Exploring Optimum Learning Relationships
A virtual class based on
Magical Parent - Magical Child
by Michael Mendizza and Joseph Chilton Pearce
Lesson 3 - Beginners Mind & The Intelligence of Play

The child is designed to enter into experience freely, without prejudgment, and evaluate that experience after it takes place. Concern over survival, safety, or well being immediately forces an evaluation of experience before that experience can take place. Such concern immediately fires into effect some form of fight-flight value (its potential for the child’s hare or well-being). This ties intelligence into a decision based on the value of the experience. There is no unquestioned acceptance of the given, the hallmark of the whole child. Anxiety over survival causes a screening of information through the question: Am I Safe? The bonded child does not formulate this question. The bonded child asks only, Where am I? and moves to interact accordingly.

Magical Child

In lesson 2 we explored bonding as a channel of communication. We discussed how states of being produce the primary “content” of our experience, the meaning of which generates the majority of what is learned and remembered lifelong. We explored how the meaning of each moment, of each experience, is drawn in through the physical senses and, simultaneously, resonates throughout the body, mind and consciousness in the form of subtle nonverbal, nonlinear fields. The prenate, infant and preverbal child, and - if aware and sensitive - the mother and father, live in a constant rainbow of these field effects and their shared meaning. In lesson 3 we will take a look at how the adulterated adult can become more open and aware to both the outward and innate meaning of their experience, especially in relationship to children. And we will introduce the intelligence of play and explore more deeply why play, as a state of being, is the optimum state for learning, performance and well being, at any age, and in any field.

Beginner’s Mind
The meaning or information embodied by the heart, and other fields, is blocked by everyday thinking. When challenged, the brain’s associative process sorts through its database of experiences and proposes a response based on what is known. Most of us spend most of our days and nights in the state of mind we call “thinking” with its worrying, planning, projecting, and controlling. Thinking and thought are essentially and almost exclusively self-generative. That is, the source or raw materials used in the process we call thinking is already known. Thinking and thought involve memory and memory s the past, that which is known. We can imagine and dream of new possibilities but the context or source for these creations is already known; it preexists.
Real learning and real relationship occur in what Yogic philosophy calls the eternal present. Learning and relationship may include the past but can’t be defined or limited exclusively by the past. To do so would exclude the intelligence being expressed in this present, creative moment.

True adaptive learning and real relationship, as opposed to reflexive conditioning, involve a constant merging of the unknown-present with the known-past. What we know is constantly being transformed by what we don’t know.
The source of the intelligence and information conveyed by the heart, and other field affects is not found in memory. The information implied in fields, as described by David Bohm and others, is accessible only in the present. The meaning of a field expresses or displays in perception as flashes of insight. We might compare insight to the unlearned knowing of the idio-savant, or the sudden Eureka! discoveries of Einstein and others. To be open to insight the doors of perception must open; not be blocked or limited by what is already known. Zen philosophy calls this free and receptive mental state, beginner’s mind.

In the life-and-death situation, sword tip to sword tip with the enemy, where should the swordsman put his mind? Should he think about the latest fad in sword swinging? Should he ponder what his mother might think of his soiled sandals? While zooming toward the Death Star, Obi-Wan Kenobe whispered nothing to Luke about the sophisticated gadgetry on board the X-Wing. “Use the Force, Luke,” was all he said. “Use the force,” might be translated into “Stop looking in the rearview mirror, at the past, in hopes of meeting this present challenge. Don’t focus exclusively on imagined outcomes and allow the fields of intelligence resonating in and around you right now to express through you.”

As the beginner knows nothing about either his body posture or the positioning of his sword, neither does his mind stop anywhere within him. If a man strikes at him with the sword, he simply meets the attack without anything in mind. As the beginner studies various things and is taught the diverse ways of how to take a stance, the manner of grasping his sword, and where to put his mind, his mind stops in many places. Now if he wants to strike at an opponent, he is extraordinarily discomforted. Later, as days pass in accordance with his practice, neither the postures of his body nor the ways of grasping the sword are weighted in his mind. His mind simply becomes as it was in the beginning, when he knew nothing.

Takuan Soho
Sixteenth Century Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master
The Unfettered Mind, Translated by William Scott Wilson

Attention is required for learning any new skill. We become what captures our attention. Like a lens, attention channels energy. The focus of energy through the lens of attention forges new brain development. The more complete the attention, the more energy is focused and the greater the learning and corresponding brain development.

Optimum states of learning and performance make optimum use of attention. Are we meeting the moment with complete attention? Is our focus of energy unconflicted? Or, is some attention being held in reserve, just in case we have to defend our self-image? At Play or in the Zone, especially in relationship with children, the quality of our attention makes all the difference.

If you put your mind in your right hand, it will be taken by the right hand and your body will lack its functioning… If you don’t put it anywhere it will go to all parts of your body and extend throughout its entirety.

Takuan Soho
Sixteenth Century Writings of the Zen Master to the Sword Master
The Unfettered Mind, Translated by William Scott Wilson

Journal 3.1
Define the qualities of a beginner’s mind. What is this mind’s relationship to what is known, to knowledge?

 “Use the Force, Luke,” was a reminder to release the mind from the concentration camp of the intellect and its well-armed defenses. Flow is this state of the beginner’s mind, where “mind” or “attention” expands naturally throughout the entire body and beyond, inviting the unknown to express its intelligence, in and through us, right now.

Our goal is to apply the principles of “state-specific learning and performance” (being in the Zone, Flow and original Play), to parenting and to education. Years of research from diverse fields reveal a dramatic new approach to human development. Extraordinary is built into every cell of our body. Optimum is nature’s baseline for learning, performance, and wellness. Miracles happen every day when resistance to learning, peak performance and well-being is reduced or eliminated. Optimum is completely natural. It’s easy, as easy as child’s play. In fact, it is play.

Journal 3.2
What does play mean to you? Before reading ahead, define how you experience play in your life. List the primary forms of play in our culture for children, and make a list of adult forms of play.

The Intelligence of Play
Battling the Evil Empire and having life-and-death bouts with swords are dramatic. They are exceptions to the normal run of life. Being in the Zone, that Optimum Learning Relationship, means being fully aware, alive, and engaged in this precious moment and all its relationships. And what do most animals and humans do when they feel safe and nurtured, when they are in the state of Flow?

They “play” hide-and-go-seek, chess, cards, and baseball. They play with the dog, pretend, and ponder. Play is not the activity however; play is a state, a unique quality of relationship.

What we do in the play state changes with our age and stage of development. Michael Jordan has this special relationship with basketballs. Writers and poets have playful relationships with words. Musicians play with sounds. Singers and actors play with emotions. Einstein played with ideas. Children play with anything they can, and especially with the people they love. Nature set aside all of childhood to explore and develop this unique and very special relationship called play.

Play states are now seen as the major driving force in the development of higher brain function. The greater the intelligence of the species, the more they play. The greater the skill of the player in nature, the larger and more intricate is their brain. Human play, like the play of animals, is necessary for optimal brain development, socialization, flexibility, and adaptability. Real play is how real learning and real development takes place. It’s that simple. John Douillard describes the importance of original play and its affect on the performance of elite athletes.

If you talk to elite athletes, and I’ve coached many of them, they say the same thing. “My best race was my easiest race.” When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile he said, “The world seemed to stand still. I felt like I was running slow. I felt no pain and no strain.” And he was running faster than any man alive. When Billy Jean King was at her best, she would transport herself beyond the turmoil of the court to a place of total peace and calm. Look at the Tarahumara Indians who run 75 to 150 miles a day, and kick a little ball the whole way; it’s a game. After running a 26-mile run, they finished with blood pressures lower when than when they started. Their breath rate was what we would consider normal at rest, and they were running an 8-minute mile pace the whole way, at high altitudes. To them it was fun, a way of life. One hundred fifty  miles in a day is a lot of activity but their experience is one of calm. They love it so much that they slip easily and naturally into a place to where peak performance flows automatically. It’s not stressful. It’s not work. It’s play.

Personal Interview
John Douillard
Author, Body, Mind & Sport

Anxiety can only breed anxiety. Anxiety is the one condition intolerable to us. And thought generated by anxiety, even though the impulse is generated to escape anxiety, will always relate to, and have inherent within, that anxiety.  Isolated thought can’t give unity, and only in unity are we free from anxiety... When our eye is on error, we become that error.  Like attracts like.  Error produces error.

Bond of Power

Journal 3.3
Think back to most of your educational experiences, those in which an adult was trying to teach you something. Think back to the hours sitting at a desk in school. What state were you in most of the time? What was the state of the adult?  Now think of the great learning moments in your life, the moments that you will remember always.  Compare the two states.

Play As Learning
Most adults have it backwards. They think that learning is serious and that play is unimportant, a waste of time. True play optimizes and expands learning, performance, and wellness. Other states¾concentration, competition, the pressures imposed by rewards and punishments¾limit growth to predefined patterns. Learning becomes mechanical, rote, and conditioned. The intelligence of play is lost when relationships become automatic, reflexive.

Intelligence embraces. It is a movement toward wholeness and well-being. Play takes the lid off learning by returning the body and mind to their natural order. Resistance is reduced, opening possibilities few have ever imagined.

The adult mind has been adulterated, contaminated by years of conditioning. With the best of intentions, adults impose this conditioning on children. Adults worry. Is my child measuring up to standards? Is he or she sitting up, learning to walk, talking, riding a bike, hitting the ball, dancing as well as other children? Does my child have what it takes to pass the SAT? Comparison, competition, rewards, and punishments place false and unnecessary limitations on learning and performance, crippling true development.

The Zone, that optimum state of flow, occurs naturally when all three levels of the brain "thought, feeling, and action" are focused on a particular activity. This complete attention cannot occur if we feel threatened in any way. Are we being graded? Will we measure up to standards? Are we to be punished or rewarded?

Competition prevents optimum learning and performance. We can’t gather and focus all our attention. We think, I’d better do this; and if I can’t, I’ll catch it, I’ll be a failure, a loser. I’ll be punished or rejected. Fear and conflict prevent the body from acting on it’s own wisdom. We’re a house divided against ourselves and there’s no health in us, no wholeness. As a result, no concentrated learning or performance can take place. When we feel safe, thought, feeling, and action are free to playfully explore our universe.

Real learning takes place in what Maria Montessori called “the absorbent mind of the child.” Children given a safe and nurturing setting simply absorb their universe. They absorb it and become it, and they do this through play.

Play is the foundation of creative intelligence, but like any intelligence, it must be developed, in keeping with nature’s model imperative, the child who is played with will learn to play. The child who is not played with will be unable to play and be at risk on every level.

Evolution’s End

Journal 3.4
Many adults and certainty the popular adult culture thrive on competition. Challenge is necessary to draw out and develop our latent potential. We stated above, “competition prevents optimum learning and performance.” List five ways that competition and comparison place limits on learning and performance.

Authentic Play - Complete, Selfless Attention & Absorption
It is difficult for many adults to appreciate the importance of play. Most adults lost touch with this magical state years ago. Before exploring how play transforms our approach to parenting and to education, let’s look at this optimum state from four perspectives, that of educator/researcher, scientist, explorer and the mystic.

The Researcher
In 1990 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, published Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience. The book summarizes decades of research on the most positive aspects of human experience - joy, creativity, the process of total involvement in life and its relationships. The author explains:

Optimal experience is an end in itself… it is a self-contained activity, one that is not done with the expectation of some future benefit, the doing itself is the reward.

Flow lifts the course of life to a different level. Alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control, and psychic energy works to reinforce the sense of self, instead of being lost in the service of external goals. When experience is intrinsically rewarding, life is justified in the present, instead of being held hostage to a hypothetical future gain… The solution is to gradually become free of societal rewards and learn how to substitute for them rewards that are under one’s own powers.

Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self -consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.

An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult or dangerous.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Flow, the Psychology of Optimal Experience

Most parenting and education models are based on conditioning, external rewards, and punishments. These control strategies reduce learning and performance to predetermined patterns. Learning becomes reflexive, repetitive, mechanical. A predetermined response to fresh challenges lacks the dynamic flexibility of true intelligence. Conditioning introduces potential failure, the implied threat of possible public humiliation and censure. With conditioning, the optimal experience found in real Play, Flow, or the Zone is denied.

Truly great performance is achieved when the body, mind, and emotions are in complete alignment, when total participation in the experience is its own reward, when we are psychologically free of defensive doubts and anxieties - all of which unfold naturally when one feels related and safe.

Play develops intelligence, integrates our triune nature; prepares us for higher education, creative thought, and helps us prepare for becoming an effective parent when that time comes. Play is the very force of society and civilization, and a breakdown in the ability to play will reflect in a breakdown of society.

Evolution’s End

Journal 3.5
List the three most significant qualities of the flow state described above. Describe the last time you embodied these qualities. What were you doing and how did it feel?

The Scientist
David Bohm knew very well that creative inquiry, which is the heart and soul of science, is play.

The essential activity of science consists of thought, which arises in creative perception and is expressed through play. This gives rise to a process in which thought (and experience) unfolds into provisional knowledge, which then moves outward into action and returns as fresh perception and knowledge. This process leads to continuous adaptation of knowledge, which undergoes constant growth, transformation, and extension. Knowledge is therefore not something rigid and fixed that accumulates indefinitely in a steady way, but is a continual process of change. Its growth is closer to an organism than a data bank.

When serious contradictions in knowledge are encountered, it is necessary to return to creative perception and free play, which act to transform knowledge. Knowledge, apart from this cycle of activity, has no meaning… When creativity is made subservient to external goals, which are implied by seeking rewards, the whole activity begins to degenerate.

David Bohm, Ph.D. and F. David Peat, Ph.D.
Science, Order & Creativity

Play creates a new and flexible relationship with experience and with knowledge. Knowledge never becomes absolute; is never unyielding. This includes all the theories, beliefs, ideas, images, and opinions we have about ourselves, and others, especially our children. Knowledge, including our beliefs about parenting and education, becomes “provisional.” Being temporary constructs, rather than fixed and absolute, the knowledge we gather in play is constantly open for renewal. As Bohm described: Knowledge then moves outward into action and returns as fresh perception and knowledge. This process leads to continuous adaptation of knowledge, which undergoes constant growth, transformation, and extension.

Play is the universal characteristic in all the young of all higher species. Because the economy of nature rules out random or wasted action in the formative period, the child’s driving intent to play all the time must logically be a major part of the biological plan.

Magical Child

Journal 3.6
In an earlier lesson we described the nature of “belief,” how the assumptions driving our belief systems work reflexively, especially the beliefs we have created and accepted about ourselves and our children. What is the relationship between play and belief, or is there any at all?

The Explorer
O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D., a play explorer, educator, and author of the Pulitzer-nominated book, Playing By Heart, describes the unique quality of relationship found in optimum experience.

Original play is both an all-embracing vision of reality and a practice of kindness that permeates all of one’s relationships. To play in this way is to be in touch and to be touched deeply by our authentic human nature and the natural world. Original play cultivates an ever-renewing sense of enchantment and engagement with the world. It develops calmness, awareness, and a flexible ability to handle stress, surprise, or challenges without aggression. This play develops radically different behaviors than those encouraged by the dominant contest culture. The response is deeper, more universal, and authentic. When we are in this state of original play, the limitations of our cultural identity drop away. Original play is truly an ecological intelligence. The sensitivity this play develops needs to be understood and integrated into all aspects of family, community, and professional life. Discovering the intelligence of play opens once again the genius of childhood most of us lost long ago.

O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D.
Essay on Play as Belonging

Journal 3.7
Select three of the above statements about the state of play and explore how each statement expresses in your life. 

The Mystic
We began our exploration with Michael Murphy’s description of transcendent experiences in sports.

The great seers of the contemplative traditions have explored the inner life more deeply than most of us, and they have opened up spiritual territories that we may or may not enter. But many athletes and adventurers have followed partway, however inadvertently, through the doorways of sport.

Michael Murphy, Rhea A. White
In the Zone, Transcendent Experiences in Sports

The state we call Play, the Zone, or Flow is transcendent. Play transcends the current set of boundaries we find ourselves in, at any age, stage or activity. The goal always, which is nature’s goal, is to reach beyond, to expand the limitations of known boundaries. To do so we must leave behind or at least temporally suspend the boundaries imposed by our social and cultural identity. Optimum Learning Relationships are transcendent. Being free from the blinders imposed by our conditioning—personified as personal identity—the quality and nature of all relationships expand. When the boundaries of “me” expand or disappear—that center which we defend so passionately—what remains is our true nature, vast and indescribable. O. Fred Donaldson describes this experience as belonging. The educator and philosopher J. Krishnamurti, close friend of Bohm’s, described this mystical absence of this defensive self-image as choiceless awareness, true freedom and real intelligence.

When you are completely attentive, there is no self, no limitation.

Krishnamurti, Washington DC, 1985

When you give complete attention, with all the energy that one has, fear completely disappears.

Krishnamurti, Ojai, California, 1981

So long as there is a center [a self image] creating space around itself there is neither love or beauty. When there is no center and no circumference, then there is love. When you love, you are beauty.

Krishnamurti, Freedom From the Known

When you see the extraordinary beauty of the earth, its rivers, lakes, mountains, [or your child], what actually takes place? At that moment the very majesty of the mountain makes you forget yourself. You don’t exist, only that grandeur exists. Beauty is, where you are not.

Krishnamurti, Madras, India 1982

The children were playing about, but they never looked at that lovely spring day. They had no need to look, for they were spring. Their laughter and their play were part of the tree, the leaf, and the flower. You felt this, you didn’t imagine it. It was as though the leaves and the flowers were taking part in the laughter, in the shouting, and in the balloon that went by. Every blade of grass, the yellow dandelion, and the children were part of the whole earth. The dividing line between man and nature disappeared; but the man on the race-course in his car and the woman returning from the market were unaware of this. Probably they never looked at the sky, at the trembling leaf, the white lilac. There were carrying their problems in their hearts, and the heart never looked at the children or the brightening spring day. The pity of it was that they breed these children and the child would soon become the man on the race-course and the women returning from the market; and the world would be dark again. Therein lay the unending sorrow. The love on the leaf would be blown away in the coming autumn.

Krishnamurti, The Only Revolution

Journal 3.8
Play transcends the current set of boundaries we find ourselves in, at any age, stage or activity. To do so we must leave behind or at least temporally suspend the boundaries imposed by our social and cultural identity. Think about this for an hour or so and then describe what this means to you as a parent or educator.

Insight seems a “grace,” which is freely given rather than made by our effort.  Einstein spoke of his insight arriving like a flash of lightning which, though they lit up the landscape of his mind for only an instant, forever after changed its landscape.  The only thing which can change the nature of our thought is an energy more powerful than thought.

Bond of Power