What did you most enjoy playing when you were a child? Really take a moment here, and just think back. Did you locate it? Can you see yourself playing? Now, notice how you feel—just in the pure memory of playing. It feels good, right? Happy? Safe? Free!
It’s funny looking back, I played with baby dolls, took empty food items to play grocery store; I put my Barbie dolls in rows, made up tests and even graded them as though I was somehow practicing the roles I now occupy as mother, wife, and professor. The difference was in the freedom playing allowed. George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing,” and I hope to inspire you about something we so desperately need reminded of, tapping back into that freedom, to nourish our inner child, and another opportunity to engage in mindful movement, no meditation required.
Children have an incredible, instinctive ability to play. Think back to when you were a child, or if you’re a parent, think about your own children. They wake up ready to play. Their intention for their day is to play. They find play in all they do.
Their ability to be is essentially connected to their ability to play.
But, what happens to this ability? It can’t possibly be that we use it up as children or that it disappears…I believe it is our focus that shifts. Sadly, it is a shift that takes us from what we are most inclined to do because we believe as we get older that playing will take us from what we call “priorities.” Over time, however, we find disregarding our inner child, our inner being, leads not only to a disconnection to our creativity (mindfulness) but to an over stimulation of our intellect (movement), leaving us “stuck” in the monotony of the motions. And this sensation of “stuck” is really a feeling of dissatisfaction, or disconnection.
We keep “doing” and the doing is important, even necessary, but if we get off balance in the doing, it is the being, the creating, and thus the novelty or spontaneity of life that, like our inner child, gets neglected, and that inattention is precisely what leads to dissatisfaction. As psychologist, Carl Jung so simply stated, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” Think about it this way, we have a need for predictability; life would be completely chaotic without the routines we put in place, and so it makes complete sense working to maintain those behaviors we come to count on. But we have as great a need for spontaneity as we do for structure, and when we discount one side of that dichotomy, or what relationship theorist and social psychologists, Baxter and Montgomery called a “dialectic” (think, tug of war), it becomes clear why we feel so off balance. This affects us in every aspect of our life: work, relationships, parenting, and so on.
When we don’t make the time to let go, to play, we are missing out on mindful opportunities, and if we don’t find a way to nourish that inner child begging you to take him or her outside or to simply stick your whole arm out of the window when you’re driving for the sheer thrill of feeling completely free, we are missing out on the integration of our movement, our “doing” and our mindfulness, our “being,” or where we achieve optimal living in what I call “mindful movement,” a concept arguably congruent to what social psychologist, Abraham Maslow was referring to with “purposeful play.”
You do not need to schedule fun! In fact, scheduling fun would be like being a child going to the park and mapping out exactly how long you would spend playing at each station. I have never once heard a child say, “I’ll spend exactly 10 minutes on the slide, and then I’ll move to the monkey bars for 10 minutes; I’ll spend the rest of the time swinging, and if time permits, I’ll squeeze in a quick twirl around the merry-go-round.” You may laugh reading this, but think about the last time you had complete and total fun on the fly, no planning, no scheduling, no structure. And if the mere thought of this is stress inducing, or if you believe you don’t have the time, this message is even more so intended for you.
I can tell you in all honesty, I was scheduling a lot of the fun I was having in life, and worse, I found myself facilitating fun where I was an observer of rather than a participant in, and there is a subtle but dramatic difference in those orientations. I found this orientation slipping into my parenting, more often watching the magic I’d create than enjoying it with my family.
I’ve made a conscious decision through this journey to walk through my fear of experiencing happiness and have rediscovered the ability to participate through the art of playing.
The point in playing is simple, to let go, but it is the letting go we seem to struggle with the most. There is something in us that says, I don’t have time for this; I could be doing something “productive,” but if we work to fuse the productivity of our doing with the freedom of our being, we can feel more satisfied in the doing.
If we can achieve this, and we can, we have the opportunity to perceive every experience (work, relationships, parenting) like children do, as an opportunity to have fun. The best part about this is in the discovery that I’m not asking you to “do” more, rather, I’m asking you to let go and find the time to play!
As Ralph Waldo Emerson poetically proclaimed, “It is a happy talent to know how to play,” and when we nurture talent, it becomes skill.
I experimented with this on a conscious level, and while it is definitely uncomfortable at first, if you push through that discomfort, you will be so inspired, you will begin to find your balance through the complete submission of play, a freedom like no other, and perhaps the very reason children seem to always be asking for five more minutes or one last time down the slide.
After recounting what I most liked doing as a child, I realized I am still doing all of those things in some form so I had to dig a little deeper. I usually put headphones on when my children go to bed, escaping into music or something motivational while cleaning up the chaos of the day. Then, something happened. I remembered being around eight years old when I put on my Mariah Carey CD (wow, those three words, ha!); I would turn it up as loudly as I could and dance around my bedroom, singing at the top of my lungs, and then, mid dish washing, something came over me, an impulse to revisit my eight year old self. I had to keep headphones on due to sleeping children, but I turned on a song I loved and started dancing. At first, I felt restricted, as though someone was watching me and would be judging me. I could feel myself clinging to the part of me that thought this is too silly, asking myself, what are you doing? But that child inside of me kept beckoning, “Just let go!”
That child’s voice became louder than the uptight adult resisting the fun I was intended to have, and when I gave in to her, my inner child, my inner being, I danced. And I mean, I danced!
I was somewhere between interpretive dance and crunking (I think), but once I let go, there was no judgment. There was no thinking. There, in the silence of my home, on an otherwise ordinary Tuesday night, I transformed into that eight year old girl and re-connected to my freedom, one that is available to us every time we decide to push play.
Mindfulness requires presence, and play is only present; that’s where the freedom lives. I have never enjoyed doing dishes more than I did last Tuesday. The week continued with this mindful movement, this purposeful play, and I looked for every opportunity I could to play some more…
I stuck my hand out the window, I jumped on the shopping cart as I returned it, I ran as fast as I could from my car to my house (this provided me insight on why children just have to run; it really is fun!), I swung as high as I could and leaned back at the top, closing my eyes and leaning into the joy while the wind across my face reminded me of what it felt to be free. But hands down, the most fun thing I did last week, was roll down a grassy hill! My six year old daughter was rolling down a hill at my nephew’s baseball game, and admittedly my first instinct was to stop her, thinking, the grass is going to irritate her skin (inner child sigh), and thankfully after a week primed with playful moments, I stopped myself, walked over to her, and she invited me to join. I said yes, and as I rolled down the hill, I discovered the following:
You have to walk up the hill to roll down it.
Meaning, you have to consciously decide where you put your movement, which in this case was the walk up, and once you make that decision, you have to allow yourself the freedom to let go, which in this case, was in the rolling down.
It is on the way down, you let go of your thoughts and experience mindful movement, and every time you play, you tap into the same so called magic you experience when meditating. And you know what it feels like? It feels like hitting a home run in front of your family during the last game of your senior year. And if you haven’t had that experience, you can imagine what it is like to watch that (that joy was provided courtesy of my nephew).
So if you are not moved by the poignant words a great playwright, a couple of enlightened psychologists, and a transcendental poet left for us, I hope you let the freedom playing brings be what moves you back to balance, because after all…what if the hokey pokey is what it’s all about?