Play as Spiritual Practice

By Mary Montgomery

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Recently I tuned in to a TED Talk Hour on NPR that was dedicated to play (npr.org/programs/ted-radio-hour/390249044). What an eye opener! Research is not only showing that play can make us more empathetic and loving, it is also demonstrating the serious effects that play deprivation has on children (both human and animal). Here are just a few highlights from that broadcast:
 
How Can Playing A Game Make You More Empathetic? Dr. Jeffrey Mogil, a Professor of Pain Studies, and the Canada Research Chair in the Genetics of Pain at McGill University, has done experiments that indicate that the lack of empathy of strangers toward one another is caused by stress. The researchers also found a 15-minute fix. It turns out that playing a collaborative video game like Rock Band with strangers decreases stress, and makes you more empathetic to one another.
 
National Institute for Play (nifplay.org): NIFPlay founder Dr. Stuart Brown is noted for his research that demonstrates the strong correlation between playful activity and success. He came to this realization, however, under somber circumstances. In 1966, as a young psychiatry professor, Brown was part of a team that investigated Charles Joseph Whitman, the mass murderer who gunned down 49 people, killing 16, at the University of Texas in Austin. One thing that stood out was the fact that Whitman’s stern and abusive father did not allow his young son to participate in spontaneous or exploratory play. Neighbors remembered the father severely disciplining his son whenever he attempted to play. 
 
Brown went on to study murderers at Texas’s Huntsville Prison, and discovered that in every single case, these men had been deprived of normal play experiences as children.
 
In his TED Talk, “Play is more than just fun” (TED.com), Brown pointed out that play is important to our very survival. For example, researchers allowed one group of mice to play as young mice do, and prevented play in another group of mice. When a cat odor-soaked collar was placed among the mice, all of them immediately fled and hid. The difference: the mice that were allowed to play eventually started exploring and came out. The play-deprived mice remained hidden and died.
 
It is this type of stark research that is causing scientists like Brown to search for the ways that play positively affects our lives. The NPR TED Talk Hour on Play features several other interesting interviews including: “What Can Bonobos Teach Us About Play?” with Primatologist Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, “How Can Video Games Improve Our Real Lives?” with Jane McGonigal, Director of Games Research & Development at the Institute for the Future (iftf.org), and “Who’s That Guy Riding The Subway In His Underwear?” with comedian Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere (improveverywhere.com), a New York City-based prank collective that causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places. The full talks of all of these folks can be viewed at TED.com.
 
All this got me to thinking about how play can actually be part of a deep and fruitful spiritual practice. I wondered if other folks might be thinking the same thing, and did a Google search for “play and spirituality.” Hmm… there wasn’t a lot on this, yet there were a few important bread crumbs including:
 
Spiritualityandpractice.com: This website, which is devoted to providing resources for spiritual journeys, points out that all spiritual traditions have prophets who encourage us not to take ourselves too seriously. These include Coyote, Nasrudin, St. Francis and his order of Jesters of the Lord, Zen masters, Taoist sages, and Hasidic storytellers. Their spiritual message: “What we know is not worth knowing, and what’s worth knowing cannot be known through our ways.”
 
Play as a spiritual practice (examiner.com/article/play-as-a-spiritual-practice): This excellent article pointed out that the word “spirit” comes from the Latin word spiritus, meaning “breath.” Spirit and spirituality by its very nature is animating and alive. Play, and playful thought, can hold a very powerful way to connect to what our Spirit needs to thrive. This article also featured Nika Quirk, an InterPlay.org improv leader who believes that play is indeed a spiritual practice. Quirk describes play as a profound act. Play becomes the way to connect to, and fill, the often magical space from which we create. Recognizing the deep meaning and healing that can be found as we connect to our playful, creative, and inspirational selves can be a truly spiritual process.
 
Mary Montgomery’s company, Montgomery Media Enterprises, specializes in public relations, writing projects, and social media development, especially in the non-profit sector. Ms. Montgomery has a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies from Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS). She has completed the coursework in doctoral studies with a focus on Altruism and Unconditional Love. Contact her via email at: MMontgomery@SpiritualTravelerGuides.com. Please use Cyberweave in the subject line. You can also visit her new blog, SpiritualTravelerGuides.com.