Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Ego, Soul, Competition and Play

I'm in the shuttle bus to JFK airport thinking about competition.
Almost all of the games at come out and play were competitive. They were silly, but there was a certain prestige to having the skills, wit and grace to win and a certain sense of being a loser when you lose. I'm curious about that because most Fun Fed games are not competitive. The difference seems to have quite profound implications for who comes, the experience they have, and the nature of the organisation putting on the fun.

Most of the games here are rooted in computer game culture so they revolve strongly around a central axis of rules comprising the objective, the catch / challenge, winners, losers and prizes.
I did some research for the Fun Fed a few years ago into understanding what fun is. The people I spoke with seemed to gravitate around a shared idea that the ego is a big issue in play, because the ego is very bad at play. It tries to control everything, and gets too serious about winning and losing. It's more selfish than generous. Good play happens when the ego gets out of the way.
I've found the same to be true of love.
How do we think about the ego? Let's say it's a very important part of ourselves (that's my ego talking :)) - the sense of 'I' that enables us to look after our own shit. What it's mainly doing in any situation is figuring out what success is in that situation, and doing what it can to get success and avoid failure.

In that research I ended up conceptualising the rules of the game as a hook to distract the ego so that the rest of the human can come out and play. The interviews I conducted suggested that people get a lot of joy when their bodies, hearts and minds are all active and interactive, as opposed to the normal situation where our minds tend to dominate. So when the rules of the game are, eg, to hit as many people as possible between the shoulder blades without being hit yourself, your ego gleefully gets on with achieving success and avoiding failure, while the rest of you is freed up to whoop and leap about with people. Fun.

The NYC games tended to have a lot of complex rules and I thought, is this the ego at play? Is ego dominating play here?

What is the relationship between the rules of the little game and the rules of the big game? Is the ego dominating life here in NYC?

Yesterday I had lunch with Adam and Eve. And dinner too. Yes, these are actually their real names :) Here they are in the bar, Adam apparently checking out Eve's chest.

I met Adam in India. We were studying together at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Pune. Yoga has a lot to say about the ego.

So partly from yoga philosophy and partly from that research I did, I've come to conceptualise a human as three bits and two drivers. The bits are head body and heart. The drivers are ego and soul. There can be any kind of balance between the drivers, from min ego and max soul, vice versa, or something in between.

It's really raining.

In yoga / Hindu philosophy, the soul is part of the bigger soul. It's part of god or Life. When we listen with our souls we plug in. When we act from our souls, things get good.

The ego is disliked in yoga philosophy and the aim is at least to be able to distinguish the two 'voices' – which thoughts and feelings are ego, which are soul. It's subtle and difficult. The potential implications for wellbeing are big and interesting. I'll come back to these.

I think gold is all about soul and not much about ego.

So I went to Adam's yoga class on the lower east side on Sunday morning. It was great to see him. I asked him if he'd had much culture shock since coming back.

“Totally!” he said. “It was really hard. I had become totally unaccustomed to all the vanity and it was all I could see for a while. I couldn't connect. I stayed home. Then I got used to it again :)”

For the first few days back in London after India, all I could see around me was ego. It was loud and glaring like a flavour you've barely tasted in three months. The place made me want to scream and cry but all I was allowed to do, outside my home, was sit, stand or walk in a well behaved manner. The feelings had nowhere to go. Then I got used to it again.

The anthropologist Wade Davis asks if you could distil a whole country into a word, what would it be? His response: US, frontier. UK, Island.

Adam and I had independently asked ourselves the same question about New York and London. We'd come up with New York: Success. London: Pressure.

What do conditions of pressure to achieve success do but call out the ego to work it's little butt off trying to stay afloat? People are trying to be skilled, attractive, sharp, knowledgeable, well connected, stylish and so on – to stay ahead of or at least on top of the game. And this is reflected in a lot of the games created by New Yorkers– which are opportunities to either practice or demonstrate these things.

It's popular and works because it plugs right into some of the conscious and subconscious desires of young and funky new yorkers. And it's fun, and social, and what's more to want?

In the Fun Fed you tend to look weird much more often than you look stylish, and have little chance to practice or polish any skills. (not sure if that's true. There's singing. Clowning and fooling are skills. In fact, the game of acting from the soul rather than the ego that's at the heart of clowning and fooling is a real skill. Humm.) In fact a major part of the point is to have a space where you are free from any pressure to succeed.

The main thing I'm wondering about is the extent to which ego dominance is problematic or desirable.

There's a degree to which it seems like it's just survival. There are a zillion people in New York and you need to get the job and the spouse and the house and sufficient salary to run your car and cover your health insurance and to pay for your children's car and college fees to have a basic standard of living within that system. Nothing comes on a plate, there's a lot of competition and you need to stand out to get the goodies so people are working really, really hard to do that.

So then I ask questions about the impact of that on wellbeing, not even mentioning sustainability, and I reach my conclusions quickly. Then I ask questions about system, inevitability and alternative.

So the wellbeing conclusions. There was a panel discussion about games and geography at the festival and there was a female professor about my age talking wearing little hot pants and she had great legs and the emphasis was all on what was coming out of peoples' mouths but I was paying more attention to what her body said about her state of mind. I don't know why I focused on her. Maybe it was my ego doing that thing that women do that we hardly ever notice but we're doing it all the time and it's checking out women who are of a similar status, age and attractiveness to us and seeing how we compare. Because ultimately I guess we're competing for the same kind of mate and there are winners and there are losers and we all know which we'd rather be.

OK so let's be honest I was checking this woman out to see how we compare and she's on the panel and I'm not and she's got better legs than me and she's a professor and I'm not so actually I was probably just trying to make myself feel better but ok recognising that here's what I noticed. I noticed the height of her shoulders, the angle of the neck from years of a pinching tension right there at the bottom of it crunching the shoulders in and up, and the eyebrows raising in the middle in what can only be described as a habitual look of something like sadness and even though she had a cheeky, playful glint in her eye, my overall impression was that this woman was suffering a bit from just trying so hard.

New York: Success.
London: Pressure.
My two most beautiful, successful female friends have both been struck with a nasty case of chronic fatigue and my beautiful uber-achiever sister got to a stage where she felt like she was on a boat when she wasn't. The doctor diagnosed stress and prescribed a month of doing nothing.

I used to feel under loads of pressure and it felt shit and I went a bit mental about ten years ago. I was in a band at the time and there's a lyric from a song I still remember: “the weight of a winner's thoughts is enough to crush”

But are you a winner? I wasn't being “a winner” when I wrote that, I was on the verge of a breakdown. Is the ego doing such a great job at helping us out? Everyone keeps saying I have the most amazing job in the world, but the way this job came about has nothing to do with ego and much more to do with the thing that Pauline the coach talks about – the “when you sit quietly what you need lands in your lap” - thing. More on that in 'what I mean when I use the 'god' word' section that I've written but don't quite have the balls to post yet...

How I got this job

In 2005 I went to Buddhafield festival and stumbled across about 80 people playing rough and tumble games on the 'village green.' It looked amazing and totally new and fantastic and I watched mouth open for a bit and gingerly approached.

I played games with them – run by the wonderful Jayaraja – every morning for the rest of the festival.

On the way home I sat on the train thinking “I feel great.” I pulled out my note book and did a spider diagram of all the reasons I could think of for why I felt so great. Then I went around each of them and wrote an action by each. By 'playing games' I wrote: 'find opportunities to play games in London. If they don't exist, create them.'

The next day there was a new girl in the office. She looked great and I sidled gently up to her over the kettle. We had lunch and made friends. I asked her what she was doing – the hub is a shared office space. She said, 'well, er, it's a bit weird, but this guy has just hired me to create an organisation that does games for adults.'

I exploded and bounced around with excitement and put her in touch with Jayaraja and generally kept bouncing around enthusiastically just because I was enthusiastic, then they asked me to do a piece of research for them, then I started facilitating some team away-days, then I came on as a freelance strategic advisor in 2006 or 2007.

In January 09 I was in India at the yoga institute. I was applying for PhDs in political economy because I wanted to redesign models of business finance because I thought – and think – they're a key driver behind unsustainable economic growth, consumption and the materialisation of just about everything. I'm pretty sure the other driver is our values.

It was Saturday. On Thursday I'd submitted my application to Cornell, my first choice University, and on Friday I'd taken my GRE (exam for going to grad school in the US) with about 10 days preparation – nuts. On the Saturday I slept a long time then awoke and went next door to the Institute which was celebrating its 34th anniversary with a concert of Indian classical music. I sat cross legged in the audience. Right then, I said. I've got it. My plan, all figured out, I've done my best, OK.

Yes, said a little voice inside me, but where is the great eastern sun?

The next moment Atul began to play the violin.

Within two minutes I had tears rolling down my cheeks. Before long I was transported. When his group finished playing, a room of 200 erupted into a long standing ovation.

This is gold! I thought. Concerts can be gold! Man, I should just travel the world for a year finding this kind of stuff and bringing it back for the Fun Fed and everyone.

After the concert I spoke to Atul, got his phone number, and went home and emailed the team. “We should have concerts!” I emailed Graham. “How about I travel the world for a year looking for gold?”

I slept.

The next morning when I awoke there was a message in my inbox.

“Sounds like a great idea.”




I left it a few days, and wrote back. “Are you serious? If so, I'll postpone PhD applications and defer Cornell place if I get it. Can you let me know how serious you are?”

the answer came.

“Subject to cost, 100% definitely.”

Atul became my singing teacher and something like a musical guru. I talked to him about our idea of gold. “Ah yes yes but that doesn't come easily!” He said. “First you must surrender yourself to God.”

He says there are six stages to being a musician.

  1. You're a good listener

  2. You enjoy your playing

  3. Other people enjoy your playing

  4. You can become transported through playing

  5. You can transport others in your playing

  6. Samadhi (becoming dissolved in the divine. This is also one of the ultimate aims of yoga.)

To conclude, then:
do you need to surrender yourself to God to have gold swimming through your life??

IS that the same as living from soul more than ego? Does that necessarily involve quietening the ego? Is that necessarily a spiritual thing or can it be totally secular too?
Do competitive games fail to quieten the ego, so they're not interesting to the fun fed?
What do we do if that's normal and interesting to everyone else and we just seem really weird? We've become hippies I guess by that stage. I always saw us as a way to make some of the gems of hippydom more accessible to normal people. Is there a compromise? Is there a bridge? Are we a bridge?
As for Adam, he said, conquest and strategy and tactics turn him on and he's always been athletically strong so he's happy with that kind of stuff. He suggested having different kinds of role for different kinds of player in the same game, and having conquest and strategy in teams rather than individuals. But he also said, the integrity of what we're trying to do with the fun fed is a precious and beautiful thing to exist in the world and it would be sad to see that compromised.
Time to get on the plane to California.
The thinking continues.

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