The Importance of Play: It's More Than Just Fun and Games

Modern technology reveals that play lights up the brain in such desired areas as clarity and memory. Common sense tells us that if we've been encouraged to play as a child, beginner's mind comes more naturally as an adult.
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"The goal of [meditation] practice is always to keep our beginner's mind."
--Shunryu Suzuki, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind"

Beginner's mind -- that state in which one experiences each moment for just what it is, unmediated by storylines, habits, or judgments -- has been on my non-beginner's mind since returning from a recent vacation at the charming coastal town of Cambria, Calif. I'm not by nature a nature guy; give me air conditioning and room service any day. But when my significant other and I lucked into the spectacle of dozens of momma elephant seals -- exhausted from giving birth and lolling on the beach in various stages of repose -- I was transfixed

The ones who weren't sound asleep snuggled in groups or splashed languorously in the ebb tide. Most fascinating, a few played together effortlessly -- sleep deficits be damned.

Since communing with those joyful beings, I've noticed a greater ease -- one might say "beginner's mind" -- in my meditation practice. Moments of pleasure tend to stand out, while more painful thoughts and feelings recede a bit more readily.

In my case, at least, beginner's mind also makes me more aware of coincidences, if not synchronicities. When I returned to L.A., for example, I attended a Feldenkrais class where the theme was the essential role of play in retraining our bodies (including our brains) to help manage chronic and severe acute pain.

Teacher Stacy Barrows of Century City Physical Therapy said:

Play may seem purposeless, but neuroscience research reveals that play is our introduction to exploratory learning. Our adaptive behavior stems from problem-solving in play and in our imaginary world. Chronic pain reduces our movement choices and we become less aware of how to create new, non-painful movement patterns. Moishe Feldenkrais had the insight that excessive striving impedes the goal, and recommended slow, improvisational motions.

Movement with beginner's mind, if you will.

The biological need for the "altered state" of play is the focus of psychiatrist Stuart Brown's books, articles and this remarkable TED lecture. Demonstrating the transformative power of play, Brown offers a scene of a polar bear and a husky -- normally mortal enemies -- cavorting together without a trace of hostility.

Modern technology reveals that play lights up the brain in such desired areas as clarity and memory. Common sense tells us that if we've been encouraged to play as a child, beginner's mind comes more naturally as an adult. Conversely, Brown's research suggests, the absence of play in early life can have dire consequences. In fact, he claims, most serial killers were deprived of childhood play.

Play, of course, isn't all fun and games; it can also combine with sophisticated training to produce works of improvisational genius. Musician/researcher Dr. Charles Limb found that for jazz musicians, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex -- the area linked to planned actions and self-censoring -- shows a slowdown in activity during improvisation. Limb says this indicates the musician is ''shutting down impulses that might impede the flow of novel ideas," leaving a clear field for spontaneity underpinned by years of practice.

Novel ideas were called for when pianist Keith Jarrett found out just before a concert in Koln, Germany in 1975 that instead of playing on a world-class Bosendorfer, he'd have to make the best of a poorly-conditioned baby grand. He considered cancelling, but instead went out and created, out of nothingness, a pure improvisation for the ages, the critically-acclaimed recording of which became the most popular solo album in jazz history.

Last week, a member of my meditation group pointed out that play often comes into play in marriage counseling. When the daily grind of jobs, kids and routine dulls that initial burst of passion, couples are encouraged to "get silly" with each other to rekindle that early state of romantic beginner's mind.

Uniquely among all beings, Stuart Brown argues, we humans possess the creativity and flexibility to play throughout our lives. Of course, we also have the most ingenious neuroses to thwart playfulness.

This week, before each sit, I've gently summoned the intention to play. It may seem paradoxical to note that the very purposelessness of playful meditation can yield rewards. But I'm having too much fun to worry about paradoxes.

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