Re-Learning How to Play

kittens playing: photo by artistlanas

In my last article I advocated re-learning to play, the way wild creatures do, both as a means of increasing the joy and resilience in our lives, and as a means of creating a context, a behaviour model, that will allow us to talk with others about the terrible truths of our current way of life and the inevitable crises ahead, without being dismissed as ‘doomers’ (or worse) by the incredulous, the hopeful and the deniers.

My sense is that if we could regain this capacity of playfulness in everything we do, it would positively colour our whole worldview, change how we see the world and our attitude and approach to everything we do, and hence positively affect our relationships with others. But that will only happen with practice (if it were easy we’d already be doing it).

And that change in perspective must be genuine, not forced. We must be true to ourselves. This playfulness and joy has to be an emergence of what we already are (albeit well-buried by years of cultural indoctrination), rather than an affectation or attempt to change ourselves into something we are not.

How then might we go about this? In my last article I suggested:

  • studying wild creatures and following their example,
  • practicing keeping ourselves ‘open’ to wonder and possibility (constantly asking: how can I make what I’m doing more joyful and engaging?), and
  • ‘presence’ practices to get ourselves into a space of being both relaxed and aware.

Here are some additional thoughts I’ve had about this since I wrote the earlier article:

Are We Brave Enough to Play?: I think conscious playfulness requires a certain degree of courage. Not in the sense of recklessness or insensitivity to the situation or to others, but in the sense of a childlike willingness to try something without being held back by fear of being thought foolish. For example, one of the most playful things you can do, I think, is flirting. This can be hazardous in a society in which many of could mistake your behaviour as aggressive, immature or worse, and respond with hostility. Wild creatures invite play by taking a submissive posture, and opening themselves to rejection. If we’re going to flirt as a form of play, we’re going to have to shrug off inappropriate responses, and persevere until we find willing and mature ‘playmates’. Likewise, we are going to have to be clear that this is play, and not (when it is playfully reciprocated) try to make it something more serious ourselves. Likewise, to be playful with others at a time when they are feeling sad, anxious, angry or fearful runs the risk of being seen as callous or insensitive.

Can We Be Playful and Pessimistic At the Same Time?:  I think this playful, joyful attitude and approach is totally consistent with a very bleak view of the current state of the world and a very pessimistic view of the future. It is, I think, all about giving up hope and just being, in the moment, focused on making the best of now, rather than worrying about a future you cannot control, predict or prepare for, or compelling yourself to do what your’e not prepared to do, or beating yourself up for not doing it. The underlying worldview, the ‘new story’ driving this attitude and approach is that life is an ever-present moment of amazing, joyful, playful being. That worldview does not negate the terrible knowledge of what is and what may come to be, but neither is it precluded by that knowledge. It is, however, easy to get caught up in our negative or unduly hopeful stories about the future, lose our sense of presence, and hence our capacity for playfulness.

How Can We Disable Our Ingrained Tendency to Keep Score?: Some things best to avoid in play, I think: competitiveness, objectives, scorekeeping, heavy thinking, complicated structure, and prescriptive or constraining rules. Many modern games are not play at all, but rather self-tests; we have more than enough of those in our lives already.

How Can We De-Structure Our ‘Play’ Time?:  Some semi-structured types of play we engage in, even as adults, include role plays, improv acting, music, crafts, and exploration of wild places. But our modern world is so competitive, so measured, and so directed that it is hard to keep such activities joyful, and undertake them purely for their own sake, and let go of performance scores, outcomes or intentions. At the same time, some games can be attention-consuming distractions and diversions from the reality of the moment — the opposite of real play, which is inherently present, alert to what is, and relaxed.

How Do We Learn to Let Go, As a Prelude to Becoming More Playful?: Since it’s almost impossible to rid our lives of stress and sadness, what approach can we take, and who can we learn from, to accept anything that happens with equanimity, to adapt instead of trying to control?

How Can We Self-Manage Without Becoming Less Playful?: For a number of years I’ve (occasionally) practiced an approach to dealing with complex and difficult situations that I summarize as SSUQIOC: Sense, Self-Control, Understand, Question, Imagine, Offer, Collaborate:

•    Sense: Observe, listen, pay attention. Reflect. Be Open. Perceive. Intuit.
•    Self-control: Don’t judge, expect or jump to conclusions. Stay calm. Focus. Self-manage. Breathe. Let go.
•    Understand: Assemble the facts. Appreciate the context. Know why. Sympathize. Accept. Keep learning. Let come.
•    Question: Ask. Challenge. Think critically.
•    Imagine: Picture, hear, feel what could be. Envision a better way. Suggest possibilities.
•    Offer: Consider. Give. Explain. Demonstrate. Mentor. Facilitate. Help. Make it easier/ more fun.
•    Collaborate: Co-create. Recreate. Let evolve. Yield, shift, build on, bridge, adapt.

But how can we practice this type of self-management and still be open to play, free from self-censoring? How can we be self-aware enough to keep ourselves constantly playful, without that self-awareness (and the accompanying sense of responsibility) making us anxious and inhibiting us from that very playfulness?

Prehistoric humans did not have to ‘work’; even the collaborative browsing for food in the rainforest was a playful, easy, highly pleasurable activity. Is it even possible to be playful when so much of ‘civilized’ life is serious, stressful, difficult, and not at all fun?

There is some evidence that wild creatures spend most of their lives in ‘Now Time’, mostly in play. When a stressful situation arises they shift immediately into ‘Clock Time’ — the wary, fight-or-flight state of readiness that we humans live almost all our lives in. Might there be an approach to playful self-management in low-stress ‘Now Times’ that corresponds to the composed high-stress ‘Clock Time’ self-management approach represented by SSUQIOC?

If there is, I think it might be something like the ‘HCCPEP’ approach shown in green on the right side of the chart above: Heal, Celebrate, Connect, (Be) Present, Engage Others, Play:

•    Heal: Rest, recover, recuperate.
•    Celebrate: Notice beauty. Wonder. Stop thinking and just Be.
•    Connect: With your emotions, instincts, senses, and all-life-on-Earth.
•    Be Present: Relax. Be aware and open to possibility. Let go of goals, hopes and outcomes. Get rid of distractions.
•    Engage Others: Invite. Flirt. Initiate.
•    Play.

So, to the extent that I can avoid stressful events, I could use the HCCPEP approach to become more playful, and when stressful situations arise I would switch over to the SSUQIOC approach.

Of course, this is all easy to say, and to some extent runs counter to my recent assertion that we should learn to accept ourselves for who we are, and not try to become ‘better’, or what we’re not.

But this isn’t really a self-improvement program. It’s really a reflection, I think, of who we humans are naturally when we’re not exhausted, anxious, consumed with grief, anger or fear, or distracted, or otherwise ‘off our game’. This, I believe, is how wild creatures behave — and underneath the veneer of civilization we are all wild creatures. This is really a program for re-becoming ourselves, getting out from under the schmutz — the gunk that has been layered on us that coercively tells us what we should be and should do, to the point we disconnect and cease to be ourselves.

Having said that, I think for me to follow this approach effectively will require an enormous amount of practice. We’ve forgotten how to do all these things, and they no longer come ‘naturally’ to us as they seem to do to wild creatures. Following this two-pronged approach will also require an enormous amount of presence, self-knowledge and self-awareness.

But as a framework for coping with stressful events, and for relearning to play, it has great appeal to me. So I’m going to try practicing it. I will let you know how it goes. The practice will probably not make me a ‘better’ person, but maybe it will help me re-become that amazing, alive, feral human creature I was in my preschool years — that being that I always have been, and have missed ever since I learned, miserably, so many years ago, to become everybody-else.

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5 Responses to Re-Learning How to Play

  1. Martin says:

    Or, one could hang-out with (and learn from) an unindoctrinated pre-schooler as often as possible….

  2. Sandwichman says:

    I just finished a collective bargaining session and had the good fortune to be reading David Spencer’s Political Economy of Work at the same time. What I noticed is that management talked as if they believed the standard neoclassical economics conceit about work: it is an “opportunity cost” in which leisure is exchanged for income.

    The actual experience of work, though, lies on some gradient between stress and contentment (or “flow” as Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi calls it). When work is going good it is like a dance. The body does it without the so-called “brain” thinking about it.

    Stress occurs when you have to will your body to do want you want it to do. I suspect that people drink alcohol, smoke and do drugs in an attempt to get back into their bodies.

    Prehistoric humans browsing for food? On a good morning, my work in the produce department of a small co-op grocery store in East Van is playful, easy and pleasurable. The fun stops only when I get interrupted by people who are making themselves busy “planning ahead” — by which they apparently mean worrying about how things should be otherwise rather than dealing with what is actually there.

    It seems to me that there is an extra step in separating mind and body. It is a learned incapacity. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say it is a taught incapacity. Schooling is about teaching children not to play. More precisely, it is about teaching them to “distinguish” between work and play and to regard one as extrinsically rewarded and the other as intrinsically rewarding. Then they can be purposefully conflicted between their desire for approval and their desire for fun. A lovely little neurosis.

  3. Karin de Bruijn says:

    Hello Dave,

    What a great post. Thank you.

  4. mar says:

    I think this is very important. I’m feeling more and more the need to re-learn how to play, something I forgot as I grew up, and to re-learn how to be happy and relaxed, something I forgot when I moved to North America. I’ve felt the paradox you describe: now I feel anxious about being relaxed. I’m in my early thirties and feeling this paradox is relatively new for me, and scary. I’ve forgotten how to enjoy. I used to collect feathers and leaves, picked up from the sidewalks in my hometown. Now I don’t dare to stop for more than a second to admire the perfect beauty of a cherry blossom. I’ve left the past two springs pass by without picking up even one of their flowers, which I remember completely filled the pages of my notebook the first time I ever saw them, just a few years ago.

    I’ve been recently learning about the Inuit. Before western influence, they lived through incredible hardships (and sometimes incredible abundance) yet, as described by one of the first non-natives settling up in north Alaska (Charlie Brower): “They seemed to be happier than any folks I’d ever seen. They hadn’t forgotten how to play. They faced life with optimism, laughing and joking and always more content with their lot than the crowds down south”.
    Perhaps other cultures knew or know this too, but Inupiat culture was the first thing that popped to my mind when I tried to imagine an human adult engaged in play.

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