The basic idea of "Play as Being" is very simple. Once every fifteen minutes, you take a 9-second break. During that time you relax, and you free up your attention.

    You can do this for a few hours a day, or throughout the whole day, as you like. You can use a bell, either a clock on your computer that rings every fifteen minutes, or a watch or alarmclock. Or you can just remind yourself to take a short break, a few times an hour. The suggestion of 9 seconds is a bit of a joke: 15 minutes contain 900 seconds, so 9 seconds is exactly 1% of a quarter of an hour. Following these breaks throughout the day corresponds to a 1% time tax on your life.

    It is not necessary to stop what you are doing, during those short breaks. The main point is to turn your attention away from an exclusive focus on whatever it was you were doing. If the task at hand allows it, then it may be nice to actually stop. If you were typing on your computer, you may take your hands off your key board, stretch your back, look around, take a deep breath, or close your eyes, whatever feels right.

    However, there are many situations in which a complete stopping would be rather unnatural. For example, if you're talking with someone, it would be rather odd to suddenly remain silent for 9 seconds seconds and look elsewhere. Instead, you could use the 9 seconds to loosen up. You could drop the usual emphasis on your own position, your own role in the conversation. Instead, you could take a kind of observer position, watching the conversation as if at arm's length removed, so to speak.

    Similarly, while driving a car, you certainly don't want to stop doing that during our short breaks. But you can still use those 9 seconds to take a deep breath, look a bit more to the left and right, reminding yourself not to get too much focused on the spot right in front of you, and also not to get too much lost in daydreams. Regularly freeing up your attention in this way quite likely will make your driving safer, more loose and more open to react flexibly to sudden unexpected situations.

    A bit more specific

    Taking a very short break a few times an hour can be already be very beneficial. Modern life doesn't leave us much room for vast stretches of unstructured time, and going on mini-breaks (nano-holidays?) may provide the kind of breathers that can provide at least some kind of balance. However, we can do more than just relax. We can give a bit more structure to these breaks by dropping what we have in order to see what we are.

    We play many roles in our life: we have a job that defines us to some extent in the eyes of others and ourselves; we have a nationality written in our passport; we have a gender that comes with a package deal with largely unwritten expectations; we have a body and mind with which we identify to varying degrees in the course of a day, depending on the situation. However, when we talk about all those roles and identifications, we typically use the verb `to be.'

    When I introduce myself I may say: "I am an astrophysicist" or "I am Dutch." When asked to fill in a customs form I may write "I am male." When asked for my age I may respond "I am 57." And this pattern of identification, this switch from having to being, goes very deep. It echoes how we tend to jump from properties to essence, in the blink of an eye. We identify ourselves and others with what we are doing, what we have, and once such identities are firmly in place, it becomes harder and harder to play with them.

    We have a saying "once a thief, always a thief." And when someone is caught stealing something, we quickly label that person "a thief" as if that is part of what the person truly is. But we have a choice there. We can also state, more accurately, that there is a person who at least once stole something. And yes, it may well be that this person has stolen before, and may be more likely to steal again later, but those are properties and characteristics that someone may have — it would be unfair and inaccurate to consider someone's core essence to be that of a thief.

    Yet we tend to do that, as a kind of mental laziness: we tend to ascribe what we have to what we are. As a result we can classify ourselves and others that way. We then know where we stand, and we don't have to bother to be open, moment to moment, to changes, to new opportunities. Living thus in a world of more of less fixed identities may seem safe and comfortable, but in fact it is deadening, it ties us down, and it takes the spark out of life, the creativity inherent in switching identities and playing with them.

    So this is the added suggestion, in addition to "just relax," during our mini-breaks: "drop what you have in order to see what you are." Play with your identities. Wear them lightly. No need to deny or ignore or suppress them; acknowledge them, but don't  let yourself get stuck to them. Rather than allowing yourself to get glued to your identities, enjoy a freedom from identification.

    Freedom from identification

    We all have the experience of meeting people who seem to be totally stuck to their roles. Liberals who can't seem to see any value in any conservative ideas, and the other way around: conservatives who automatically reject anything labeled liberal. Nationalists who blindly follow their country into whatever war breaks out. Religious fanatics who don't seem to be open at all for any other way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing than what fits into their preconceived system of ideas.

    However, when we look carefully and honestly, we all can discover a whole lot of similarly lazy identifications that we use to let part of our life unfold on auto-pilot. They may not be as blatantly obvious as the examples given above, but at the same time that can make them even more pernicious, when they are not recognized — in which case they can govern our lives in ways that we may be totally unaware of.

    Each identity we have is like a piece of cloth. We can take it on or take it off; we can tightly wrap it around us or we can wear it lightly; we even can forget that we can take it off, and wear it day and night, as if it were our skin.

    The invitation during the 9-second breaks is to become naked. To drop any and all idenfitications, temporarily, during 1% of our waking life, leaving them to play out to their heart's content during the remaining 99% of the time.

    And again, we can do that in two ways. We saw that taking a break from typing could be done literally, taking your hands off the keyboard, while taking a break from driving should be done differently: by all means keep your hands on the steering wheel, but allow your attention to free up beyond the narrow focus we tend to fall into. Similarly, when I drop my identification with being Dutch or male, I don't have to burn my passport or undergo a surgical sex change. It is sufficient to be more open to how it would be to have a different nationality or gender. And that implies: allowing yourself the freedom of acting and responding to situations in ways that would normally not be associated with the standard identities you carry.

    Seeing what Is

    The 9-sec suggestion, to drop what you have in order to see what you are, is a tall order. Chances are that you won't get very far, at first. And that's fine! The first step is to simply remember to take mini breaks. The second step is to use those breaks to relax, sit back, breathe — we often forget to `just breathe'! After we get comfortable with the first two steps, we can slowly move toward dropping what we have.

    In the middle of an activity, it is hard to drop our identification with the roles we play. Taking a break is almost a prerequisite. And if we don't relax during such a break, we won't have much of a chance to drop that identification. But once we stop briefly, and let it all go, look up and smile, we have a chance to notice what it is we are glued to. What was the role I was so involved in, just a second ago? What was it that kept my muscles tense, my eyes focused, my whole posture, physically and mentally, so directed toward an activity?

    Asking that question, time and again, during the various mini breaks, will quickly open a whole landscape of roles and identities — a huge wardrobe of roles from which we pick and choose, often without much awareness. And the more we see, the more we can unbutton some of these clothes, or take them off and put them aside for a while.

    After some time we get comfortable with this third step, from stopping to relaxing to dropping. We can then ask the question, as a fourth step: what happens when we keep dropping our overly tight identifications? Is there no end to this? Is it like an onion where you can keep peeling layers and layers and layers without finding anything underneath?

    This is a central question. It is the question of Being.

    To the extent that we get better in dropping what we have, can we begin to see what we are? And does it even make sense to ask that question? Can we learn to see what is, beyond all the many layers of properties and attributes that we have?

    There is one problem here, in using words: as we have seen, we tend to use the words "is/am" or "to be" casually, as in "I am an astrophysicist" or "I am a European." But a quick inspection shows that those are all identities we have. What we are after now is to see what is left after dropping what we have. The "is" or "being" of what is left then is very different from the "is" that we use when we really mean "have".

    For simplicity, let us use lower case "is", "am", "be" and "being" for what we have, and capitalized "Is", "Am", "Be" and "Being" for what is left when we drop what we have.



    Written by Pema Pera as a group e-mail in August 2009, during the countdown to the PaB Retreat.

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