Mindfulness and Bodyfulness with InterPlay: An eleven-year InterPlay journey Kaira Jewel Lingo I bring InterPlay into my teaching and practice of mindfulness every chance I get. On retreats or days of mindfulness or when I share mindfulness with kids in schools, it always refreshes and inspires and I see a light in people's eyes and a bounce in their step that wasn't there before. They are more connected to each other and to themselves and they can see life in a new and more hopeful way. There is always laughter and a sense of discovery and curiosity. It is healing in the best of ways, because it is subtle, unassuming and has no agenda except to create fun and joy. I am so grateful for the many precious moments of meaning and transformation it has brought to my life and that of so many others with whom I have shared it!
I am deeply grateful for the role of InterPlay in my life and mindfulness teaching. It has brought powerful gifts and transformation to me and to the thousands of people I have shared it with over the last eleven years. In celebration of InterPlayâ€™s 25th anniversary I want to share my journey.
Beginnings In 2005, my good friend, Gretchen Wegner, visited me when I was living as a Buddhist nun at Deer Park Monastery in southern California. She had just attended a Secrets of InterPlay weekend with Phil and Cynthia. She showed me the spiralbound book explaining how InterPlay worked and I was immediately intrigued as I had a background in dance and theater and had been looking for ways to bring more of a focus on the body into my spiritual practice. I read through it and soon began offering weekly InterPlay classes for small groups of friends who were game to try something new after our Sundays of Mindfulness for the public. I was amazed at how deep we could go. I remember doing a one-hand dance on behalf of the concerns of a perfectly bald woman dying of cancer. Her face was wet with tears as I danced and her eyes radiant as she shared with me afterwards how much solace and acceptance she felt witnessing the movement. One afternoon, in an improvised circle story sitting around an elegant, fake marble plant stand, it came alive as our elephant leg, each of us adding delightful and poignant details of how it functioned and managed to come to us. There was always laughter and the fresh breeze flowing through all of us of improvising in speech, movement, storytelling, song, and realizing we were full of innovation and creativity, individually and as a group. No moment could ever be repeated! Our lay friends and visitors were especially delighted that a Buddhist nun, with head shaved, in long, serious-looking brown robes was inviting them to be irreverent and goofy, encouraging them to express their ‘evil twin,’ to trick their partner in handto-hand contact or run in the meditation hall! Dancing freely to music with a beat! When bumping into each other, exclaiming ‘thank you’ rather than ‘sorry.’ Though the monastery was already full of laughter and ease, it was also a place of much ritual, strict schedules, and clear roles. It was incredibly freeing for people to just speak off the top of their heads about a suggested topic in babbling, without editing themselves, simply being themselves without worrying about what others thought. From time to time a few of the more adventurous monks and nuns would join in these gatherings, but I was usually the only monastic. On paper ripped out of a notebook, I made myself a cheat-sheet with summaries of how to lead the warm up, walk-stop-run, hand-to-hand contact, one-hand dance, following and leading, babbling, stillness exercises, and circle stories. I still have and use these 2 sheets of worn and carefully folded paper, carrying them with me on all my many trips, a bit battered after 11 years, but still very clear. I led these regular classes for two years in Deer Park until I moved to Plum Village monastery in France in 2007. When I moved to the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany in 2008, I had recently been ordained a dharma
teacher by my teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, and was beginning to design and lead my own retreats at the EIAB and in other places. I began to make InterPlay a regular feature of these mindfulness retreats. Participants always enjoyed them and seemed to open up to each other much more easily after these one to two-hour sessions. Artists’ Retreats and Creativity Retreats While in Germany, I began to lead an annual week-long mindfulness retreat for artists where I shared InterPlay forms throughout. At the end of each retreat, we held an improvised performance with participants and audience members coming up to explore improvising: to share a big body story, DT3, or following and leading as a group. I saw clearly how the InterPlay forms helped everyone feel lighter and take themselves less seriously, and how particularly for artists, it allowed them to get in touch with their creative impulse without self-consciousness, without getting caught by the inner-critic. One of the participants, an actor, told me it was coming to the first artists’ retreat that gave her the courage and inspiration to return to the stage after a fallow period of some five or six years. Then in October 2011, I spent one week in Oakland with Gretchen, studying at InterPlayce, and had the opportunity to meet Phil and Cynthia for the first time. I came because I needed to hone my skills and learn more forms in order to get ready to teach a week-long course at the EIAB, Spiritual Play and Mindful Improvisation, with a dozen or so participants. This was the first time InterPlay was the primary focus of one of my retreats, and I needed many more tools to be able to teach it several hours a day for 6 days straight. The schedule still incorporated the core of a mindfulness retreat: morning sitting, meals in silence, outdoor walking meditation for an hour each morning, as well as my daily dharma talks on improvisation and the intersections between play and spirituality. What was radically different was that for several hours a day, our mindfulness practice was getting in touch with the wisdom of the body through play, movement, story telling and song. I remember one day on this course we went to the local cemetery. Everyone had some solo time to find a grave and connect with what they felt there. They were to listen to whatever the grave or person buried there wanted to offer us as a message to the living. Then they were to create a short performance based on this inspiration—a big body story, DT3, song, or poem. As a group we went around to each person’s grave to witness them. It was a poignant and memorable reflection and meditation on honoring the dead and celebrating life! As part of the 2012 artists’ retreat, I invited the participants to join me at my weekly mindfulness class at the local high school to share InterPlay. It was a blast! We had live music from our artist musicians and we played together with joyful abandon. The schoolteacher said that babbling and dancing with her students was the first time she interacted with them outside the teacher-student role and it was so healing
and refreshing to her! In that particular class, the students came alive like I had never seen before. In 2013, Ulrich Reisberg and I taught a course at the EIAB on the Buddha’s Discourse on Love using InterPlay and Dharma-Drama to explore this central Buddhist text. (Dharma-Drama is based on Biblio-Drama, which uses contemplative body-based forms to explore the Bible). It was a beautiful blending of two improvisational, creative and deeply spiritual forms that helped us to really embody the text and understand it viscerally, in the flesh. One participant, Michael Schweitzer, a German pastor in his 70s, had this to say about the course, “Sister Jewel infected us with her way of dancing. With her sensitive understanding she offered us playful means to express our innermost feelings. She encouraged us to try out new ways of moving, allowing each of us to improvise in our own unique styles. The Discourse on Love started to move us from within. We became each others’ Discourse. “For me it was exactly this playful approach that helped me find a great inner lightness. The Essenes have a saying: He who does not let the Angel of Joy pass by, cannot reach the Kingdom of Heaven (which is in us). Maybe one could also say: only with a light heart can we find and open the door to the Discourse. “It was that way for me. Much of the course touched me very deeply all at once. Seeing a participant express her innermost self wordlessly through dance moved me so much that I couldn’t stop crying. There is a purity and perfection in us which sometimes shows itself unexpectedly. Often it is like this: only by expressing something do we become conscious of it. “The weekend skillfully enabled this to happen... I will never forget how much more alive some of our faces looked at the end of the course.” That same year I offered a weekend course on Releasing Stress through Play, which was mostly InterPlay forms within the usual structure of mindfulness practices at the monastery. Some 20 people attended and when some of them arrived, they shared they were literally desperate to play! There are so few places in our world that invite this quality in adults! It was a joyful, transformative weekend, and you could see on people’s faces how much lighter and more connected they felt at the end. InterPlay in Italy In 2014, on a teaching tour in Italy, I led a retreat for 100 people in Sicily. Many of them were elderly and didn’t seem to be very free in their bodies. I was a little apprehensive about how they would respond to the InterPlay session, as it was
completely unfamiliar territory for them. It would also be my first time leading InterPlay directly in Italian! I had my notes translated and printed out. I was surprised at how open the group was to every form—they followed all my suggestions immediately with great enthusiasm, without being intimidated. Talk about ecstatic following! It was actually like being with lots of undercover, boisterous children! I was also very inspired by what participants shared during the noticing; the effects of the movement were remarkable. I have never seen a group break into spontaneous applause in response to someone’s noticing! This happened after a woman, who was quite overweight, said that normally she doesn’t have the opportunity to experience herself as light, because of how heavy she is. But during the one-hand dance, she experienced such lightness and ease! The movement allowed her to transcend the physical limitations that usually bind her. Even the people who preferred to remain seated in chairs could do the one-hand dance and the group dance while sitting. They were included although they couldn’t move freely around the room. Everyone, even the elderly participants, were open to trying something new! On a retreat in Venice, Elvira, a middle-aged participant who is nearly blind, shared, “Before beginning the InterPlay session, two people asked me why we were doing this. So I explained to them that through the games it is easier to establish trust and confidence in each other, because with the games its easier to express joy. And as someone said at the end of the session, it helped us to be like children again. Or express the part of us that is still a child. “I felt much lighter and I had fun with others, and I felt that everyone felt great joy in participating in the games, which were not really games. So we could really let that part of ourselves go, that part of us that we mostly keep covered, hidden, but that also has the power to heal us. I feel that its very important to give importance to the spontaneous smile, to vital playing that is inside of us in a spiritual retreat, or as part of our spiritual practice. During the one-hand dance, it was as if the hand moved by itself and I was watching it from another place. It was very creative as a game. “For me it is easier to do this kind of thing because I had done similar things in other situations. I feel its something that should be a regular part of mindfulness practice. It is very important. At other times during the retreat, I saw that some people didn’t like to join in the singing, it was hard for them to do it. But during InterPlay there was no one sitting on the chairs watching, everyone was able to join in, to try it out. Everyone in the group participated very openly, with great heart, and very joyfully. Doing only meditation without trying other things is a bit dangerous, its heavier, and with InterPlay, it became playful, and this came from the heart, not because people were told to do it.” InterPlay and Discernment
In 2013 I felt called to take a year sabbatical to give more space to the question of whether I wanted to have a family and perhaps leave monastic life after nearly 15 years. Holding this question was a 4-year journey all together and the connection to InterPlay was key in helping me navigate this process with clarity and confidence. As my identity of ‘Sr. Jewel, the Buddhist nun’ began to slowly break apart, and there was not yet a clear replacement of who I was to become, InterPlay was a lifeline for me. It was a part of me that was not indigenous to the monastery. InterPlay was a more ‘worldly’ community that I also belonged to. Having this link to something outside the monastery supported me to ride the waves and brave the storms of letting go of my monastic identity. Leader Training and learning with Cynthia A big part of this experience was the opportunity to work with Cynthia as a mentor and begin InterPlay leader training in early 2014. The regular Skype calls with Cynthia empowered me to really take myself seriously as an InterPlay leader, to clarify questions and appreciate subtler nuances to the art of body wisdom. I am very grateful to Body Wisdom for facilitating me to ‘walk in an unusual path’ on my journey of leader training, given my uncommon circumstances. Cynthia generously honored my previous experience leading groups as a Buddhist Dharma Teacher and also made exceptions given my international teaching schedule. Thus, from early 2014 to August 2015, I was able to complete the leader training in a more eclectic way than is usually done. It was only in leaving the monastery that I was able to make space for this training that was so important to me. And in turn, doing the training in InterPlay provided a real space to cultivate confidence in this new me I was becoming that was free to lead and grow outside of the group norm of the monastic community. Cynthia and I reflected on the challenges some participants I was encountering had with physical contact in InterPlay. She drew on her own experience with Soyinka Rahim sharing InterPlay with men in an Oakland homeless shelter and how they struggled with allowing themselves to be vulnerable in contact. I could also unpack with her the negative experiences a few folks in my workshops had with contact, because their wounded places were triggered. I brought up a question about creating safe space. Cynthia said she speaks of being secure vs. being safe. She said, “I don’t believe we can create ‘safety from something.’ It’s a polarity. How does body know its safe? It’s different for each body. We can’t offer or guarantee safety. But we can offer each body the chance to find a secure space inside itself. The basic forms we’re teaching are implicit practices. We don’t say in InterPlay that we need to find a secure place and respect each other, we just take it for granted that these are implicit when bodies are doing certain things.” Play as Soul-retrieval
I was intrigued when she began to speak of how powerful InterPlay is at a soul level. She spoke of soul-loss and soul-retrieval. Here are some of my notes from what she said in this conversation: “There are 5 key ways our bodies know things: Movement, Voice, Stories, Stillness and Connection. We can’t get all the information we need just out of seeing and smelling. We have to get the information through moving and vocalizing as well. “On retreats, we have people in a soul place, which is their most vulnerable place. These five ways are how people indigenously knew their soul was intact, healthy, and when they had soul-loss, when they disassociated. A shaman could go to a family and ask, “When did so-and-so stop dancing?” It was obvious, because something must have happened at that time, a mother died or some other major loss like that. Then the shaman would know that’s where the shock came from and they’d use body wisdom practices to shake and re-set this in trance to go and retrieve that scared, beautiful part and bring it back. “Our Western culture has generations of soul-loss and because we don’t live in a singing and dancing culture, we don’t know when it happens. This is happening all over the West and even now in Asia and India. At least people in Eastern cultures are still dancing. Their society supports them. But in US we don’t have that. Whenever someone freezes or can’t go forward, it’s likely not just a head thing, but part of their lineage or some challenge they’ve had. They’ve had to take that tender soul and move it off the property. So they sometimes have depression, or a sense of over-intellectualizing, an over doing of various things because they had to send the beautiful part of themselves to another place. “Just by offering play, we are offering soul-retrieval. With InterPlay, we let go of signs for the mind to grab hold of, this is part of a whole system of us remembering how to breathe, how to sit with ease. We have to have the support of each of the five ways of the body. “Voice is important because it is connected to breath. If our voice is stuck, then the breath is too. Voice and breath are the same thing.” Hearing these reflections gave concrete expression to what I knew in my gut, and offered more of a psychological underpinning to the experience participants kept reporting over and over. InterPlay was like coming to a cool, refreshing fountain when people were so thirsty! Learning from other InterPlay leaders In 2014 I also was able to do some of the Life Practice Program with Sheila Collins, and participate in InterPlay leader training weekends with Phil, Tom and Ginny in Atlanta. I benefitted greatly from the in-depth and decades-long InterPlay experience of these senior teachers. Their humor, lightness, and firm, clear but nonauthoritarian style was very instructive to me. After so many years in which I only
led InterPlay, being with senior teachers with different styles helped expand my familiar routines and get out of some ruts in my teaching style. And just playing with other leaders-in-training taught me a lot about myself and I benefitted from the invitation to put myself out there in ever-new and unfamiliar ways. In 2014, I also attended my first leaders’ gathering in Racine, WI. That was amazing! To play together with so many other InterPlay leaders for the first time, to be led by Phil and Cynthia for four days straight was a huge treat! Usually I was always in the position of teaching InterPlay and nearly always with people new to InterPlay so it was hard to build on something we’d done before. With Phil and Cynthia we did so many new forms I’d never heard of before, and the moving and singing with other experienced InterPlayers nourished and satisfied me in ways I didn’t even know I needed! It was inspiring to learn how InterPlay had developed its own special flavors all over the country and the world, and especially how others were using InterPlay in healing trauma, for social justice, and as burn-out prevention for health care professionals in the ‘InterPlay Way’ with CathyAnn Beaty. Then there was the powerful community building that went on among us all: the loving hugs, heart-toheart conversations, the ‘Gwace Opewatives’—our Grace Operative secret gift exchange—these were all opening me to the vast diversity, beauty and power of the big, wide InterPlay world. And I knew I had a family, a community, I belonged to in this creative and loving group. Atlanta InterPlay Family Because I was spending regular time in Atlanta with my dad and for InterPlay Leader Training, a real family feeling also began to develop among the InterPlay Atlanta community, with Jennifer Denning, Christine, Ruth, and others. We visited each other’s homes, where we played together, and Jennifer and I lead an InterPlay and mindfulness evening on stillness as we entered the holiday season, at the local Shambhala center. My dad began to attend the InterPlay classes and even joined the performance group! It was great to be able to share this practice with him because he was struggling with my leaving the monastery. The light-hearted InterPlay forms we were sharing helped us with the grief we were both experiencing over my imminent disrobing. And we both gained a new InterPlay community that helped to ease the loss that we felt of our monastic community. I remember one class Jennifer led, in which I really experienced the therapeutic power of InterPlay. Jennifer had us do ‘I could talk abouts’ (ICTA) with a partner about the challenges and the joys of the coming holidays. It wasn’t till I started talking and listening to my partner, that I got in touch with how afraid I was of facing the holidays without the monastic sangha around me for the first time in 15 years. I had been unaware of a low-level sadness, fear and confusion about it that was just below the radar. The InterPlay class helped me see it and just be with the discomfort of it. I could exform, I could move it through my body and begin to hold it more lightly. I could affirm all the good in my life and that I was going to be able to spend Christmas with my blood family for the first time in 15 years! Attending the class was such a relief and was a skillful intervention during a difficult moment.
Now my dad is doing the Life Practice Program with Jennifer Denning and joining in the Atlanta InterPlay work in a women’s prison. I feel so grateful for the way this connection to Atlanta InterPlayers has reinvigorated my dad’s life and offered new and meaningful ways for him to engage with others. I remember once after watching a beautiful dance performance, my dad said, that he felt he had missed his vocation in life. He felt he should have been a dancer. Well, through InterPlay he is getting a second chance! Nearly every week he has the opportunity to feed his inner dancer. So at age 80 he is proving that it is never too late! InterPlay at Schumacher College, 2015 In early 2015, I spent four months as Spiritual Practitioner in Residence at Schumacher College, an ecological postgraduate school in the UK. I had many occasions to share InterPlay there in short-term courses I taught and as part of the year-long Master’s Degree courses. With the Masters’ students in the Ecological Design Thinking Major, I facilitated a conversation on Right Livelihood, the Buddha’s teaching on ethical work and employment that avoids harm others and the environment. I shared the experiential InterPlay practice of Internal and External Authority. We got into groups, each with newsprint and markers. First we brainstormed the external messages we’d received around work and livelihood. We shared them with each other. Then we brainstormed the internal experience and insights we had arrived at on our own around work and livelihood. We had a lively and deeply personal discussion about this and they loved it! As there were many talented musicians and music-lovers at the College, one weekend night I offered an evening of just vocal practices from InterPlay. At one point, everyone was lying on the floor improvising ‘singing like’ country music, then rock and roll, then heavy metal. Then the next moment they slid over to curl up with a partner and sing them a lullaby. There was a freshness and aliveness to such a contrast, and the tenderness of the lullaby surprised us all by how intimate and heart-opening it was. The students were so moved! During the Mindful Baking, Mindful Food course, where by day we learned to make two or three different kinds of breads, by night I offered a reflection on Body data, Body knowledge, Body wisdom on the topic of how we eat. Participants found it very instructive to reflect on and share with partners about their often unexamined habits and beliefs around eating and how to align more closely the actual way they ate with what they knew was beneficial for them. InterPlay in People of Color retreats, activist retreats and more As I learn more InterPlay forms and become more confident in leading, I am integrating InterPlay in more ways throughout the retreats, not just in an 1.5 hour session once during the retreat. For instance, at People of Color retreats in the UK and US, we began the retreat by placing objects on the altar that connected us to our
ancestors. Then in a circle we shared “I could talk about’—things we could speak about regarding the strengths of our ancestors. Then in pairs we continued for a few more rounds, just listing topics we could talk about, until we finally chose one topic to share about in detail. It was fascinating to see how the energy changed completely after this exercise. The simple act of speaking in pairs, brainstorming in a sense about the many areas alive for us in connection with our ancestors, seemed to really bring our ancestors alive. Inviting them to be with us, helped us all to arrive more fully, to be there for ourselves and each other. I found using gibberish, or a made up language, to speak about the suffering or difficulty of being a person of color or an activist was very powerful. Gibberish helped to get at the challenges without becoming stuck in them. It was like looking at something sideways, rather than head-on. On a weekend retreat in Homer, Alaska, I shared InterPlay in a 1-hour workshop the day after everyone arrived. After this we had a discussion and a number of people mentioned how powerful the InterPlay had been for them. One young man shared he'd been in his head the whole 24 hours after arriving, and he only dropped into his body during the InterPlay. Another young woman from Venezuela shared that during the InterPlay she was in her body the ENTIRE time and never caught in her thoughts, because everyone and everything was so spontaneous and in the present moment. Another middle-aged man who'd never attended a retreat before, and looked like a military man, got choked up saying how the retreat was helping him quiet his mind like he'd never been able to before and the InterPlay allowed him to play like a child and goof around with complete strangers. He found it to be very healing to have permission to drop the roles we usually feel stuck in as adults with each other. Another young woman shared that she felt so refreshed and energized after the InterPlay. People always comment how nice it is in a meditation retreat context to be invited to be silly and playful as it takes them outside the box of their idea of mindfulness practice being serious and confined. Just last month, at a Social Justice activist retreat in New York, I led an optional InterPlay workshop for about thirty of the seventy activists attending. A number of them said InterPlay was most important thing they got from retreat! In the evaluations they were asked what could be improved and several said “InterPlay should be required for everyone at the retreat, and not compete with other sessions as its too important for all of us.” Another said “it was the most joyful fun I’ve had in a long time.” Many people expressed amazement at how easy and quickly we could connect intimately with each other and have such memorable fun. It was like being let in on a very important secret. At the end of the workshop, one young activist asked, nearly stupefied, “Why don’t we do this every day?” Many said they would be looking into how to bring more InterPlay into their lives after the retreat. Truly the more I learn about and share InterPlay, the more I see its value and want to make it more and more accessible. Going Forward
Two months ago, I settled in Washington, DC, after living nomadically for the last two years. InterPlay was the first thing I did the day after arriving in the city! I joined Billy and Kate Amoss’ monthly class. It still surprises me how often I can settle for superficial and limited connections with others and go through life with only a small portion of my huge, beautiful self activated. Then I get to an InterPlay event and the grey dullness of only interacting through thoughts and speech gives way to a life lived in full color as I interact with others, using my whole body, movement, voice, stories, and stillness. And I inevitably ask myself, “Why don’t we always live like this?” And it can be no coincidence that Seeker’s Church, where weekly InterPlay classes happen, is only a 10-minute walk from my new apartment! I have also been lucky enough to fall into a three-some of women in my neighborhood. We meet three mornings a week to do meditation, yoga and Interplay! Its amazing how deeply and quickly InterPlay has connected us in just a few sessions! With deep gratitude and love to Cynthia, Phil and the whole InterPlay community for all the beauty, richness and joy InterPlay has brought to my life and the lives of many others over the last decade. Kaira Jewel Lingo teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness, and compassion internationally, with a focus on activists, people of color, artists, educators, families, and youth. She began practicing mindfulness in 1997. An ordained nun of 15 years in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing, she is now a lay Dharma teacher, leading retreats in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Brazil, India and Southern Africa, and offering mindfulness programs for educators and youth in schools. She edited Thich Nhat Hanh’s, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children and helped to start and develop Wake Up Schools, which brings mindfulness to education. She explores the interweaving of art, play, ecology and spiritual practice and is a certified yoga teacher and InterPlay leader. In spring 2015, she was spiritual practitioner in residence at Schumacher College, an ecological college, in the United Kingdom. In addition to her roots in the Zen tradition, she regularly attends silent retreats in the Vipassana tradition.