Recently in our Improvising with Life Lab, we practiced a basic game of tossing a balloon with a partner. Using this basic tossing game, we embodied all the ways we avoid playing and “call off the game”. We gave ourselves permission to be bad playmates. We enjoyed tossing super-seriously, tossing with high expectations and not know how to toss. We noticed our mannerisms, thoughts and how our relationship with our partner changed when we tried on different ways to toss poorly and be bad playmates.
We made a list of what we discovered: all the obstacles we put in the way of play and reasons why we don’t play.
Then I posed the questions: “Are you willing to create a new way of relating and playing? Are you willing to keep the game going–to keep playing? Are you willing to continue to discover and create new ways of playing the game?”
They responded with a unanimous, YES! We delighted ourselves with creating hide and seek games with the balloon, pretending it was a football, bouncing it off of body parts, and many more. We discussed how we felt while playing in this new way.
Simple enough, right? We just go from feeling scared to feeling connected? Shift from not knowing how to creating? Choose to participate when we just don’t wanna?
The magic ingredient is there, but let me illustrate with a recent example from my life. Thankfully, life always has a timely sense of humor and is willing to provide lots of experiential learning opportunities regarding anything that I’m exploring.
I homeschool my 8-year-old. He loves to build, play with his friends, create stories and draw. What he doesn’t like is to be told what to do. He also never lacks for energetic expression of how he feels about that which he loves and that which he despises.
I calmly stated that we were going to do math, because obviously, it was Math and Engineering Monday. I was feeling confident because we just finished playing a game together and I thought that we were connected and ready to practice some new math problems.
His resistance first came in the form of acting confused and vehemently exclaiming that he didn’t understand even before I had a chance to explain the problem. Two hours into this resistance I realized I was doing the “remain calm and stick to program” move sprinkled with sideways criticisms. Then finally – complete meltdown. Me, not him. I felt frustrated that he was taking so long to do a task that I thought he could have finished simply and quickly if he focused. I was pissed that he said he “hated school” which I took as a complete lack of appreciation for all the creativity and effort I put into fun learning experiences for him. I began questioning my whole parenting and homeschooling capabilities. My mind dropped the stylus on the broken record that played, “Fuck it”, “I don’t care” and”Why does this have to be so hard?”. In my body, I felt a heavy weight on my chest and a pressing, blankness between my brows. My back felt as if I had a scary monster mouth across it, frozen open and ready to eat the next person who slighted me. I DID NOT WANT TO PLAY.
If I imagined our interaction as a game of toss the balloon, I saw myself try to force him to play with the balloon exactly how I wanted him to. I told him the rules, insisted that they were simple and good for him, and got frustrated when he wouldn’t play! Then when he tried to toss the balloon, I would criticize him for making up his own game that clearly didn’t work and only made it take longer. Meanwhile, I really just wanted him to play with the balloon on his own because I had other things that I wanted to do!
Obviously, this game was NOT working, but instead of recommitting to play and making up a new way of playing, I did the ultimate power move: I left. GAME OVER. I went upstairs and started doing laundry (cleaning is one of my go-to not going to play moves). At the time, stepping away felt like the best choice. I did not want to continue to criticize myself and him and I couldn’t find my way to play.
But I came back. Shortly, after sorting some laundry, I came back. I still felt icky. I didn’t go off and try to “fix” myself by myself (another move I’m familiar with). I came back grumpy and heavy, and WILLING. I was willing to play a different game. I invited him to do a mindful drawing exercise with me that we both really enjoy. He accepted, but right before we were going to begin, he discovered one of the balls I used in my Improvising with Life Lab class the day before.
And he wanted to toss it back and forth.
I thought, “OMG – really?! I just want to draw my feelings, damn it!” But he challenged me to come back and directly interact with him again. It was like he was saying, “Ah, so you think you’re ready to play, huh? We’ll see about that.” Of course, he wasn’t saying that. He had simply found a fun ball to throw. I said, yes to his invitation and then added, “And let’s make funny faces of how we feel when we toss. The other person copies that face and then makes up their own and tosses the ball back!” “Yeah! Except instead of just faces, we’ll copy our whole bodies and actions!” he replied.
Grrrrr… I felt my mind resist. I don’t want to bounce on the trampoline, smack myself in the face with the ball and fall to the ground. That’s too much! But I decided to play through my resistance. My willingness to play was greater than my desire to control.
I noticed that I half-assed his actions at first and as a result, nothing really shifted for me. Going through the motions and lackluster participation is a great way to stay stuck, I heard my inner coach say. I imagined myself at improv class only matching someone else’s emotions or actions half-way; thus, draining the energy from the exercise. So I kept going, adding more and more to my participation as I went until I was fully emphasizing “DUH, DERP, DEE, DOO!!” as I smacked my face against the ball, waddled over to the couch and fell into it.
As I allowed myself to let go of trying to control the game, I began to see my son differently. He was no longer an enemy determined to ruin my homeschooling plans and show me how much of a parental failure I was. He was a kid having a good time with his mom, feeling appreciated and empowered. Soon I began to also feel appreciated and empowered. I still felt those icky feelings in my body, the tension, weight and pressing feelings, but suddenly they weren’t overwhelming and driving me to react.
We enjoyed the next 30 minutes drawing, dancing and sharing. I felt my inner experience and body sensations shifting. Then we sat down together and completed the math I had originally set out to do. We easily made agreements about how many problems and how we were going to work together.
Throughout our class and from my experience with my son, I was reminded that it takes a willingness to play. Finding my way to playful connection DID NOT require that I know what to do. It did not demand that I get rid of my icky feelings first. It didn’t ask me to let go of my judgments or criticisms. They were all there. It only required that I be willing to play and when I noticed that I wasn’t willing, that I recommit to playing.
The fastest way to turn ourselves off from playing is to make ourselves wrong for how we feel right now. To tell ourselves that how we feel is incompatible with playing. Play doesn’t resist. It doesn’t exclude. So how can we play with whatever we’re feeling? How can we include that? It takes practice. We can start out small–we need not try to play with the most difficult aspects of our lives right away.
In class, we practiced noticing what it feels like in our bodies when we are resisting play–being serious, excluding, hurrying, judging. We gave our attention to how we moved, held ourselves and our facial expressions. Then we practiced playing with those play obstacles. Were we willing to play even while others weren’t? How could we shift our physicality to help us go from play obstacles to play moves?
If there’s one thing that I hope my son learns from me, it’s that play catalyzes our creative resilience: play includes, heals, inspires, connects and creates. All things come more easily and with more joy when we play.
Join our next Improvising with Life Lab on November 10th, 6:30-8:30pm at the Fauntleroy Schoolhouse in West Seattle. The last one of 2019 will be on December 8th. Or come play at our improv group on October 21, November 18 or December 16th, 2019. No experience is required for any of these classes, just bring an openness to play!