We all get stuck sometimes. Moments come when we catch ourselves pushing against the current, instead of flowing joyfully and expansively in our experience.
For years I’ve kept poet Mary Oliver’s words on my wall and in my heart: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Occasionally, when I find myself feeling blocked, flat, or overly tired, her question becomes difficult to answer.
That’s when I know I need to change things up.
You may imagine a day – indeed, a life – you’d love to create. Yet if your emotion doesn’t match the frequency of your vision, the short-term results may be frustration and self-doubt. Eventually it can feel like the creative river has run dry.
At such times, it’s important to remember we’re self-generative beings. That is, we are capable of shifting from one emotional state to another in order to determine experience. In so doing, we must not only become aware of what shifts us, but we must learn (actually we must relearn) to trust the process.
So what exactly is the process? What can lift us from the slough of despond to the lush, green land of solution? Something so simple a child can do it. In fact, children do do it– every day.
By giving ourselves regular “assignments” to engage in free play, we re-establish the conditions for thriving creatively.
Yet simple is not always easy…
While play is an essential part of life, it’s also one that many of us forget, overlook, and (most detrimental of all) refuse to take seriously. All you have to do is walk through a standard workplace to see how play is not a priority in the adult world.
I value and echo the assertion of psychiatrist, Dr. Stuart Brown, that “The opposite of play is not work. It’s boredom.” Brown is famous for having studied play as an essential element of a healthy childhood; moreover, he continues to make a case for the importance of play in adulthood. What innovation, fresh idea, or beautiful service was ever conceived in a state of drudgery? Monotony is not a feeling-tone conducive to finding solutions and creating expansively. In fact, the most innovative work ever done in this world most likely has been achieved in a state of play.
Pioneering psychoanalyst Carl Jung once said, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.” When Jung found himself suffering the effects of overwork, when he entered a phase of “disorientation” or “fertile confusion,” he chose to play. Jung built miniature castles out of stones. He painted freely. Through exploration, unattached to outcomes, Jung learned to shift to a state of pure discovery. At such times, the solutions to his problems often presented themselves.
Likewise, mythologist Joseph Campbell recognized wisdom and practical value in play:
Play allows us to shift from “to-do list” surviving, to freely, intuitively and, very simply, being. Yet it can be difficult to engage in play when we’ve lost touch with it. What does The Child naturally possess, that we adults must learn to recall and re-activate?
A willingness to be both ridiculous and brilliant.
Small children often are fearless when they play. At an early stage, they don’t worry about judgment; they aren’t embarrassed to share their ideas and products, and they don’t engage the inner editor – that is, until they learn to be self-critical. Over time, young people are conditioned to anticipate and fear judgement. IDEO designer Tim Brown makes that clear in his 2008 “Serious Play” TED Talk. Brown asks, “Why is playfulness important?” His answer: Play helps us find creative solutions, do our jobs better, and feel better when we do them.
We come to recognize in adulthood that being confident no longer means being fearless; sometimes it means being afraid and doing what we love anyway. That includes making time to play, even (especially) if and when it doesn’t seem practical.
Iconic writer and creative recovery specialist, Julia Cameron, says you must “enchant yourself” and “woo your own consciousness” in the act of routine play. She instructs students to make a weekly date with themselves, alone – an Artist’s Date. Cameron also observes, “People are reluctant to go play.” It’s a tougher task than it appears.
Perhaps because, in our busy lives, many of us have forgotten how.
I leave you with the task of remembering. Brainstorm all the ways you’ve loved to play, so far, in your one wild and precious life. What activities engage your natural sense of joy, ease, and wonder? What makes you curious to the point where you lose track of time? Once you’ve listed a minimum of 15 playful activities, set aside time this week to do one or two of them.
Creativity loves joy. You have the power to make it welcome!