Playing to Play

park-placeMany years ago, when my children were still quite young, we got a visit for the weekend from my friend Peter Russell. You may know him from his book, “The Global Brain,” and more recently, “From Science to God.” He came to visit us for the weekend to get a break from his busy teaching and writing schedule. He wanted some time off. So that Saturday afternoon he organized a grand Monopoly tournament with my two sons, who were around six and nine at the time.

As the game wore on, someone had built up hotels on Park Avenue, and someone else had bought all the utility companies; you know how Monopoly goes. I was glad to get a break from looking after the kids, so I wandered in and out from time to time to see how they were getting on.

What I learned that afternoon has stayed with me ever since.

My youngest son, Shuba, who was only six at the time, got very caught up in the game, as kids often do. So at one point, when he landed on Pete’s two hotels on Park Avenue and had to pay thousands of dollars in rent, he lost it. He ran to his room crying, saying he hated all of us. It took us 15 minutes to coax him out. When the game went better for him, on the other hand, he was overjoyed, ecstatic, and wanted to play forever. Pete, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying himself no matter what. He rolled his dice, and if his fortunes were good he laughed. He rolled the dice again, and if his fortunes were bad…he still laughed.

Shuba is older now. He’s been through the peaks and the valleys and he’s learned to laugh too.

Now tell me, what was the difference between Pete’s experience that afternoon and Shuba’s? Both had their small winning streaks. Both had their disappointments. One was experiencing extreme peaks and valleys, ecstasy and misery. The other was having a great time no matter what. The answer, of course, has not to do with what was happening, but with their relationship to the game itself. On that particular day, Shuba was playing to win, Pete was playing to play.

As you might have noticed, even if you’re paying attention just a little bit, the nature of the game we’re all playing has changed considerably in the last months. During the nineties and this decade, we were living in a time of unprecedented economic expansion. Real estate, the stock market, manufacturing and services were all fueled by enormous speculation. It was relatively easy to play to win, and to move from the rush of one small triumph to another.  But an economy based on that kind of speculation, where material gains become largely divorced from the contribution of value, cannot last forever. It’s a bubble that has to burst. The real estate bubble has burst. The Wall Street bubble has burst. The dot-com bubble burst a few years ago. And many people, like my son Shuba on that day many years ago, find themselves running to their rooms screaming “I hate everybody,” and no amount of coaxing will bring them out again3165130963_9ab4a4f6e7_m

The difference between playing to play and playing to win lies in your state of consciousness. If our sense of well-being is intrinsically caught up with the kind of car we drive, how many square feet the house has, with acquisition and power, our happiness is very fragile. It only takes landing on someone else’s hotels to throw us for a loop. When you’re playing to play, your sense of well-being comes from somewhere else. You’re here to participate and perhaps to contribute, to connect with other players, and then it doesn’t matter who’s having a winning streak, and who is in a temporary defeat. It’s all part of the game. You can enjoy yourself immensely, whether you’re winning or losing.

I’ve been researching this extensively over the last 20 years or so, and there’s a funny little caveat to all this. People who play to play and who learn to accept winning and losing as inevitable cycles in the game actually increase their changes of winning. Their stress levels come down. They can meet new opportunity free of fear and greed. They learn to cooperate with people more easily. So the less attached they become to winning, the more winning streaks they find coming their way.

There are specific, reliable, repeatable and precise ways to shift your state of consciousness from acquisition to contribution. I’m going to share the most reliable of these tools with you over the next weeks in this column, but you can start today with a simply inquiry. If you feel defeated sometimes, if you feel a sense of failure, if you want to give up, if it all feels too much, just stop and ask yourself, in this moment, am I playing to play or am I playing to win?

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14 Responses to “Playing to Play”

  1. Kathleen Fallon April 21, 2009 at 10:19 pm // Reply

    My now 12 year-old son John reminds me of Pete. He participated in wrestling several years ago, and I remember him running up into the stands after his match with a huge grin, thrusting his fists into the air and yelling “I got pinned!”

    I, too, learned much from that experience.

    Thank you for the reminder. Tonight, as a single mother of three kids, 11, 12, and 14, I will play to play.


  2. Laura Frisbie April 21, 2009 at 10:22 pm // Reply

    Wonderful concrete way to tell the story. I’d like add that there are more angles than money for playing to win. Many lose their play consciousness, for example, when they need approval or success or respect in the eyes of others. Or when their security abides in their relationships. In being understood, or cared about, or listened to. Yes, there is much more than economics that people lose their consciousness to.


  3. rajan April 22, 2009 at 2:47 am // Reply

    I got this message at a right time in my life. i am in a midlife change and am shifting my career.i always had this belief that in the game called life i have to win as its my belief again that failures are not accepted in this functional world. i am constantly trying to prove myself and i know that its not working for me and is tiring me out. your post has come as grace to me. i will surely Play to Play my game of life. Thank you very much. Btw I have read your book awaekening into oneness and am part of the oneness movement. Thanks once again.


    • arjunaardagh April 22, 2009 at 2:52 am // Reply

      Hi Rajan, I am also part of a movement, it is called humanity! Deep down all members have the same goal, and the same love, and follow the same leader, whether they know it or not. Check out my other books too: Translucent Revolution. I am so happy that you got value from my little story here! Love to you. Arjuna


  4. gamer2600 April 22, 2009 at 5:31 am // Reply

    I agree that playing to play and playing to win are two conflicting ideas. Unfortunately modern games are geared towards one ultimate victor.


  5. Cynthia April 22, 2009 at 11:43 am // Reply

    I’m truly excited that more difficult times could bring in more “tolerance” for taking risks and innovating.
    I have worked for Corporate America in Human Resources for many years and the prevailing attitude has been: “We only want to hire “stars” and “winners”. We focus on results we can measure”. What happens is churn or stagnation because to innovate and learn new things means to risk and fail sometimes. Exciting times to think this might be the end of this mentality.


  6. Jacqueline April 22, 2009 at 7:06 pm // Reply

    It’s just the way we see or don’t see. Failure, losing- or recognizing that the time we ‘thought’ we were failing and losing could actualy be the time we were winning.


    • arjunaardagh April 22, 2009 at 7:30 pm // Reply

      Great Jacqueline! Tell us more about your experience of failing actually being willing. Do you have a story to tell?


  7. Fredric April 22, 2009 at 7:24 pm // Reply

    When we play to win, we fear to lose. When we play to play, we are present to accept what comes our way.


  8. Robert Breckenridge April 22, 2009 at 11:42 pm // Reply

    Every night after dinner I play cards with a couple of friends. Recently I introduced them to a game that I know very well but they had never played: Hearts. They were always losing so I decided to bolster their confidence by deliberately losing sometimes without them knowing it. This was not easy. In fact it was extremely difficult. At some level of consciousness I was (am?) so prograsmmed to win that I would slip into playing to win, win and then feel bad about it. Other times I would succeed in deliberately losing and sleep well. Now they have learned the game fairly well. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. I am often not quite sure what my actual intention is. Either way the games are pleasureable.


  9. Tim April 22, 2009 at 11:50 pm // Reply

    The story reminds me of my erstwhile British saying: “it’s not who wins or loses, it’s how you play the game”. A glance in the rearview mirror in life will likely inspire the view that most of everything we do is just a game.

    If you scale up the idea of this story – take heart that the current global travails (make that a perfect storm) may be viewed as either a disaster unfolding or as an interesting inflection point to a new perspective and collective conciousness. You can’t grow the new if the old is still blocking the way…! How else would you expect this planet to birth up a more advanced perspective of herself? Curve balls are no accident.


    • arjunaardagh April 23, 2009 at 12:38 am // Reply

      Right on Tim! that was were I was going: you just wrote my 3 next blog posts!


  10. Frederic April 24, 2009 at 2:01 am // Reply

    with games, I like to combine a bit of the two perspectives. I play to see what will win and what will lose. In other words, I enjoy testing the game itself, taking risks with the intention not of winning or losing but just seeing what the game will do with it. Sometimes I win hugely, and I’m very happy to see that the game can go in this direction, and understanding the dynamics of how the rules work. Likewise if a risk turns bad, and especially if it turns really bad, like it can in Monopoly sometimes! It is so interesting to see how actions have consequences, and to understand those. A game is a great place to study cause and effect, where the consequences are “only” winning or losing. Much less dire than in real life, when consequences can have real impact on life and lives.

    Thanks for the great commentary!


  11. Ann-Marie May 2, 2009 at 3:20 pm // Reply

    Thank you for this reminder while I am being challenged at my deepest level. I invested 5 years of my life to create a dream. It truly is my dream, everything I ever wanted. I gave it all I had, I sacrificed everything.. and, I failed, over and over again, I have failed, for years on end. The reaction inside of me is like a nuclear bomb. I have decided to stop this particular game, and I must begin again. It’s hard to consider your true desire in life to be nothing but a game you can choose to play lightheartedly, but that is the only option. Thank you for helping me remember that truth. I have definitely been responding like a child up until now, ecstatic or demolished, depending on win/loss- based projections.


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