The Wisdom of Play in Times Like These

I first met Zori at an Improvisational Theatre workshop. I set up the free weekly gathering as I had recently discovered Improv and knew I needed it in my life. It is the perfect therapy for a perfectionist, for someone who feels they need to know and calculate everything before doing something. Because you can’t do that with Improv. After the workshop a group of us went to dinner and I told Zori the paper I had been working on. As a former IT entrepreneur and someone exploring the possibility of starting a business, she was interested in the environmental theme. I explained how during my year unpaid sabbatical from my University job, I had returned to reading the scientific literature on climate change, and had concluded that it is too late to sustain the industrial consumer societies that we depend upon. I had also concluded that this scenario was not in the distant future, but that many of us would suffer and die as a result of the breakdown of the systems that feed, cloth, house, protect and motivate us. 

“How long do we have?” asked Zori, as we waited for our dinner.  

“It is impossible to know for certain in such complex systems,” I explained. “But I expect turmoil of all kinds to begin within the next few years, and am living my life now as if by 2028 the systems people like us depend upon today will have collapsed in most of the world. That might mean death.” 

Zori stared into the distance. I realised I had stumbled into a conversation that I had been avoiding with nearly everyone, and I had only just met this woman. Was it the emotional high of Improv that was making everything inside of me just flow out? My perspectives on collapse were quite new to me. They had been a private pain, changing me from the inside and only cropping up at the appropriate times in the University courses I taught. But this is not a topic you can shut down after you bring it up. I’d have to continue. 

“It makes sense to me,” Zori uttered with a calm voice, that meant I could continue to discuss this matter. Not any matter – perhaps the most difficult one we could ever consider. 

“Why aren’t people talking about it?” she asked.

“People are busy. Society tells us everything is OK, keep busy,” I said, with a mix of resignation and disbelief. For I had ignored it for years. I quickly told Zori my background and role. “So for years I ignored the data suggesting it might be too late to prevent an environmental catastrophe,” I admitted. “I was too busy becoming successful in a career through reforming the current system while I thought there was still time. I was lucky in some ways, with no kids or mortgage, so I could take time out and delve into the topic. Looking into it, I have discovered it is not just a scientific topic. Because we have to be prepared to let ourselves consider what climate science might mean for us. That is emotional work. Most people that I know in the environmental field think they must stay positive or they will be lost in despair or trigger apathy in others. But I got to a point where something else has happened for me,” I declared, with a sense of relief. 

“What is that? Improv?!” Zori exclaimed, laughing with the doomer humour that has since become a feature of life for people aware of our predicament.

“Yes! I suppose so!” I replied. “It is helping. I have given up the idea that I need to know what is on the far side of despair. I have given up the idea that I need to have a strategy for change before expressing myself. I also became aware of what I didn’t realise was happening deep inside of me. I had not even been allowing myself to consider realities as real unless I had a sense of how that would affect my way of life. So now I know my stories of myself, of society and of what is good to do in the world are crumbling. I will start to play about with what comes next, what seems meaningful and good to do. So it’s all quite Improv.” I was waxing lyrical on collapse. I didn’t normally talk like this, I thought. 

“That all sounds good anyway, whatever the cause,” said Zori. A pause came as our meals arrived. “But how certain are you?” said Zori, with a more serious tone.  

Before this conversation I had been struggling with whether to discuss my views with anyone, let alone try and persuade anyone. I had begun to feel more lonely about my perspective. But here I was, finding ways to talk about it without being looked at like I needed therapy. Putting my fork down, I took a deep breath. 

“I am more certain than not. Scientific protocols don’t really permit scientists to say something is inevitable, but I now see this future as unavoidable. I am currently finishing an academic paper that explains why, so that I can explain to people why I am dropping my focus of 20 odd years on corporate sustainability. Also to discover if anyone wants to work on making the best of this awful predicament. Because I think we can make matters a lot worse if we try to deny this situation and prop up the destructive and dying systems of consumer societies. The paper is called Deep Adaptation, which is the idea I have for how we might respond. Soon I could send you a draft if you want. It won’t be a fun read.”

If Zori thought I was the mad man on the street corner shouting ‘repent, the end of the world is nigh’, she didn’t reveal it. Instead, we stayed in touch. 

Fast forward into the Q&A, Zori explains that our first conversation 4 years ago led her to reflect on what she wanted to do if she only had 10 years of living left, or at least only 10 years of having the freedom to decide how to live. She realised that in the face of mortality, what made most sense to her was to do her best to have a life fully lived. That was not hedonistic, but involved responding to her heartfelt desire to connect more with herself, others and nature, and to help others to do the same. As a result, she dropped her idea of being an environmental entrepreneur and started exploring how to invite people into greater connection. She launched the Connection Playground, as her way of engaging in deep inquiry and learning through lived experience around what connection is, what forms it can take and how it can be restored, remembered, and resourced. This is an initiative, both off and online, to help people explore new ways of being, through meaningful play in intimate group settings. The events she organised helped me greatly in my own journey of integrating collapse awareness into my life and designing an initiative that would support experimentation and emergence with no simple answers – the Deep Adaptation Forum

A couple of years later Zori was the Acting Coordinator of the DA Forum, part of the team that helped shape the philosophy of an international learning community. Both of us moved on from the Forum in 2020, so it was interesting to reconnect in 2022 for a Deep Adaptation Q&A. In that intervening period, Zori had continued her journey with creating spaces to deepen connection with self, other and nature in other forms, through her coaching, shamanic guidance & plant medicine work, authentic relating and inner dance facilitation. She had also begun Widening Circles with DA volunteer Maria Perkins – a global online community of spaceholders supporting one another, cross-pollinating practices and experience and exploring the question of ‘How do we create an environment that truly supports the growth and unfolding of the love that we are, as humans?’

In this hour together Zori, myself and guests cover a range of questions such as:

  • Is playing helpful, rather than self-indulgent, when there is so much suffering in the world?
  • As existing ideas of who we are and what to believe in seem to crumble, can playing help us allow new and unknown potential ways of being to emerge?
  • How might playing more now help me face more desperate situations in future? 
  • How can experimenting with connecting with self, other and nature help people with altered states of consciousness that might help their healing and transformation?
  • Could more opportunities for connection help reduce the isolation that is leading to more forms of aggression towards both self and others, that manifests in more suicide, polarisation and authoritarianism?

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Given that Improv Theatre is how Zori and I met, and how important it was in my own evolution, I was pleased that the topic of Improv was brought up by one of the participants in the call. I talk about my relationship to Improv, and how I have used it in my leadership development courses, in this interview for Facing Future TV. Various forms of play can be integrated into education – whether in person or online. Some research has demonstrated that people – of any age – can learn more quickly and differently through play. Bringing play back into the curriculum and doing that outside in nature is also demonstrating significant benefits for children. In my leadership courses with the University of Cumbria, we use a mix of different modes of play, both indoors and outdoors as we interweave that with content to achieve our learning aims. 

In more recent years, those courses are framed by the predicament of unfolding societal disruption and likely breakdown. Although it is obvious to anyone involved in grassroots activism on environmental issues that an awareness of the environmental disaster unfolding around us can be motivating for more bold activism and leadership, rather than apathy, the perspective that there is apathetic ‘doomism’ to be wary of is constantly expressed by people who are professionally invested in the establishment. Therefore, it is normal for some people to dismiss or lampoon the kind of things we discussed in the hour with Zori. So let’s look at that issue a bit closer. 

There is both theory and evidence for how industrial consumer societies traumatise people by establishing our identities as hyper-individualistic competitive insecure beings who suppress a terror of non-belonging and death. Some identify that as the reason for the social acceptance and enthusiasm for consumer culture. We are constantly distracting ourselves from the pain of disconnection, of the dismay from living in a world that we have been brainwashed not to allow ourselves to experience as fully alive, mysterious, wonderful and sacred. The coping mechanisms for this underlying, widespread and unresolved trauma may be a reason why advanced industrial consumer sites societies will be suffering much more than they would otherwise, as they become disrupted due to hitting ecological limits. It also means people could react unhelpfully to disturbances and perceived vulnerabilities. That is what I explored in a recent paper in a psychotherapy journal, and what I have been pointing to in the support for authoritarian responses to societal challenges. With this in mind, perhaps one of the most important foci for activism is enabling possibilities for healing original trauma in industrial consumer societies, and enabling play may be one way to pursue that. Because play can enable emotional coregulation, trust in emergence, and experiencing unconditional acceptance. It can also invite people to play with alternative worldviews, “as if” the world is more magical than they might have proudly denied as ‘rational’ beings. 

Without such healing of original and widespread traumas, there is a danger that any activism, or even mere engagement in public discourse, comes from our personal wounds. That means we can over-react to any sense of vulnerability to our society, our material safety or our identity. It means we might engage others with a need to affirm ourselves in our narcissistic superiority to demonised others, and overly seek validation from others in that process. There is a huge difference between standing for one’s truth in the face of attacks from the state, media and an online mob, versus seeking to demonise people to dominate them on an issue. That difference is very obvious to people who already sense whether the desire for truth and justice is coming from pain aversion or not. I don’t always get this right myself, and so to remind myself, I wrote a song about it. 

Seeking what’s right, not wrong, is a way to be strong. 

Trust we all get there in the end, where each will find wisdom is their friend..

Forcing what’s right, not wrong, hides our fear we don’t belong

Trust we all get there in the end, where each will find wisdom is their friend..

After listening to my song and reflecting on the polarisation and aggravation that is arising all around us, Zori explained: 

“We are all experiential beings. Some of what is happening in our lives may be the outcome of an imbalance in how we understand ourselves. Play can be helpful in rebalancing an overreliance on the ‘left brained’ way of being that compulsively seeks problems to solve which then generate more problems. Instead, if we have more moments with the simplicity of lived present-moment experience and an appreciation of being alive, then something else can happen. A different kind of wisdom can emerge. So connection and play are a medicine for our addiction to rationality and headiness, and a return back to our bodies and relationship with Earth.”

With all of that in mind, let’s look again at the criticism that those of us who anticipate (or witness) societal collapse are giving up on saving either society or the environment. First, there can be an assumption that what is known to be done as activism is working or might work. There are a lot of attempts to celebrate progress but the data on all indicators from the biosphere proves that it is a fraud. We have failed. Second, there is an assumption that the critic of others can determine what is impactful and what is not. Yet that is merely their opinion. I discovered that my greatest impact in the world was not 20 years of brave and sacrificial commitment to reforming capitalism, but when I publicly gave up on that with the Deep Adaptation paper. We can’t be reductionist and quantitative in our assessments of the power of greater self love, the wider ripples from simply being our more honest selves, and allowing things to emerge from creative engagement moment by moment. 

This perspective on activism does not mean that those of us who anticipate or witness societal disruption and collapse do not speak out. Although at first, when the DA paper went viral, I avoided public engagement and just focused on those who were affected, I believe the situation has changed. The mainstream coverage of DA continues to be dominated by attacks from the establishment – whether from green, centre, right or left political persuasion. However, numerous opinion polls worldwide show how people understand that our societies are in decline, or even worse. Without meaningful creative public dialogue about that, then reactionary and aggressive responses will be supported. Therefore, it is important that people involved in DA speak out more, as well as the signatories to the Scholars Warning and groups like the Collapsologists and the Just Collapse initiative. My hope is that no one from such initiatives will call for, or defend, either authoritarian, imperial or techno-salvationist responses. 

However, it is also OK not to go from moment to moment in our lives telling everyone that collapse is coming, so that they might begin to address any unhealed traumas through playful reconnection practices. People don’t need to anticipate collapse to feel that something is very off in the world and to want to explore different ways of being and to connect with self, other and nature in new ways.  

Talking with Zori during the Q&A helped me to remember how I was thinking and feeling when I first allowed myself to consider that I would one day experience the breakdown of my way of life. One of my first concerns was how people could make that breakdown worse due to denying it and letting subconscious anxiety grow. Although at that point I had not studied the relevant psychology on forms of and responses to anxiety, I sensed that suppression could lead to irrational and aggressive responses. My initial idea was that the best thing to reduce harm might be to help people become less attached to their current way of life and more open to change. I had not yet learned about Terror Management Theory, where anxiety leads people to defend their worldviews in illogical and aggressive ways. I had not yet learned about the antecedents of authoritarian personalities, where people decide to conform to the views of elites within a group, in order to escape the stress of confusion of assessing things critically for themselves, and are therefore destabilised by seeing people who have not conformed like them. I had heard of the analyses from Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault of how mass psychoses arise in societies, but not heard the more recent psychologists’ theories of the possible step-by-step process of such a mass formation of herd-thinking within societies. I did not have to know these things to sense that if more of us are socially isolated and lonely, feeling generalised anxiety, and depending on a mix of corporate media and combative social media for our information, then the more open to manipulation we could become. Therefore, when a potential donor contacted me to offer to help with the wave of response to the DA paper going viral, I proposed that he fund an international effort of reconnection and transcendence via networks of meaningful play. Basically, to fund Zori. However, something more serious and befitting of a Professor was invited from me. Therefore, I came up with the idea for an international learning network that would help people explore together how to respond, and so the DA Forum was born. 

A few years on, the DA Forum has blossomed into an international network with staff and hundreds of volunteers which provides an essential crash mat for people coming to an awareness of collapse. However, I realise there could be a downside to any earnest initiative on collapse awareness. The process of allowing that awareness to change us, and fundamentally change our lives, can lead us into a new way of taking ourselves very seriously – where we consider that we are earnestly committed to engaging with the most serious matter possible. The shadow of collapse awareness is we become attached to the idea of being a seriously ethical person who does very serious work. Such high self-regard, combined with continually engaging with difficult information could be a recipe for becoming aggressive towards people whom we disagree with. Or becoming aggressive with ourselves as we suppress any outward anger. Yes, I speak from experience of this process, both as perpetrator and recipient. The way out of this possible response is not to be socially isolated, not to be dependent on mass media and not to doom scroll. But more than that, the way out of this possible response is to play!

The existence of the Deep Adaptation phenomenon is proof that people can respond to collapse awareness by opening up rather than shutting down. We do not need to buy stacks of tinned food and guns and learn to fight. Instead, we can explore through dialogue what we most want to do and how to live in the years as our old way of life breaks down. That process can be an incredible experience. It was for me, for Zori, and many other people. This upside of doom is why my chapter in the Extinction Rebellion handbook was called Doom and Bloom. With the right support, to avoid the pitfalls of collapse awareness, the process can be liberating. 

Although people negatively label us ‘doomers’ we are not apathetic. And with the right support, we are not dull nor angry! In the face of collapse, everyone will benefit from more play in their lives. And guess what? Many of us do. So let’s own the word and state clearly and aspirationally: Doomers have more fun. And not just with doomer humour. This is something the Reverend Michael Dowd is getting at with his idea of living fully post-doom. It is neither hedonism nor escapism. And it means something about that activism issue. Because a really important form of social justice and environmental activism in advanced consumer societies could be to simply spread more play and reconnection. That will offer the chance for the collapse of consumer societies to involve less inwards and outward violence. It means that enabling play is a humanitarian act. So if you happen to have some spare funds, please support the Connection Playground.

And start playing. 

PS: I met the guy who makes my music videos at Connection Playground!