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I love to play. There is nothing I like better than imaginative, open-ended activities. Time devoid of deadlines or expectations. Our mind is free to create. Our subjective-self soars and smiles. Our bodies become unburdened, relaxed, and ready for anything.

Play is pointless but poignant. It opens us up for eventual flashes of insight, bursts of energy, and presence. There is no progress in play, on its face it strikes us as counterproductive . Kittens are adorable at play, middle-aged men are accused of having a breakdown when captured at play!

We must lay siege to those that withhold our play, holding it hostage out of reach in the tower of childhood.

Find the little things that’ll make the purposeful… playful. Like shadow boxing or jumping while on a jog.

Born to Run

I just finished an audio book (Born to Run: Kindle | Library) about a tribe of Copper Canyon Native Americans, the Tarahumara, that run for fun. They have a game they play, a relay race that involves teams of unequal skills of runners. The whole tribe plays, running to catch and kick a ball that doubles as the “baton” forward along the rocky canyon course. The slower runners often play the ball as it goes into the ‘rough,’ while the faster runners hang back for when big bursts are needed as the ball goes more reliably down the course. Instead of the straight-forward ground-and-pound of distance running as I’d come to engage in as I trained for my marathon, this rarajipari or running-game has none of the trappings of just logging miles.

The Tarahumara enjoy running AND are the world’s greatest ultramarathoners. Their joy and lightness is their secret. They are not superhuman, they just enjoy being able to break out together into a run. Their games are drills that at once teach them how to be easy, light, and fast over difficult terrain.

The best runner leaves no tracks.

— Tao Te Ching

If jogging can be made into play, anything can. As the Tarahumara demonstrate, play enriches an activity with flow. Flow states in an activity ensures our ability improves.  Mindful play where feedback triggers creativity and concentration, where fun is a competitive advantage is accessible to each of us in our activities.

Building binaries and ignoring nuance is naive. However, like a power button, it is a start. For any activity, you can view it as play or as work. Drills can be mundane or an opportunity to improve slightly within a structure where improvements result in definitive skill advancement.  A training run is an opportunity to commune with nature, see a friend, or listen to an audiobook. Nothing done in the pursuit of purpose has to be drudgery.

Avoid the Lava

There has to be some sort of a-priori knowledge or a collective unconscious amongst kids that produces the same games reliably generation after generation. I am sure that no one told my brother, the neighbor girl, and I that the couch, chair, and kindling box were rocks safe from a sea of lava. Yet, I’m not naive to believe it’s not a game known back to where brimstone was in its first drafts. Now there is an app.

Mindful play of the hot lava game we played as kids

As boys, my brother and I would create our playverse. Early on we drew board games on rolls of paper my dad brought home from his hunting buddy that worked as a journalist at the Billings Gazette. Even those this paper wrapped around a cardboard cylinder was the ends of the newspaper rolls, they had what seemed like miles of paper to young kids. We’d make game boards in crayon and dream up game play scenarios in our heads. My dad is still a Montana outdoorsman with a basement full of trophies, so growing up my brother and I would lay out on the linoleum and play on our guided big game hunt long before its arcade doppelgänger came on the scene.

As sport dominated play, we built courts where we could dunk, sawed rackets out of wood and then placed the sawhorses at the net of our Wimbledon courts, and moved our wiffle-ball-offense vs. fielded-baseball-defense around town to different imagined ball parks. Grass courts, all-star games, and checkered flag interviews were just another Wednesday in our summer of creative play.

Even as video games interrupted our organic play, we enriched it with our budding baseball statistical scholastic. We rubbed notebooks through with erasers in the AB column. Bases Loaded stars “Paste” or “Bay” were compared to leftie #3 and righty #4 Babe and Hank, respectively. The song remains with me to this day.

In adulthood, we angle to get this back. It’s best in the bed — a wrestling, rollicking, good time with joy and togetherness. In daily life, building a witty repertoire with a friend is buoyant for the life of the mind. Music, art, and even investing can be done with a creative flair that harkens back to our days of creating lava lake obstacle courses.

More Mindful

One of the constant digs on mindfulness is that it sets unattainable standards or that the meta-life of ‘am I being mindful enough now’ separates us from the riches found nowhere else but in the subjective experience. Even though any experience is improved with an awareness of the emotions, sensory inputs, and meaning, if the awareness is out to lunch it should not sour our consciousness to itself. Indeed, the feedback from the mindful awareness is an important part of the practice to be greeted with warmth.

So it is too in mindful play. Play is meant to be fun, creative, and freeing. Actively noticing your joy and insight and that of those around you deepens the experience but is only gained slowly. Awareness is playful itself, giving you spurts where interrelatedness is revealed or where loving-kindness flows through your every cell, but more often only capturing your attention and tuning you into a richer existence than the one you have now.

Play with it. Don’t force mindfulness, understand that heightened awareness is waiting for you to draw up a game unique to your most creative flow and let go. Worst case, you’ll be rewarded with play in an activity you enjoy and want to improve at; but best case, flow and fun will play with awareness and swell all of them into a strange attractor of grace.