After a busy day of prancing, we sat down (read: typed on our separate laptops) to have a conversation about the importance of play. Here is that conversation.

Tanner: So we’re going to talk about a super serious topic: play. And why are we doing this, Samantha?

Samantha: So I can promote my Instagram? So companies will send us free rollerblades?

T: You already crowdfunded a pair of rollerblades on Twitter last week.

S: It’s true, I did. Try and tell me humans aren’t inherently good. Anyway, let’s talk play!

T: Okay. So it sounds too simple, but play may be the great secret of a happy, healthy life. UCLA researchers have said, “Throughout the lifespan, play supports neurological growth and development while building complex, skilled, flexible, responsive and socially adept brains.” On a philosophical level, play may also be the actual purpose of life. What do you think about that?

S: I mean, the physical universe is basically playful. As Alan Watts says, “There is no necessity for it whatsoever.  It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say, it doesn’t have some destination it ought to arrive at. It’s best understood by an analogy with music. Because music as an art form is essentially playful. One doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. Same with dancing. You don’t aim at one particular spot in the room where you ought to arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance…

“We thought of life by analogy with a journey, with a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end—success or whatever it is, maybe heaven after you’re dead. But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and we were supposed to sing or dance while the music was being played.”

T: That’s one of my favorite quotes. There’s nowhere we’re supposed to end up. The purpose of this moment is this moment. So why lose it by worrying too much about the past or the future? I guess the real question is: HOW do we enjoy the present moment? How do we get serious about play? How do we make it an integral part of our life?


S: I was hiking in Bryce Canyon this weekend, and I enjoyed some of the best views I’ve ever seen in my life. It made me think about the role of awe in human happiness. When you see something nature created that’s really spectacular and vast, you’re kind of forced to be more present, because you’re just so impressed. It’s hard to think about your day-to-day stresses when you’re staring at one of coolest things you’ve ever seen. You’re busy absorbing how amazing it is.

But I also started observing how differently everyone around me was enjoying it. I felt like I was really playing while I was there—doing little bits with the person I was with, dancing whenever I felt like it, blowing bubbles with the bubble wand we brought with us, allowing myself to get swept up in whatever I was feeling in the moment—just enjoying my environment like a child does.

But not everyone feels comfortable being like that. A lot of people would just walk up to the viewpoints, take pictures, and move along. We were all experiencing it differently because we all had different ideas about what was “appropriate”. I think it’s sad how play is often considered “inappropriate” when you’re an adult.

T: A child is seldom concerned with what’s appropriate. Adults really are way over-regulated when it comes to play. It’s like we have to designate specific times and settings for our play, when it should just be our fundamental approach to life. So how do we cultivate playful, awe-inspired awareness when we’re not at a beautiful canyon or in a new romance?

S: I think one of the best things we can do is learn to find beauty in everything—to feel awe at the small things, not just the big things. Vastness definitely seems to facilitate awe, but I don’t think size should matter. (Lolol.) I think you can cultivate the ability to feel more awe, and it probably starts with gratitude, and taking more time to observe—especially nature. Even the tiniest flower is so cool when you look at it in detail. But if we never take the time to just be still and observe things around us with no real goal, we miss out on a lot.

T: I can say that the most powerful “spiritual” experiences of my life, both within and without religion, were the result of gratitude. Our minds are always trying to find new problems to solve, which sometimes creates even more problems. Being able to step back from worry and to appreciate the little things is my most reliable catalyst for elation. Sam, I know you have kept a daily gratitude journal. How has that affected you?

S: Gratitude journaling honestly saved my life when I was going through divorce. It’s a practice I always go back to when times get hard, and it’s the best. You can do it however feels right for you, but I basically just write down everything good that happens to me each day, whether it’s a good conversation I had with a friend, or a delicious sandwich I ate for lunch. Just everything.

By getting in the habit of writing all of that down everyday, you train your brain to be more grateful naturally, because you’re always looking for the good. And you realize how much happiness is in the little things, and the ability to be grateful for the little things.

I was able to find some of the most pure joy of my life while going through some of the most difficult things in my life because of gratitude journaling. I really can’t rave about it enough. It shows you that no matter how bad things feel, there’s always good. Always.

T: Always. Because the “bad” and the “good” are intrinsically connected. It’s essentially useless to distinguish between them. True healing gratitude comes when you are grateful for everything—the beauty and the pain, the suffering and the delight. The thing that messed me up after leaving religion was the meaningless of suffering. What I had to learn was that I could give suffering meaning by becoming aware of its connection to joy.

S: Definitely. And when things are bad, you can almost appreciate the little things more, because you’re able to recognize what a light they are. I think happiness is far more about how grateful we are than how “good” or “bad” our life situations are. Gratitude is empowering.

T: Exactly! We need the darkness so we can appreciate light. It reminds me of a quote form one of my favorite books, The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran:

Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven? And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives? When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.”

Seeing the connectedness between our pain and our joy is an essential step in healing. It’s how we go from being products of our environment to shapers of our environment. I also liked what you said about getting into nature. We forget that we are primates and our natural habitat is outside.

S: WE ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE CONSTANTLY CONFINED BY WALLS! It’s really crazy how much time we spend inside when you think about it. It’s not in harmony with how we evolved to be. And apparently “nature-deficit disorder” is a real thing. You know how hard we get it in the winter in Utah—it can be really brutal on our mental health.

T: The essence of depression is disconnectedness. There are few things as cathartic as reconnection to the natural world because it is literally a part of us. Before they made up our bodies, our elements spent billions of years going through various forms and creative cycles. Our DNA traces through the animal kingdom back to the plants and fungi. Water and minerals are also a part of us. It’s easy for the ego to forget that we didn’t come to the earth; we came out of the earth. We are not separate from nature; we are nature. When we are disconnected from nature, we are disconnected from ourselves. 

I like to walk to this hill overlooking the capitol building and downtown Salt Lake City—

S: A PRIME handstand location.

T: Best in the city. Anyway, last summer, I’d try to get there every day for sunset. It was like a little daily ritual where I’d go and just take a minute to appreciate the sun. I’d think about how the eye evolved to perceive the sun’s light and without the eye, some of the beauties the sun makes available are wasted. It’s like that “if a tree falls in a forest” thing. Our appreciation gives the sun meaning, since we are, as far as we know, the only part of the universe that is capable of both witnessing and appreciating it. Without us, the sun would just go on burning for no reason. The sun gives us life and our life gives the sun meaning. How beautiful!

S: I wonder how many things are wasted on us because we haven’t evolved the senses to perceive them. Just a fun thought. And then how many things are wasted on us because we just don’t take the time to look at them with appreciation?

T: Too many things. And too many people. It’s easy to see the jagged edges of a canyon or a mountain and appreciate their beauty without remembering the earthquakes and erosion that made them possible. Humans are just as much a natural phenomenon as a landmark. I think if we were able to understand the earthquakes and erosions that people have endured, we couldn’t help but see them with the same awe that we see a breathtaking landscape.

S: Damn, what you just said about earthquakes and erosion was so good. How do you do it?

T: With a little help from my friends!

S: Cute. Carry on.

T: I don’t think you can cultivate self-love without developing love for others. When you see how all your flaws are connected to all your attributes and how all of it has been shaped by your genetics and environment, then you can see that in other people as well. It’s that French expression, “tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner:” to understand all is to forgive all.

S: Totally. I used to think it was nonsense when people said “You can’t truly love someone else until you love yourself,” but now I get it. You have to recognize that we’re all the same—as in, we’re all just the products of our genetics and experiences—to be able to fully love and forgive yourself and others. If you understand that properly, you can’t help but extend the same love to both yourself and others.

T: Additionally, it’s easier to be playful with others when we stop viewing them as mere roles. Your boss isn’t just a boss; she’s a being who happens to temporarily be playing a role of boss. And you are a being temporarily playing the role of employee. Even though there are occasionally conflicts between bosses and employees, at the end of the day, both people are beings with just as much desire and capacity to love and be loved. Tension is a part of all play, be it sports, theater, or music. So we turn work into play when we realize the tension isn’t a permanent aspect of our identities but the nature of the game we are playing.

S: So what’s the moral of the story when it comes to life and play?

T: Dance harder.

S: Yes. Exactly.

Tanner Gilliland is a writer, artist, and jazz hands enthusiast based in Salt Lake City, UT. Check out his art on Instagram: @tanner_gilliland, his jokes on Twitter: @tgilliland789, and his poverty on Venmo: Tanner-Gilliland

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