When he traveled through India in 2008, Victor Shamas saw an unusual pair of concepts in action: play and spirituality.
A pool table happened to be in the middle of the ashram he was visiting.
"I asked, 'Why would you have a pool table in the middle of the ashram?' They said, 'We like playing pool.' Playing pool is something that created the spiritual experience that we are all looking for—moments of joy, delight, elation and ecstasy. ... We (saw) an approach to spirituality that was very much play-based," recalls Shamas.
While the word 'spirituality' may invoke thoughts of religious beliefs for some, Shamas doesn't see it that way. "To me, 'spiritual' is something that fulfills your heart, your need for connection to something greater than yourself. Even if it's just walking in nature, the connection with nature brings you outside of yourself and connects you with something much greater. It fulfills your desire to find love and joy."
Shamas, who teaches psychology at the UA, offers a new perspective: spirituality based on the notion of "divine play."
"There's no goal, nothing you have to do, nobody you have to be. In these (play) activities ... we immerse ourselves in the fun of the moment. This approach to spiritual life has been in India for thousands of years. The idea is that there is an original way that predates all religion. You say, 'What is that way?' My claim is that before there was praying, there was playing."
The definition of free-form play can take many forms. In his book The Way of Play: Reclaiming Divine Fun and Celebration, Shamas includes 108 ways of play, including: sing, ride, float, write and spin.
"It's something you do because you like to do it for its own sake," he says.
You might be wondering, as I was, how play becomes something divine. For this, Shamas outlines five intentions: Recognize the divine essence that exists in all things. Commit to awaken from unconsciousness. Dedicate whatever benefits you gain from your play to others. Tune into your inner guidance. Immerse yourself in the flow of love and joy.
It is the power of intent that transforms play into something spiritual.
The idea of dedicating joy intrigues me. As we talk, Shamas illustrates the concept with the cup of tea he's drinking. If he dedicates the delight he experiences while drinking the tea to someone or something, he says, the act of drinking that tea takes on a different nature. "It changes the cup of tea in my mind. ... It carries a different vibration and feeling."
But what of the recipient of this dedication? Can they feel the joy and delight? Shamas explains, "If we are all connected to the same essence, then my happiness is your happiness."
While everyone may not agree on connectivity, simple play is something that has no division. "To play with me," Shamas asserts, "believe in anything you want to or nothing at all. ... Do it with an open heart, an open mind, with no expectations and no agenda."
Tucsonans have been playing with Shamas for the last 15 years. He started a chanting circle with 10 people in attendance. It's grown to 150 members. There are four circles in Tucson, with one in Oro Valley and another in Green Valley. (Visit actonwisdom.com/global-chant for info.)
Shamas is also the founder of Play Haven, "a nonprofit that is promoting group-play activities for people of all ages. ... It is conceived as a multi-generational organization that encourages people to play together." (Visit playhaven.org for more info.)
The groundbreaking for the physical Play Haven location is scheduled for early 2011. Land has been purchased, and Shamas envisions lots of activities, such as group-movement circles, chanting, shared feasts, gardening and shared art. There will be free events—not classes or workshops—run by volunteers. Shamas says, "There's no goal or objective other than a group getting together and having an enjoyable experience."
Shamas believes that playing is the future of American spiritual life and cites the increasing number of play-based groups such as laughter yoga, tai chi, art therapy, drum circles and chanting circles. "Call it what you will, but they are various forms of play being done in a group in a celebratory and intentional manner. ... It's beautiful to see someone connecting with something that moves their heart."