Hero’s Journey of Optimal Childhood Development
Part 2: The Play Revolution
“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” Alan Watts
I can still remember how the basketball felt in my hands the first time I picked it up. It was a hot spring day, I just turned seven years old. Though I had never dribbled a regulation size ball, it quickly became an extension of me. I dribbled the ball up and down the court, dancing around like a ballerina, graceful, in flow, in love, fully in the moment. Time stopped, the world faded, sounds harmonized into one orchestra as stillness pervaded my mind. For the next seven formidable years, the ball and I were one. I slept with it, I dribbled it from classroom to classroom. I played for hours almost every day until the hoop evaporated into the night. I played with friends, I played with strangers, and most of all, as an only child growing up without a father, I played with my imagination. I loved the game and the game loved me.
Fast-forward seven years to high school when everything changed. It wasn't about love, magic or play. It was about winning at any and all costs. It was about dominating, victory, accolades. It was pain. Lots and lots of pain. It was broken ankles and broken hearts. It was getting yelled at for making a mistake. It was fear and punishment. It was never good enough. It was suicide runs till I threw up, it was dog-eat-dog. Three years of that fight and I didn't have any fight left in me. The magic of the game was lost. My best friend turned into my worst enemy. It was bloody, it was brutal, it broke my heart to shreds. I quit the game and it wasn’t until years later that I learned how to find the joy in it again.
This story has been told in a myriad of ways over eons of time. Purity, love, magic, play, wonder, creativity ripped out of an innocent child’s chest. Appraisal, rankings, moving up the proverbial ladder becoming the holy grail of achievement. A child’s flow state getting squandered under the heavy weight of expectations.This is the paradigm of collective projected pain bodies, wounding and trauma being played out in classrooms, sports fields and households across the globe. Our world and the overarching conventional education/coaching systems that govern it strain the life out of joyful expression.
From a systemic point of view, I believe the way in which we educate our youth is at the root of it all. I propose a new story about why it is imperative to shift the paradigm of how we teach. A shift with no time to waste.
We start our Hero’s Journey with what I call embodied education. One of the primary tenants of this foundational restructuring, is moving from the information age to the integration age. Moving into an embodied learning structure is not as difficult as it may seem. Children are naturally drawn to this style of learning as they intuitively know they will learn most from experience and not regurgitation. It is crucial to listen to this inherent wisdom within youth and to cultivate true embodiment in our modern education systems.
Holistic embodied education feeds the whole child on their quest to self-discovery of who they are and why they are here. In this new age, wisdom will be valued by it’s practice in our lives and not simply the intellectual understanding of knowledge and information alone. We must shift the emphasis from test scores as the end-all-be-all, to embodiment as the true measurement of success, wisdom and lasting value.
From Flow States to Healthy Traits
In positive psychology, flow, also known as “the zone,” is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In short, author Steven Kotler says, “Flow states are when we feel our best and perform our best.” Beyond the intrinsic value of pure enjoyment, research has shown that when harnessed and cultivated these states can and often do lead to altered traits. In his seminal work; Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi demonstrates that flow is not just a key factor of happiness, but the key factor to happiness. His research revealed that worldly success and acclaim in the form of money, prestige and power did not show any noticeable increase in levels of happiness. On the other hand, when observing hundreds of people that regularly incorporated flow states into their daily routines, this proved to be the strongest factor of a more joyful life. The studies also hold true of various socioeconomic backgrounds. This is one reason why we hear many stories of western travelers commenting on the joy they saw on the faces of people in third world countries. Instead of obsessing over mechanical memorization in school, we must place exponentially more emphasis on play/flow.
“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” -Mr. Rogers
Children are drawn to timeless liberated play, not to escape the real world, but to enter it. I believe the art of play is a major pillar in the house of one’s journey to self-realization. For in these liberated states, we transcend our normal limitations. We transcend linear thought forms and enter the realms of experiencing our limitless potential.
Neuroscience has shown that our transient hypofrontal cortex goes radio silent when tracking in high play/flow. This is the part of the brain used for long-term planning, lateral/linear thinking, problem-solving, time, managing logistics, etc. When this shuts down, we are able to become hyper-focused and immersed into the present moment. Time morphs, the outside world fades, tomorrow and yesterday become obsolete. Our sensory awareness spikes, and we, in our relaxed theta state grandeur, receive entryway into the sublime.
This zone is not only for premier athletes and performers. It can happen while hiking, playing with your cat, laughing with friends, deep breathing, rock climbing, mountain biking, writing, painting, sculpting, sewing, knitting, crocheting, snowboarding, on and on. This zone is equally valid and valuable to each of us in our own unique way. In short, flow in its myriad of forms, contexts, levels and degrees is available to all.
Studies into the nuerochemstristy of these joyful states by Ayman Sawaf reveals that our emotions are brought into their higher octaves. Ayman Sawaf’s, “Drops of Joy,” research sheds great light on how joy literally alchemizes one’s internal perspective. This is why something as simple as a nature walk can literally transform our entire day. Problems can turn into opportunities and walls into doors. Imagine the benefits consistent incorporation of joy in our educational systems will garner. This is the true play revolution.
The Way of No Way
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
― Lao Tzu
The central concept in Taoism is that of Tao, “The Way”. It is a universal principle that underlies everything from the creation of galaxies to the interaction of human beings. The Way transcends linear thinking, it is beyond time, beyond identity, beyond description.
We all have felt it. A great kiss, a great swing of the bat or club or racket, a great surf barrel, timeless play with your child. The way not only can happen at any time, it is happening at all times. Actually the way is the only thing happening ever. It is the Eternal Now. We are stuck in time, forms, names, jobs, titles, rankings, bank accounts, mortgages, etc.. Yet beneath the labels, all we truly are is The Way. This is why when we are immersed in our passion, we feel bliss, connection, love, safety, freedom. This feeling that is often so fleeting is not fleeting because it is innately fleeting, it is fleeting because our ability to merge with it is. Our educational system must serve to cultivate the invitation of The Way into our children’s lives and not deprive them of their sacred birthright.
From Olympic athletes to world-class musicians, flow transcends linear thinking and time. Flow happens on its own unforced accord when we lose ourselves fully into the moment. When the doer and the action, the means and the end, the alpha and the omega merge as one. We can witness this all around us. There is no saxophone for Coltrane, no guitar for Hendrix, no ball for Jordan. There is no separate skier on a set of skis, no separate pianist and set of keys, no surfer and surfboard. There is only the experience, the dance and the dancer as one emergent whole. The instruments become extensions of one’s mind and will. When a person or group demonstrates this level of one mind, the mere witnessing can move us all into the transcendental. I believe this is why we are so drawn to observe it in world-class performers. In this state of shared awe, we all draw from the same source. This unified field is unified because it connects us all.
“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Albert Einstein
I see a World where our future leaders will learn from previous generations, but innovate with fresh eyes rooted in their true passions. This level of creative innovation will surge as flow states are honored for the potency they carry with them. Many of the greatest inventors of all time used abstract flow states to inspire their greatest ideas. Einstein was famous for his “thought experiments.” In the seven or so years that it took Einstein to put the pieces of his well-known Theory of Relativity together, much of that came through during his thought experiments. Some of the greatest innovations have come when the mind was immersed, not in the problem, but in the creative abstract world of non-linear thinking.
Nurturing the Gift
When we simply perform tasks for the sake of the task itself and not a future extrinsic reward or fear of punishment should we not perform well, the task takes on a sacred meaning. Getting into a flow state requires that the idea of doing good or bad, right or wrong be taken out of the equation. We do our best and learn our best when we are able let go into the moment and free ourselves from the shackles of other’s standards. When these states are not nurtured, a child is stripped of an essential access point. Without the outlet to freely express, addiction, violence, depression and the pressures that lead to an unacceptably astounding number of youth suicides around the globe are devastating results. These issues need to be addressed head on. I believe we must not only shed more light on the essential importance of timeless, measureless play, but also hold it as the sacred gift that it is. We must learn to cultivate and harness these states, for when we do, we have gifted ourselves with the golden elixir, the fountain of life, and the world as we know it will never be the same.
For more information on the Hero’s Journey, Flow States and Transformational Education please visit www.peaceguardians.org.