Time To Play

It’s play time!

The Greek philosopher Plato reputedly said, “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” If this is true, what better way is there then to get to know a lover, friend or work colleague than through play?


Unearth yourself

When you restore playfulness into your day, you transform what may have become a mundane existence into a more vibrant way of living. A life devoid of play hinders your ability to connect with others and identify with your true self, often leaving you feeling numb, as if on auto-pilot. You fall back on habitual responses to situations instead of engaging with what is on offer.

You understood the delights of play as a child. It was important for your developing brain and it came naturally; uninhibited and free of guilt. Dr Stuart Brown, author of the book Play, How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul, says, “As adults, the brain is not developing as rapidly and the play drive may not be as strong, so we can do well enough without play in the short term. Our work or other responsibilities often demand that we set play aside. But when play is denied over the long term, our mood darkens. We lose our sense of optimism and we become anhedonic or incapable of feeling sustained pleasure.” Now that we are grown-ups, we owe it to ourselves and others to keep playing.

So what is play and how do you, as a grown-up with lots of responsibilities, do it? Among other things, play is an apparently purposeless, voluntary, potentially creative activity. It is so much fun that it makes you want to do it more. Therefore, once you get the hang of it, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep it up. You may be thinking, that’s all well and good but I don’t have the time to play, or perhaps you no longer know how — but think again. You’ll be surprised at how often you can introduce playfulness into your day. Unearthing the person that lies buried beneath everyday burdens is largely a matter of changing your perspective.

Changing your perspective begins with a little replenishment. Petrea King, founder of the Quest for Life Foundation, says, “It’s really an individual responsibility to know how you’re going to replenish yourself physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually so that you don’t wait for the world to figure out what’s going on for you and then adapt itself to meet your needs, because you generally wait a very long time for that to happen.” If you’re feeling bogged down by outer circumstances, ask yourself whether you are going to let those circumstances define you, allowing yourself to feel defeated, resentful and embittered, or can you rise above that?

One way to rise above life’s circumstances is to try out new things to discover who you are. Jacqui, a mother of two teenage boys, discovered that, after having avoided team sports as much as possible all her life, she loved playing soccer. She was inspired to do so by her sons’ love of the game. “I got onto the field on my first training night and was shown how to dribble the soccer ball along a straight line. I couldn’t believe how much fun it was and I couldn’t stop myself from giggling all the way! To this day, I still giggle when I’m doing drills.”


Engage in the moment

Watch very young children at play and learn from their reckless abandon to anything outside of their focus. For them, time is non-existent. Timelessness is inherent in play but is it only experienced when you engage in the present moment. Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and author of the book The Power of Now, says, “As long as you are in a state of intense presence, you are free of thought. You are still, yet highly alert. The instant your conscious attention sinks below a certain level, thought rushes in. The mental noise returns; the stillness is lost. You are back in time.”

Like young children, animals also know how to live in the moment. Tolle writes, “I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.” Steve, a landscape gardener who likes to bring his dog to work with him, says, “When Mason comes to work with me, his eagerness to play and doggie antics remind me to take a more light-hearted view on life. He never fails to make me laugh.”

Reaching a state of presence often comes when you are thoroughly absorbed in an activity but, if you are finding it difficult to be in the moment, then you need to draw attention to your senses. As King puts it, “Your body’s always in the present moment. It’s never in the future and it’s never in the past. It’s always here now. So my constant practice and what I encourage others to do is to practise physical awareness of your own existence — so, literally, your bottom on the seat, your feet on the floor, the touch of your clothing, the movement of the air, all the sounds around you.”

It is only in a present state that you can act joyfully and spontaneously and be true to your spirit; your first nature. “It is your first nature that is your innate nature and that is what enlivens all people. And your first nature is always a playful, compassionate, wise, quiet, steady place to be. Whereas it is second nature to you to react and feel weighted down by the world, feel you’ve got too much on your plate,” says King.


Discover someone else

Lesley Loughnan, a Gestalt psychotherapist who specialises in couple therapy, says, “Play can really help people learn to discover what they like so they find out what amuses them and what they enjoy doing. Seeking that out is a healthy step to take in their personal life, but also in relationships.” Of course, playfulness means different things for different people. “There is no formula for working with a couple and introducing play and yet you can support that because there is a lot of research to say that couples who have fun together consider their relationship to be happy.”

One such study that looked at how playfulness affects both friendship and romantic relationship pairs showed that both types of relationships benefited from play by increasing relationship solidarity and satisfaction. Romantic couples also reported stronger feelings of intimacy and commitment to their relationship as a result of play. “The main areas where I find that people lose each other is those busy years between when babies first get born and then having to deal with the juggling of work and children,” says Loughnan.

This common scenario occurred with Daniel and Ruby, who met on a scuba-diving course. In their first years together, they continued diving, often taking small trips within Australia and occasionally to more distant locations such as to the Seychelles, where they spent their honeymoon. Their shared delight in the underwater world deepened their bond. However, when the kids came along, “We became so caught up in divvying up domestics and running the kids around to their sports games and whatever else that we just sort of forgot about diving,” says Ruby.

“By the time we were alone together we barely discussed anything other than the routine.” A three-day diving trip to Port Douglas reminded the couple of what had brought them together. “You dive into a completely different world, that’s the magic of it, and you feel so honoured to be a witness. It’s life-affirming and it certainly reinvigorated our relationship.”


Cultivate effortless laughter

Humour and having a good laugh come quick to mind when we think of play. When you laugh, you feel elated, vigorously alive and connected with others. Laughing is to positive emotions what physical exercise is to the body. Cris Popp of Laughter Works runs laughter workshops. He explains, “The brain is like a giant muscle and, as with all good muscles, the more you do something, the better you get at it. So you can build up the neurological pathways to laughter. Basically, if you start to fake the laughter, it becomes easier after a while — you fake it until you make it.”

What makes one person laugh and not another again comes down to individual personalities; some people laugh a lot more than others. Popp says, “One of the things about laughter is it makes you more vulnerable with other people. You’re sort of opening up and, if you’re vulnerable with somebody and it feels good, then it’s easier to do it again. It’s like when you first get into a relationship, you reveal a bit of yourself, you go OK, you reveal a little bit more, you’re OK, and so you kind of unbutton your buttons. And when something goes bad, you quickly button up again. And when it goes well, then you unbutton. And I think what laughter does is it lets you be in an unselfconscious state with other people and you start to think, I can be open, I can be myself.”

If you’re not sure what makes you laugh, you could try watching stand-up comics or funny films. Much of what is happening around you can also be a lark if you take some time to observe the way people and animals behave and listen to the things you hear others say. Current affairs and celebrity carryings-on are often another source of amusement. All of the latter can be used to create awareness and cultivate your unique sense of humour that you can share with others. Cultivating a playful sense of humour and making others laugh reduce friction and make you more memorable. What’s more, you are instantly gratified.

People in close relationships often have their own brand of humour that they share. Loughnan explains that couples “often have a kind of shorthand humour when they’re together. So you can actually catch it and say, well, what happened there? How do you do that? And then they’ll tell you how they can read each other’s minds — how it’s a story that comes from early in the relationship. And so you can support the good things that are already there, the playfulness that already exists, captured in the moment.”

“The thing about play is it’s almost like creation for no purpose. That’s what distinguishes it from other types of activities,” says Popp. “It’s also about letting yourself have space — I call it mucking around. You know when you’re with a friend and you’ve finished the debriefing about how good or bad your life is? Where you’re just being silly and joking? I call that a sort of social playfulness.”


Nurture imagination

Freeing your mind to allow for creative reverie is another way of accessing playfulness and nurturing your imagination. Use your imagination to inform your play and express it any way to choose: gardening, painting, sculpture, pottery, poetry, story-telling, dancing, acting — there are no limits. A trip to Sicily where she visited some of the country’s ancient mosaics set Melissa off to try her hand at her own. “Time has no meaning when I am absorbed in arranging tiles for my mosaic projects. Each of my designs becomes more complicated and ambitious than the last. The more I do, the more I want to do. It’s a wonderful feeling.”

One of the activities in Quest for Life programs is to get participants to do a collage. King says, “It’s a lovely session where you have people on the floor or at tables with piles of magazines and scissors and glue and what they’re asked to do is to create an outward representation of what inwardly they’re now yearning for — what speaks to your spirit, warms your heart, brings you to peace. And people flick through magazines and find a picture, or a texture, or colour, or a word that will leap off the pages and there’s an energy about it. It’s a very powerful form of play that allows people to access the deeper parts of their own consciousness.”


Harvest delight

There is a scene in the French spy film Farewell where one of the main characters, a crumpled Colonel Grigoriev, whose marriage is strained due to a combination work obligations and an extra-marital affair, puts on a romantic record and gently pulls his unhappy wife close to him. In an amorous embrace, he leads her into a slow dance which, although at first reluctant, she cannot resist and gradually melts into the moment. As an audience, we are also seduced and delighted.

The best playful moments happen spontaneously: affectionate teasing, mischievous banter, frisky frolics. “It’s about your ability to feel completely safe to be yourself and to expose your vulnerabilities and that’s all part of playfulness because it’s not about getting it right, it’s not about being perfect, it’s not about having it marked or proving it to somebody else. It’s just a genuine offering from your own spirit,” says King. That is the essence of play.


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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