June 11 The Power of Play


The Power of Play 

This week, we have three guest facilitators from Stillwater Mindfulness Practice Center, Carlos, Wonder and Eric. He says this:

Recently, the three of us were gathered together for a discussion that became rather playful. We shared stories and experiences that drew lots of laughter and seemed to break down the barriers of our vulnerability to the point that we were all willing to share at a little deeper level. This experience piqued our interest in bringing this topic to the Sangha for a Dharma discussion and an opportunity to play together, and so this will be our topic this Thursday evening. It will center on this question:

What is play and is it an importantpart of your mindfulness practice

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, has spent an entire career studying play, and many of the insights we discuss below can be found in greater detail in a TED talk that he presented and a book he wrote on the topic of play. Dr. Brown became interested in play during his medical training while doing a pediatrics rotation. He was working in a pediatric Intensive Care Unit where he encountered a 2-year-old child who was extremely ill with viral meningitis and who was mostly unresponsive. He had been monitoring this young patient’s lab test results for several days, and one morning he came into the room and said hello to the young patient. The boy responded with a big smile and reached his hand out to him. Later that day, he checked the boy’s labs and noted that there were no differences from the day before, and in fact, the lab results did not show signs of improvement until 24-hours after the boy regained his ability to smile. It made a deep impression on him that it was the smile, which is the human play signal, that came back long before the 25 medical parameters that he had been monitoring.

Stuart describes play as a trait that is primal, pre-conscious, and pre-verbal. It runs deeper than species and gender, and most importantly, play is a thing of beauty that is better experienced than defined. Stuart does not give an absolute definition of play because its definition varies greatly by person, and it must be experienced to be fully understood. However, some characteristics of play are:

  1. Purposeless activity done for the sake of doing it with no other expected outcomes
  2. Spontaneous activity done for its own sake
  3. An activity that appears purposeless
  4. Guilt free purposelessness

The power of play is that it is intensely pleasurable, it energizes and enlivens us, it eases our burdens, it renews our natural sense of optimism, and play opens us up to new possibilities. Play promotes survival because it allows an individual to explore the natural world, push defined boundaries, and have fun in the process. Stuart’s research on play deprivation suggests that play shapes the brain. Play fosters empathy and makes complex social interactions and the development of group activities possible. In fact, Stuart argues that play lies at the core of creativity and innovation and allows us to be free of the constraints of time and to experience a diminished consciousness of self. It allows us to explore new ways of thinking and behaving so that we are not locked into a rigid way of doing things, are open to variation, see things in a different way, and gain new insights. Play allows us to break down barriers that separate us from others and fosters connection with others.

Often, the times that we feel most alive, that we remember most vividly, are moments of play. After the terror attacks of September 11, what people remembered about their loved ones was play moments. Family members remembered their loved ones who died in the attacks with the following titles to obituaries that appeared in the March 31, 2002 New York Times:

  1. A spit ball shooting executive
  2. A Frank Zappa fan
  3. The Lawn King
  4. A practical joker with a heart
  5. A lover of laughter

The ability to play is critical for happiness, sustaining social relationships, and being a creative and innovative person. According to Stuart, remembering how to play and making play a part of daily life is the most important factor to being fulfilled. From play we learn how the world works and how to have relationships, we learn how to discover and follow rules.

Sadly, in this modern technology driven society, we are taught that play is a waste of time as we age, and that we should be more focused on productivity. However, the research on play indicates that play is a catalyst, just a little play each day can make us happier, more fulfilled, and much more productive. It is important to find and exploit your play personality.

Our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, captures the essence of play in this quote: “Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy.”

This Monday, June 11th evening, we want to explore how we can play together. For our Dharma experience we will focus on play. Please feel free to bring a short, playful activity that you can share with the group. In addition, we will have some time at the end to discuss our experiences with play as we address these questions:

  1. How do you play?
  2. How important is play to your life and your mindfulness practice?
  3. How do play and mindfulness overlap in your life?

You are warmly invited to join us!

With much joy and playfulness,

Eric, Carlos, and Wonder