Be the Player, Not the Played

Man With Colorful Plastic Garlands Holding a Plastic Trident
April 13, 2022

Shambhavi talks about playing with circumstances rather than being played and the continuum between addiction and the longing for connection in spiritual life. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

I wanted to ask you to talk about being a player, because I realized after I chatted with you the other day that I’ve really imported some titan ideas to what it means to be a player instead of the played.

Sure. So Abhinavagupta, one of the siddhas, practitioners, who helped to bring this tradition into the form that we have today—he lived on the cusp of the 10th and the 11th centuries, and he said that we want to be the player rather than the played.

And he meant that when we're being the played, that means we're in a condition where we're not recognizing what our real nature is. So we're like characters that are being played who have forgotten that there's an actor playing these characters.

And the analogy that I often give is if you were a soap opera actor and you went to work every day and had a grand old time playing a soap opera character and all the drama and stuff that goes into that. And then one day you just forgot that your character was just a character, and you just stayed on the set living that life.

And suddenly it wasn't fun anymore because suddenly you really thought that you were going to have to have another open heart surgery, and you'd had 47 divorces, and everyone around you is a drug addict. You know. [laughs]

And so when you forget that you're a role being played by God, then everything becomes very, very serious, whereas previously it had just been fun.

If I'm an actor playing someone who's in a lot of different trouble, or maybe you have some kind of physical disability or something like that, I'm having fun, that like stretches me. Oh, you know, I'm going to play this person who is really different from me or who has all these problems that I don't have.

Or maybe I'm playing a character, like if it were in a movie that I were watching, who was trying to stop the apocalypse from happening, running away from California breaking off of the continent and falling into the Pacific. All that stuff is fun if you're just being the player. If you're just being aware of the actor who's playing these parts.

But if you forget that there's an actor playing these parts, then everything becomes very earnest and serious. And this is the origin of suffering.

What it means to forget is that we forget what is the nature of the self, what is the nature of reality. We forget who we really are, and this is just the way that we're fashioned.

We're born with a certain degree of forgetting that then, if we have that capacity, becomes more aware of itself and then can seek out remembering, which is what we call spiritual practice. It's a process of remembering who we really are.

We all have remembered to a certain degree, or we wouldn't be in teachings. We all have remembered to a certain degree if we feel there's just something missing. There's just something I want.

That's an aspect of remembering—that desire, that cognizance that there's something missing. There's something beyond my normal way of feeling and thinking and being. There's just something, I know there's more.

Even that inchoate feeling is what Abhinavagupta said was shaktipat, was grace—that desire, that understanding. And then of course, if we have that feeling, then we seek to find the answer to our questions, and we seek them in all different places. But some of us seek the answers in doing practices and trying to relieve ourselves of our limitations.

And then when we do that, more and more, we are aware in an embodied sense that there is a self that exceeds the bounds of this little body, and that is what we are actually an aspect of. And then we can be more playful.

So being the player means that we have a lighter attitude. We have more of a sense of lightness and playfulness in our lives about all the ways that we show up and all the things that we do, and all the ways other people show up and all the things other people do also. And also even the condition of our world and everything that's happening.

So we can have more of a sense that all of this is being produced by this living essence of all of reality, and it's all continuous. There are no separate beings here. There's just one continuous aliveness that's producing all of this.

And so the result isn't that we have a more individualized sense of being this in control person who gets to be the player—capital T, capital P—the titan realm version of that.

The playfulness comes from being relieved of that sense of separateness and in control-ness and actually recognizing that everything here is a spontaneous upsurge. It's not an aspect of command, control, and capture.

Normally when we think of becoming more free, we think of being able to do what we want and get what we want. This is not what spiritual practice is for.

The way that we think of the fruits of practice—one of the many, many ways that we think of it in this kind of tradition—is as complete and utter naturalness, uncontrived spontaneity, not a sense of command, capture and control. And that spontaneity comes with the dissolution of the sense of being a separate body in space.

So being a player really means being playful in that condition of continuity and having much more range in your self expressivity. No longer being so trapped by limited karmic habit patterns. Being able to play in circumstances. So there's a lightness, not the heaviness of the titan.

There's a funny thing that a student of a different teacher said, that I want to be awake, but when I am, I won't be there to enjoy it. Meaning that the little self you have now, with its little limited enjoyment, will not be in that condition to enjoy self realization in the way that you imagine it's going to be now.

It's not that you won't have an I sense. It's just that you won't be having that enjoyment as a limited, separate being in the way that we imagined before we have realized that continuity. [laughs]

What do you mean, play in circumstance?

I mean that right now circumstances arise, for most of you, and you have habitual ways of responding to them that are predetermined by your karmic habit patterns.

So somebody's cranky and they say something to you, and you get really upset. And that happens every time someone's cranky and says something to you in a funny tone of voice.

Or things don't go the way you want them to, and you get angry.

Or someone doesn't pay enough attention to you, and you get sad.

Or you imagine those things are happening, and those emotions are being generated whether or not anything is actually happening.

So we have these habitual ways of responding. Or we have this idea that our life has to be a certain way. We have to achieve certain things. We have to be progressing in a certain way. We have to acquire certain things, and when that doesn't happen, we suffer from that.

So we're in this very, very narrow track. And when things happen outside of that track, we get upset. Or when things just arise, we respond in very habitual ways.

And this is just being enslaved, basically. This is the opposite of spontaneity, the opposite of freedom.

Playing in circumstance means that those habitual habit patterns have resolved or been reduced in their strength. And so things happen, and we can just respond to them spontaneously. We aren't entrained to a specific way of responding anymore. That's what it means, playing in circumstance.

Is there a way to play before you become enlightened?

Sure, because it’s all happening incrementally. And then sometimes something big happens, but even that isn't generally as big as people say it is.

In any case, things are happening all the time. Like, think of how you were when you first met me, and think of how you are now. Now you're free to respond to circumstances in a different way, for the most part.

That means you can actually try new things without being so sure that it's not going to work out so that you don't even try it. You're not as afraid of financial doom and gloom as you used to be—not because you have scads of money, but because you feel like you have help, which you never felt before.

There's so much that's different, and all of those things are giving you more choices, more freedom of expression, more sense of lightness, and less suffering.

I guess the only other piece that I was just sort of thinking about is all the time things are incrementally shifting [Shambhavi: yeah] and we still notice the subtle echoes of [Shambhavi: sure] karma or even the more gross ones [Shambhavi: that’s right] that are still present. How do we be lighter with those things that we still [...]?

Well that just happens spontaneously. The more you understand the real nature of reality, the more you have an embodied experience of living presence, the more your own karmas appear in the context of that.

So instead of being things that are like, you like, oh my God, I'm so or whatever about yourself. You see those things that you are manifesting as just things that are manifesting. So even though they might be painful and burdensome, you no longer like own them the way that you did.

It just becomes something that you can yield to, because none of us are going to be totally free of those things. But you don't feel as upset by them anymore.

It's possible to feel pain without suffering. It's possible to feel pain without feeling ashamed of that, or that there's something wrong with you.

When you understand that everything here is fine, everything here is made of that same wisdom. When you really understand that, then even the things that are bothersome or troublesome or heavy are just that. And so you relate to them very, very differently.

As you go along, you practice more year after year after year, there's more confidence in the process. There's more sort of relaxation into that process and recognizing it's very long. So you just do your best.

I have a follow up question for that. As we're going on in that process, is there a role or a utility of the small self as we're working to relax it?

Everything here is made by the same self. So the process of waking up is built in, and the small self is just the way that you start the game. You start the game with that. Your sense of having an individual body is your vehicle.

But to ask or to say, is it useful? Yes. But to say, should we then delay waking up because we have some intellectual idea that it's useful? No.

I'm not sure exactly where your question is coming from. But if it's coming from, like, if you want to feel better about being limited, I would say, well, even if you don't have a profound embodied experience of being an aspect of that wisdom, whatever sense you do have of it, keep reminding yourself of that. Keep going back to that.

The solution to feeling badly about not being more realized is not to attach more value to not being realized.

So I don't know if I'm even getting at what you were asking, but the solution is to keep going back to whatever small, medium, or large experience of presence you have, and keep just going back there and relaxing. Let small self do what small self does.

Don't form more identity around it or try to form a justification for it. It's just what happens. There's nothing else to it. It's just a natural phenomenon.

But what we want to be actually cultivating is our desire to be more free. We don't want to be cultivating excuses for slowing down and having obstacles. We have enough obstacles without cultivating them. [laughs]

I have a very loosely formed question about animal realm and addiction and secrecy. So if you could talk a little bit more about that.

Well, the secrecy part is really kind of endemic to our culture, and I'm sure to other cultures, too, that we're trained and taught to feel ashamed of how we are. And being secretive is one way of trying to avoid being shamed.

But I think that there must have been and be cultures in human history that don't shame people for the way they are, or don't shame them as much. And so there's not as much need for secrecy.

There are other reasons for being secret, but I'm just talking about that nexus of something like addiction and animal realm and secrecy.

As far as addiction and animal realm, they both have to do with comfort and pleasure. There's a great writer who said, I think, the most pithy and insightful thing ever about addiction.

His name is Severo Sarduy. I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that right, but he was a French Cuban writer, and he was also a tantric Buddhist, and queer, and an art critic. He was an incredible writer. I love his books.

Anyway, he said, I drink because God denies me true intoxication. He indulged in what he called beer-o-mania. That's what he called the state that he would get into—beer-o-mania. I […] know exactly what that was about.

But he said, I drink because God denies me true intoxication. God intoxication is this profound continuity, profound connection.

There's a lot of things being written now about addictions of varying stripes and the relationship of addictions to not being held in community. And that is a kind of an ordinary life way of talking about the same thing that I'm talking about.

That addiction is what? I mean we imbibe in substances, whether it's drugs or food or whatever it is, alcohol—and the boundaries of the self become more porous, they become lessened. But not in a way that is enlivening, in a way that is deadening.

So there's pain and a sorrow there that's being deadened at the same time that there is some being relieved of the boundaries of the self and the burden of the self. There's a kind of self induced forgetfulness.

And you could say that spiritual practice has that same urge behind it, but it's a remembering, not a forgetting. But the result is still being relieved of the burden of separation.

This is what Severo Sarduy meant when he wrote, God denies me true intoxication. Meaning he's longing for something that he identifies as spiritual, but he feels cut off from it, and so he drinks. And in drinking, he's recognizing in that very, very short sentence that there's something related about drinking to what he's actually longing for.

And if I can't have good food, I'm still hungry, right? If I'm in some realm where I can't get fresh organic food, I'm still going to eat because I'm still hungry. Or if I'm somewhere where I don't have good friends, I'm going to hang out with second best friends.

So this is what Severo Sarduy says about ordinary intoxication. That it's got this longing at its heart and longing for connection and continuity. And of course, now scientists are kind of catching up, as I like to say, to what yogis have known for thousands of years.

This is also why intoxicants are used in some spiritual traditions from Southeast Asia and Asia. And in fact, there's a religious observance in this tradition called Shivaratri, which is coming up, where it's traditional to drink and do ritual in a state of mild intoxication.

And I think the reason for that is it’s kind of an imitation God intoxication, hoping that it will somehow lead to more openness to actual God intoxication. So there's a big link there.

And what I would say is that our feeling of separation is not just something that's foisted upon us. I mean, it is because we're born, and then we feel separate. So it is foisted on us, I take that back. [laughter]

But then we perpetuate it because we have this conviction that we are actually under threat of some sort. We think we're these fragile little bodies with a lot of space around us. Fragile little egos, fragile little everything. And we are very self protective.

And so even though we're longing for connection, a lot of the stuff we do actually cuts us off even more.

So the teacher comes along and says, let me help you feel more connected, and you’re like, no, I'd rather drink because at least I feel in control of that. I could just go in my room all on my own and drink. I don't really want this other thing that I actually do want but I'm too afraid to grab onto that.

So I'd say for you, you have some tension around connection with other people—from the short time that I've known you, I've kind of gleaned that. I would say just try to experiment more with dropping those boundaries in whatever way you can and see if that, slowly over time, feels a little bit differently and makes it possible not to go elsewhere for not true intoxication, [laughs] or lesser intoxication.

Because the answer is getting that desire to be connected fulfilled. That's the answer. But you have to get over the hump of fear about that. We're afraid to lose the self that we want to lose. We're basically insane. [laughter]


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.