The Power of Play:
Why Playfulness is So Important
What’s the most important quality to cultivate in meditation practice?
Play is the antidote to the judgments that block us from seeing clearly, it’s a cure for the shame that keeps us from feeling small and contracted. Play expands the boundaries of our imagination, our creativity and our heart-minds.
Meditation teaches us to move more gracefully with the changing conditions of life, for consciousness itself is a play that is constantly unfolding; it’s a never ending dance between the intelligence of this universe and the energy that animates it.
But I didn’t always appreciate the importance of being playful. In fact, I used to take myself too seriously. Way too seriously. This fact was an unfortunate combination of both personality and culture. Living in a country very different from my own has helped me to become more self-aware of my own cultural conditioning. When I was 29, I moved from the US to Thailand, where I have lived for the past decade.
As a society, the United States embodies qualities that are archetypally masculine: confrontational, competitive, aggressive. Of course, there are many positive aspects of being so explicitly achievement orientated. On an individual level, for example, people in cultures such as these can often derive a great sense of purpose and meaning from their vocation. Moreover, when everyone around you is constantly pushing themselves to achieve more, that can also move you closer towards your own self actualization. Being immersed in a social network with other intelligent and driven people can be deeply rewarding in terms of the relationships you form as well as the ways in which you evolve from collaborating with other talented and driven people.
However, the shadow side to approaching life this way is excessive striving that leaves us feeling drained, a comparing mind that leaves us chronically dis satisfied, and a nagging doubt that as individuals, we never quite measure up to the images that we keep internalizing from society about who we think we are or who we should be. We keep reaching for those markers of “success” that we think will bring us some sense of happiness, only to have this moment of satisfaction slip through our fingers like sand. We spend too much time ignoring the toll that this lifestyle is taking on our physical and mental health, or maybe even one day, we finally crash and burn.
Of course, these are the tradeoffs with which people struggle in many modern, developed countries. In speaking with clients and friends, in other cultures that emphasize work and achievement, I notice the same impact on people in places like London, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Sydney. On the one hand, it’s an immense privilege to be in such a fortunate position; on the other hand, the impact on one’s health and quality of life can be quite detrimental.
By contrast, Thai culture embodies many qualities that are archetypally feminine: kindness, passivity, receptivity, and, crucially, playfulness. Thais are very playful in the way they speak and interact with one another. To a Western mind, at times, this behavior might even come off as inappropriate or immature.
But with time I came to realize that this judgment was merely a reflection of the cultural attitudes that I had inherited—prejudices that in fact were not serving me well. Like many other Westerners, I had foolishly been conditioned to believe that play was only for children, not for adults. Thais had a lot to teach me about many things, including how to lighten up, take myself less seriously, and to learn how to experience life more as an invitation to play, rather than a problem to be solved.
With time, I came to also appreciate how gender shapes the ways people think and communicate. Typically, men like to challenge one another. Whereas men view this as a way to refine their own thinking, it can come off as overly aggressive to women. This is something that I have had to become conscious of as a man, and particularly as an American man living in Thai culture that is very averse to confrontation and values harmony, gentleness, kindness (all archetypally feminine qualities).
I came to understand that approaching communication in this traditionally masculine way can actually close off opportunities for communicating with people of another gender or cultural background…or even with another man from the same culture but with a different communication style.
It’s not that this traditionally masculine style of communication is wrong; it’s simply to acknowledge that depending on the context you might want to navigate back and forth between more archetypally masculine and feminine styles of communication. This is just example of how mindfulness can serve to enhance Emotional Intelligence, for in order to skillfully navigate these choices we must first become self aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment.
When we approach life as a game to play, rather than as a problem to solve, new possibilities open.
This is true not only for men but also for women who might be used to thinking and communicating in a more archetypally masculine way, in part because they have to function in workspaces and entire industries that are shaped by these more masculine values, which is to say, most industries.
It’s worth considering: what is the cost to us, personally and professionally, to forgetting the art of play?
It’s now well-understood that there’s a clear relationship between play, creativity, and innovation. There’s even a course on the topic, “From Play to Innovation,” at the “d school” (design school) at Stanford. As a student in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford, design thinking had a significant impact on the way that I reimagined teaching and learning. Play is not only a powerful tool for accelerating creativity and learning, but play also enhances our mental and physical health.
All living organisms naturally move towards equilibrium. To live a healthy, happy, and purpose-driven life invites us to seek integration between the archetypally masculine and feminine qualities within each of us. Every one of us was born from the union of man and woman and every one of us has a need for qualities of the heart-mind that are both archetypally masculine and feminine.
Notably, the extent to which an individual might skew towards being more masculine or feminine is not necessarily associated with one’s gender. Women can embody qualities that are more archetypally masculine and men can embody more archetypally feminine attitudes. Of course, this also varies for each individual based on context and with whom we are in relationship; in reality, identities and boundaries are fluid and adapt with the changing conditions from which they arise.
An important question from the perspective of human flourishing is: what brings you into a greater place of mental balance and into harmony with others and with your natural environment? What are the kind of practices, routines and attitudes that allow you to cultivate a more wise and skillful response in any given situation?
That’s why life is often more of a dance than a battle. Mindfulness allows us to be more open and receptive, to shift with the constantly changing conditions of life. Isn’t this an important marker of emotional intelligence: to be able to entertain competing frameworks for approaching the world and allowing that tension to fuel our creativity rather than slipping into rigidity and dogma?
It’s interesting how popular metaphors can point to stylistic differences between cultures. Bruce Lee once said that “the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or the willow survives by bending with the wind.” Americans have phrases like something is “stronger than oak.” Oak is indeed very strong; on the other hand, it can’t bend. That metaphor sums up both the light and the shadow of the masculine: its power lies in its strength and yet that same source of strength can be a weakness when conditions change and that very immovability turns into intransigence.
I prefer the metaphor of the bamboo for mental strength: resilience also requires agility. If you have ever seen a bamboo tree in person you know how incredibly sturdy it is, yet like Bruce Lee observed bamboo can also bend when conditions change.
In reality, life is both a dance and a battle. Play permits us to become more comfortable with uncertainty, more at ease with the contradictions between our needs and desires.
As the mind loosens its grip around beliefs, opinions and judgments, it can play with new possibilities: joy, inspiration and creativity flourish in this new sense of spaciousness. A more playful approach to meditation invites us into a space that is well designed not merely for surviving, but for thriving, even in the face of adversity.
Given the power of play, how can we invite more playfulness into our lives through meditation?