The Teachings Of UM

A story of rediscovery and unlearning

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 19
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

John Perkins lives in New York City.

I COULDN’T SHAKE THAT NEWS ITEM out of my mind. My local paper had run an article which described a person it called "an unsung sage and an unrecognized master." The point of the article was that there are often wise and wonderful people right at our elbows if we could learn to listen to them the right way. It was a good thought, but I wasn’t content to leave it there. Lured on by some inner voice, I knew I wanted to talk to this "unrecognized master" myself.

Of course, he found me. It happened on the third day of an otherwise frustrating search. I sat on a park bench reading some notes. He came upon me from behind and pinched me on the shoulder.

Unrecognized Master (UM): Hullo! Looking for me?

me: Well, yes, if you’re . . .

UM: Yes, I am. And you must be . . .

me: As much now as ever.

UM: The article brought you?

me: Yes, I have some questions, if you don’t mind. (The UM nodded.) Um . . . first, how old are you?

UM: Funny you should ask that. It’s the darnedest thing but I seem to go from 6 to 100 without ever getting stuck anywhere. How old do I look now?

me: About 50.

UM: 50? Okay. Write that down. It’s as good as any. What do you want to talk about? Nothing serious I hope.

me: As a matter of fact, just that.

UM: You mean "nothing serious"? You mean play? (I nodded.) Don’t pull my leg. I’ll pull yours first. (With that he grabbed my foot and began pulling me across the grass as I bounced along on one foot.)

me: Hey, be careful will ya!! You might get grass stains on my new designer jeans.

UM: I thought you said you wanted to play. (He let my foot go.)

me: Not just yet. I want to talk about it, understand it.

UM: There’s not much to understand. You can underrun play or overstand play or overrun play. But understanding is difficult and I can’t say much more until we’ve played a game of tag. (He reached out quickly and touched me on the shoulder.) You’re "it".

me: But, er . .

By then he had run off laughing. I followed, since I wanted to talk some more, but he remained firm that I wouldn’t get answers until I tagged him. By the time I tagged him, I had forgotten all about the interview. The UM turned out to be a very inventive and skilled tag player. I think because he gets more practice. He saw the heart of the game as evasion and he put his feet and body and head and heart into it. And though I ran faster, I failed to anticipate obstructions and dead ends and so made myself an easy prey. He seemed to see no obstacles at all – only ways to obstruct and frustrate me.

But after a while the frustrations melted away and I stopped feeling like myself. And curiously, I felt totally myself. Since tag is a game for eight year olds, that’s the age I became. Lost in the magic change from prey one moment to hunter the next. Lost in the music of my legs doing things underneath me, my torso. Touching my foot didn’t mean you had touched me. I laughed and played – both together – eight year old and me today, blended into one joyous person playing an eternal game of tag. I forgot how long we played or how we got to be seated again at the bench where I had left my notes. I felt tired and dirty and joyous and, well, free. Released like a bird let out of a cage, I felt the mingled sensations of escape and weightlessness.

The UM looked younger by years and I seized upon his relative quiet to pepper him with some of my questions.

me: Is there any way to do what we just did better and more often than I do now?

UM: And how will you know when you’re better?

me: I don’t know. Maybe I’ll play more and perhaps I’ll do everything differently. I only play now when I get the chance . . . or I’m dragged into it.

UM: (mockingly) "When you get the chance." When you get the chance. Geez, play always! Play at life, play at work, play at play. Milk it out of things. Wedge it into the context if you have to.

me: Does that mean I must . . . un-learn my seriousness?

UM: Right, and upright, I guess. You can also untry to unachieve your undesires. Think of everything backwards for a week. Sdrawkcab gnihtyreve. Now listen for the fun of it. And then unlisten for the unfun of it. Then unfun the unlisten and unhear the unheard. This is fun . . . and unfun, too.

me: You un-are un-making un-fun of me.

UM: You catch on fast. Unbravo. Why did it take you so long to relearn this?

me: You always focus in on language like this?

UM: Perhaps I do. Language forms just the most flexible, universal, and meaningful part of expression. And play is a way of expressing or a style of doing or a stance of beingness to the world and ourselves.

me: But wait, you must agree that babies and other mammals without language have been observed at play.

UM: Yes, but language works as a sort of shorthand way of telling us how we should feel inside. To work with people is vastly different than to play with them. See what I’m trying to say? At some level of understanding everything becomes a game.

me: I suppose that’s the message of the Buddhists – that everything is illusion.

UM: Right and upright. Look, got your breath back?

me: Maybe….

UM: Good, let’s walk up that hill and watch the kids play. Maybe you can see something my words might miss. (We began to walk up the hill.)

UM: Of course illusion has another side, it’s called reality. And I gotta tell ya, these two are glued to each other. We can try to distill them out and talk about them but on the unspoken level, the level of the mystics, there’s no talk.

me: First you tell me language is important, then you say drop it. Are you playing games?

UM: Ever see a potter make a vase?

me: Yeah.

UM: How does he do it?

me: Well, he, or she, takes a lump of clay and hollows it out.

UM: In a way, what I’m talking about is hollowing out life using language instead of hands. Not to leave it empty inside but so that we can fill it with meaning.

me: I don’t understand.

UM: I didn’t expect you would. Look (he pointed to a group of boys to the left). See those boys playing "King of the Hill"? How do you know what they’re playing?

me: I recognize the rules, I guess, and the postures.

UM: Yes, you see? Memory and language let you see the structure and pattern of what they do, the outside of the vase, and within that they can play their game.

me: Okay, I’m beginning to see. My dictionary connects play with the ideas of risking, pledging for a stake, exercising oneself, rejoicing, and dancing.

UM: Fine, I think. Let’s play around with that. Play is pledging for a risk.

me: Or exercising for a dance.

UM: Or dancing to rejoice.

me: Or risking to dance.

UM: Or pledging to rejoice.

me: Or dancing to exercise.

UM: Or exercising a risk. Play can be one continuous exercise in exercise. Play with life and life plays back.

me: Play it as it comes. Play it as it lies. Play it out. What do you do on play day?

UM: You’re doing okay. Why come see me?

me: I begin to forget.

UM: Good, we’ve made progress.

me: Why don’t we all do it: All the time? Look at the kids . . . their purity of being part of their game.

UM: I can’t answer your questions. All I can say is, imitate if you can. Children believe. If you’re playing tag and not "it," it is a matter of utmost concern not to get tagged.

me: While we played tag I had a flashback to a time when, as an eight year old, I would put in a lot of hours playing that game. I felt the same abandon today I used to feel then.

UM: Very good. I had an idea that would happen. That shows you can re-know, or recognize, your play-ability. Let today and yesterday be remembered as you live in the moment.

me: But. ..

UM: (impatient) Look, and listen. I’ll say it another way since you need, or seem to need, words. You only need to learn four things to play always, waking, sleeping, anytime. The first is enjoy everything. Everything can be, and should be, lived. The pleasures and the pains. Use your senses with imagination. Look at your arm. What sound is the sunlight falling on your arm? (I concentrated on my arm.)

me: A bunch of friendly people yelling at me from a distance. (I said, surprised.)

UM: Okay, enjoy your senses. Let them cross communicate. As you work on that, relearn how to pretend – another type of stretching. If you want to be courageous, then pretend that you are; and proceed by make-believing, pretending and acting as if you were.

me: But that’s not honest, is it?

UM: What’s honest – and who will know? It won’t be easy, but act on it, and stay with it. If you act with pretend-courage, don’t go back to your old self or people will see you were just pretending. What you want to be, believe it, and you are. "You had the power to go home, Dorothy, the whole time. Just click your heels three times . . . "

me: "And repeat there’s no place . .. like home . . . " So. One, enjoy my senses. Two, I gotta believe.

UM: Okay, three. (I feel like I’m briefing you for a committee hearing!) Okay, sir, the third point is: Accept change as permanent. Accept the now, and know it must change to a fresh now, always. You can’t stop it. Let the changing change you and change with the changing.

me: It’s something like me being here talking to you because of that article? I wouldn’t have guessed that something out of that paper could lead to this sort of thing.

UM: That’s a little lesson in dipping into life with serenity or Serendipity for short. Serendipity is when something of value comes to you without your looking for it. The fourth point is, bring all your learning together and then let go, forget and go play. But bring it together again and then let go again. Inhale . . . and exhale. Inhale and exhale. Inhale and exhale.

me: You mean breathing. What has that do with play?

UM: Anytime you think of breath or breathing remember me. Then think about this conversation and what you learned. It’s through our breath that you stay alive. Breathing means living. To breathe life into something is to see all of the possibilities; and see all of the non-possibilities.

me: And unsee all of the non-possibilities. So . . . to breathe life into myself . . . to have possibilities, something to choose from . . .

UM: To play. It’s not whether you win or lose, or even keep score; but that you play. Play for unpoints when you win, or try to unwin without losing.

me: What does that mean?

UM: It means nothing, no-thing, non-sense. Just playing with words. To win yourself in the process of play, wins. To lose yourself in the process of play, wins.

me: What counts is the process.

UM: Precisely.

me: You look younger, a lot younger.

UM: It’s one of my favorite subjects and I don’t get much chance to talk about it. Anything else? I must go.

me: Do you have a motto or saying I can tell myself to remind myself to play?

UM: Play and the whole world plays with you.

me: Play and the whole world plays with you. Thank you. I will remember that.

UM: (He gave a short laugh.) If you remember just that, I think you would’ve missed a lot. But thank you, too, I’ve enjoyed our talk.

With that he turned his back to me and faced the sun. He made a great feline stretch, and then, keeping his arms up and open to receive a tribute of songs from the sun, he walked away without looking back.

Keep Smiling

by Allen Klein


You probably know why it’s the longest – because there is a mile between the first and last letter. It’s also the shortest, because a smile is an instant communicator, and the quickest because a smile is the easiest way to get rid of your doldrums.

On the surface, the simple act of turning up the corners of your mouth provides an instant connection between you and a stranger. There are no language barriers when you are smiling. That smile on your face is a light to tell people that your heart is at home.

On a deeper level, when you are smiling, you are also triggering happier memories within your body. According to a study from Clark University, it doesn’t matter whether you are smiling for real or faking it. A phony smile is as good for you as a genuine one.

That is why Dr. David Bresler, former director of the pain control unit at the University of California in Los Angeles, prescribes two smiles a day to his patients in pain. Each day they must face themselves in the mirror and smile.

The hardest thing you can do is smile when you are ill, in pain, or depressed. But this no- cost remedy is a necessary first half-step if you are to start on the road to recovery.

Smiling can not only help you get well but also stay well. According to Dr. John Diamond author of Your Body Doesn’t Lie, smiling increases the flow of thymus secretions necessary for a balanced immune system. Moreover, he notes that just viewing a smiling face gives you more life energy.

It even pays to smile. Smiling waitresses boast of getting bigger tips than non-smiling ones and thugs report not robbing stores with grinning counter clerks.

It all goes to support that song from the Broadway show Annie: "You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile" advises that what really matters is not what you wear from head to toe but what your wear from ear to ear.