Last spring, I bought a ticket to the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, the frothy corner where technology plays with wisdom traditions. I delighted as buddhist monks, tech entrepreneurs and neuroscientists each took the stage hoping to illuminate the path to a 21st-century "wisdom culture." As someone who has spent the last decade researching the benefits of play I was there to see whether the topic of play had made the cut and if not, how I could help it infiltrate into this important conversation.
Throughout the conference the topic of meditation was center stage in one inspiring talk after another. While the spotlight stayed on mindfulness, I noticed that play pervaded the conference design at every level. We were explicitly invited to engage the whole event as play, to play with ideas and to come to the parties and play each evening. There were photo booths, raffles, a rap singer, art exhibits and friendly competitions. It seemed that, in their own attempt to create a wisdom culture, the conference designers encouraged two main paths -- calm the mind and play. And yet, despite the prominent role of play in the conference design, the topic of play per se didn't make it into any sessions or talks. Go figure!
The closest it came was when Evan Williams, co-founder of Twitter told his story (watch video from his talk). He described how he began a meditation practice while he was at Twitter and saw how profoundly it helped him make wiser decisions, not to mention maintain a little equanimity amidst the insane demands of a start-up. When he launched his next company, Obvious, he decided to share the love and provide meditation classes, a dedicated meditation room and annual meditation retreats to his new team.
Okay, that in itself is pretty darn cool. But what struck me the most was something that zipped right under the radar. Describing the company's annual meditation retreat Williams told the audience, "We meditate for a few hours then go play flag football." It was like saying "After a good roll in the hay we all have a cigarette." 1,700 people chuckled but I doubt anybody thought twice about it. I, on the other hand, saw it as a flashing neon sign pointing straight to play's central role in a wisdom culture.
After all, it's no accident that after meditating for a few hours, we spontaneously start to play. Animal biologists tell us that if a young animal is under stress, it won't play. But as soon as it starts to feel safe... well, let the games begin! Most of us modern humans have gotten the saber-toothed tigers and woolly mastodons under control. We experience chronic stress not because our lives are in any real danger but because we believe our incessant, neurotic thoughts (and let's face it, it's a jungle in there). So the most direct path to safety is to turn down the volume of our minds and arrive with all our awareness in the present moment -- where it's safe. The present moment is, in fact, the only doorway to the playground. You can't get there from not here. And when we do get here the playground doors burst wide open and unleash our spontaneous free play. In short, when we're present we become wise and everything becomes play.
Not only does presence lead to play but play can also lead to presence. In fact, we love to play precisely because it helps us bust out of the prison of our self-conscious egos and let go with abandon into an activity that totally absorbs our attention. In fact, I like to think of play as dynamic meditation. It can have the same effect as 20 minutes on the cushion. Plus, if the play involves physical movement (my personal choice is dancing like a maniac) you get loads of other benefits plus a cocktail of endorphins. Like meditation, after play the world looks brighter, clearer and more delightful.
I'm thrilled to see meditation having its moment (one moment at a time). And I look forward to the day when play is recognized and celebrated for its profound power as a practice of presence.
Maybe by the time there's a Wisdom 3.0. Conference we'll be hearing about tech executives taking their company on retreats that start with a game of touch football and, after a good romp they all go off to meditate.
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