Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Play: “Vitamin P” for Optimal Vitality

Originally posted on January 15, 2014

I went into psychiatry because (1) I truly loved medicine, both the learning what we presently know about the astonishing complexities of the workings of our mind-body; and (2) more specifically, as I got into it, I found the workings of the mind-part even more of a challenge, as well as the channel through which I wanted to help people. This I did fairly well, and have been of service in multiple ways.

However, one of those ways has taken me beyond psychiatry, beyond the medical model, towards the prevention model. I’ve discovered that most folks—indeed, most psychiatrists— have little appreciation of the roles of play and creativity in mind-body-living. This awareness grew out of my work with mind-body healing through role playing, which engages the powers of creativity and enactment. (I’ve written books and many articles about psychodrama and related topics.) Beyond therapy, though, I’ve found that play and creativity is lacking relative to the ways I think it should be enjoyed.

First of all, it shouldn’t be vicarious—and it’s becoming increasingly so. That is to say, singing, dancing, doing, is enjoyed vicariously rather than actually. We have more movies, television, radio, and various computer- and satellite-assisted devices that deliver simulate realities, and it’s economic and easier to imagine that one has a life (through these realities) than actually engage. Actual life is more sticky, sweaty, expensive, slow-moving, awkward, unknown, and in other ways “dense” compared to simulated reality. Yet it also gives far more of a lasting feeling that one has “really” lived.

Second, it is through if not actually living through events, but simulating them, playing them, that one is helped to think in a less anxiety-provoking fashion. (That is, a mistake can be re-played and corrected in the “laboratory” of role playing.) This opens up the mind to more reflection. One of my mottoes is, “Pain makes one think; thinking makes one wise; wisdom makes life endurable.” Indeed, life can be more joyous, even.

Third, simulated life through play, plus adding more modalities such as singing, dancing, poetry, art, music, and other endeavors multiplies the richness of the experience of living far more than a life spent just going through the necessary motions. Far more, also, is a life that is lived in multiple dimensions than the fleeting experiences of a life spent in vicarious enjoyments of packaged pseudo-realities through mass media products.

But play is too confused with excessive fantasy. I’m preaching medium level but not excessive fantasy—i.e., play, not psychosis. It is important to make this distinction: We should not flee from all fantasy, because some infuses play with richness. Mainstream psychiatry has so far failed to appreciate this, and only recently has the movement called “positive psychology” begun to appreciate the value of mild fantasy-enriched life.

Sometimes I use a line stimulated by the comedian Mel Brooks, who, around 1969 on a record titled “The Two-Thousand Year Old Man,” played a psychiatrist. In that role Brooks identified himself as “the guy who say’s who’s crazy and who (wink) is just foolin’ around.” Mr. Brooks has gone on to richly generate a goodly amount of humor in movies and other programs. However, alas, few in my own profession of psychiatry have felt okay about enjoying their own playfulness. So I want to introduce Vitamin P (for play) as a recognized ingredient of optimal vitality.

In another blog post under the category of foolin’ around, I fool around a bit, daring to make up stuff. Remember that we are just emerging from a cultural value of either carrying on tradition or pretending that we were being realistic and scientific and not making stuff up. So admitting that we do indeed make stuff up—indeed, make up our life, our stories, our motivations, pretty much most of life—is like admitting that we poop—or worse, that we have ever masturbated.” Horrors and Taboo!

I want to advocate making stuff up, telling tall tales, telling jokes, stretching the truth a bit, being out front about it. Too much is manipulating for profit, cheating, lying, pretending that you’re not making it up, even pretending to yourself. Some folks lie to others, some folks—sometimes some of the same folks—lie to themselves, and everything in-between. Hypocrisy is a spectrum of how much do you know that you’re doing it. But the more you do it on purpose, pretend, make stuff up, “confabulate” (a fancy medical term), the harder it becomes to fool yourself, I suspect.

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