In consideration of a world without thoughts, Bunzl (2008) describes a hypothetical world in which the separation of senses and thoughts produces an existence of now. It is an existence of fluidity, with no concerns for past or future, space or time, and motions through it; no concerns for, or notion of, the self. These aspects all require conscious thought to process the sensations inputted through our bodies.
Although Bunzl is advocating for thought in his book, as a method for self-discovery, perhaps this self-discovery can also be found in the no thought that is ‘now-play’. Perhaps Bunzl’s aspects of nowness are a way of describing play in flow (after Csikszentmihalyi, 1990): when I play, I’m not thinking. When I become conscious of my play, as an adult, it shifts in quality: it is weighed upon by my self-consciousness; it is reflective and aware.
In an instance of playfighting with another adult, only when in moments of thinking about the positions of our bodies, of realisations of being observed by the other members of our group sat around us, of speculations on perceptions — in the moment — did I become self-conscious and the play dropped in quality for me. When I wasn’t thinking in the play, which was for the most part, or when I felt in partnered group flow with my fellow playfighter, in connectivity, nothing mattered: no-one was watching, or so it seemed.
Perceptions of that play, as it transpired, later aggregated around others’ fixed terminologies. Perhaps these were notions firmly planted there by my self-conscious ‘pre-play flow’ engaged self: a negation openly suggested to the group in description of the play unfolding, viewed through the eyes of peers sat observing. Or perhaps these were notions firmly arrived at independently of my own expressions.
What is important though, on later reflection, is that it is my play flow, our play flow, and not perceptions of that play that matter. In the moment, the immediacy engages and supersedes the conscious thought process.
This is not to suggest a complete non-thinking in engagement in play, whether the player is adult or child. On the contrary, this now-play can be seen as play-think. The concerns of play-think are all that the moment is.
Bunzl writes: ‘No sensation alone ever presents itself to us with any meaning or significance attached to it . . . it is our thoughts which give their sensations their life.’
I suggest that the fluid flow-through of play-think is a liminal space we occupy: a space between the externally derived sensation that has the power to affect us and the internally derived thought rising to form into that affect. In the state of play-think, we are able to experience those sensations, such as skin on skin, and we are able to derive pleasure or pain or the range in between, but it is a form of the ‘reflection in action’ (after Schön, 1983) schema. Reflection on action, if play can be seen in such terms, can make sense of the myriad thoughts that rose to meet the sensation that visited us. Self-conscious thought leaks in at this point here though.
In the liminal space of play-think, the fluid flow-through merges the sensation and the thought in the moment. It is a supra-thought level; it is of ‘in the fabric’ (Seath, 2011) significance.
Is this thinking on thinking and play a suggestion that only humans play because only humans are thought to think? Do animals think? There has been plenty of research, study and literature to suggest that animals do play. For example: Egan (1971); Rosenzweig (1971); Fagen (1975); Burghardt (2005).
Sutton-Smith (1997) writes:
‘Aggression [in playfighting], when ambiguous, is apparently in the eye of the beholder. And Panksepp has shown similar differences both with adults and with children in the perception of whether rats are just playfighting or are really being aggressive (Panksepp, 1993).’
Bekoff (2011) presents the insights that ‘chickens have been shown to be empathic; elephants go through complex grieving rituals.’
Do the rats think when playfighting? Do the chickens and elephants think in their interactions? Perhaps animals play-think too. It is not ‘thought’ as is conventionally known. Many adults think in learnt and conventional structures. That is to say, thought about thought is based on constructs of memory, rote learning, higher functioning analysis skills, descriptions such as assimilation and accommodation (after Piaget), etc.
As the human organism gets older, and thinking skills of this type — as well as self-consciousness — become more acute, many adults can be seen to no longer engage in what is, traditionally, perceived as play. Those who are able to disengage from the construct of received wisdom on thought are the adult players. In play we are at one with the Universe because the Universe, in its generality and in its vast and overallness, is now. We cannot ascribe past or future experience to such an immensity of macrocosm (as we could to, say, the experience of a tree or a garden). The Universe is now. The Universe runs through all — children, adults, animals — in the organisms’ processes of play-think.
‘Without our thoughts, the world in the form of sensations would simply flow through us without structure.’
He writes with the emphasis on advocating for the art of thinking. I agree, taking this statement in its own right. However, we can see play-think, thought without conscious concern, as a positive when linking it to the ‘be here now’ of Zen philosophy.
The supra-thinking that is play-think is within the experience of metalude (Sturrock and Else, 1998). It is unstructured ‘in the fabric’ thought. In it we are lost in that fluidity and flow where no internal or external agitations can be directly differentiated. We are completely immersed in the moment of the moment. It is only when we think about our thinking, when we take the phenomenological stance (Sokolowski, 2000), that the original thought gets dislodged (Bunzl, 2008); the play, the fluidity of play-think, is now no more — transplanted by self-conscious thoughts about thoughts. What, for example, am I thinking about this playfighting I’m engaged in?
What is it that this supra-thinking, this play-think, is? It is, perhaps, thoughts without words, because words are too crude, even the most sophisticated of words; it is not even thinking in pictures or colours. It is beyond all this.
Is it possible to think of something that is beyond thinking? Perhaps it’s enough to know that the players of the world, in the moment, as the Universe flows through them — children, some adults, even animals — are sophisticates. They are the connected supra-thinkers.
Bekoff, M. (2011), Fair play, wild justice and moral intelligence in animals. IPA/Wales: Triennial World Conference.
Bunzl, R. (2008), In search of thinking. Forest Row: Sophia Books, Rudolf Steiner Press.
Burghardt, G. M. (2005), The genesis of animal play. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990), Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Egan, J. (1971), Object play in cats in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play — its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.
Fagen, R. (1975), Modelling how and why play works in Bruner, J. S., Jolly, A., Sylva, K. (Eds) (1976), Play — its role in development and evolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Limited.
Panksepp, J. (1993), Rough and tumble play: a fundamental brain process in MacDonald, K. (Ed), Parent-child play. Albany: State University of New York Press. Cited in Sutton-Smith, B. (1997), The ambiguity of play. 1st ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rosenzweig, M. R. (1971), Effects of environments on development of brain and of behaviour in Tobach, E., Aronson, L. R. and Shaw, E. (Eds) (1971), The bio-psychology of development. New York: Academic Press.
Schön, D. (1983), The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.
Seath, J. D. R. (2011), A philosophical inquiry into engagement with connectivity in the fabric plane of play [online]. Available from: www.playworkings.wordpress.com (Accessed Sept 22, 2011)
Sokolowski, R. (2000), Introduction to phenomenology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Sturrock, G. and Else, P. (1998), The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing — the Colorado paper. IPA/USA: Triennial National Conference.
Joel D. R. Seath