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Playful Wisdom

By Michael Mendizza

In the quiet moments when Carly melts into my arms, there is attunement, resonance, shared meaning, trust, respect, appreciation, curiosity, wonder, all moving, changing, and so much more—embodied, nonverbal, silent. This silent, reciprocal attunement is the essence of bonded attachment, and that creates a safe place for play. While at the co-sponsored “Attachment Parenting”

Notre Dame Conference, I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing Colwyn Trevarthen, Ph.D., emeritus professor of child psychology at the University of Edinburgh. The reason: his appreciation and research in mother-infant play. Colwyn worked with Jerome Bruner, Thomas Berry Brazelton, and many other leaders in the field. He filmed and later videotaped how mothers and babies look, listen, touch, mimic, and tease—in a word, play together. “Play,” said Trevarthen, “is a metaphor for life.”

Playfulness signals, as Fred Donaldson often says, two things: You are lovable and safe. These two requirements are essential prerequisites for real learning to take place, and that dynamic-reciprocal learning unfolds as play. “Play is learning, whether as a baby in arms or as a theoretical physicist,” David Bohm, protégé of Einstein, shared in a conversation years ago.

Play is the third phase of what Joseph Chilton Pearce described as the “Cycle of Competence”: first, roughing in a new possibility; second, repetition to establish the pattern; and third, variation. With trust, affection, and their implied safety, playfulness moves steadily and expansively as an exploration of variation and novelty, imagining, surprising, testing, safely risking—failing is not a failure but an integral part of learning itself, feedback and adaptation. All this, every second, is taking place in the state of authentic play, not to be confused with our culture’s win/lose, competitive comparisons we call games.

I also had the privilege of spending time with Darcia Narvaez, professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, exploring her new book, Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality.

“When we use the word play, we’re talking about nature’s means for learning. Play is the act of learning itself. It is the over-arching umbrella in which all learning takes place through all the developmental stages. Play with each stage of development involves different types of activity. The early child plays or learns in a very different way than the middle child plays and learns, and this is certainly different from the late child and adolescent. Each stage of development has its own block of intelligence and abilities which are opened and developed through play. Play is the way by which all learning takes place, how we build all of our response patterns in the world, how we build the very structure of knowledge of the world itself, how to get along in the world. All of this unfolds through play.” —Joseph Chilton Pearce

Morality is the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior, and is therefore implicitly judgmental. The behavior being judged is the real issue. Narvaez argues—and is supported by distinguished colleagues such as Allan Schore, Jaak Panksepp, Colwyn Trevarthen, and others—that moral, inherently good behavior is rooted in biology, not intellect, the judging part. This is a monumental shift in orientation foreshadowed 50 years earlier by James Prescott, Joseph Chilton Pearce, and others. Narvaez provides the research that proves beyond any doubt that social is indeed physical. If you want moral behavior, a moral society and culture, the foundation must be laid in early childhood, beginning with playful interaction between mothers and infants and expanding that safe space throughout life.

Gabor Maté, M.D., and I continued our conversation, looking at culture and how early attuned attachment-bonds prevent addiction. Maté noted during his presentation that drugs are not the cause of addiction. He was asked, “Why do some become addicted and others don’t?” Failed or impaired early attachment expresses in some as addiction, in others as depression, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, attention deficits (disassociation), eczema, arthritis, diabetes, suicide, and more. All these result from the dis-ease implied in impaired early attachment-bonds. The key point is that suffering, pain, illness, addiction, violence, abuse, aggression, rape, depression, suicide, and more are attachment-bonding issues. Attuned attachment-bonding is the foundation for how we behave, and this is established very early by the sensory experiences implicit in the earliest relationships—not by the church, by the government, school, the athletic coach, grandma, or any expression of the intellect. Intellect judges behavior and the behavior being judged is rooted in sensation, the physical-emotional experiences beginning at conception.

“The most important thing is experience, experiences to attach words to, your own experiences to attach words to. Experience is not the best teacher. It’s the only teacher. When you get older and take driving lessons, you take the written test and oh boy, you get to drive a car. You get out on the road and then you know what’s real. You probably ding a fender. You aim the car for the first couple of months and then you get a sense what it’s really about. Those are experiences to attach words to. And we have to make sure that the experience is appropriate for the age.” —Bev Bos

Of course words have their place, but not with Carly Elizabeth, now 9 weeks old. Everything she and I share is sensory. Does she feel safe in my arms? Am I responding appropriately to her cries and smiles? Is she startled by the sudden warm water in the tub? Is her trust in our shared experience deep enough to negate the fear of unfamiliar sights, sounds, sensations? When I whisper “Yes, yes, yes,” and she responds with her best mimicked “Yes,” do we laugh and smile, deepening the trust and safety this play creates?

Do we return to this playful state over and over again as she changes, adding more complex variation and novelty, expanding her feelings of competency and mine?

“Play is a mindset, an attitude, a condition of total openness that the child must have for real learning to take place. Real playing is how real learning takes place. You can have conditioning or behavior modification which we generally call learning, but it’s not learning. It’s conditioning. Real learning takes place by what Marie Montessori called the “absorbent mind of the child,” which is a mind that is absorbing its universe, becoming it, and children do this through play. Play is the most serious undertaking of a child’s life. Children are completely entrained in play. The three parts of the mind—thought, feeling, action—every aspect of the child is focused totally on the activity of absorbing their world. They’re literally building their construction of knowledge of the world, of themselves, of their relationships and laying down the foundations for all later forms of intelligence.” —Joseph Chilton Pearce

“The future is now.” The profound truth is that this silent, affectionate, sensitive attuned play, or its absence, expressed mostly through touch and movement and not ideology, shapes the next generations’ approach to self and other—creative and egalitarian or selfish and defensive-aggressive.

Social is sensory. It is all so natural, so simple, so easy— that is, unless judgment and censorship creep in, most often at Carly’s expense, not mine. Innate intelligence, billions of years old and beyond, is not judging with the intellect. We might say “No!” harshly in an emergency, usually because we adulterated adults are distracted, out of sync, mal-attuned. To let intellectual judgments guide the relationship implies a lifetime of conflict. Sensitive, quiet, ongoing, renewing, attuned attachment-bonding is what nature designed.

Pleasure Bonds

“Ouch, too hot,” said Goldilocks—pain. “Ouch, too cold.” “Ahhhh, just right,” she said—pleasure. As I have come to understand, thanks to James Prescott, pleasure and pain rest at the foundation of our development as human beings. We are drawn to and seek experiences that are comforting and pleasurable, and we avoid, or withdraw from, sensations that are painful. Not very complicated— obvious—but we forget.

Carly, 12 weeks new today, helps me reawaken to so many sensations—the light in her and my eyes; of course the temperature, too hot, too cold; the sound of dishes being placed in the cabinet while she sleeps near the fireplace; the softness of her skin; how she rests on my arms; the leaves rustling above; the irregular surface of the road as I carry her down the street; the annoying rumble of stinky cars and trucks passing too near; and on and on. Being social with Carly is very sensual. Everything we share is based on sensation, feelings, looking carefully with great attention and empathy for cues that we are sharing the meaning of this moment and the next. Active meditation quiets the verbal mindchatter, bringing into awareness all these sensations, inner and outer.

“If we try to force some of the later evolutionary functions: intellect, reading, writing during the sensory and emotional developmental periods, we cloud and compromise what is supposed to be happening in these early stages. The child will try to follow the model but they lose out on what should be developing at that point. Later, when they are ready for the real movement into those great intellectual pursuits, they don’t have the foundation for it. And then we’re in trouble.” —Joseph Chilton Pearce

Being with Carly is a spiritual practice, one of the best, self-changing and therefore life-changing, ever new. Her sensitivity awakens mine, which is, admittedly, pretty dull most of the time. The body is built to experience pleasure and, of course, pain. Pleasure and pain are forms of intelligence, attracting and repelling. Leprosy can result in a lack of ability to feel pain and thus loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries—a loss of sensitivity and therefore loss of intelligence. The late neuroscientist Candice Pert, Ph.D., known for the discovery of endorphin, the pleasure receptor, described how we are hardwired for pleasure, happiness, and joy. Feeling good must be good. Feeling bad is bad.

While contributing to a panel at the Notre Dame symposium on thriving children and families, I noted that the word pleasure had not been used, whereupon I was informed by several that pleasure is too sexualized. The word joy is more appropriate for describing pleasurable experiences. Really?

I rest my case.

One of the experiences I share with Carly is our “swim-swim-swim” warm baths together. My quest is to have her feel so safe, so warm and cozy that she relaxes her tiny fists as I pour water over her body. I happen to love the water, floating, swimming naked in crystal clear rivers. I was a scuba instructor at the age of 18. I would not use the word joy to describe our baths together. It’s pleasure. Feeling pleasure is intelligence in action. Joseph Chilton Pearce, James Prescott, and I penned a short essay, “Pleasure Is the Glue that Bonds Human Relationships,” and it is true. I experience it every day with Carly and people I care about. One of the many things I appreciate about Jim Prescott is his sensory-deprivation orientation. Physical trauma, of course, should be avoided, but can be dealt with very effectively when soothed with—you got it—pleasurable nurturing and comfort. Chronic deprivation of pleasure, the absence of pleasurable stimulation, renders the sensory pathways hypersensitive to the denied sensation. Spend a day in a dark room and suddenly open the windows to bright sunlight and you will know what I mean. We overreact.

What we call bonding in these sensitive early weeks and months is based on pleasure. The more, the better. Touching, carrying, feeling each other’s heartbeat, rubbing her feet, making playful sounds that she, even at 12 weeks, can copy and mimic, and she does with delight. These and a thousand pleasurable sensations build a deep, profound foundation, a self-world view that knows the world is safe, to be touched, explored, embraced, yes, with joy and a lifetime of happiness. Pleasure bonds.

“We make this profound error of thinking that education and schooling are dramatically separate from play. Schools are set up for conditioning and behavior modification which inhibit the child’s ability to open to and absorb the universe within them. Mistaking conditioning for learning is one of the reasons we find a very small percentage of retention of the conditioning we think we’re giving our children through schooling. A large study by the Carnegie Institute way back in ’63 concluded that children retain only 3–5 percent of the total information or conditioning modifications we’re trying to bring about, about 3–5 percent retention, whereas what is learned through play is literally built in as a permanent neural patterning in the brain which children never lose. If we could just recognize the direct correspondence between play and learning and the dramatic difference between real learning and conditioning, we could change our approach and produce 95 percent retention but it would have to be within the framework nature has set up, which involves play. When a child is not played with, that child’s learning is seriously impaired. By learning we mean opening and developing the higher brain structures which can moderate or modulate the lower evolutionary structures of the brain. It is just that simple. This doesn’t happen without play. Play being the learning and the learning being the opening of those blocks of intelligences.” —Joseph Chilton Pearce

In so many ways we have intellectually made pleasure bad, dirty, sinful. The denial—sensory deprivation—of pleasure, inflicting pain and later shame, retards the neural pathways for happiness. The Dalai Lama and others observe that happiness is the highest form of wisdom. Think about that. Experiencing pleasurable sensations throughout childhood ensures a mature brain-body that is not compulsively searching for the sensations denied—what Buddhists call “the realm of hungry ghosts.” (The phrase is also the title of the best, most human book on addiction, by Gabor Maté.)

Feeling good is good. Let’s skip as much pain, punishment, and shame as we can. Replace “No!” with sensitive, attuned, playful shared meaning. But you will have to turn off your phone and the noise chattering in your head. Being with Carly Elizabeth helps.

Reincarnate Happiness

Like every new life, Carly Elizabeth is a miracle unfolding at astonishing speed, from almost 7 pounds to 12.6 in ninety days. Hallelujah! A week ago I mimicked the sounds she was making. Her eyes grew bigger and she mimicked me. Today I call it baby singing. She sings, I sing, we all sing and do it again. She knows when I am paying complete attention and, of course, when I am not. Biologist Rupert Sheldrake studied the phenomenon of knowing when we are being watched. You know when you have this inner feeling, turn, and the driver in the car next to you is looking—telepathy. I know at some deep level that Carly knows who I really am from this moment to the next. Joseph Chilton Pearce spoke of Bruno Bettelheim, the child psychologist and writer well known for his work on Freud, psychoanalysis, and emotionally disturbed children. “We can’t lie to children,” he said.

“I think people have forgotten what’s natural. It’s the water, the sand, the dirt, the mixing, the stuff that my mother did. These are the things that I had as a child because my parents were poor and they had eight children, those were the things that we had to play with. Our mother expected us to make our own way. We had loose parts, wood, pieces of wood, stumps, rocks. We hauled things around. We built things. We argued. We fought. My mother locked the door. People ask me not to share that but that’s what she did. She didn’t want us in the house. And if you said, ‘I’m bored,’ she’d say, ‘I’ll find something for you to do.’ And that was the last time you said I’m bored in your entire life. You never were bored again. You made your own way. You had the experiences.” —Bev Bos