Playing in Possibility (Step Two to Spiritual Freedom)

Back in January, I wrote about embracing uncertainty and sitting with the discomfort of deconstructing my worldview. It was a terrifying but important part of leaving the cult. At the time, I knew that “The Freedom of Uncertainty” was what I would consider the first step to true spiritual freedom, but it wasn’t the last step. I hinted at the next step towards the end of that post.

“I began to play with ideas, trying them on like clothes, seeing how they fit. I allowed myself to start exploring and creating my own spirituality, choosing what made sense to me rather than what I was too scared to reject. Suddenly the journey to find what I believed was a wondrous, fascinating, and exhilarating journey, rather than one of terror and pain.”

Play.

I know I’ve written about it several times already, but it seems the more I look at it, the more I feel its importance. But how can I codify this idea of play into a meaningful philosophy? I don’t know if I can, but I’m going to give it a playful shot.

To start I want to look at two fields in which ideas are treasured, science and philosophy.

I find many people worship science as the concrete body of knowledge upon which they can rely. By worship, I don’t mean they think of it as a god. I mean they treat it like a god—with the same rigid certainty that other religions treat their religious texts.

In reality, science is far from certain. Every published study contains a discussion section at the end which should list weaknesses, ways in which the hypothesis could still be wrong, and areas that need additional research, even if the overwhelming evidence of the study was in support of the hypothesis. Of course, when news stories cover a popular scientific or psychological study, they try to leave that part out. They try to make it sound like the results were “proven.”

In science, nothing is proven; it is merely supported. One of the first things I learned in my research methods class is that scientific knowledge is only as good as what we think we know. Every hypothesis can be torn down by a single new discovery.

Now, before people get angry with me for denying science, I’m not.

I love science, but what I love about science is that it isn’t about knowledge. It’s about exploring the unknown and testing the known.

To some extent, I want to say by testing the known because one of the strengths of science is building off of evidence. But I left the “and” there because the other great strength of science is that it constantly tests itself. It takes imagination to look at an experiment and see what can be built off of the results, but it takes even more imagination to look at an experiment and envisage how many other ways the results can be explained. Scientific “knowledge” is constantly in flux, changing as technology improves and understanding deepens.

It’s a beautiful dance between imagination and experience.

Science pushes the boundaries of the world to see what we can do. It’s a form of physically playing with possibility, but just because something is impossible for science in this moment doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That’s where philosophy comes in.

Philosophy and science always seemed at odds to me. I actually hated philosophy passionately when I was getting my undergrad degree in psychology. Philosophy doesn’t have to demonstrate validity or accuracy. As long as the philosopher can coherently connect her/his line of reasoning, it’s a valid philosophy. It seemed like such a scam compared to the rigorous experimental method that science and psychology had to go through to get a hypothesis or theory widely accepted.

I don’t know when my opinion of philosophy officially changed, but at some point I realized that without philosophy we wouldn’t have science. Before we can get down to testing anything, we have to first imagine something. Ironically, what I find most frustrating about philosophy is also its greatest asset—the ability to consider an idea and follow a line of thinking without regard to whether it’s true.

Every discovery starts with a “what if” question. As I pointed out above, science is limited to our current understanding and abilities, but there is so much more out there right now that science can’t even begin to touch—and scientists know it.

So does that mean that what science cannot test and verify doesn’t exist? One philosophy might say so. 😉

But we would be in sad shape indeed if we limited our exploration of ideas to only what we can physically play with. Not only would philosophy be out (along with all the yummy philosophical ideas that exercise our brain’s understanding of reality), but so would certain kinds of math and science.

Two seemingly opposing bodies of “knowledge,” but together they encapsulate the essence of play.

David Eagleman has this fantastic TEDtalk on Possibilianism. He describes how the universe is full of  infinite possibilities in the unknown, and he encourages people to embrace them. When I watch the video, I get excited that there’s a man who knows how to embrace uncertainty and play with possibility (there’s a man who’s faced down his fears).

But he contradicts himself! He says that possibilianism doesn’t mean people can believe in ESP because, as far as science has shown, there’s no evidence for it.

I agree with him partially. We do need to work with our worldview to incorporate the evidence that we have surrounding us.

But the part that ESP isn’t a possibility is only true insofar as our technology and understanding work today. Given a good imagination, someone could still formulate a worldview in which ESP is a valid possibility without contradicting the evidence that we currently have. The only way in which ESP is definitely impossible is in the way that we have imagined it to function in the past.

I can imagine some are rolling their eyes and thinking, “Oh, great. Pseudoscientist over here who believes in ESP.”

But that’s oversimplifying it!

I don’t believe in ESP, per se. I believe in the possibility for a valid worldview to exist in which ESP fits.

Eagleman does a brilliant job of showing how science and philosophy can play, but I think there needs to be another layer to this idea of playing with possibility—that of being comfortable with relativism and multiple layers of truth. This is actually very much present in philosophy, but we forget about it when we step into the arena of “knowledge,” which is really just another human construct like time.

This is where true spiritual freedom comes together. It’s one thing to be willing to test your beliefs and figure out if they “work” in the real world. That’s important–necessary even. It’s even better to consider the value of a belief whether or not it ends up being true. But when you combine the willingness to play with ideas with the recognition that truth comes in many shades, then you truly have infinite possibilities. You can find exactly what works for you and appreciate the level of truth that it represents to you without feeling the need to deny evidence or prove that everyone else needs to believe the same.

Irreverence is Good for the Soul

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how I was learning to put playfulness back into playing my violin. It got me thinking about how important playfulness is in my life. Whether it’s wearing fairy wings to work, dressing up in a prom dress just to dance around my apartment, hanging crayon drawings on my walls, or building fairy houses, play finds its way into almost every major area of my life to some extent or another.

But nowhere is it more important than in my spiritual practice.

When I work a spell, celebrate a holiday, perform a ritual, read tarot cards, scry, or peruse religious texts, I deliberately approach the process with a sense of play. I try to never take any of it too seriously because I have found that somberness kills.

Christianity is filled with a fear of light-heartedness. It’s so taboo that “church laughter” has come to mean “uncontrollable laughter at an inappropriate time.”

[Edit: Some have pointed out that my above statement is vague. I do not mean to imply that all of Christianity is afraid of all light-heartedness. Rather it holds a phobia of irreverence and a fear of laughing at itself. In my experience, Christians of all denominations hold certain things to be outside the realm of laughter, whether it be the Virgin birth, Cross, Resurrection, or any other doctrine. That’s not to say that there are no open-minded Christians capable of laughing at themselves and their beliefs, merely that the lack of brevity is much more common in the interactions I have had.]

The sect that I grew up in was even more burdened by a phobia of playful spirituality. Communion was an affair wrought with terror because taking it with a flippant attitude could potentially result in my death, or so I was taught. Making fun of the sacred was a sin—a sin potentially unforgiveable if it was bad enough to insult the Holy Spirit. Even laughing at the foibles of a pastor was discouraged with terrifying stories about children who were eaten by bears after disrespecting a prophet.

Therefore, my first acts of freedom and exploration were tentatively making fun of my religion. It was terrifying and liberating to a degree that would seem absurd to anyone who hadn’t grown up with such taboos.

irreverence good for soul

Today, the things you’ll hear out of my mouth make even atheists gasp in shock. It feels great to ridicule what I was taught was too sacred to question. But here’s my secret, I don’t hate Christianity as much as my ridicule would suggest.
What I hate is the mindset that you have to be scared of irreverence.

I definitely didn’t want to carry that fear over to my new spiritual practices, so I turned it into play time—a time to let my imagination make believe whatever it wants. Staring into a scrying mirror, I’ve met beautiful elves. I’ve eaten cakes with fairies and played hide-and-seek with brownies. One of my favorite meditations is actually wrestling with one of my totems.

Even the “serious” stuff gets lightened up with dramatic displays that make me feel just a little bit silly—just enough to take the edge off.

That’s not to say there is never any darkness. I’ve written about embracing the shadows before. A lot of my spiritual work is healing my own trauma. It can get grim and scary. A simple meditation can leave me crumpled on the floor in tears because my subconscious decided to bring up a memory and say, “listen to me.”

But the presence of solemnity is all the more reason to keep play integral. Play gives me the freedom to explore without the need to get the answers right away. It relieves stress, allowing me to approach the shadows with anticipation rather than anxiety. It shuts down the overly critical, cynical, “adult” voice in my head so that I can contact the parts of me that aren’t so vocal.

In other words, play is what makes spirituality work for me because it frees it from the limitations of expectation.

Developmental classes will teach that play is vitally important to growing up because it’s the means through which children learn about their world and themselves—it’s what makes them so adaptable.

I don’t necessarily think that is only true for children. I think adults need play too. I think the more difficult life gets, the more desperately we need a playful approach. If spirituality is meant to help us deal with the aspects of life that feel out of control, then it is only natural that play should be part of that.

“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” -Chesterton

People assume that playfulness is immaturity, shallowness, or naivete. They couldn’t be farther from the truth. Playfulness, imagination, and brevity are essential to any truly serious project.

Without them, solemnity drowns the soul.

Learning to Play My Violin . . . Again

My relationship with my violin has been a tumultuous one. Once upon a time, I actually couldn’t get enough of music. I wanted to play every instrument I saw. I fell in love with the sound of violin and chose that one to study officially with teachers, but I taught myself to play piano and flute as well. I’d spend hours in the music room of my parent’s house just lost in the notes.

But Wednesday night, when my partner came home to find me polishing my violin, his eyes widened with surprise as he exclaimed, “You really do love your violin!”

It’s true. It’s like a dirty little secret of mine. However, you would never guess that I love my violin anymore if you saw my normal interaction with it.

What happened?

Somewhere along the way, I forgot how to play.

It probably started when practicing became an obligation that didn’t allow me to choose to play because I wanted to. It got worse when family members started demanding performances, regardless of how I felt.

But it was perfectionism that eventually obliterated my memory. It was like a tumor, taking over my mind. I was taught that I had a responsibility to always do my best for God. As a high-achieving preteen, my brain translated that to mean “the best,” aka perfect.

As anyone who has touched a violin will know, it is messy—not the instrument for perfectionists. I came to fear it. It symbolized my inability to be the best for God—therefore my unworthiness of love. Practice became a tormented game of trying to never mess up. When I failed, I punished myself to try to show God that I was serious about trying to be my best. There were days when I would leave my room with my legs covered in bruises (all above the knee where I was guaranteed they would be hidden by the modesty rules). My violin was my shame.

But I still had a love for music, which I nursed on the piano that I kept mercifully free of my perfectionistic expectations. My senior year, I got a teacher who managed to coax me out of my shell during my lessons. He approached his teaching playfully, interspersing hilarious stories and outrageous exercises in with the more serious technique.

“Sing out, Louise!” he’d tease, launching into a story about Gypsy.

I would try just a bit harder because, with him, I remembered that it was fun . . . until I practiced again with myself—my biggest critic and biggest punisher.

Perhaps if I had stayed with him long enough, he would have been able to break through my shame, but the following year I went to Bob Jones University. I wanted to leave violin as my hobby, not my career. However, my parents pressured me into a music minor, adding the guilt of wasting their years and money for lessons to my fear of failing.

My first teacher there spent the semester ensuring that music became as boring as possible, systematically breaking down any expression or individuality. It was like it was her mission to seek out any positive influence from my other teachers and destroy it.

Stripped of my joy of music, I went on to another teacher. She was exacting to a terrifying degree. Whereas before, my teachers would give me a technique to learn and allow me to practice it for a week before expecting any progress, she expected me to master everything in her half hour of teaching. I not only dreaded practice; I feared lessons. I left crying so often that the teacher in the class I had after lessons eventually stopped asking if I was okay when he saw my red face. I could no longer goad myself into playing better by hurting myself. I froze up in terror every time I picked up my instrument. My technique regressed, and with it, my desire to play.

“Some people just don’t have it in them,” she finally told me. From then on out, she took no interest in my progress whatsoever, and my fears that I was an utter failure at violin were confirmed.

I dropped the minor, but the damage was not so easily forsaken. Even my beloved teacher back home couldn’t recognize my playing. Eventually, I put my violin in its case and walked away.

I spent the first year of my marriage thinking I was going to give up violin for good. When my partner gave me a new electric/acoustic violin for Christmas, my excitement was almost immediately overshadowed by worry that I wouldn’t be worth the expense.

I started practicing again, but there were months where I couldn’t even stand to touch the violin.

It wasn’t just that I was afraid of playing in front of others. I was afraid of playing . . . alone. Somewhere down the road, “playing” violin became a performance, even in the privacy of my own home.

So how does one learn how to play again?

Well, I got off to a good start by not playing when I didn’t want to. I saw my four years of sporadic interest as a sign that I was giving up . . . until my interest began to grow again and the desire to play came more often. In the last few months, I’ve managed to have several afternoons where I lost myself in music for a few hours.

I’m also teaching myself to make mistakes and giving myself permission to explore–turning my violin into my toy. Perhaps it seems backwards to deliberately give myself something to mess up on, but it’s the very permission to mess up that frees me to find my instrumental voice.

But the most important element in learning how to play my violin again is claiming my right to it. Playing isn’t about pleasing or impressing others. It’s not about making money. It’s about me. I do not need to prove that I am worthy of love or musical investment. It’s enough that I enjoy playing.