Deviations from the objective, are refreshing, and they encourage new perspectives. They have the capacity to round, sharpen or redefine a concept.
In this article, I find it relevant to bring a conversation I had in Costa Rica last 28th of February around a dinner table in the middle of the jungle with Alex Herrera, Tom Weksler, Sage Mariah, Dave Gardner, Matt Mulligan and myself. Matt and I went to Costa Rica to help Tom to lead a movement Immersion of Movement Archery organized by TribeWire Nosara.
We spent few hours talking about play. Through that exchange, I realised that play has something to offer to the world. Since the concept itself started to reveal very different meanings, approaches, scales and applications.
That dialog ended up being an online interview with two of the participants in the conversation:
Alex Herrera and Tom Weksler are both movement teachers. They come from different backgrounds (Alex from Sports and Tom from Dance) and both use play not just in their personal practice, they both also communicate and teach through it.
First things first:
Alex Herrera Tom Weksler
What’ s play?
Alex: Play is one of those things that can’t be defined. That’s why I like play. People like to play for different reasons, therefore define play in a different way.
So, I said all right let’s look the other way around. What would it be if there would be no play? Think about music.
Tom: Play is any activity that is not functional by definition and contains joy by definition. Play is purposeless and has no clear outcome.
Why do you play?
Alex: I play because it enlivens me. I find it brings me great pleasure and joy. Play provides a space for me to express my individuality. A place where I can navigate and find higher levels of awareness that can only be appreciated by the experience when I play. It has a therapeutic nature for me that create freedom from time.
Tom: I play because I feel that it is a way of life. Food, Sex, Nature, Art, Social Interactions and Play are all ways to experience life and express myself through them. A way can physically exist only while walking through it, so I choose to walk this way regularly in order to make it a significant part of my experience and a place to express myself.
How did you start to play?
Alex: From childhood I can always recall being engaged in play. From riding my bike, to playing hide and seek with friends, to becoming old enough where conventional sports like tennis and martial arts provided a framework that challenged me physically, excited me mentally and captivated me emotionally. It became a platform where I was able to create social relationships within the context of competition with others.
Tom: My connection with play started at a very young age like everyone else. I was lucky enough that my parents sent me to Capoeira classes (alongside Music, Sports and Art) at a very young age. Capoeira in its essence is a Folklore art, which is practiced through a game. While my Capoeira practice dropped throughout the years, the primal relationships with people who engage, think and invest so much in a Game made a significant impression. Important to mention that many of the people I´ve met in the Capoeira context, play without the expectation to receive anything in return. It was an important moment in realizing Play as a way of life regardless of age and place.
Why do you offer the space to play? Play works as a tool or as a topic?
Alex: I use it as a topic itself. I believe play is an intrinsic part of our physical make up. I offer a space where participants can safely engage in play with purpose. A space where people can play in its most basic form without a complex intellectual framework. Whilst exploring their natural sense for novelty and avoidance of boredom that can be nurtured by having fun. Hopefully by mixing it up when it comes to their choice of physical practice can be an extension into other areas of their lives which will allow for a deeper sense of engagement with self and others.
Tom: Play can be both a tool and a topic. It is a tool of seeing any context in a lighter and less serious manner. It is a tool of addressing the joy of unexpectedness.
Play, as a topic is an interesting philosophical definition, which is hard for me to break down, possibly because of my young age. Maybe also because I am still learning to play in many senses... I do believe that play with a certain context (some form of structure or rules), can lead to many insights about any other types of play. And also, to insights about daily life and even the universal existence of life itself. If little by little I collect and review those insights I can maybe learn something. Usually when I try to collect this type of insights it leads me also to the strong connection between Play and Adaptability...
What can be practiced when you play?
Alex: The genius of play is that in playing we can create imaginative new cognitive combinations. We can safely try on new behaviours, thoughts, strategies and movements. We can practice the ability to break away from the daily norm and mundane. A place to be creative and discover our most authentic self.
Tom: I like the practice of refinement through play. I think that making something better through play requires a lot of attention. I also believe that the idea of improving (or self improvement) can become easily a deviation from being present in each moment. I feel that through Play, improvement actually leads to more presence and more awareness to the happening outside and inside of me. Getting better at any type of game essentially means becoming more aware to the moments of happening and having more freedom to respond to them.
What’s the function of play?
Alex: Play is the access of survival and an essential part of survival. If you observe animals in nature, they come to play to set them up with certain level of adaptability with what their life is going to have. It’s a way of preparing for what’s coming up.
I believe play can make humans more adaptable in a world that evolves constantly.
Tom: Play is not primarily for anything. If it has a clear function like building something, acting towards something or learning something, I’m not playing… I’m building, I’m achieving, I’m learning. Play happens when I’m not gaining something out of it, at least not intentionally.
But, in the other hand, to not be interested in the outcome is not always a good thing.
I think play can allow an engagement in another kind of quality, which is not functional and is what people is more used to do in order to see things from different perspective. In order to experience the self with another meaning. So I think it has a hidden but very strong relationship with creativity. At least for me it connects me to a very intimate and present truth, which moves me on a daily basis:
The curiosity to experience is larger than the curiosity to know.
So what is my take?
To play is an activity that we tend to forget. As we grow old, it seems that the realm of play is just reserved to kids. We stop playing to become whom we are. Life becomes serious and we must deal with serious staff.
Well, indeed it does becomes serious and for sure we cannot play all the time. Maybe it's just because some situations are simply painful, hard, sad, disturbing (to name a few)… or, they simply require another kind of mind-set.
It’s surely not about playing always, but it is about being able to play sometimes.
Because what if a playful attitude can actually make life a bit more easy, light or soft in some circumstances?
I think that in many moments, to be playful is a decision one can make. Play becomes a choice that one can take consciously.
But before that, one has to recognise playfulness as a quality or a way to engage in some situations. One needs to recognize play itself.
Therefore, play needs it’s own space and time. And a good way to recall it is actually practicing it.
Movement has a lot to offer in that matter.
Movement is still a fairly open canvas. One can argue that it has being already conceptualised and shaped according to different context and functions. Which make sense because is the only way in which we can learn from it and it can be communicated.
But, I consider it still quite wide because it varies any time you create a relationship between movement and something else (movement and a partner, movement and music, movement and longevity, movement and therapy, movement and nature, etc.)
In soccer or basketball or sprinting or Jiu Jitsu or gymnastics, you can’t change the rules of the game because you wouldn’t be playing the same game. In movement though, the rules can be decided by each person who is involved and according to the relationship that is being formed. It is not about the equation of winning or losing in any absolute sense. So, the room to apply play is different because it requires a personal 'pick and choose'.
These choices depend on the goals or aims that each person has and that’s what creates a unique set up of rules, which will eventually become a structure.
Structures frame the process and give a clear view of where one stands in relationship to the goals but also the necessary acknowledgement of what is still missing.
The sequence that is being described here invites to think about a linear process. And I think the idea of linear is strengthened by our way of conceiving time (as duration) and the experience of our existence: We are born, we grow and we die. That’s our natural process. That’s life. But is it?
The idea of disappearing from the material world (which is so far what we know) is a hard one to live with. So, that makes us to constantly look for certain efficiency with time, judging it by the perspective of results in a sense of measurement: Fast and effective.
One of the clear sets-backs of any process is how attached one is to the result. Focusing too much on losing or winning for example, trying to improve by getting better or even trying to feel better. All of those can cause the risk of being too much ahead, overlooking the present and losing attention.
In the book, Awareness through movement, Moshe Feldenkrais says something that fascinated me enormously: “Man’s life is a continuous process, and the improvement is needed in the quality of the process, not in his properties or disposition”.
So, what he points out is not at the improvement of the man, but to the improvement of the process itself.
And coming back to the metaphor of existence… life is a natural process of change and transformation. So it’s not necessarily connected to improvement.
It’s just different stages.
Here exactly is where play comes into play,
Its sense of “purposelessness” contains the freedom of not being obliged to the results and this leads to interesting consequences:
Realising the unconscious stress to succeed, allows to get rid of it, and then enjoyment of the process can happen.
It deviates the attention from the tunnel vision. So more details reveal and perspectives on the side starts to appear, which makes the whole experience of the process as a more ubiquitous one. It breaks the linear sense of time and invites the appearance of inspiration from any possible place. Some people define this situation as constant flow, where connection or even synchronicity happens anywhere and anytime.
We gain time, just because the perception of it expands by being more attentive to the present moment and less concerned about the result.
All in all,
Play is an important mental state to practice (not the only one), just because the functionality of it is not always clear. As an act of commitment and devotion, you still must have the ambition to be fully in it in order to experience it and leave the expectations. For me, the way of engaging in it is deeply connected to the uncertainty of life.
Nature has it’s own way, the logic of it I can’t understand. Sometimes it feels quite random (even painfully random). Probably it serves certain logic but I cannot always trace it. Certainly not always serves my wishes or desires.
I cannot choose some situations and I cannot control everything that happens around me. But how to experience a situations or how to engage in a situation, this can be a choice to make. Play is a constant reminder that things can be taken easy. And sometimes this is already enough.
If we are, we are alive. The question is how.
I would like to acknowledge the contribution to this article of the individuals that share the conversation with us and inspired some of my ideas and questioned some others.
So Matt Mulligan, Sage Mariah and Dave Gardner many many thanks!