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Playing with Handstands and Poetry
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This week I’ve been thinking about play. Handstands, writing, and a beautiful sunrise have encouraged a play that’s been missing from my life for the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the turning of winter to spring that’s helping me come out of my molting state. Whatever it is, I hope you enjoy.
How to suck at handstands and have a blast
I press my hands further into the plush, cream carpet gripping the fibers to hold my inverted body. Every sinew of my forearms are sounding and quieting in an orchestra of effort. My eyes have captured this spot on the carpet. The corners of my vision blur and my teeth swell from the extra blood rushing to my head. I’m swaying forwards and backward, holding and releasing, and I feel the sense of lightness as I’ve pressed too far. As my body comes crashing down, my soul is laughing. I haven’t played like this in years.
I’ve recently been practicing handstands again. I’ll kick my legs up over my head against a bare patch of wall before letting the work begin. At this point, I can press my legs off the wall and hold my inverted body for 45 seconds. For those seconds, I’m completely alive. And that’s the point. Handstands don’t make me a better writer or a better father. They are pure play.
For years, I didn’t remember what play was like. I suspect many of us don’t play as adults.
I don’t remember when I forgot how to play. There’s no moment etched into my memory of the last time I played. Instead, aimless afternoons building Lincoln Log forts only to let green Army men knock them down faded to “playing” baseball or soccer, which faded into the serious business of living. Until one day, like Robin Williams in Hook, I woke up and realized I didn’t remember how to play.
The idea of play has taken on a mythological character in popular psychology. Benefits of play like
Improved brain function
Better relationships with others
are touted as a cure-all to the ills of modern-day work. With one in three American adults suffering from depression, play may just be the missing ingredient in a life of purpose. But telling people to go play is a recipe for failure.
A few years ago, my coach advised me to try playing more. Having once been a child, I immediately rushed off to go show how well I could play. With my son (my cheat code for playing), we unzipped his bag of Lego Duplos across the floor. Though the tension in my chest rose, I held back the urge to clean up the chaos and instead started stacking red, yellow, blue, green, and white shiny blocks into a plastic T-Rex. At least, if you squinted closely and suspended any standard of belief, you could see the T-Rex.
I don’t know if he felt any pride in our accomplishment. I know that whatever I was doing, it wasn’t play.
When children play, they’re practicing being in the world. My daughter’s stuffies – Uni (a purple unicorn) and Kittycorn (a pink kitty) – are her students. They scuffle, get overwhelmed by their teacher, and feel ill depending on what’s happening this week in her life. I watch her try on new perspectives as Uni learns how to get her blanket back or Kitty Corn goes to the doctor. The practice of play allows her to safely work out what it means to be a different person. It’s developmental and fun.
But when I was told to play, I was at a loss. I was ashamed that I didn’t remember how to play. I had a lot of learning to do.
In time, I re-learned how to play. I replaced my frustration and shame with laughter and joy. It’s been a process that started with Yoga, added the Piano, tried handstands, and eventually brought in writing. In order for me to play, I need the activity to be challenging and relevant to my life. They’re challenging enough that I can push myself just beyond my current abilities, much like the flow state. They’re relevant to my life right now, both developmentally and in my interests.
My handstands take a lot of concentration. I can’t simply kick up and zone out; I need to be present in the moment in a lot of ways. But I also am able to try different hand positions, pressures in my muscles, and rates of correcting to see what happens. Feeling the weightlessness of falling and catching it in my palms still fills me with giddy triumph. It surprises me every time. Sometimes even to the point of laughing while upside down – an experience of joy sure to make me fall anyways. Fitness is important to me, which makes handstands relevant in a way Lincoln Logs aren’t anymore.
Cognitive scientists talk about serious play as a ritual that allows us to escape being existentially stuck. When we know we need to change, but we don’t know how to make ourselves change, play can help. That’s the idea behind jeepform, and is the core insight of many martial arts. We get to practice participatory and perspectival knowing before committing to that existential change in a low-risk but realistic environment.
As I explore my own spiritual path, I’m longing for such play. I started my exploration in church, but couldn’t find it. I felt confused by the rituals and unable to find my bearings. To be frank, no one really seems like they’re having fun in the church. I suspect most of those rituals at church were developed to help believers play. Through the stations of the cross, they were able to experience what it was like to relate to Jesus’ death and ascendence without needing to bear the cross.
Many of those rituals seem stuck in a time that no longer feels relevant to our lives.
The closest thing I’ve found to complex organized play in my life is altered states of consciousness. Breathwork and psychedelics help me experience a connection to the all. With the right set and setting, I can find myself at one with spiritual energy I didn’t know existed. But it’s usually alone, and I have yet to find a teacher who reliably helps me to that place.
These are sacred tools. We should hold sacred the guides who help us play in that space as well.
I wish I had a group that wanted to take play as seriously as I do. I like playing alone, but I also want to play with others on the same journey. Instead of feeling like my play is indescribable, I would be stoked to have companions who were there with me. I want to bring that same feeling of excellence to my own development that I did to my former life. I am desperate for something more. I have an inkling that play can help.
Until I do, you can find me upside down against a wall, kicking up, holding on, and falling down.
A short poem
I was inspired by my daily sunrise pictures to play with a poem. I don’t know how to know if there’s a kernel of good poetry in there, but it was fun to try. It’s opening up a new joy in writing that was gone for a few weeks.
The sun crests the cloud
It paints the sky with blue, pink, then white
And it brings life to the mountains below
The brilliance scars my eye
Yet I shiver in delight
And let my ecstasy grow
I sink into awe
My soul takes flight
This is what it is to know
I am all and all is me
Articles worth your time. Everything Adam writes at is worth your time. In this piece, ostensibly telling of his time as a graduate student at Oxford, Adam explains why imparting knowledge and wisdom on other people is so hard. And we should appreciate that it is. Some of my favorite quotes are:
that makes it easy to believe that what I have going on upstairs is just fundamentally different from other folks: I’ve got Fantasia playing up there, while they've got, like, a couple doodles underscored by a fourth-grader with a flute.
To impart wisdom, then, is to lay siege to someone’s mind-castle, because the only things worth being wise about are hidden behind the walls. And it has to be that way, because these beliefs and values are simply too important to leave undefended. If someone could upend your entire sense of self by uttering a few sentences, we would constantly be under attack from the interpersonal equivalent of hydrogen bombs. But in protecting ourselves from attack, we also protect ourselves from wisdom.
and I also despise the PassItOn campaign.. I love powerful aphorisms and these by François de La Rochefoucauld didn't let me down. A couple of my personal favorites:
“Great and brilliant deeds that dazzle the onlooker are depicted by strategists as the result of great plans, whereas they are usually the result of temperament and passion. So the war between Augustus and Antony, which is ascribed to their ambition to gain mastery of the world, may merely have been due to jealousy.”
“No events are ever so unlucky that clever people cannot draw some advantage from them; nor are any so lucky that imprudent people cannot turn them to their own detriment.”
Pair them with Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish if you’re a fan of this type of wisdom. But don’t forget Adam’s point above.
More sunrise photos and one for pure joy
These were the best sunrise photos from this week. I post them on Twitter every morning. If you like them, please follow me. I’m traveling the next two weeks, so I’m excited to get sunrise photos from new spots.
This one was pure joy, so I couldn’t resist sharing.
Until next week, have an intentionally curious week,
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