The courage to play

Me at 19, playing.

Me at 19, playing.

Going beyond the conceptual


There is a Zen story about the Buddha. He is standing in front of a large crowd waiting for him to begin a sermon. Instead, he decides to simply hold up a flower. One of the monks in the crowd begins to smile. I like to imagine that this smile grew into an even greater smile and that perhaps the monk even broke out into fits of uncontrollable laughter!


Over the years many scholars and practitioners have hypothesised about the meaning of this story. Had the monk gone mad? Was he a bit simple-minded? But the conclusion I like the best is that in that moment of seeing the Buddha holding up a flower, without words, without explanation, he finally understood what he had failed to understand until then.


Even with all the hours of meditation practice and sitting at the Buddha’s feet listening to sermon after sermon, there was still something he hadn’t quite gotten. And that something goes beyond words. That moment of seeing simultaneously gave rise to a response deeply grounded in a playful, humourous, spontaneous, fresh perspective.


Its too important to take seriously


The other morning in a mindfulness supervision session a client shared an intention to bring more humour into her teaching. It reminded me of something a colleague had also recently shared. That when she finds herself getting worked up about something, she reminders herself that whatever she is worried about is too important to be taken seriously.


I love the paradox of this reminder. Life IS important. There is something deeply poignant and mysterious about the situation we collectively find ourselves in. We are born choice-less in our manifestation, at some point in early childhood becoming self-aware, in our self-awareness discovering a world of suffering, and spend the rest of our lives wondering what its all about.


For many of us, what we lose along the way is that wonderful, spontaneous space usually afforded only to children. The space to play.


Play is something that comes naturally to children. It is an incredibly important aspect of how we learn. Play provides us a permissive space to come into relationship with ourselves and others from a place of humour, good-will, challenge and curiosity.


Although play can sometimes involve games with rules, the structure of games actually allows a special kind of freedom. The freedom to discover who we are within a safe, time bound and creative field. Add the element of competition and we begin to learn important lessons about how to be gracious in or winning and humble in our loosing. I should know, I grew up in a large, deeply competitive Latin American family!


Other types of play are more loose, allowing us to learn how to follow our own sources of inspiration and see what emerges when we let go of pre-conceived ideas of what should be. This is why I love collage and collective story-telling. There is nothing better than taking multiple fragments of seemingly unrelated parts and putting them together to reveal a new reality.


But as we grow older, most of us loose this spontaneous capacity. We become hardened to the harsh realities of life on earth. Bogged down by the burden of adulting, we bury the parts of us longing to play.


We can reconnect with these parts of ourselves through practice. Meditation seen as a form of play reveals interesting similarities. There is a structure that, as we learn to work within it, allows for more freedom. By stepping into the safety of the form, we learn to trust in our direct experience more and more fully.


And in more formless practice, a more spontaneous response to our experience slowly becomes available to us. Within the still, clear light of awareness habitual reactions can come and go while we learn to recognise and begin to familiarise ourselves with a more authentic “being with.”


Laughter as letting go


Sometimes when things get difficult, I find myself with furrowed brow, shoulders up to my ears, knees locked, thoughts circling my mind. Sometimes, in these states my immediate response is to laugh at myself. But then the judging mind steps in, telling me that to laugh would be to let go of all illusion of self-control. Laughing at myself could be the end of me, and then where would I be!?


When life gets hard we have two choices, we can either buckle down and keep doing what we usually do, whatever habits we’ve built up over a lifetime that have helped us cope with difficulty, or we can begin to get curious about what else is possible.


Me at 20, taking myself far too seriously.

Me at 20, taking myself far too seriously.

The trouble with our habits is that they are very good at convincing us that they are the better choice.


Those habits tell us they are tried and true. And that’s partially correct. They’ve worked up until now, albeit at an expense. The price we’ve paid for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and just getting on with it is a life half-lived. We have been too scared to go beyond what is known to us, too anxious to edge into the unfamiliar, too guarded to let life in, with all its sorrows AND all its joys.


Setting a playful intention


Recently I’ve been playing with bringing more humour into my life. When I am about to respond to someone, especially if I am irritated or feeling self-righteous, I ask myself what it might look like to respond with a lightness of touch and a sense of play. I’ve found myself lately searching for just the right gif or putting smiley faces at the ends of my emails, to communicate that I am in touch with my own vulnerability, happy to be challenged, and aware of how seriously I take myself sometimes.


These moments have been liberating, and surprisingly, have led to a deeper connection with others and an opening to new ways of connecting that weren’t previously available to me.


Now I could judge myself for getting to 42 before learning this lesson, but when I think back to myself in my 20s and even early 30s there was a lot of playfulness, although it often sat alongside a much more morose part of myself, the part that took myself WAY too seriously.


It is only now that I am learning to integrate these two parts of myself. To discover what it might look like to take myself, other and the world totally seriously, while laughing.