Are you playing enough?

‘Playing is the highest form of research.’ — Albert Einstein

In my day to day life I am lucky to meet, work, and play with such a large variety of adults, kids, and dogs of various personalities and backgrounds.

At every age, I have been noticing more and more the lack of an ability and or motivation to simply PLAY among people.

When I was young I lived out in the woods of Pennsylvania, with acres of woods between me and the next house. As kids we would visit each other and just get lost in the woods, swinging on vines, climbing hills and trees, throwing acorns and each other, riding our bikes on dangerous coal banks, and arguing over what the rules were to games that didn’t make any sense in the first place. We played sports in the backyards and empty lots without any safety gear. We also would wrestle- for hours and hours on end non-stop in all sorts of weather. We even got into fist fights on occasion- not because we were angry, just because we were bored- and no one would win. I would also spend hours alone, pretending I was a super hero, or building villages out of mud and rocks, or Legos and demolishing it with my Tonka trucks. I made up adventures with my Transformer and He-Man toys. All of this with little to no adult supervision.

Kids lives now are very different. I found it hard to get a city child in 2018 to understand why they need to put down their electronic device and just roll around on the floor with another kid during a martial arts class. ‘Eww the floor is dirty’ and ‘I don’t want to touch him.’ or ‘that looks too hard’ are common responses. This is especially tough when their parents are also addicted to tech and doing the same unimaginative sedentary activities.

As an adult approaching 40, I am still playing! Hell- I made it my career teaching martial arts, movement- and writing music has been a joy of mine for 25 years. I probably play now more than at any other time in my life. It is a lot more structured, purposeful, intelligent, and health oriented- my goal is also to keep myself and my students physically and mentally capable of playing and improvising regardless of their age. I sometimes feel that my job is actually to teach people how to play constructively.

I feel like people are a little too serious. Too worried about their finances, how others perceive them, what their social status is, the expectations put on them by society and family. Contracts, politics, lawsuits, ridiculous careers that force you to sit in boxes and push buttons that merely just transfer numbers from one place to another, and online arguments are all just ridiculous confusing noise without any clear intention or direction void of any truth or usefulness.

Then a busy adult finally gets some free time and they are too mentally exhausted to play. They succumb to watching TV, having a drink at the bar, or stuffing their face full of comfort food. And you can’t blame people for it- after 50+hour work weeks, taking care of family, and responsibilities just sitting and killing a few brain cells sounds pretty good.

Much of this lifestyle lacks little to no enjoyment or play whatsoever, is highly repetitive, and much of it is akin to addiction.

Play is a source of joy, and joy is always useful. If the leaders of our society and companies got together and played more (and I’m not talking about golf), this world would look quite different.

Adults need play just as much as children. After all what is the point of all that other stuff, if you don’t have time for joy and imagination? If you need to be practical, joy and imagination are the best ways to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills. Play requires only one resource — time. Its fairly cheap.

So what is Play?

The dictionary says: ‘to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.’

I am going to extrapolate on that definition and say ‘to explore an activity with enjoyment, without judgement or attachment to the consequences of the activity.’

This mentality has a very different effect on how the nervous system and brain functions than when we do something for ‘work’ or for ‘competition’. The brain learns more because it is relaxed and it is not caught up in the end result. This requires you to let go of a specific expectation from a specific action in your training. If you are only focused on the goal, you are ignoring or possibly negating all the other possible benefits that may arise from participation in an activity.  In play there is also no danger to the ego or spirit (much like in competition):  no unnecessary pride. aggression, or trauma as obtained in winning and losing respectively.  

In Yoga philosophy there is a saying… “Your entitlement is to action alone, never to its results.” It doesn’t mean there is no goal, it just means that you are open to the unexpected possibilities and not hung up on what you believe you are entitled to.

For example, sometimes I am sparring or rolling with some one at a martial arts school. Regardless of if they know me or not, I take my time, enjoy it, play. I let myself lose a bit, just to see what happens and the nature of the person I just found myself with. If I feel I can trust that person’s ability and they are lighthearted about the game, I will play freer and maybe even try to go for a win. If not I just try to keep myself safe and healthy- than includes submitting and losing. Through years of managing injuries I realized that sometimes attempting to win against someone who is too serious means risking my body in a way that could injure me or him (and I do this for a living, so injuries are a huge setback).

Sometimes the other guy gets frustrated- either because he can’t do to me what he wants or because I am clearly letting him win and not offering the resistance he expects. So some training partners walk away from me with a frustrated, angry look on their face. The difference is I was playing/experimenting/studying and focusing on staying healthy during the interaction, while they only cared about winning. And in my experience- these people are usually complaining about injuries, have erratic breathing patterns, grunting when they hit the floor, talk down about other practitioners and styles, and have very strong opinions about everything.

On the other hand, I am fortunate to meet plenty of great people to play with that are smiling, laughing, and just playing for joy. We learn a lot from each other and appreciate one another as well- and none of us really cares who wins! There is always someone better anyway, so what is there to prove? Why make it real? Making it real is dangerous- especially in martial arts. Sometimes I think that is one of the things that scares people away from practicing martial arts.

In conclusion- although a frustrated or aggressive person doesn’t particularly appreciate me, I appreciate them. Part of my training, is keeping a healthy, playful outlook even when there are other aggressive, unhealthy attitudes present. They don’t know anything different, haven’t been shown another way, and deserve compassion- because life is clearly very difficult for a person who doesn’t know how to play.

If you are a more serious person, and you feel you have forgotten how to play- take a deep breath. Put time aside for it- volunteer to play with shelter animals, volunteer to work with kids, or hell go sit in the mud with a stick for an hour and pretend you are an Avenger. Try losing or creating a stalemate at a game you are good at- and observe what you have to gain by being in that place rather than being hung up on whether you win or lose. Laugh and smile, smiling releases happy chemicals in the brain and changes the way you think.  Play at home with your family (they will like you more). Play at work- and if you can’t, change careers cause your job sucks and you are wasting your time.