Many people think of play as a fringe benefit of life. Work comes first. Play is an “extra” that we reward ourselves with only after finishing our work. But Sunada sees it differently. On the one hand, play has a generative quality that can help us navigate successfully through life. But even more so, she sees it as an essential way of expressing life itself.
I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on National Public Radio’s show called Speaking of Faith. It REALLY made me rethink all my ideas about play! It was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the National Institute for Play — a non-profit that sponsors research on the role of play in the development of human potential.
Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless.
According to Brown, “When one really doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, no irony — things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.” He suggests that play helps us learn empathy, trust, and problem solving, and also enables us to develop our talents and character over our entire lifespan.
Play as a positive approach to life issues
Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless. Play has a generative quality to it. It brings out our sense of curiosity and imagination, and allows us to explore unfamiliar territory in an open-minded, open-hearted way. It’s free of judgment, or the need to perform or be perfect. “Mistakes” and “wrong turns” are a natural part of the process. It also reframes notions of work and effort, and allows us to explore and learn in a joyful way.
These ideas can have some big implications for how we go about navigating and creating in our own lives. Think about it. When we’re faced with something new and unfamiliar – fearful even – which approach seems more likely to elicit a helpful and creative response: one filled with methodical problem-solving, fretful worrying, and willful effort, or one filled with a more open sense of imaginative curiosity? A friend of mine recently told me of a quote (unfortunately she couldn’t remember the author) that goes: “Adults typically only use their imaginations to worry.” What a waste is that?
What I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do.
Some people might at this point object by saying that their problems are very complicated and risky, and couldn’t possibly be resolved just by playing through them. But what I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s our mental state as we go about doing things that determines the nature of what happens in our future. We certainly do need to analyze and plan our way through things. But rather than seeing them as problems, how can we view them with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than constriction and timidity?
As a life coach, I often hear clients tell me they feel stuck with their problems because they don’t know what to do next. The way they say “I don’t know” has a tone of resignation and shutting down. Rather than throwing up the proverbial stop sign, what if we looked at the situation more like being on vacation in a new, exotic place? We might have no idea what to do or where to go, but there’s a sense of wanting to find out, and being willing to try things. Wouldn’t we do things very differently if we approached the “I don’t know” situations of life in that sort of way?
The spiritual dimension of play
In his interview, Dr. Brown also talked about a more profound, spiritual side of play. In one segment of the show he says:
“I was watching a pride of lions and two sub-adult female lionesses got up, looked at each other — and there’s a picture of this in the National Geographic magazine, what looked from a distance kind of like a fight, but it was a ballet. And while I was watching this, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is — I’m almost brought to tears talking about it now — that this is divine.”
It turns out that this idea of a spiritual dimension in play is part of the Buddhist world as well. In the Mahayana tradition there is the figure of the bodhisattva – an enlightened being who takes on a human birth for the sole purpose of benefiting others. An essential quality of a bodhisattva is lila – Sanskrit for “play.” Far from being serious-minded martyrs, bodhisattvas joyfully play at everything they do. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, says, “One can regard this as a spontaneous overflowing of [their] inner realization, which transcends the immediate situation.1”
My interpretation is that the play of the lionesses and bodhisattvas are essential expressions of life itself. There’s nothing frivolous about it. It’s not some nice “extra”. When they play, they are in effect saying “I am alive. I am here. In this moment, I am expressing my innermost nature.” It’s like saying “yes” to life, opening up to it in a full-bodied, wholehearted way.
When seen in this light, play isn’t something we relegate to our spare time, if and when we happen to have some. It’s an entire attitude toward life that ideally permeates everything we do. Life isn’t about problems to be solved, or to-do lists to be slogged through. It’s is something to be met full-on – lived and played in with 100% of our being.
1. From The Bodhisattva Ideal by Sangharakshita. Birmingham, UK: 1999, Windhorse Publications, p 139.
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Thank you for this article. I suffer from severe anxiety and play has become a significant and helpful part of my life. As well as freeing the imagination and opening up to life, I find play important in connecting me to others as it is something I do not do so much on my own. There is an honesty, openness and warmth in playful interactions, in being “silly” together with others that takes us beyond the masks we wear and the identities we cling to, that Sangharakshita talks about in “Who is the Buddha?”
Thanks for your comments. I wrote this article just as much to remind myself of these lessons. I tend to take like a bit too seriously at times, too! It’s a lifelong process of learning.
Hi Sunada, I really loved your article, thanks for posting it. I always seem to have a big to do list. In fact there is one on the screen in front of me right now. Where’s a good place to start being playful about my to do list?
Also can you recommend any good meditations or activities to help me become more playful with other people and life in general? People always tell me I am very serious!
Thank you! As far as how to bring more of a sense of play into your life, well, I think the way I’d approach it is to do things that you genuinely enjoy. That’s what I do. What do you like doing just for its own sake? What makes you laugh? Try something out and see how it goes.
Thanks for your article! It’s got various good insights.
There’s a video tutorial on youtube where deepak chopra teaches meditation and he says that kids, while totally immersed in their play, are in fact meditating – the mind is clear and focused.
I saw somebody write that in a tutorial on meditation on Wiki-How also.
It seems to me that only kids can easily do this cause they usually haven’t been given much to worry about, yet.
I think that’s a very nice insight on the nature of play and the buddhist approach to life.
Maybe you could elaborate even further on this correlation between the absolute play state of mind and the meditation state of mind, in a future article (that’s a sugestion of mine).
Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll have to keep that in mind and give it some more thought!