(Meta)Physical Education is a series about the lessons that Alex Tzelnic, a Zen practitioner, has learned while teaching gym at a Montessori school. You can read more of Tzelnic’s stories here.
Every spring, I give my students the bad news.
“Listen,” I tell them. “We’re nearing the end of the year, and I’ve finally run out of gym games. As you all know, I’m super lazy, so instead of thinking of new games, I realized you guys could do my job for me.”
I then explain Invent-a-Games, a project that lets the students create their own games while working in small groups.
Cue the fireworks. It’s as if I’ve handed over the keys to the castle, and there’s a burst of excitement and imagination. The students dig through the back closets and dream up activities using pool noodles, bowling pins, scooters, dodgeballs, tumble mats, hula hoops, jump ropes, and hockey sticks. The names of the games can be equally complex: Team Scooter Pin Down Dodgeball, Beetle Fortress 3, and my favorite, Eagle-Penny-How-About-a-Wiggle-Jenny.
Once a game has been envisioned, each group pitches their idea to me for approval. Most of the time I give a thumbs-up and hope that they’ll work out the kinks. But when one group came to me with something called Territorial Wars, with the written objective being “to claim all of the lands, or to kill destroy all of the other teams,” I nudged them in a less violent and more PE-appropriate direction.
Imagination and reality collide in the penultimate step—the testing phase—and the results can be sobering. The students realize that the rules of gravity still apply. That acrobatic, super dynamic game that uses every piece of gym equipment might be too difficult to pull off. So they pare down, make changes, and put on the finishing touches. Finally, they present the game, and we start playing.
This process of dreaming and revising reminds me of the way that many of us enter Buddhist practice. First comes the initial burst of excitement, when the imagination runs wild. I remember being a teenager with a Zen book on my nightstand, feeling like I had the keys to the universe right beside me. Within that book was a wealth of understanding that would allow me to plumb the depths of wisdom. But instead of actually reading, I spent most of my time imagining what such depth-plumbing would entail. (The book itself was dense and hard to parse.)
And actually sitting was kind of uncomfortable; it was far easier to think about contentment than to follow through with contemplative practice. As soon as all those annoying itches went away, I figured, I’d get down to the business of extinguishing the flame of desire. But if the impulse to scratch was going to be there anyway, I might as well pass the time by thinking about soccer.
“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, ” Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Wind, Sand, and Stars. During Invent-a-Games, my students often struggle with the sheer breadth of possibility. The process of taking away scooters and dodgeballs and hula hoops is the process of emptying the imagination, of dreaming big and then adjusting to reality. The end result is often far simpler than the initial idea, but also more practical and fun. The other day we played Soccer Dodgeball, which is exactly what it sounds like. The explanation was quick, and the game was exhilarating.
In consistent practice you begin to see that your initial ideas about it were just that: ideas. It can be hard to let go of the dream, of the seductive promise of ease and clarity. But in dropping those ideas, you might find yourself opening to the ease of the breath rising and falling, a clarity felt, not imagined.
Which isn’t to say the opening burst of excitement and imagination isn’t worthwhile. In The Gift, Lewis Hyde’s seminal work on the power of creativity, he writes that without “imagination we can do no more than spin the future out of the logic of the present.” Like tires spinning in mud, such immutability of spirit can never move us forward. This is what Shunryu Suzuki pointed to in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Actually sitting down on a meditation cushion requires a sense of possibility, a willingness to be open, and a hopeful naiveté. But it is that willingness itself that we should nurture, rather than the dream it stems from, for practice is far more practical and fun than we imagined. It has nothing to do with the depths but with what is happening right before our eyes. The game truly begins when there is nothing left to take away.
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