The tip of the tail flicks unbeknownst to the cat. Its inner world betraying the stillness of its body. Just like our minds.
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Sleeping lion’s seems like such an obvious game from an adult’s point of view. You get a room full of kids to lie down and stay still as possible. Participants need to lie motionless and are ‘out’ if they move.
As Wikipedia says
It is used in schools as an exercise. All the children will play “lions” and the teacher will play the “hunter”. Usually, in this case, the teacher will make no effort to make the “lions” move, because in this case the real aim of the “game” is to calm the children down after playing other exciting games.Sleeping Lions – Wikipedia
The game has an older name in the history of play: ‘Dead soldiers’.
The teacher as hunter does nothing. It is the first kid unable to stay still that becomes the first true hunter. An agent of play trying to wake up their peers. As the participants aren’t able to touch the others during the game. It encourages kids to be silly around their peers as the others try to stay “asleep”.
The lions have to keep themselves focused on not moving a muscle—no matter how their peers try to distract them.
Sleeping Lions encourages children to build mind–body connections. The balancing repetition and creativity.
In Games for actors and non-actors, Boal 1992. Sleeping lions is called “The Bear of Poitiers”. Redescribed as a bear hunting for woodcutters. Only in this version of the game: the bear can growl, touch, tickle, and prod, the woodcutters. Who are playing dead as bears won’t eat dead meat. What’s interesting is that this version is recorded as being played by adults too.
Boal observes the contradiction in trying to find stillness by playing dead.
The principle is: if the woodcutter can send his senses to sleep, if he can feel nothing, see nothing, hear nothing, if he can successfully play dead, the bear will not attack because bears don’t eat dead people. But the instruction ‘Feel nothing’ provokes exactly the opposite reaction, and all the senses become extraordinarily highly developed – you sense much more, hear much better, etc. Fear hypersensitises us!Games for actors and non-actors – Boal 1992
It’s the hypersensitisation that is the most important somatic element of the game. Play for children and adults is an important third space that shunts us sideways. To be authentic and real temporary inside new rules of reality.
Playing Sleeping Lions at Infant School was the first time I remember being asked to find stillness around others. Forehead on my hands; nose hovering just above the floor. Hyper aware of the smell of, dust dinners polish that all parquet floor school halls have. A smell that I can still conjure in my mind’s eye more vividly than any other from my time at infant school. The hypersentistation effect of Sleeping Lions. Trying to do nothing resulted in fragment of intense memory.
We also used play sleeping lions at Junior Church growing up. I would always think of the angel shutting the mouths of the lions to protect Daniel from their jaws.
And Daniel was brought out of the den, and no harm was found on him, because he trusted in his God.
To be honest with you, it’s taken me 30 more years to even begin to discover what stillness even is. But it still think of Daniel in the lions cave. Stillness was not something that was ever explained to me. It’s something that you have to do. You can still fidget and be still.
Mindfulness as it’s taught at corporate away days and self help books. Is the process of choosing a focus for your attention. Then observing whatever thought processes that arise without judgment. You begin to focus your attention on say: Your breathing, and you quickly discover that you are repeatedly distracted and the mind runs off with worries and thoughts.
And so we learn to observe this process. Making no judgments. This is all very hard to actually explain.
Instead we can say meditation (and certain kinds of listening prayer) is like playing a game of sleeping lions with yourself.
You are the lion, and like a cat it has a tail. I’m sure we’ve all seen cats laying contented in the sunshine. The tip of their tail flicks unbeknownst to the cat. Its inner world is betraying the stillness of the body. Just like our minds.
When asked about mindfulness or awareness meditation by beginners. I always explain that what you are trying to do is become aware of the fact that you are alive. The default state of being that we go through our lives largely ignorant of.
If you are the lion then the mind is the hunter. An agency outside of the ‘be still’ rules imposed by the game, trying to distract and rebel. What the rogue mind ignores of course is that both hunters and the lions are participants in the larger game.
The more that you move closer to being aware of the fact you are alive. Truly alive. The less space the hunter has to distract you.
Meditation is not about emptying your mind, but about filling it up fully with the actual experience of being alive. Experiencing everything all at once. Cultivating the hypersensitisation that Boal observed.
Sleeping Lions is a far more complicated and important game in child development than we give it credit. It’s obviously a very old game, given its other names.
I think the fame is also the best reference point or tool to explain to children as well as adults the first steps toward developing a practice of stillness. Whether that be meditation or prayer. A space to experience what it means to be alive whilst playing dead.
The above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in audio due to time constraints.