033 – Transformative leisure and play: Bringing forth our reason for being

In this episode of the Ikigai Podcast, Nick talks with Dr. Suzy Ross about the importance of leisure and play, not only for the young but for people of all ages.

Freedom is a state of mind

"If you're really looking deeply at leisure, leisure, as we learned really from Plato and Aristotle, is a state of mind. It means that if we get to the essence of leisure, there's a state of mind that is essentially one of freedom. 

Freedom from stress, or freedom to love, freedom to joy, freedom to happiness, or it's freedom from something that we want to escape. But either way you look at it, there's an essential element of freedom, and in particular, a freedom of the mind." - Suzy Ross

Podcast Highlights

  • Recreational therapist. At 1:42, Suzy explains the role of recreational therapists, being one herself.

  • Suzy’s definition of leisure. At 6:02, Suzy shares her definition of leisure.

  • Definition of play. At 13:11, Suzy gives her definition of play.

  • Being a contributor for the book, Positive Sociology of Leisure. Contemporary Perspectives - At 16:15, Suzy shares how the opportunity came about.

  • Importance of “playing”. At 20:06, Nick and Suzy discuss the importance of playing, and why it’s deemed unimportant as people get older.

  • Transformation. At 27:08, Suzy defines transformation.

  • How play and leisure transform lives. At 31:49, Suzy explains why play and leisure are integral to transformation.

  • Three activities that can contribute to transformation. At 37:31, the two talk about three activities that play a part in transformation.

  • Sacred play. At 46:40, Suzy explains what sacred play is and its importance.

  • Meaningful play for Suzy. At 52:38, Suzy shares how she plays.

  • Transformative leisure and play, and ikigai. At 58:08, Suzy talks about the connection between leisure and play, and ikigai.

  • Play as an intellectual activity. At 1:06:27, Nick and Suzy discuss play as intelligence.

Suzy Ross

Dr. Suzy Ross Ikigai

Dr. Suzy Ross is the Manager of Recreation Therapy at San Jose State University, California. Her primary research examines the underlying archetypal pattern of personal transformation and is the subject of her book: The Map to Wholeness: Real-life Stories of Crisis, Change, and Reinvention. Dr. Ross has several published articles in peer-viewed scholarly journals and has spoken to participants of diverse conferences in local, regional, and international venues.

In partnership with indigenous elders, Dr. Ross leads study abroad to ancient sites for healing through sacred play. As an assistant professor of Recreational Therapy, she is known as a trusted, compassionate thought leader of transformation and play as medicine. She lives close to the ocean and loves to be immersed in nature.

Recreational therapist

Suzy is a recreational therapist and describes recreational therapy as “play as a form of medicine.” As recreational therapists, their role is to help people to heal (body, mind, and spirit) by using play experiences: what a person does during his/her free time -- any activity that grants people happiness could be a great tool to help them heal.

Suzy’s definition of leisure

Suzy shares that in a recreational professionals’ world, the terms recreation, leisure, and play all differ from each other. She explains that leisure can be three different things:

  • Leisure can be defined as an activity; something that people enjoy doing.

  • Leisure for some is time away from work; time away from stressful activities.

  • Leisure can also be defined as a state of mind; having that sense of freedom: freedom from stress, freedom to love, joy, and happiness -- freedom of the mind.


She believes that the core piece of leisure is that there’s  “falling in love.” When people are in love and engaged with what they do, they don’t have to force themselves; they don’t have to put much effort in what they do because they are enjoying the moment.

Start by saying what's good about now. And with what's good about now start orienting us to what it is in this experience that we could begin to feel happy and feel good about. That starts orienting the mind toward the good. And then as you enter into the good, you can start to fall in love. And when we fall in love, we enter into a state of mind where there is no effort in. Then we're at leisure. - Dr. Suzy Ross

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Happiness in Leisure

Definition of play

Suzy defines play as a state of being; it involves the body and comes out as an impulse. There is spontaneity in playing; people don’t know when it’s going to end and what is going to happen next -- they play with ambiguity with their mind and heart.

Being a contributor for the book, Positive Sociology of Leisure - Contemporary Perspectives 

Nick shares that he found out about Suzy through a chapter of a book she contributed to that was co-edited by one of his regular podcast guests, Shintaro Kono. Suzy co-authored the chapter  Transformative Leisure and Play: Bringing Forth Our Reason for Being, on the subject transformative leisure and play. 

When asked how she came to be a contributing member for the book, Suzy shares that it is through her department chair, Dr. Yoshi Iwasaki, who approached her because he knew that her research was in transformation. Upon receiving an invitation email from Dr. Shintaro to submit a chapter for his book, Dr. Iwasaki came to her and they both agreed on working on the chapter together with two other colleagues. 

According to Nick, Suzy’s chapter on the book reminds him of a concept similar to ikigai, which is asobigai (playful activities that make people’s lives worth living).

Why is play dismissed as people get older?

As people get older, play is being deemed unimportant; for Suzy, she sees two main reasons for this:

The first is, she thinks that the world is dominated by Western ways of doing things, which is dominated by masculinity and privilege, with a focus on outcome and money, which is the opposite of play; playing is something that people do after work and doesn’t involve productivity.

The second reason, she views play as something feminine; she thinks that people don’t put that much importance on something that is considered feminine -- it is more in the underworld.


Suzy wrote about play being a way for people to transform themselves, explaining that there are two main aspects to transformation:

  1. Transformation is about autopoiesis: the process of an entity recreating itself.  

  2. Transformation is about structure building; it is a long process of becoming a different human being. Transformation requires people to come out with a new structure, and people have three human structures that transform: the ego, mind, and the body. 

How play and leisure transform lives

Nick shares a quote from Suzy’s chapter about transformative leisure and play, which he thinks is similar to ikigai as being experiential.

“Play and leisure are integral to transformation because it unfolds through moments of experience, some of which are extraordinary. Others might be deemed important, and many viewed as mundane. Regardless of the importance assigned by the individual, living life experientially is tantamount to transformation.”

Suzy explains that with moments of experience, she’s talking about the difference between being a spectator and having an experience. Being a spectator, people are not fully having an experience, whereas when the body, mind, and spirit are engaged actively, that is an experience; and as soon as people are in an experience, they are propelling forward to their transformation. 

Nick states that the idea of propelling forward connects to the concept of ikigai, because ikigai could be any activities or experiences that make people feel that their lives are moving forward -- transformational experiences.

Ikigai could be defined as the activities or experiences in your life that make you feel your life is moving forward. This ties into themes of growth, change and transformation. It's almost like knowledge. If we accumulate knowledge, it can be helpful, but it really doesn't mean anything until we do something with that knowledge. We experience life through using that knowledge. - Nicholas Kemp

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Ikigai and Knowledge


Suzy wrote about three activities that, when woven explicitly and mindfully into leisure, can contribute to transformation, and one of them is meaning-making. Suzy explains that when people are going through the process of transformation, they can use their mind to raise awareness and consciousness to savour and elevate their emotional connection and emotive experience. And then people reflect on these activities that elevated the emotional engagement to help them feel and savour the experiences more deeply. People’s reflection on their experiences enables them to make meaning of it in a larger context which can lead to increased self-awareness that contributes to their transformation.

Sacred play

Susan wrote a paper titled, Sacred play: an ancient contribution to contemporary play theory.  She shares that she was in Peru, and met several elders of Inca mysticism and learned about the ancient practices of the Inca. She learnt ancient play practices that had been passed down from the Inca lineage. The elders taught her to use her imagination, to imagine energy as a healing practice that they refer to as “sacred play.” When the Inca play together, the purpose of their play is to reach enlightenment. Their play practices are designed to help people heal themselves and to achieve clarity of the mind, body, and spirit. 

Meaningful play for Suzy

Suzy shares that there’s a type of play called serious leisure, and for her, it can be compared to ikigai because when people have serious leisure. It is something that they fall in love with, and it also requires learning and sacrifice; a simple way to describe it is a hobby -- something that people dedicate themselves to. As for her, her serious leisure has always been her spiritual and personal growth, learning everything about spirituality and various philosophies. She also loves going on retreats, cycling, and taking walks by the ocean.


Transformative leisure and play, and ikigai

Suzy believes that if people regard play as a state of mind, amazing things can happen even in the middle of working because playfulness can also happen at work; it’s all about the experiences that make people feel fully alive. So when people are in the state of mind of leisure, they can be engaged with something that they really love, that can make a life worth living -- what we could define as a source of ikigai.

Nick states that it reminds him of someone describing ikigai as the feeling of being alive; when people are fully engaged in the moment, they lose themselves to the moment. It is these personal and playful activities where people lose themselves.

If we lose ourselves and we're fully engaged into something that's playful or intimate, it is meaningful. And it's not these extrinsically motivated things that we focus on that make our life worth living, it's these intrinsic personal, intimate, playful activities where we lose ourselves. - Nicholas Kemp

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Intrinsic Activities

Play as an intellectual activity

Nick shares a quote from Joseph Chilton Pearce:

“Play’s the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”

Suzy thinks that people’s destiny as a human is to be able to know how to play. She states that a great scholar from 100 years ago, said that the mark of a great civilization is whether or not people can handle their leisure play. Ant example for her, was the pandemic when everyone went into lockdown. Everyone had to adjust to spending more time at home and find ways to entertain themselves. People learned the importance of play during lockdown.



When we look deeper into the significance of leisure and play, we understand how important they both are in our lives; they can be a source of our ikigai because they provide blissful and meaningful experiences for us. Whenever we fully engage in play, we forget about the things that trouble us; enjoy the moment, but we also create meaningful memories.

What meaningful memories are you creating with play and leisure activities?