ANOTHER IPS (Inner Peace Symptom): An understanding that Life is an opportunity to play. [What you play (and how and why and when you move) often makes for a lot of difference in the results you get.]
Playing and helping other people play is my greatest “happy.”
I still think that one of the best things I ever did was to choose to look at all of the different aspects of Life-Its-Own-Self as play.
The possibilities inherent in that one excite me. It sure does keep things cheerful in my world.
DEFINING THE GAME THAT IS LIFE
More than 15-some years ago, I stumbled across a book, FINITE AND INFINITE GAMES: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse.
By that time the book was already old news. It had been published in 1986.
It’s one of those books that you either love or you hate.
I mean, what do you do with a book that starts out with, “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other, infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”
It goes on from there, with concept after concept piled up on top of contradictory concept, simultaneously building up and out and in and down towards the final comment (number 101) on the last page of this slim book, “There is but one infinite game.”
The book contains no actionable steps, no five- or ten- or twelve-step programs…or any steps at all.
There are no exercises, no tips, no shortcut life-hacks.
All it has going for it are musings about life and the ways you can play in it by a guy who is a certified deep thinker who thinks big thoughts.
Carse was Professor of Religion at New York University when he wrote the book. At the time, he had won the University’s “Great Teacher Award.” He retired in 1996 after thirty years of teaching religion and as head of the department at the University.
Carse wrote other books as well — such scintillating things as DEATH AND EXISTENCE: A Conceptual History of Human Mortality, BREAKFAST AT THE VICTORY: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, and THE SILENCE OF GOD: Meditations on Prayer and several others. Wo!
(I never did feel the urge to explore the guy’s other books so I can’t tell you much about them.)
You’ll find a lot of great takeaways in Carse’s “Game” book (if you happen to be the sort who gets stuck in head-games and are way into thinking about life and meaning and mana). It’s one of those books that makes you nod and go yes, yes, yes.
The book is a deep dive into the patterns and templates you can look for as you construct your own life-story.
It is a reminder that, at any given time, you are intimately involved in a grand and timeless game and it is you who gets to decide whether you will play the thing as a Finite game or as part of the Infinite one.
THIS THING’S A PLAY-BOOK….
Carse describes the ways of playing used in each kind of game and he delineates the underlying patterns of them as well. It is a bit like a play-book for Life, I think.
He points out the differences in the moves that players in either game – Finite or Infinite – make and what the results of that way of moving is likely to be.
Carse does tell some good stories along the way.
It is a fascinating study, especially if, like me, you are prone to trying to figure out which of the two basic games the other people wandering through your life have chosen to play.
The thing the book is really good at is helping you to focus on whether you are choosing to play in a Finite game or the Infinite game your own self, and it helps you figure out which moves you need to consider making.
Through the years, Carse’s FINITE AND INFINITE GAMES has been the one constant book that sits on my writing desk among a number of changing titles that I have used to help to nudge my thinking in varied and sometimes helpful directions.
It has often been a starting point when I sit down to examine and consider yet another confusing tangled mess that I’ve somehow either wandered into or precipitated as a result of general dumbness.
The book has been most useful at helping me to suss out the options and directions that possess some modicum of grace from the many possible moves that I could take.
I confess that I do prefer to be an Infinite Game player. I especially like the goal of continuing the play.
I am not particularly fond of “winning.” (Winning usually means the game stops, and then I just have to go find some other game and start all over again. Pfui!)
However, I also know that often it is necessary to play in the assorted Finite games that occur within the Infinite one because sometimes that’s the only way to get to a place where you can either continue to help keep the play going or expand it in all kinds of more interesting directions.
(For me, the bonus has always been getting some pretty good poems.)
NOT FOR EVERYBODY
I suppose I do also have to point out that if you are not interested in constructing your own life-story or if you are determined to win (or at least not lose) at whatever game you are playing then you will probably find the book a bore.
You’ve already plunked on playing some Finite game or other. You know your playing field. You’ve got the rules down. Your goal is to win the game and that is that. (Good fortune go with you. See ya!)
If you have not had practice contemplating paradoxes and playing around with metaphors and analogies and do not see the value of that sort of play, the book will not resonate with you.
It’ll join the pile of other woo-woo nonsense and romantic novels in the used book sale down the street.
If standing in uncertainty gives you the heebie-jeebies, then the thoughts and constructs contained in the book will seem like a major pile of high-browed hoo-hah.
If you have very strong ideas about how the world works that allow no room for wiggling, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to unlock the wonders the book contains.
Instead, you will declare that the assumptions you’ve adopted about the world you see are the only truths for you and you will confidently move forward along the paths they dictate.
And that can be a good thing too.
WHAT THE BOOK IS GOOD FOR
Carse’s book is a magnificent example of a thing that psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg, a noted researcher on the creative process, calls “Janusian thinking.”
The online Wiktionary says the phrase is an adjective that means, “having or relating to the ability to conceive and use multiple antithetical or opposite thoughts simultaneously.”
Rothenberg named it after the Roman god of thresholds and transitions, Janus. Janus is typically depicted as a guy with two faces each facing in the opposite direction.
Not only does Janus have eyes in the back of his head, he’s got a whole other face.
Janusian thinking is what you do when you grab two or more contradictory ideas and hold them together in your mind until they stop fighting and start playing nice together.
What you try to do while the ideas are in there duking it out is to look at the captive concepts deeply enough so that you can come up with a third idea that will allow you to unlock the strengths and energies contained in those ideas and combine them in new and novel ways.
Talking about Janusian thinking is not easy, mostly because it is so foundational that it’s like talking about taking your first baby-steps.
When you were a baby, you tried so very hard to get vertical and to totter forward.
Because you took those brave first steps and kept building up your skill at stepping, all kinds of other interesting things started happening as well.
All of a sudden you could move in all kinds of directions and get into all kinds of mischief.
Janusian thinking’s like those first baby-steps. Your very first attempts at it are going to feel terribly awkward and clumsy.
Janusian thinking is “counter-intuitive.” It goes against most people’s automatic gut reactions and often you may not find support for the thoughts you are thinking.
Janusian thinking is also another way of Un-Seeing.
Its function is to take you past your first thoughts and your default settings, your habitual patterns and your carefully built-up life routines.
If you succeed in getting past them, you will reach a space where you can construct new ways of doing and making things.
While you’re learning to use this particular style of thinking — until you get the hang of deconstructing your deeply held assumptions, looking at things from every angle as the battling ideas wrestle each other into the ground — the whole process is going to be very effortful and it’s likely to feel sl-o-o-w.
This means you are going to feel really, really stupid doing it.
Keep doing it and it does speed up. You can reach a place where just sticking the contradictory ideas into the ring starts a whole string of new ideas popping up in your head.
Once you get the hang of deconstructing old preconceptions and letting go of past judgments as well as nurturing a multiplicity of perspectives and learning how to transmute the knowledge you gain from them into new understandings, you’ll be able to choose more effective ways to address whatever situation you might encounter.
That’s just a fancy way of saying you’ll be able to come up with fresh ideas that just might work way better than anything you’ve ever tried has worked before.
(Hey! You may even be hailed as an innovator-extraordinaire or the next Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet or one of those Nobel Prize winners that Atherton studied or some such thing.)
Janusian thinking is a component of several higher systems of thought-making that have been studied by assorted guys in white lab coats:
- cognitive thinking – the process by which you transmute the knowledge you get from experience, thought and sensory input and turn it into understandings you can use to solve problems or make stuff
- design thinking – creative problem-solving that focuses on the people for whom a new product is being created
- synergistic thinking – a process that blends and balances logical linear thinking and associative non-linear thinking to boost creativity, innovation and Making
It could also be viewed as a simplistic description of the foundations for Taoist and Zen thought processes, for shamanistic or indigenous thought precepts, and for other high-wizard stuff.
Do this and eventually you get to play in Harry-Potter-World…or maybe you’ll get to be the Sorceror’s Apprentice.
AND THEN THERE’S THE DOWNSIDE
The downside of all of the processes that start with Janusian thinking is that they can also multiply the variety, intensity and severity of the mistakes you can make…if they don’t paralyze you with the sheer volume of possibilities.
Sometimes when you are dancing on the edge, you make a mis-step and fall off. Other times you stand on the edge of chaos and look into the Void and see the Void looking back at you. (Yeep!)
Those who depend on their world staying concrete and linear and rational won’t go there. (This thing is not for the faint-hearted nor for those who panic when they are stuck in ambiguity.)
It’s also not for those who are not seriously into examining their underlying motives and intentions. (Intent gets really important when you play in Harry-Potter-World.)
Janusian thinking is the place where innovative geniuses go. It is also the place where the mad ones stay.
This is the place where the old maps say, “Here there be dragons.”
And if you choose to go there, it can, as well, make it really hard for you to talk to regular folks who have never left the living room couch.
Those who walk the trails into the Mystic and the serious psychedelic rangers go through initiation rites that require “dying to the world” in some way or other. So do those whose intense creative, athletic or scientific bent takes them way into the middle of the Zone.
Janusian thinking is exactly like that.
All of the ones who choose to play the Infinite Game are often more than a little strange.
If you choose, instead, to become a poet or a storyteller, however, then it can all turn into play.
Good poets and storytellers have no problem talking to people. It’s what they do.
Here’s a poem about a clash between someone playing a Finite game and another who’s more into the Infinite one….
There she goes, stomping along strong,
Being Godzilla attacking Tokyo.
(I guess I’ve been cast as Tokyo.)
My job, it says here, is to stand there
Getting pounded and ground down
By big, stomping feet,
And pushed and shoved aside
By strong, powerful shoulders,
Pummeled by massive fists all the while.
I’m supposed to bend and break
Before the temper-tantrum wrath
Of riled-up Biggie.
My role, it says here, is to quake
As roars and growls fill the air.
I get to dash around in panic
Trying to find a place to hide
My own small self.
Oh, and, it says here,
There’s supposed to be
A lot of bleeding with street-pizza decorations
Strewn about in the general mayhem,
All those slash wounds from gy-normous claws
Having taken their toll.
Gee, it says I’m supposed to weep in despair.
This won’t work.
You need to call Central Casting again.
They sent you the wrong character actor, I think.
See, mostly I spend my time playing at being Wind.
I’m not sure this Godzilla movie
Has much use for gentle breezes and sweet, soft zephyrs.
I don’t think it can use snazzy updrafts and down-drafts
And slider-currents that support cunning wings.
There are no sails around here I can fill
To push the story forward.
And I’m pretty sure you won’t like
The hurricanes, the tornadoes and the cyclones
I’ve been developing.
So it goes.
By Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: “House of the Sun” by David Fulmer via Flickr [CC BY-2.0]
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