Have you ever watched a dog roll in fox poop? Strange question perhaps, but bear with me a moment.
Last year, when my husband and I adopted Molly Miracle, our cheeky little rescue Westie, I did not know that scrubbing unmentionables off her not-so-white coat would be part of the deal. At first, I tried to stop her from rolling around in smelly brown stuff on the field, but one day I stopped myself and just watched.
She was in heaven. This little animal who had come to us so timid and frightened was having the absolute time of her life – and here I was, trying to bring it to a swift halt.
How often do I do that to myself, censoring the type and amount of fun and joy I allow myself to experience? A four-part lesson that I was perfectly primed to learn came to me in a way I did not anticipate, via my pooch:
Have fun as often as possible.
To do this, throw yourself with abandon into whatever it is you are doing.
Be willing to look stupid, ridiculous even.
Know that when you do this, you invite others to do the same.
I didn’t learn this as a child because I stopped having fun quite young. I was shy, self-conscious and pretty soon, addicted – and as wild as it can look, let me tell you that addiction is not fun. Neither is an all-consuming eating disorder. Same goes for shame, guilt and crippling fear.
Over the last 12 and a half years since I stopped drinking, self-harming and spiralling out of control, I have learned how to take myself less seriously, to loosen up and to play. I now know that playing is about more than just being silly, although that by itself is a good enough reason.
Healthy play takes you into a state of flow (not numbness)
Life and your senses become more heightened, not less; this is not about hedonism or numbing out, but about becoming more present to the moment, more sensitive to your environment, your playmates and your senses.
During play, the self-conscious adult takes a backseat. This can take time and is a state to aim towards rather than yet another thing to beat yourself up about.
Play likely involves physical activity. Get into your body, move those miraculous limbs and fingers and joints around a bit (or a lot) and watch how much more alive you feel.
Play reflects the places where you feel frozen, scared or stuck. If your default setting is to become instantly competitive, play will show that to you. If one of your favourite mind-scripts is “I always get left out”, play will mirror it back to you. If you perpetually tell yourself that you’re not good enough, you’ll notice your tendency to compare and despair during play. This is good news! Awareness always precedes choice.
Don’t let any discomfort you experience in the process stop you. Change happens over time, not over the course of one game of Ultimate Frisbee, one Charleston class, one improvised comedy experience, or one, um, encounter with a giant swing…
Personally, I experience an ebb and flow in terms of how freely and authentically I play. Some days are easier than others. Recently, I played Marvin Gaye’s ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to a group of 25 students from the Ivory Coast in an English class, and to my delight they got up to dance to it, at 11:35am on a Friday morning in a University classroom. I was so happy and felt so close to the flow, but a part of me held back, self-conscious and nervous about the students who chose not to join in, worried they were judging me.
So I am not always able to play with the wild abandon I would like – but I keep going, because I want to enter into the state of not-knowing, of spontaneity, frivolity and inconsequentiality that play brings. I know that ultimately play takes me closer to the state I want to live in: young at heart and alive and joyful and free.
And one day, if I’m one of the lucky ones, I’ll be aware that my time on this earth is coming to an end. I’ll be able to look back on my life and the moments when I played, and I’ll be able to say that I lived well because I played.
Playful ideas you can do today.
Do something physical
Skip, hula hoop, practise doing handstands the way kids do ‘em (not the way yogis do them). Gather your friends and do the Hokey Cokey (or, if you’re in the US, the Hokey Pokey). Dance (just like Baz Luhrman recommended). Jump on the bed. Do a forward roll. Play ‘Tag’. Make it non-competitive, and bonus points for being silly. Bonusier points for doing it in a public space.
Draw on a wall in your house. Seriously. Kids love doing it – why not us, too? It can always be painted over. Get your hands messy and bake something raw and chocolatey. Making my own raw choc brownies has been one of the great joys of my year.
Be randomly, outrageously kind
Buy a box of choccies or a bunch of flowers and give them out at a train station. You will literally transform people’s days. Leave pound coins or dollar notes in public places – on a train seat, in a library book.
Give your barista/ checkout assistant/ a stranger a compliment: “Gosh, I just had to tell you that I love your dress/ hair/ smile. Thank you for making my day better.” Call that friend you’ve been meaning to call forever. She’ll be so grateful. Write a note to a family member. Take your beloved’s hands (or paws) in yours and open up your heart – tell him/her about the joy s/he brings into your life.
And if all else fails, find the nearest patch of grass and pretend you’re a dog rolling in fox poop. It’ll make you smile, I promise, and I might just see you there.
Elloa Atkinson is a coach, speaker and writer who facilitates women in remembering the truth about who they really are and navigate their internal and relationship struggles with love, honesty and a willingness to be transformed.