on the contrary, “Hooray! I am this desire to make love, and I am this desire to eat.” It’s not something else that pushes me around, it’s me.


Well, alright—but it doesn’t have to go on. I don’t feel so compelled that, if it were to stop… well, if it were to stop—if I would be killed—that would be another scene. That would be a different form of the dance. If I’m in pain… people say, “Don’t scream. Don’t cry.” Because screaming or crying is a perfectly natural reaction to pain. When a baby is first born they cut the umbilical cord and somebody smacks it on the bottom, and the baby: “Nyaaah!” See? That’s the first thing in the world. There is, in Zen Buddhism, a kōan which says that when the Buddha was born, he suddenly stood up and announced: “Above the heavens and below the heavens, I alone am the world-honored one.” Well, everybody would say that was an extremely proud thing to say. So they give this to students of Buddhism as a problem: how could it be that the Buddha, as a little baby, was so proud as to make this pompous statement when he was born? And if you understand the problem correctly, you answer: “Nyaaah-ah!” See? Because that is the perfectly natural response to the painful event of being born into this world. But thereafter we always say, “Baby, don’t you cry! Shut up!” We don’t like to hear babies crying. Shut up! And therefore, we stamp out—in human beings—their natural release from the problem of pain. If you’re in pain, cry. And if you can’t do that then pain is your problem. But if you can cry, and if you can let go in that way, pain is no problem. And if you get the shudders at death—the idea of death, the idea of not being here anymore—just get those shudders and dig them. Because the shuddering… isn’t it curious? We sometimes say—you remember that song that said:

I am not sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shiv’ring

’cause I’m co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-cold,

I am not sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shiv’ring

’cause I’m co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-cold,

I am not sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shiv’ring

’cause I’m co-co-co-co-co-co-co-co-cold,

I am just sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-sh-shiv’ring

with delight!

You know? When we get the shivers of delight.


So all these emotions that we have—the emotions of uptightness, dread, shivers, horrors—can be interpreted in other ways. But we interpret them in a negative way so long as we are under the sense that you absolutely must go on living. Now, you see, living—like this plant—is something spontaneous. In Chinese the word for nature is ziran, which means ‘that which happens of itself.’ Not under any control of an outside boss. And they feel that all the world is happening so of itself; it’s spontaneous. And so you stop this spontaneous flowering of nature cold if you tell it “You must do it.” It’s like saying to someone, “You must love me.” Well, that’s ridiculous. If I were to ask my wife, “Darling, do you really love me,” and she says, “I’m trying my best to do so,” that’s not the answer I want. I want her to say, “I can’t help loving you. I love you so much I could eat you.” And that’s what the plant feels in growing. It doesn’t feel that it must grow, it’s not under orders, it’s not a military chain of command, it does this spontaneously—so that when you try to command a spontaneous process, you stop it. It’s like saying to someone: “Now, be unselfconscious.”


You know, there’s a belief in India that if you think of a monkey while you’re taking medicine the medicine won’t work. So, therefore, when you take your vitamins or next pills, try not to think of a monkey. See? That will completely tie up the spontaneous process and it won’t work. So all the things that we say to our children, like, “Well, you must have a bowel movement every day after breakfast.” “Try, darling, to go to sleep.” “Stop pouting! Take that look off your face!” “Oh, you’re blushing!” Make you feel guilty about blushing, see? All those things are attempts to say this one thing: “Darling, little child, you are required to do what will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily.” And everybody on this account is completely mixed up because we are trying to force genuine behavior.


We all admire artists when we say they’re unselfconscious, they seem so natural. They seem to dance, or paint, or talk, or play the piano so effortlessly. Of course, a lot of work has gone into it. But if you are a great artist, your so-called periods of practice—when you sit for hours and study your technique on the piano—you will not do that effectively unless it is a pleasure for you. You have to come to the point where going over it again and again is a dance.


One of my friends is a great Hindu musician who has the most extraordinary technique in playing an instrument called the sarod. It’s like an extremely sophisticated Hindu guitar. His name is Ali Akbar Khan, and he’s generally acknowledged to be the leading master of northern Indian music. He told me once that the comprehension of music is in understanding one note. The meaning of that is: he can sit for hours and hours working on this, but there really is only one note at a time. And he gets into that note and listens; he really listens, gets into the sound. And it simply doesn’t matter that it takes a long time, that he’d have to do this for many hours, because he’s completely absorbed in listening to the sound he is now making. He’s going with that vibration as when you might chant, you see—like they do in yoga—Oooooooommmmm. You can keep that up for hours and be absolutely fascinated just by the vibration going in the same way as in the beginning I was fascinated by swinging that orange around my head on a string. What is this?


See, this is the real secret of life: to be completely engaged with what you’re doing in the here and now—and instead of calling it work, realize that this is play. In Hindu philosophy the whole creation is regarded as the Viṣṇulīlā, that means the play of Viṣṇu. Līlā means ‘dance’ or ‘play,’ and from it we get our word ‘lilt.’ They also, in Hindu philosophy, call the world an illusion, and in Latin the root of the word illusion is ludere, ‘to play.’ Because all this going on—the swinging of the ball, the pattern in which the flower goes—is just to swing. And if you take it seriously and say, “Ungh, are you doing anything useful?” Useful for what? “Useful to go on!” But if you take that attitude to going on, going on becomes a drag! Survival becomes a sweat and it’s not worth it. And if you teach your children, and they’ll imitate you, they’ll treat survival as a sweat which they have to want to go, and they have to keep going on and they’ll teach their children to do it, and the whole continuation of the human race will be a drag—which is, in fact, what it’s become because of this attitude—and this is the reason why we’ve invented the atomic bomb and are preparing to commit suicide. Because… we think we must happen. And to the degree that we think we must happen, we hate it and are going to bring it to an end and stop it.


So I se—I was about to say ‘seriously,’ but I’m going to change my words and say sincerely—suggest… you know, I’m not—in talking to you—I’m not preaching, I’m not actually serious. Because I’m really with this, rather than any kind of deep philosophy and so on. So I suggest to you, sincerely: G. K. Chesterton once said that the angels fly because they take themselves lightly. How much more so, then, he/she who is lord of the angels? The whole world is:

Three for a penny

Three for a pound

’Tis love that makes the world go ’round

Or, in the words of Dante:

My own wings were not for such a flight

Except that, smiting through the mind of me,

There came fulfillment in a flash of light.

That my volition now, and my desires,

Were moved like wheel revolving evenly

By love that moves the sun and starry fires.

Work and Play

Alan Watts

Document Options
Find out more