Friday, April 6, 2018

Play: The Stick That Stirs the Drink

Life without play is a grinding, mechanical existence organized around doing the things necessary for survival. Play is the stick that stirs the drink. It is the basis of all art, games, books, sports, movies, fashion, fun, and wonder. Stuart Brown, M.D., Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Mind, and Invigorates the Soul.
Early in his book on play, Brown describes his yellow Lab's reaction after a long car trip to a cousin's ranch: In half a second Jake is flying out the door, a blond blur zipping toward the pasture. He races at full gallop one way and reverses, paws tearing up the dust in a skidding turn, then accelerates to warp speed in the opposite direction. His mouth is agape, the corners pulled back in a canine grin, his tongue lolling out one side -- Doggie heaven."

Like Jake, we humans have the opportunity to take in a scene with all our senses and devote ourselves to playing there. Dr. Brown's research has demonstrated that play is not only fun, energizing, and enlivening, it is also a profound biological process that shapes the brain and makes animals smarter and more adaptable. In humans, play fosters empathy, makes complex social groups possible, and facilitates creativity and innovation.

I had a play-date with my friend Davis, arriving at Ichetucknee River State Park at 6:00 AM for a sunrise canoe trip. Eager to get started, we were the first ones in our canoe and thus the first ones to discover the cushions we sat on were damp from the fog clouding the water's surface and rising in swirls all around us. The temperature was 40° F and stayed there without significant change for our two hours on the river. Even though we both wore layers of clothing, we were soon shaking with the cold. We didn't even have the exertion of rowing to warm us because we were floating downstream in a group of canoes and only needed to paddle lightly to change course when heading toward a bank, another canoe, or an immersed tree trunk. 

Yet we were almost deliriously happy, every seemingly difficult obstacle to enjoyment an opportunity to laugh ourselves silly. Both of us are artists and we'd been talking for a year about photographing the Ichetucknee as inspiration for paintings. The river was incomparably beautiful, every element of water and shore made strange and new by the parting mist as we drew closer. 

It was completely different from photos we'd seen or paintings we'd imagined, and that difference was exciting and seductive. Between gasps of appreciation and shivers of cold, we each took photo after photo, our minds adapting to these unexpected circumstances with a playful attitude, no need to predict if it would get warmer or the mist would rise, so completely taken with this river's invitation to open all our senses. Like Jake, our mouths were agape, we were present to an environment over which we had no control, free to bask in awe, the shivering of our bodies irrelevant to the larger experience. The Ichetucknee presented itself to us as it was, not as we expected it to be. 
"When people know their core truths," writes Brown, "and live in accord with what I call their 'play personality,' the result is always a life of incredible power and grace." 
I'm intrigued by the idea of "play personalities," because play is the key element in changing our habitual patterns. The last section of my Self-Coaching Workbook, Pattern-Breaking Experiments, emphasizes "how to consciously enact a pattern, but with a small, creative, and often humorous twist . . . if you laugh when you think of an experiment, that's probably a good one to try." When brainstorming with clients about ways to change a pattern, I always know by their laughter when we've come up with something that will reframe their worldview and re-shape their brains. Imagine the difference between approaching a problematic pattern with a playful attitude or anticipating how difficult it will be to change something you've been doing all your life. 

For example, one of my clients described an aspect of himself he had to "watch," meaning he had to try to STOP doing it. Exploring this "do your own thing" part, he realized it was also the seat of his creativity and courage; it could be irresponsible, but also mischievous and playful. He wanted to feel more free to redirect his business focus without taking untenable risks, so I asked him, instead of saying NO to his mischievous part when it showed up, to consider what he might do that would invite its courageous aspect while remaining responsible. He immediately saw a lion "in the Serengeti Plains." This lion was "majestic, knows who I am, is attuned with my nature, assertive." 

So far so good. Then I asked him how the lion would express itself. "It would ROAR," he said, and started laughing. Ah, laughter, our cue that he could approach this change playfully.