All Play

June 2021

The Antidote to Shame

“Playfulness and connectedness are antidotes to shame” declares the warm, savvy and spacious team at Pacific Integral, whose enlightening course on “Emergent Leadership” I participated in this spring.  While Pacific Integral’s assertion resonates completely with me (as a person who has basically resolved all her remaining body-acceptance issues by dancing mischievously in her friend Megan’s disinhibiting Zumba classes), their basis for this precise notion is unclear.  My internet search for “play is the antidote to shame” yielded only one directly relevant piece from a few years ago in an old opinion series at the Huffington Post

That said, I’ve heard sociologist and leadership expert Brene Brown discuss the links between vulnerability, shame and courage in her research for years, and Brown’s formula for eradicating shame is empathy (explained succinctly to Oprah Winfrey here).  Empathy’s effects are not unrelated to the benefits – such as a sense of wholeness and belonging – that we derive from play, but to my mind empathy is qualitatively different.  For one thing, we can source play for ourselves. When we are playing we are joyful, spontaneous conduits of emergence, immersed in what we’re doing, liberated from our fear (of failure, of looking stupid, of being judged, etc.).  Effective leaders understand that play is a positive disruptor, allowing good stuff to channel through us into existence.  If leadership – from the smallest local grassroots movements to the juggernauts of global private enterprise – could be redefined as a form of play, the whole world would transform into a healthier place: a nimbler humanity would have the perspective to address intractable conundrums by taking its darkness seriously while holding it lightly.  

The Lever of Transformation

Transformation in any system always begins with self-transformation inside an individual (who, by the way, can be situated anywhere touching that system).  My professional philosophy aligns with the folks at the Conscious Leadership Group, whose Commitment #9 of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership is about navigating play and rest “above the line” in an open, curious stance of learning: I commit to creating a life of play, improvisation, and laughter. I commit to seeing all of life unfold easefully and effortlessly. I commit to maximizing my energy by honoring rest, renewal and rhythm.  [Their emphasis.]  The “below the line” manifestation of this commitment is the following closed and defensive stance, primarily concerned with being right [my emphasis]: I commit to seeing my life as serious; it requires hard work, effort and struggle. I see play and rest as distractions from effectiveness and efficiency. 

We can’t be the generative fonts of imagination, innovation and experimentation that are necessary to our planetary flourishing if we are frenetically grasping at illusions like stability, certainty, simplicity or being right.  Imagine what possibilities could be unleashed if you, your team, your family, your workplace, your organization, your community and our society were “committed to creating a life of play”!  Having evolved our primate playfulness not just for survival (check out this gibbon’s territorial improv act) but for social, problem-solving – and even culture-building reasons in the example of bonobos – it seems that we homo sapiens pop out of the cosmos as newborns with a universal innate sense of humor.  (Otherwise, how could these tiny babies respond with such hilarity at their father’s antics?)  As we grow up we may get out of practice, but play is an ever-present living resource within each of us, always inviting a change in consciousness.

The Shift

Erica Schreiber of the Conscious Leadership Group describes in her blog post, “When F*cked Is Funny,” how she uses humor – and a particular song – as her shift move from “below the line” to “above the line.”  Do you use humor or play to change your consciousness?  If so, what’s your shift move?

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4 Responses to All Play

  1. cecilebetit says:

    Thank you Susan for this opening space to reflect. I write before I travel to the resources you so generously provide to expand our thinking. As I sit with your thoughts here, I am reminded of how animals learn the skills needed for adulthood in their play. For much of our evolution, that was the case for humans as well. It is perhaps one of the dilemmas of our era that we, as adults, no longer know the range of ‘performance’ skills and factual knowledge that our children will need in their adult lives.

    Our living longer seems to compound the unknown and that lack of certainty into the foreseeable future. Events such as the pandemic, seem to offer slalom like challenges in new ways of being, in seeing and responding to our unfolding reality. I think you offer needed shifts in perspective here.

    Resting on the knowledge of the ‘doing’ kinds of responses that were successful in previous centuries may no longer be effective. Being at the ready for challenges in present and future life–may well require a change of relationship to ‘what is.’ We may be experiencing the quaking of that understanding being heard throughout our world as the ideas of dominating, controlling reality are bubbling up in more and more places as the illusions that they always were.

    Going forward, the challenge may be more our seeing, feeling and leaning into appropriate flexible responses in the present than pulling our favorite arrow out from our well used quiver. The kind of space that opens for us in play, improvization and laughter may encourage us to ‘be with’ the emergent and to respond in new and flexible ways. “Behold, I make all things new” comes to mind here and may also be an application of the reasoned wisdom to not put new wine into old skins.

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