A Meditation on PLAY

A Meditation on Play by Marc-francis Otto
Meditation on Familiarity

In Tibetan, the word for meditation is “gompa,” which means familiarity. What we are familiar with fills our mind. Neurons that fire together, wire together. That which we become familiar with generates our implicit experience. As we move through our life, familiarity deepens the grooves of our mind.

We all know what it is like to get angry. We all know what it is like to be afraid. We all know what it is like to feel overwhelmed. Our hearts beat faster, we feel unsettled, we look around for the source of our upset, maybe we lash out with a harsh word, or turn on our heels, or give up.

In the steely indifference and chaos of the modern era, we’re looking for lasting ways to be more flexible - bending rather than breaking; more adaptive - dancing with each moment’s uniqueness; more coherent - remaining present and clear; more energized - giving and receiving; and more stable - keeping our ground. Our brain, too, is looking for this FACES flow (Siegel, 2006), seeking relational experiences that will encourage us to recognize our familiar constraints and open their well-traveled pathways to new energy and information.

In looking for something new, we now turn to something very old. Something living in the same ancient arches and hallways as our familiar friends fight, flight, and freeze.


PLAY is a primary-process emotion and motivational flow whose circuits thread/weave through every aspect of ourselves. Beginning in the limbic pathways, PLAY flows in the core roots of our brain, through our heart and viscera, to all our sense faculties, through our expressive limbs, reflecting all the way out across the largest organ of the body, our skin. PLAY is the e-motion of engagement and approach, deeply motivating us into relationship with others and with our world. PLAY is the pre-verbal dance of touch-and-go that opens all our senses and brings the energy and information of connectedness into our system. Through PLAY we become a part of the whole. We learn to CARE about others while we SEEK to understand the larger world. Because PLAY is so deeply woven into us, the PLAY network bears the capacity to weave us into belonging with our world. [For more information about the primary process emotional systems expressed in CAPS in the first part of this article, see the work of Jaak Panksepp (1998).]

Sometimes our familiarity is so great, it only takes the slightest provocation to trigger us - an untimely red light, mud on the carpet, an insensitive comment, a dirty look, a five-minute late friend. Or we can’t identify the source of the trigger, just something from our dim, implicit past.

When these reactions become too familiar or too frequent, we may take steps to try and change them. We seek ways to deal with our anger, overcome our fear, or continue in the face of despair. We practice all sorts of coping strategies like avoiding certain people or using positive self- talk. We may count to ten, reason with ourselves, or visualize blue. But invariably something happens and we again find ourselves going down one of our familiar routes because cognitive coping strategies don’t hold up well when we are experiencing stress.

Originating within the same familiar networks, our strategies are often just more of the same - more running around, more fending off, more propping up.

Yet in our modern culture, play may be confusing or unfamiliar to us. Adult observers frequently and broadly consider play a frivolous luxury to be engaged in only when other basic needs are fulfilled. One of play’s confounding aspects is its apparent purposelessness, that it appears to be done for its own sake with its value often seeming elusive or negligible. “What were you doing?” “Oh nothin,’ just playin’.” In an effort to assign some meaning to it, play is often described as “skills-training,” as if it is just practice and preparation for later life experiences. Through this lens, the trajectory of rough-and-tumble play is pointed towards future hunting or social-status strategies.

In our loss of familiarity, play is put away, something to be done at the end of the day, maybe, if we have accomplished our important work. But, as play researcher Brian Sutton-Smith points out, “The opposite of play is not work, it’s depression” (Sutton-Smith, 1997, p. 198).

Sometimes, out of the belief that it is making a vital contribution to socialization, play is put to work. It becomes regimented or mandated. We consign it to games or sports where targeted development and achievement is the goal, where there are winners and losers. In this distortion of play, the stakes begin to closely resemble later competition hierarchies in the adult world of winners and losers.

On the other hand, because play is unfamiliar, it eludes categorization, and then the novelty may invite us to engage our prefrontal cortex and pause, to take a closer look, a closer listen if we are courageous enough to not push it away entirely.


Why do we play? Let’s listen to the following exchange between play experts Bob Fagen and Stuart Brown following their witnessing of two grizzly bears romping all over a meadow as recounted by Dr. Brown (2009):

“Bob, why do these bears play?” After some hesitation, without looking up, he said, “Because it’s fun.” “No, Bob, I mean from a scientific point of view, why do they play?” “Why do they play? Why do birds sing, people dance - for the pleasure of it.”

“Bob, you have degrees from Harvard and MIT, and an in-depth knowledge of bears. You’re a student of evolution, you’ve written the definitive work on all mammals at play -- I know you have more to say about this. Tell me, why to animals play?”

After a long, tolerant silence, during which I felt as if he were a sensitive artist having to explain a sublime painting to a tasteless dolt, Bob relented. He answered reluctantly,
“In a world presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears for an evolving planet.” (pp. 28-29)

In an uncertain, rapidly changing world whose future is open and indeterminate, play is the whole-hearted embrace of ambiguity. To play is to engage, turn towards, relate - to become familiar, moment by moment, with our dynamic, vibrant world. Whether we’re bears romping and splashing across a meadow or humans rolling on the carpet with our toddlers, play opens us to share directly in the experience of our world and take part in the song of life.

In the becoming familiar, play buoys our ability to pay attention moment to moment, perceiving a present not determined by our invariant representations, responding to what is happening now, not what happened then. In play, we adapt creatively, giving and receiving energy through a joyful feeling of connection with others. Play experiences build confidence in our own ground, so we don’t get thrown off and overwhelmed by life. The practice of play naturally accesses and strengthens FACES flow, which weaves the neural nets of resilience so we can meet the challenges of life with joy and enthusiasm.

Play is only ever a synapse away, embedded in the core of our limbic response system. The deeply embodied play network cultivates a state of mind allowing us to be with and interact through curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love (Dan Siegel’s COAL, 2007). Play is the process of becoming more and more familiar and more and more nestled in the experience of one’s life.

Yet, how do we become familiar with play? How do we get to know the getting-to-know? To do this, we must leave our familiar pathways and gently saunter into the unfamiliar. We must give up and let go of our fixed ideas and simply open our ears, our eyes, our hearts. We put on our soft-soled shoes, attune to all our senses and gently wander off. The Latin for wandering is vagus - which also gives rise to the words vague... uncertain... When things are uncertain, when we have left the comfort of the known for the openness of the unknown, we must take care to quiet down and gently invite the trail to come to us. Turn our head this way and that, feel and sense the breeze on our skin, trust our heart and feet to follow the way.

As much as this is an outer journey into new experiences, this path leads deeply inward. And our guide is our own internal wanderer - our vagus nerve. Arising from the medulla deep in our brainstem (at about nose level), the vagus nerve flows down along the carotid artery on each side of our neck innervating and wrapping our throat, esophagus, and trachea. Moving down into our chest, the delicate networks of the vagus swirl around our heart and lungs. Flowing below our diaphragm, the vagus interlaces the deep orchestration of our viscera.

But our wandering vagus is only the mainstream of a greater watershed. Other related nerves flow from our brainstem to our ears, mouth and tongue, face and eyes, head and neck, and the expanse of our skin. Interlacing with the vagus, this vast watershed connects us to the relational world all around us - to other’s hearts, other’s minds and brains, other’s hands, bellies, and faces. Through the wandering flows of these networks, we are knit to the ever-changing world.

According to the research of Stephen Porges (2007), these flowing, interconnected networks form the essential architecture of our social engagement system. Specifically, the ventral, myelinated aspect of the vagus nerve, with primary connections to the heart, allow us to tone down sympathetic fight and flight activations, and return and warm up from freeze behaviors. The traipsing of our vagus nerve, particularly the strands that wind round our heart, allow us to emotionally and viscerally perceive the relational world around us, allowing us to respond in kind.

When we feel the world is safe and inviting, our heart beats out a joyful lilting tune, our eyes soften and seek the faces of those around us, our ears tune in to the speech tones around us, our mouth, tongue, and throat relax, responding expressively with smile variations and pleasing sounds, our movements and gestures round and curve in space, our skin softens and invites social touch contact, our belly eases and carries on with nurturing functions of digestion and repair. We experience this when energy and information flows strongly through the heartfelt, ventral vagal networks.

Relieved of the need to be vigilant, play spontaneously erupts in such moments. When hearts are settled and bouncy, when faces are soft and reflective, when ears and throats resonate with connection, when our limbs roll and gesture round in space, when our skin becomes a sensitive bridge, when our bellies smile, warm, and gurgle, moments arise that have the capacity to carry us away into deeper and deeper contact and connection with each other. Like following a butterfly across a flowery hillside or a toddler through a springtime park, time suspends and the moment expands, opens, and invites us into full participation. When we wander in nurturing safety, living bonds engage us in the dance of life.

When we perceive threat, our heart speeds up, marching blood to the limbs, our eyes tightly focus, scanning and darting for further signs of danger, our ears tune in to low, loud sounds of threat, words vanish, our mouth dries, our throat tightens. Muscles tense ready to take sharp actions of defense or escape, as our belly stills, squeezes, quivers. We experience these states when our energy and information is flowing strongly through our sympathetic networks. If the perceived threat grows great enough, we shut down, immobilize, in ancient preparation for possible finality. Here, the dorsal aspect of the vagal nerve takes over.

Though these ancient fight, flight, freeze networks originally evolved in relationship to predator-prey, life and death situations, the unique stresses of modern life readily and daily trigger them. The more these survival systems are activated, the more the world is perceived as threatening, and we can become caught in a closed and recursive loop where we perceive threat even when there is safety. This is the familiar 24-7 Adrenaline Headline World we find ourselves in today.

While the stresses of daily life are threatening to engulf us, we can know that play is older than old - a constant ally within us. Play is an ancient capacity perfectly adapted to our modern life. In a world presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares us for an evolving planet. Play reminds us of our embodied core purposes in this world, that we are here to connect - that we are here to care - that we are here to love - that we are here to belong - that we are here to become familiar - to be a human and planetary family.

When we tread gently into the tenderness of connection, our eyes open and we see, our ears listen and we hear, our heart expands and we feel, our hands extend and we touch, our skin softens and we receive. Then when we see joy on another’s face, we smile with inner warmth and knowing. When joy passes into sadness and pain, we shape into comfort and care. When fear and aggression sweeps in, we protect and keep everyone safe. Across the whole palette of the human experience, play is the courage to connect, the courage to include, and the courage to tend. Play stretches our being out into the circle of life.


The little girl in brown catches the corner of my eye from across the mat. For the last forty-five minutes, she has been sitting on her mother’s lap closely and contentedly observing the gentle rollicking and curling play of the other children and families. Only now has she eased herself into the mat-covered playspace. All senses alight, I curve around the space, taking care to remain low, round, and gentle. Something in her clear, peripheral entry has revealed the importance of this oblique initial greeting.

From nearby, in parallel, I shape to her size, conveying a kinesthetic “I see you, you are here, I am here. I am no bigger than you, no smaller than you. You are as big as me, as great as me, as welcome as we.” I soften in sensed communion, actively yielding to the palpable freshness of the moment. She watches with clear eyes, leans ever so slightly forward on her two hands, tips one shoulder toward me. My left hand slides out into the space we’ve made between us. More quiet, gentle breaths. She rises and gently steps on my hand, leaning her weight through my hand to the ground, then leans back. Then her foot and weight again and back. Forward and back, forward and back - sensing, greeting, meeting. Small looks of delight twitter between our faces. Then we’re off! Crawling back and forth across the playspace, sharing the energy of movement, the delight of space, the joy of discovering we. As we travel in concert, small brushing touches are exchanged - hand to hand, hand to forearm, hand to elbow, hand to shoulder. A pause in between each, a little look, an exuberant “ha!” Then another brushing touch, a pause, a smiling look, “ha!” We are together, we are playing. We are in each moment, in each movement, in each touch, becoming familiar, weaving the gift of coming-to-know with the gift of being-known. Like overlapping waves that never cancel each other out, we meet the crest of ambiguity and uncertainty together, evolving in the gentleness of care and connection.

Now, our play grows and widens. We begin to circle the whole playspace, crawling round and round on all fours, leaping now and again like young foals in spring grass. Then all in one movement she springs to my back, nestles in close, and leaps away. She spots her sister and joins her in a gentle giggling pile, then stands up and rushes open-armed to her mother’s embrace.

On the mats another day, I come face-to-face with a five-year old boy for whom play already means fighting and winning. His brows are lowered, lips pressed together, and his hands make fists at his sides. I get down low, bend my side to him. He leaps high for a knees-and-fists-first landing. Spilling on to my back, I catch him, curl him in, continue rolling and release him to the other side.

He continues to rush and fly into my body with great steam, flushed face, and angled limbs. Staying close, staying calm, staying connected, I receive each surge with kindness and gentleness. I remain open, I remain empty, moving and reverberating with care and safety.

Remaining in the heart and abiding in play, each moment of contact softens and smoothes. Stiffness and resistance begin to melt from his limbs as flexibility enters. His eyes soften and his body becomes rounder. Like a warm ball of clay, he readily adapts to the twisting and rolling cradle of my arms and body. Age-old recognition dances across his face and all in a moment we are like two bears romping across a meadow, our movements and gestures yielding one into the next, propelling us through space. We are linked, woven heart to heart. After a brief pause curved round my back, we resume our romp, fully together. Fighting has resolved into familiarity. Fists to open hands, chaos and rigidity to flow, heart to heart, we have settled into a stable stream of play.

Through becoming familiar with play at the hands and hearts of thousands and thousands of children, I have learned that in any moment I have a choice – to fight, flee or freeze, or to flow into connection. Such is the gift of play.

Becoming familiar with PLAY means nothing less than embracing the tenderness of our heart, the fullness of our mind, and the softness of our belly in all moments. And remembering that we are here to be family.


Marc-francis Otto and Melanya Helene created the innovative program Play after Play. This program begins with a simple and engaging performance of a traditional wisdom tale followed by a formalized PLAY circle. They offer regular public programs for families with young children. Marc-francis and Melanya also work with preschool, kindergarten, elementary and middle school classrooms, focusing in particular on special needs classrooms and classrooms struggling with aggression and bullying. In addition to completing degree programs at The Naropa University, Marc-francis and Melanya trained with O. Fred Donaldson, PhD, a pioneer in the experiential study of play with children, adults and wild animals throughout the world. Interpersonal Neurobiology forms a guiding basis for their continued explorations of play, empathy and compassion.

Brown, S. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.
Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford
University Press. Porges, S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological Psychology, 74, 116-143. Siegel, D. J. (2006). An interpersonal neurobiology approach to psychotherapy: Awareness, mirror
neurons, and neural plasticity in the development of well-being. Psychiatric Annals, 36(4), 247-258. Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain: Reflection and attunement in the cultivation of well-being. New
York: W. W. Norton.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The ambiguity of play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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