“When enough people raise play to the status it deserves in our lives, we will find the world a better place.”
- Stuart Brown, in Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul
My latest inspiration is a fascinating book on play by play specialist, Stuart Brown. Inquiring into the purpose of the seemingly purposeless activities of play, Brown acknowledges that animals that play have larger brains and better survival rates. Humans who play stimulate development of several important areas of the brain. These include the amygdala, which processes emotions and emotional memories, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which processes executive decisions, and is involved in such functions as commitment in relationship and being able to see things from another person’s perspective.
One might think that play is essential to human performance. Perhaps, the modern, western attitude toward play as a waste of time has outlived its period.
The Fluid Play of Continuum
When I think about play, my mind immediately goes to Continuum Movement. It is definitely my main play activity. Although Continuum has clear purpose, which includes enhancing health, flexibility, resilience, and creativity on all levels, and we use specific breaths, sounds and movements for specific purposes, the primary effects of Continuum seem to depend on what we call, "open attention." This is a time of simply listening or being with how our body mind responds to the new context we have offered it through those breaths, sounds and movements. To me, this is a mindfulness practise. It deepens my ability to be. It also usually feels good, seduces my attention, intrigues me, and registers as fun.
As is often true with children's play, our activity in open attention is not externally prescribed or designed. We take delight in the novel, the unknown, the unpredictable. We orient towards pleasure. We often emerge feeling renewed and rejuvenated. The world looks fresh. Our perception has shifted. Our ability to meet what arises in our lives is mysteriously strengthened. Our hearts have opened. At the end of a Continuum workshop, the participants usually feel like important friends, if not long lost family.
Emilie Conrad, founder of Continuum, recently co-taught a workshop with Stephen Porges, who has described the polyvagal and social nervous system. This system includes the amygdala mentioned above, and other structures contributing to our ability to perceive and appropriately interact with social cues. Inspired by Porges, Conrad has realized that Continuum can be used to stimulate the facial muscles and senses in a way that supports the social nervous system.
All of this is sounding much like play to me!
Broadening the Definition
Continuum is only one way to pursue play. When I look at my life, I must admit that most of it fits the definition of play in some ways. Even my work.
If play is defined as a safe environment in which to try things out and develop skills of living, I cannot resist looking at therapy, and even Biodynamic Craniosacral therapy, as an example.
In Biodynamics, the client is mostly lying quietly on a massage table while the practitioner sits quietly with hands gently holding the client's head, feet, sacrum or other body part. How can this be play?
There is an important aspect of Biodynamics that I see as bringing it into the realm of play, or at least a near relative. We call it the relational field. Coming into relationship with the client is a carefully cultivated art in Biodynamic Craniosacral therapy. We aim to create a safe relational field where the client can deeply settle. Within that field, no action is required. There is nothing the client needs to do. The practitioner, also, primarily practices resting into the larger field of the Breath of Life, supporting its mysterious work. As in open attention in Continuum, we intend a particular context or environment for the tissues, cells and psyche, and observe how the bio-intelligence unfolds. This, to me, is play of the highest order!
Other kinds of therapy also provide play opportunities. A general intention of psychotherapy is to provide a safe environment in which to explore and repair wounds of the psyche. A soothing massage may allow the client to rest into an imaginal world where, like in dreaming, new perspectives flourish. Creative, expressive therapies are clearly utilizing play for healing.
Play in Life
If play is a purposeless activity that fulfills important life-generating purpose, how can we get more of it in our lives? In these challenging times of rapid change and diminishing resources, this may be an essential question to be living.
How can play more in our lives?
Everyone these days seems to know that it is important to take time off, and to have balance between work and play in our activities. At the same time, how many people do you know who complain about life speeding up, and not having time to engage in their hobbies, take that trip they've been dreaming about, or even go for a walk?
Life in the 21st century is full speed. Even our recreational activities are often speedy. Television, computer games, texting friends, keeping up with Facebook, Twitter, or whatever electronic pursuit we engage in, all keep our nervous systems accelerated. I watch my fourteen-year old step-daughter playing Monopoly, a game from before my time. We play it together in the old way, the we did when I was a child, with a board on the dining room table; but when she is on her own, out comes her iPod and, behold, there is another Monopoly game! I wonder if I could keep up with the speed of it... And, her partner has become her iPod. What does this teach in terms of social nervous system and social skills?
Our nervous systems seldom have a chance to rest in our modern world. We are often set on fight-flight 24 hours a day. What does it take to create the kind of spaciousness and safety of play? Do game boys do it for us? Do our children learn the same skills on Ping as we did playing marbles with our friends? Is this play? This is an inquiry. I don't pretend to have answers. My specialty seems to be questions.
What interests me is how we can attain the kinds of benefits Brown describes for play in our everyday lives.
Spending thirty days at a time sitting meditating in silence taught me a lot about this subject. This used to be my favourite play activity until I dropped into Continuum. Both activities as mindfulness practices support me in perceiving and experiencing space in my life, even with my ridiculously full schedule. I can walk through a busy city street now and be aware of my breath and subtle sensations in my body. I can cultivate presence in any moment, even as I type this page.
I think this, too, has something to do with play. The results are similar. I am supported in meeting what arises in my life with wisdom, creativity, resilience, and appreciation. I experience pleasure. Life can be fun. Can life be play? Can your life be play?