An advantage in conceiving of play as a metanoic phase is that we can more easily see that the functions of play change as the neurocognitive system matures. This is especially so for the higher mammalian species, like the chimpanzee, wolf, dolphin and human, among whom play behavior continues into adulthood. Although interest in the study of play is often focused upon early life (e.g., Schwartzman 1978), this continuity of play throughout life suggests that play exercises a significant function in optimizing development, not only in childhood, but at each and every level of maturation.
There have been numerous stage theories pertaining to the maturation of consciousness throughout life, including those of Gregory Bateson, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson. The theory most useful to us at the moment, however, is that of Abraham Maslow who spent much of this career studying advanced development among humans, and who operationalized advanced stages more clearly than most. He spoke of a hierarchy of needs and readily admitted that relatively few individuals in any society ever reach the higher levels of personal growth, due to the press of adaptation and the distortions imposed by enculturation (Maslow 1971:26).
The two most immature stages are those centered upon satisfaction of physical needs (like food, air, sex), and the need for social bonding and security. The third stage is that of self-esteem which involves satisfaction of needs to master activities in the environment. Metanoia operating in the two lower stages would produce physical and social play, respectively, while metanoia in the third stage may produce mastery of sports and other advanced games.
The two higher levels of development Maslow called self-actualization and transcendence (Maslow 1968, 1971:280-295). These two involve the satisfaction of "metaneeds" or "being needs" that are derived from a stance of sufficiency and autonomy, and that may be distinguished from needs characteristic of lower stages in development that derive from deficiency and dependency (so-called D-needs). A self-actualizing person is one who is fairly healthy and whose energies are focused on satisfying the needs for justice, wholeness, beauty, optimal self-knowledge, etc. Pursuit of these needs may produce "peak" experiences of creativity, ecstasy, rapture, etc., often given religious interpretations. The transcending person is one who requires transpersonal experiences for optimal growth. He or she encounters "peak" experiences more readily.
The sense one has from Maslow's scheme is that each stage is produced by a reorganization of the nervous system that must complete itself before development of a higher organization and its needs may emerge and be satisfied. We have developed the view elsewhere that many polyphasic cultures at least tacitly acknowledge a hierarchy of needs in the sense that they encourage activities (dramas, rituals, games, performances, etc.) leading to metanoic phases of consciousness which optimize individual development into the range of self-actualization and transcendence (Laughlin et al. 1986, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990).
This is the aspect of metanoia and play that emerges most clearly in the study of esoteric shamanic and religious practices cross-culturally (see e.g., Norbeck 1974, 1975, 1979, Bourguignon 1979). This is so because the kind of play behavior required for the culturally guided realization of higher phases of consciousness often takes the form usually recognized by anthropologists as ritual. As Frank Manning (1977:156) notes, it is the playful quality of rituals that evokes the "otherworldliness" of polyphasic experiences. For example, this aspect is dramatically evident in the practice of masking in ritual performance (e.g., Caillois 1961:87-97, Abrahams 1986, Young-Laughlin and Laughlin 1988), a once wide-spread cultural phenomenon that provides a classic case of transformation from imitation to realization (or in Caillois' terms, from "simulation" to "vertigo").
Play and the Hierarchy of Needs
I would like to offer just two of the many possible examples of "play" in the transcendental sense that I encountered during the course of fieldwork among various contemplative traditions. The first example involves intentional metanoia during the waking phase of consciousness, accompanied by behavior, and the other during the dream phases involving little or no behavior. I hope in this way to illustrate the essential homology between metanoic phases whether or not there is behavior involved.
Maulavi (Sufi Dancing). Sufis will ritually dance in order to realize in direct experience a state of mind that is at one with the totality and flow of the universe. The task in the dance is to spin around to music while visualizing a central crystal-form axis running up the center of the body and colorful streams of energy flowing out of the palms. The tempo of the music is slow at first, then it speeds up until one is spinning quite rapidly, and then it slows down again toward the end. When I did this, there reached a point in the dance when concentration intensified and the consciousness shifted to the awareness of the whole universe spinning around the axis of my body -- it was the world that was spinning, not me. The experience was associated with rapture and a sense of unity with the world. When concentration was broken by thoughts about the experience, I immediately lost balance and fell down. The whole adventure was very playful and involved behavior. It is in fact the quickest route to flow I have yet experienced.
Tibetan Dream yoga. Tibetan yogis are encouraged to explore their dream life by transforming their bodies in their imagination into the body of a deity. While imagining themselves as the deity, they enter the dream phases during the night, maintaining as much awareness as they can muster. Among the several techniques I learned while working on the dream yoga (see Chang 1963:88-94), two were particularly effective. One was to concentrate intensely (i.e., produce hyperintentionality) upon a radiant ruby sphere about the size of a pea in my throat while drifting off to sleep. This accentuated awareness of the lucid imagery arising in the hypnagogic warp that is normally not noticed by a person falling to sleep. I was eventually able to maintain a flow of rich imagery while completely conscious for up to a half hour or more, often while experiencing intense rapture and loss of both ego-awareness and awareness of the external world.
The other technique I "played with" during dream yoga work was to build a plywood sleeping box (4 feet on the sides and 3 feet high) cushioned inside with foam rubber. I slept sitting upright in the box for three months in order to break the conditioned association of laying down with unconsciousness during sleep. This is a traditional Tibetan tantric technique and was a difficult one to accomplish, for the desire of the body to lay down was great. Yet the practice did eventually effect a significant increase in the awareness, lucidity and active participation in dreaming. To some extent I could decide where to go and what objects to attend while in the dream. As difficult as the practice was, I very much had the sense of playing with and within dreams, and was far more mindfully and wilfully active as a player than in normal dreaming (see Hillman 1987, n.d.). In both techniques behavior was insignificant to the "play" with imagery essential to the yoga -- the ruby sphere practice involved no behavior while the sleeping box involved only the re-conditioning of sleep-related body posture.