There is a desire embedded in our DNA. It’s the desire to exist at a level of childlike ease, and get out of our own way. And there’s a simple way to do that: embrace your innate playfulness and stop taking yourself so seriously! There was a moment in time when our chimpanzee ancestors gave rise to the homosapien by discovering the elixir of youth. It’s something called neoteny, which is the quality of juvenile retention, or the quality of slowing down the growth process.
Contrary to popular belief, this retention is the very thing that made us smarter (as opposed to taking ourselves so seriously). We explored more, we practiced more, we played more.
Hitting the Play Button
In today’s rather serious society, we consistently press pause on the playfulness button because it doesn’t look serious. It doesn’t look like we’re working. It doesn’t look like we’re productive.
But according to Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, that’s the opposite of what makes us successful. Play, he says, is what successful people do. Just look at this brief list of the benefits of play:
- Problem solving
If you look at that list closely, you’ll notice that these are qualities that we tend to incorrectly associate with people who take themselves very seriously, but are actually qualities that result from a playful sensibility.
The reason play triggers these beneficial qualities is because it activates the whole neocortex of our brain, which is responsible for cognition, sensory perception, reasoning, focus, and language.
Making Room for Playfulness
Going back to our ancient chimpanzee cousins, they had a similar cranium in shape, size and ratio as the one we all share today, but this skull was (and still is) only to be found in juvenile chimps. As they mature, however, they develop a strong jaw, and to make room for this evolutionary process, the cranium reduces in size.
So…neoteny. We hold a strong connection to these ancestors, but it is neotenic in nature due to the fact that we did not evolve the same jawline. Our human evolution sacrificed the strong jaw by keeping hold of the juvenile features of our chimpanzee cousins, providing access in adulthood to all of that brain power by staying forever young.
There is a beautiful Sanskrit word in Hindu mythology and yogic doctrine, which stands for the divine play of the universe: Leela. It’s the spontaneous creation of the universe, which sets the stage for an awe-filled life experience of play.
Unless, that is, the player gets transfixed by the illusive Maya. “The [Sanskrit] word maya—one of the most important terms in Indian philosophy—has changed its meaning over the centuries,” writes Fritjof Capra, in his book The Tao of Physics. “From the might, or power, of the divine actor and magician, it came to signify the psychological state of anybody under the spell of the magic play. As long as we confuse the myriad forms of the divine lila with reality, without perceiving the unity of Brahman underlying all these forms, we are under the spell of maya.”
This is another way of saying: stop taking yourself so seriously!
According to the wisdom of leela (or lila), one must enjoy the playfulness of the experience, which gives the player permission to enjoy life’s transient nature.
But This is Serious Business
Now don’t get me wrong, life is serious business.
We’re here to embody our life experience and actively participate, not let it pass us by. Elaine Vaan Hogue, a professor of mine from Boston University worded it perfectly when she said our work was “serious play.”
She explained that no matter the task, our job was to take it seriously, but with a playful curiosity that allowed for mistakes and room for growth. In other words, the serious act of play allowed for progress. Alan Rickman said, “I do take my work seriously and the way to do that is not to take yourself too seriously.”
It’s that divine play in action.
Why Playfulness Will Open Up a World of Possibilities
A few years ago I was undergoing my yoga teaching exams. I took myself very seriously — because I wanted to be taken seriously.
I was laser focused on the task at hand, which is why it was incredibly inconvenient when a little fly decided to bug me, and only me. The fly was an infernal distraction, and distractions were not welcome.
In fact, the fly was so distracting that all of a sudden the only thing I could think about was…the fly!
So what could I do? Stress about it? Cry about it? I mean, sure, those were all valid options, but instead I laughed about it and used it to my advantage. By laughing I was able to complete my exams without the pang of stress or fear.
Little did I know that letting go of my serious outlook was the most important decision of my life, because it allowed room for an idea to blossom. That idea would become my first book, “Mula and the Fly,” all because a little fly reminded me to STOP TAKING MYSELF SO SERIOUSLY!
As children, before the concept of social conditioning has its severe impact, we refuse to edit ourselves because there is nothing to edit. There is just the profound wisdom to live each moment without apology.
As I allowed myself the liberation to laugh, a book was born. Progress from play. Neoteny at it’s finest.
As Dr. Stuart Brown said, “Play is a NECESSITY in brain development and engagement. Our heritage as humans is to…play. Yes, we are built to play, and built by play.”
So play, make mistakes, and stop taking yourself so seriously.