Stuart Brown is a man on a mission. He is convinced that there is something missing in the lives of most of us, the absence of which is responsible for many of the difficulties and issues that plague our culture both personally and socially. It is the lack of this element in our lives that is the source of problems that range from depression (psychological and financial) to violent crime, and include mental illness, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and other serious health issues. The missing ingredient in this equation isn’t money, time, education, or even love (not that most of us couldn’t use a bit more of each of those as well). It’s something that is natural and intrinsic to our being that has for most of us, over the years been lost as other competing commitments came to override this natural tendency. And the good news, according to Dr. Brown, is that it’s possible for all of us to bring this element back into our lives and to upgrade our quality of well- being to a higher level, regardless of our current life circumstances, our age or our personal history. The missing link is Play.
Play, according to Dr. Brown is more than engagement with a specific action or game, but rather it’s a state of mind that it is possible to bring to any activity, including those that we put in the category of what we call “work”. Integrating an attitude of playfulness more fully into our lives infuses our experience and even our bodies with a sense of ease, enjoyment, and creativity that has transformative and restorative possibilities.
Linda and I recently met with Dr. Brown in Monterey and found him to be as captivating in person as he is on video. (check him out on youtube to view his presentations. They’re great!) He is a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, former medical director, university professor, and director of the National Institute for Play, in Carmel. Looking at least a decade younger than most men his age, Stuart brings a quality of exuberance and enthusiasm that is both infectious and delightful. He has a mischievous smile and a delightful sense of humor. He unquestionably walks his talk when it comes to the subject at hand.
” I hate to define play,” Stuart says. ” because it is a thing of beauty, best appreciated by experiencing it. Defining play has always seemed to me like explaining a joke – analyzing it takes the joy out of it.” In his book Play (Avery, 2009), he lists what he considers to be the properties of play, which include:
Purposeless. Play is done for it’s own sake.It is not a means to another end, but is done for the pleasure of the experience itself.
Voluntary. Play is not obligatory and cannot be required.
Inherently attractive. It’s fun and makes you feel good and contains an element of excitement.
Freedom from time. When we are at play, we lose a sense of the passage of time.
Diminished consciousness of self. We become more conscious (aware of the present moment), and less self -conscious.
Improvisational potential. There is an openness to experiencing things in new ways that can allow for greater creativity, chance, spontaneity, and serendipity.
Continuation desire. The pleasure of the experience drives us to keep doing what we’re doing.
Dr. Brown went on to say that play is the antidote to the feeling of being constrained that so many of us have had in the face of the need to be practical, to follow established rules, to please others, to make efficient use of time, and the vague sense of guilt that we experience when we are failing to fulfill any of these “shoulds” in our lives. Play liberates us from the feeling of being oppressed and encumbered by the many explicit and implicit social demands and expectations that we feel obliged to live up to. But even that isn’t the main reason to be playful. Play is, very simply, its own reward; it is its own reason for being.
Human beings, like all other members of the animal kingdom begin to play from our earliest moments and despite cultural beliefs, play isn’t just for kids. We never outgrow the need for play and we never stop experiencing its benefits throughout our lives. The biggest obstacle to keeping play alive as we age isn’t a lack of money or time, nor is it the responsibilities that we have elected to assume, nor is it our age or even our physical condition. We can create the experience of play under any circumstances. The resistance that many of us experience to becoming more playful isn’t external, it’s internal. It’s our beliefs about adulthood being a time for serious business (except for those occasional socially-sanctioned events in which we loosen the grip of our image). But having only these rare and fleeting moments of playfulness isn’t sufficient to experience the benefits of play that more sustained playfulness provides. Giving ourselves more permission to integrate a playful spirit more fully into our lives requires the willingness to appear to be foolish, immature, not responsible and to be at risk of being accused of “not acting your age”, a phrase that translates into “You’re having too much fun!”
For many of us, it’s the fear of being perceived in these ways or judged negatively by others that prevents us from taking ourselves less seriously. Enlightenment, according to some spiritual traditions has to do with “lightening up”, or as a friend once told me, “Life is too important to be taken seriously”. This is not to deny the magnitude of the challenges inherent in dealing with the realities of life and the increasing complexities of the modern world. But rather it’s a reminder that we may be better equipped to meet those challenges if we can bring an attitude of playfulness more fully into our lives.
It could be that one of the most responsible things that we can do is to provide an example to the younger generation of adulthood as a time that continues to include fun, play, curiosity and ongoing learning, qualities that many of us have associated primarily with childhood. It’s no wonder that so many young people try to extend childhood or adolescence in an attempt to delay the onset of a life stage that looks like it’s mostly hard work, oppressive responsibility, and not particularly much fun. Demonstrating that enjoyment and fun don’t stop when you get out of school or get married or have children could be one of the best examples that we can set for young people. Or as Linda would say..
Linda- I play a lot, and I’m certain that this contributes enormously to the overall experience of well-being that characterizes my life these days. My play takes all kinds of forms, like jumping around in the step-aerobics class in my health club, or flinging myself around while I’m practicing kick-boxing, or dancing in my Zumba class. It’s all about dance, and dancing is one of my favorite forms of play.
When I spend time reading books, which I find I have more time to do these days, the ideas in the books stimulate in me a kind of of mind-play. I get a lot of my socializing done, and get a second work out of the day in the form of walks and talks with a friend, late in the afternoon along the nearby beach. Now that I’m not so rushed, preparing a meal is a creative expression and a form of play, and I can take my time to enjoy it.
It’s not just the accomplishment of these activities that makes them play, but the consciousness with which I’m doing them that makes the difference. It’s the sheer enjoyment of the activity in and of itself that makes it fun and satisfying. When my grandson comes over on Wednesdays I often spend a lot of time with him singing songs and getting down on the floor doing puzzles and building block towers. There is no doubt about it; that’s play in its purest form. Even my work these days feels like play. The distinction between work and play gets more overlapped every year. As I have become more experienced and confident, the creativity of teaching and writing are becoming more joy-filled all the time. It’s great to not feel that I have so much to prove any more. And it’s so wonderful to not have to try so hard.
I’m so grateful that I lived to see the day when I could stop being a results machine and give myself the gift of play. But it hasn’t always been this way. Historically, I have been a pretty serious type. When I used to receive report cards in elementary school, they would often have messages to my parents saying that “Linda is mature beyond her years.” Yes, I was mature beyond my years but that was at least in part because I felt like I had to grow up quickly and help my parents out by being a responsible, “good girl”. I went on to become a very serious, studious, responsible, mature child before my time. And I brought a hard- working attitude into my adult life. That attitude has in many ways served me to accomplish a lot more than I would have had I not had it, but it didn’t come without its prices. I am still recovering from decades of hyper-seriousness; successfully, I might add.
The author Tom Robbins reminds us that “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” I know that you can’t ever go back and experience the past differently. But we certainly can learn from it and make our present and future different. Many of those light-hearted things that may have been beyond our reach for years, can be experienced now. And when we finally have the experiences that we have been longing for over the years, the appreciation and gratitude is all the sweeter.
When Charlie and I spoke with Stuart Brown, he told us that “Work is not the opposite of play, depression is the opposite of play.” I know from my own experience and from hundreds of people that I have worked with over the years, that there is much truth in this statement. It is the playful interaction with other humans and even other species like our beloved pets, that really gets our juices flowing. We owe it to ourselves to take an honest inventory to see if we are experiencing enough play in our lives, not just on vacations, and not just on the weekends, but on a consistent, daily basis. If we’re not having enough play, what’s in the way? Play is a great gift that we give to ourselves and to all those around us.
These and many other complex questions inevitably arise once we make the decision to embark upon the path of relationship. And the further along we find ourselves, the more formidable are the concerns that we meet. Many people believe that the opposite should be true; that the deeper the connection with someone, the easier it should be, and if it’s not getting easier it’s because something is wrong; wrong with them, wrong with me, or wrong with us. Not necessarily. Deep relatedness brings out the worst as well as the best in all of us: our deepest fears and our greatest hopes, our selflessness as well as our possessiveness, our kindness and our insensitivity, our generosity and our self-centeredness. In working consciously with these emotions and tendencies, we find ourselves feeling more trusting and open with each other and we gradually begin to let down the defenses that shield us from emotional distress.
Conscious loving requires us to come out from behind the security of our manufactured image and expose ourselves to the threat of emotional pain that we desperately wish to avoid. What makes this so difficult is that it requires us to be fearless yet tender, committed yet open, engaged yet not attached, powerful yet yielding, and strong yet vulnerable. To fully love, we must cultivate the ability to hold the tension of the opposites because love is inclusive not exclusive, and it can be fierce in its demands. It invites us into the space beyond separation and into connection it brings us from duality into wholeness.
If loving another person is, as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “the final test and that for which all other work is but preparation,” perhaps it is because we cannot be a qualified and capable lover until we have established a loving and accepting relationship with all parts of ourselves, including those aspects of our lives and personalities that we deem unlovable. Investing time and energy in a commitment to develop the capacity to become more fully loving will bring forth a greater return in terms of our quality of life than anything else we can do with our precious time and energy. And, by the way, it’s never too late to begin.
What is an Intensive? An intensive is an extended session with Charlie and/or Linda that is designed to assist individuals or couples in breaking through impasses and relationship challenges that require more in-depth and concentrated attention than can come from a series of counseling sessions or a weekend workshop. Depending on the situation, an intensive can be scheduled for between one to three days.
We generally conduct intensives in our home but it is also possible to schedule them in other settings. Over the years we have conducted hundreds of these extended sessions and the response has been consistently positive, with many people telling us that they experienced a permanent shift in their lives as a result of the concentrated time we spent together and the work that came out of the sessions. Intensives include a preliminary consultation prior to the actual meeting time as well as follow-up sessions afterwards. For more information on intensives, call 831-421-9822 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.