How to Wake Up Through Play (and the Wisdom of Bill Murray)

HOW TO WAKE UP THROUGH PLAY (And the Wisdom of Bill Murray) via
“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”

– Alan Watts

What is work? What is play? Have you ever wondered what the difference is? And what's the value in questioning this in the first place?

Generally, play is reserved for activities which have no greater meaning or purpose and work for activities which contribute to some greater goal or agenda (actions which do have a greater meaning or purpose). However, even that's a misconception.

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

- Fred Rogers

I got an email from ABC Mouse recently, an online learning program we use for our oldest son, and it had that quote at the top of the email. This misconception of play not having worth exists not just for children, but for adults too.

We think that as adults we have to live seriously. We think that our work and responsibilities are serious business. But we've forgotten the value of play. Or, more specifically, living with the perspective of play.

When we're children, play is all we do. Even when we're in the midst of sincere pursuits (as serious or sincere as a pursuit can be for a child) such as playing sports we still do so in the spirit of play.

However, we get older and start chasing a sense of meaning and purpose because we feel the illusory void within our heart and mind more heavily, and as a result, begin to search for a way to fill it up. This leads us to forget about play and become immersed in "serious" pursuits that require more "work" and less "play time". At least, that's what we think.

However, this void is just that- it's an illusion- and so nothing we do will fill it up. "Are you saying then that this search for meaning and purpose is also an illusion?" Yes, I am.

Before you jump on me and write me off as wrong, consider it for a moment. Consider the fact that Eastern wisdom traditions have no such conversation about a search for meaning and purpose.

This is due to what I already mentioned- it's just another shade of the illusory void that exists within us, most notably perpetuated by the ego, which we in the West suffer from most significantly (although no culture escapes it completely). This is the same void I've spoken about before which causes us to search for a medium to fill us up or "cure" us in the way of intimate love through sex and relationships as well as through wealth, power, and fame/attention.

If you grew up in the West, you may have a hard time dealing with an idea such as this, I know I would have years ago. However, we have to let go of this desire for meaning and purpose if we ever hope to realize true peace, happiness, and freedom.

"What is the meaning of life?" is a question that so interests people because they want to have that underlying uncertainty, that void, filled within themselves. But if you let go of this and allow yourself to live without the need to fulfill some greater sense of meaning then the world opens up and this feeling of voidness, ironically, begins to disappear and the complimentary feeling of fulfillment and wholeness takes its place. This, perhaps, more than anything, is the purpose of spiritual practice.

You don't need a sense of meaning or purpose to be fulfilled, happy, and at peace. True freedom isn't bound by anything, including the necessity to fulfill this illusory sense of meaning or purpose. To embrace play is to embrace this truth in action and to embody it.

To embrace the spirit or perspective of life as sincere play as opposed to serious work is in itself to let go and live without attachment. To act more spontaneously, more honestly, in each moment and to allow ourselves to adventure from time to time- even if it's nowhere but within our mind- is to live a little more freely from the conditioning which binds us and causes us to suffer in various ways.

At the heart of this is spirit, or shift in perspective, of play is both the simple shift in heightened mindful awareness that occurs when we change pattern and act more spontaneously, more openly and playfully, becoming a little less detached to the conditioning that directs us and experiencing a little bit of freedom...

...and the compassion that's generated through releasing the ego (in whatever small way letting go of our need for meaning and purpose does for us, allowing us to look upon others more often) that cultivates in us the desire to alleviate the suffering of others.

Compassion can be a guiding force here. Play is built upon connection, so it's in compassion that we can be guided to play through connection and therein not only nourish our own well-being but simultaneously, and perhaps most intimately, connect with and nourish the well-being of others.

Both the words "work" and "play" notate some form of action, therefore, it's really just that they're different types of action. Or, more clearly, action which can be taken from two opposite perspectives. This is why I say that play is very much a perspective which can be taken while still going about our lives in much the same way (or at least following through on the same daily actions & responsibilities).

That brings me to my point (did you see this coming?): we need to play more and work less.

However, as you may have realized by now, I'm not merely telling you we should all start leaving work early to go to an amusement park (not that it's a bad idea!). I'm saying we need to change the perspective with which we act from in each moment. The perspective we take in our life as a whole. It's this perspective, this understanding, which is the key, not any specific change to your daily actions (although there will be a change, however subtle).

However, understanding what this may look like in everyday life is difficult without clear examples. Unfortunately, explaining this is also very difficult. But, lucky for us, we have an incredible living example of this in one of my favorite actors of all time: Bill Murray.

The Wisdom of Bill Murray

To find an example of what it might look like to live with this spirit of sincere play, you don't have to look very far. Few people exemplify living with this spirit of play as actor Bill Murray does.

For years, I've admired the work and life of Murray without much knowledge as to why. "He's Bill Murray!", I'd say to myself and friends. Like most people, by the time I was an adult I had seen a number of his films such as Groundhog Day and Grinched, but it wasn't until Lost in Translation that I became a big fan (and continued to be through his proceeding films).

The spirit of open and free-spirited adventure which he lived with and injected into the film was what I loved most about the movie, but it wasn't until years after I began practicing meditation and Zen as a whole that I identified that.

However, little did I know, he was essentially playing himself throughout the movie. About a year ago, I ran into an interview Rolling Stone did with Murray centered around his reputation for spontaneous encounters that made me appreciate his living example even more. The article gave countless examples of this spirit of spontaneous and adventurous play in action, such as the time Bill caught a cab one night in Oakland:

"Facing a long drive across the bay to Sausalito, he started talking with his cabbie and discovered that his driver was a frustrated saxophone player: He never had enough time to practice, because he was driving a taxi 14 hours a day. Murray told the cabbie to pull over and get his horn out of the trunk; the cabbie could play it in the back seat while Murray drove...

...But his eyes light up as he remembers the sound of the cab's trunk opening: "This is gonna be a good one," he thought. "We're both going to dig the shit out of this." Then he decided to "go all the way" and asked the back-seat saxophonist if he was hungry. The cabbie knew a great late-night BBQ place, but worried that it was in a sketchy neighborhood. "I was like, 'Relax, you got the horn,'" says Murray. So around 2:15 a.m., Bill Murray ate Oakland barbecue while his cab driver blew on the saxophone for an astonished crowd. "It was awesome," Murray says. "I think we'd all do that."

And this:

"Like all of Murray's best film work, it originates in his stress-free mentality. "Someone told me some secrets early on about living," Murray tells a crowd of Canadian film fans celebrating "Bill Murray Day" that same weekend. "You can do the very best you can when you're very, very relaxed." He says that's why he got into acting: "I realized the more fun I had, the better I did." On the set, the pleasure he takes in performing doesn't end when the camera stops rolling.

"It was sometimes challenging to get Bill to come to set," Melfi says, "not because he's a diva but because we couldn't find him." He would wander away, or hop on a scooter, or drop by an Army recruiting center. The movie hired a production assistant just to follow Murray around, but he was always able to lose her.

Murray's St. Vincent co-star Melissa McCarthy confides, "Bill literally throws banana peels in front of people." I assume she's using "literally" to mean "metaphorically," as many people do, but it turns out to be true: Once during a break in filming when the lights were getting reset, Murray tossed banana peels in the paths of passing crew members. "Not to make them slip," McCarthy clarifies, "but for the look on their face when they're like, ‘Is that really a banana peel in front of me?'"

But is this just Bill Murray the comedian acting from his comedic roots, albeit in a rather unique and entertaining way? Not quite, although to separate any of this into different "levels" would be a mistake. Rather, while these are entertaining and sometimes comedic, within that Murray is acting from a place of deeper understanding.

Murray understands both the importance of awareness in a general sense as well as seemingly being in touch with the basic suffering we experience through our common challenges and difficulties and this wisdom shines through in his everyday actions. Those who have practiced mindfulness or meditation for some time (or who have read Buddhaimonia) will notice more than one interesting comment in the following quotes:

"Bill's whole life is in the moment," says Ted Melfi, who directed Murray in the new movie St. Vincent. "He doesn't care about what just happened. He doesn't think about what's going to happen. He doesn't even book round-trip tickets. Bill buys one-ways and then decides when he wants to go home."

...Doing a Q&A at a Toronto movie theater, Murray is asked, "How does it feel to be Bill Murray?" – and he takes the extremely meta query seriously, asking the audience to consider the sensation of self-awareness. "There's a wonderful sense of well-being that begins to circulate . . . up and down your spine," Murray says. "And you feel something that makes you almost want to smile. So what's it like to be me? Ask yourself, ‘What's it like to be me?' The only way we'll ever know what it's like to be you is if you work your best at being you as often as you can, and keep reminding yourself that's where home is." As the audience applauds, Bill Murray smiles inscrutably, alone in a crowded room, safe at home."

And I'll finish with this:

"My hope, always, is that it's going to wake me up. I'm only connected for seconds, minutes a day, sometimes. And suddenly, you go, ‘Holy cow, I've been asleep for two days. I've been doing things, but I'm just out.' If I see someone who's out cold on their feet, I'm going to try to wake that person up. It's what I'd want someone to do for me. Wake me the hell up and come back to the planet."

The last quote is most significant as Murray seems to express both a deep understanding of the importance of awareness, or presence, as well as an understanding of the shared suffering we all experience throughout life's challenges as well as compassion and the desire to alleviate that suffering.

So, in one swift motion, Murray gives the perfect example of play in action and expresses an understanding of the "purpose" of play, most notably through connection- spontaneous compassion in action.

Go Play

Ultimately, what does it mean to play? To try new things or simply to be adventurous without letting the inner dialogue, the critical mind, hold us back from acting spontaneously. Play is intuitive. If we listen, we will know.

Perhaps, to spontaneously and creatively answer the call of compassion is the clearest and most immediate way we have to begin living with this spirit of play.

My best advice? Begin flexing the muscle of spontaneous action by doing something unexpected when you see someone "down on their luck" so to speak. Often, a simple gesture such as this can completely reset our darkened perspective and refresh our spirit.



  1. For those interested in another good example of living with this sense of adventurous play, my suggestion would be to study His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is a bit of a different example, as he is "tied down" with the heavy responsibility of being a guiding example and advocate for the Tibetan people (and peace at large), therein he has less freedom to act on this perspective. But, perhaps because of that he serves as a perfect example because despite the heavy responsibility which hangs over his shoulders he still finds a way to live with this sense of play and spontaneous deep compassion in various ways. I've learned quite a bit from him and highly suggest looking to him for far more than just an example of this spirit of play in action.
  2. For the original Rolling Stone article visit: