Seven years ago I was living in Laos teaching English to a motley crew of classes ranging from super-cute six-year olds (mostly called ‘Lucky’ and ‘Cookie’) to the Ministry of Finance (they were the worst students by far).
Whenever I walked anywhere, the lined-up tuk-tuk drivers would ask ‘Pai Sai?’ – ‘Where are you going?’ and I would reply ‘Pai Lin’.
I thought I was saying ‘I’m going walking’. They would smile, repeat my answer among themselves with an echo of friendly laughter, and leave me to walk along happily.
Except I just discovered, seven years later, that I wasn’t saying ‘I’m going walking’.
I was saying ‘I’m going playing’.
And that actually, in Laos, ‘I’m going playing’ is a far more normal and acceptable response than ‘I’m going walking’. No one walks places. Why would you walk round the corner when you hop on your moto, right? (Vietnam was even better for this – people would literally drive in and out of shops – you were safe nowhere!)
But going playing? That’s totally normal, apparently.
In Laos, the national motto is ‘bo pen yang’ which means ‘no worries’. It’s the Laos version of ‘akunamatata’. On my walks (or plays) around town, I would hear it constantly. Bo pen yang, bo pen yang, a gentle rumble of problem-free philosophy.
That says a lot about the Laos people – the laid back attitude, the slow pace, and it’s a big part of the cultural more that made it so easy for me to fall in love with the country, and keep a little space in my heart for the place and the people always.
Imagine living in a society where it was more normal and acceptable to go playing than go for a walk. To the people of Laos, playing is a vital part of life, and being playful is a healthy, ordinary state to live in.
In fact NOT being playful is considered worrying and unhealthy. It is not considered normal to be stressed, busy and tired, as it is in the West – where it seems to not only be accepted but lauded as a status symbol.
Walking through the streets of London or sitting on a tube for a few stops, you do not hear a theme-tune of ‘no worries, for the rest of your days… it’s our problem-free, philosophy… bo pen yang’. Instead you see and hear a sticky broken record of ‘problem-full, closed-down, busy-tired-stressed’.
(And yes, I know this isn’t the whole truth, and I’ve had many fun conversations and experiences on the tube, but it’s undeniably a stark comparison to the bo pen yang streets of Laos).
Is it time, perhaps, that we took a look at what we have made normal? What we accept?
I was talking to an old student just before I came to Thailand, and she told me she liked reading my blogs because it gave her a sense of escapism.
What if this way of living wasn’t escapism?
What if it was a conscious creation of a life?
What if that was possible for you too?
What if these words could not just be interesting, but ignite change?
What might be possible for you if you played more? Or if you were to BE more playful with your life? What kind of life and experiences could you create for yourself?
Personally I see playfulness and creativity as inextricably intertwined. Creativity is perhaps the more accepted version, or the more adult version, but they share an energy. It’s an energy of freedom, of exploration, of launching yourself into the unknown. Of openness and curiosity. And that energy changes lives.
Martin Buber said ‘Play is the exultation of the possible’
Heraclitus said ‘Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play’
Dr Jaan Panskepp said ‘The opposite of play is depression’
And Plato even heralded play: ‘You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation’
So where do you want to create? Where can you be playful?
In the kitchen? In the garden? In the bedroom?
With your body? Your hands? Your mind? Your ideas? With your children?
What’s your mode of play? What is playful for you?
Play is not about having an outcome, but about approaching life with openness and curiosity.
Creativity does not know form. It does not know the difference between charcoal and oil pastels, or between painting, dancing or writing. It is an energy that lives to be expressed. Let it move you, move through you, come alive in you.
Play loosens the knot of tension that comes from being an adult. It loosens the feeling of needing to control.
Harlow did an experiment with monkeys which found that the monkeys need play to develop normally, and that playing with younger monkeys can heal traumatised adolescent monkeys – they regress and play at a similar age level – and it gives them permission to go back to the beginning and learn anew.
Play is the antidote to staying stuck. It is a chance to try another way – to not just have a different experience but experience being different, and to see what happens, what shifts – inside and in your relationship with the external.
Play develops a creative response to life’s challenges. By being creative, you are essentially being new – by definition then, you are taking yourself out of the known, out of the comfort zone. This may be scary. But luckily, play holds its own anti-venom.
Play is, in itself, calming for the nervous system and fulfilling for the soul – you are allowed to express yourself! You are free! Play is challenging, it’s growth-inducing, it makes us laugh so hard we fall on the floor. It opens us up.
However, some of us are in such a high state of stress – some without even knowing it, that accessing play can be difficult. People have such rigid ideas of how things ‘should be’, how we ‘should be’ and all these shoulds get in the way. We worry about doing it ‘wrong’, appearing silly, not being ‘good’ at it.
Remember that there is no such thing as being good at play or bad at play. There is just allowing yourself to play or not allowing yourself to play.
Play is a way of surprising yourself with what you’re capable of – proving yourself wonderfully wrong and opening your mind to new possibilities of what you might now be capable of!
Like life, play is about the process. Play is the place from where we are free to dream.
Play is the path to losing your self-consciousness, your masks, your filled-up thoughts of what you think others might think… Play helps you drop your barriers to the world and to love.
Play is silly and lovely and deep and transformational.
Play is about being where you are, opening fully to emotion, being fully present in the moment with yourself and whoever you are with.
Play connects. Play wakes you up. Play is Medicine.
I’m off to continue playing through life; see you there?
Over to you
When did you last play, and how did you let yourself express your playfulness? Your inspiration might help someone else who needs more play in their life! Share in the comments below.
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