The Spiritual Act of Playing

Text: Nicole Schnackenberg | Illustration: Ingrid Sanchez

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”
–Joseph Chilton Pearce

As children, most of us would have wanted to play perpetually, turning everything into a game if we were allowed to do so. Then somehow we grew into adults with a completely different agenda and the notion that play is no longer the best use of our time.

Western thinking exclaims that hard work is the ideal and that we must win the luxury of time to play through hard work. As adults we may have even decided that we have ‘grown out’ of playing. Yet to play is to be creative and to be creative is a huge element of our humanness. We are called to such creation daily, yet maybe shun the plethora of opportunities offered to us, preferring instead to do something ‘serious’ and ‘productive’. When did we come to hold seriousness and productivity in such high esteem? Why have we decided that there needs to be some kind of outcome to our activities in order for them to be a worthy use of our time?

Play is autotelic; it is undertaken in a state of flow within which the person becomes fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity. Often hours will pass without the person even noticing. You may call out their name and they fail to hear you due to such high levels of absorption and enthrallment.

The reason play is so captivating is because it speaks to the deeper part of who we are. Each of us long to authentically live as our true selves, which are wonderfully creative and deliciously playful at their core. If you closely watch a child playing you will be left with no doubt in your mind that they are engaged in a spiritual act. Observe the rapture on their face, notice how they appear to have completely lost track of place and time…play seems to provide the very outcomes we observe from other spiritual practices such as meditation.

Play is a spiritual practice. We come into the present moment and enjoy, literally take joy in, something for no egotistical reason or gain. The act needs no justifying, since it serves to justify itself. When Carl Jung was going through a difficult time in his life, he took his mind back to what absorbed his attention as a little boy. His hypothesis was that his childhood games held a key to his deepest desires and innate creativity as a human being. Jung remembered that he liked to build things out of bricks. He then went on to build his own house in his late-forties, playfully creating a space for himself within which to live. This act of playful creation literally brought him back to himself.

Perhaps it may be helpful to remember how you most enjoyed playing as a child. Truly letting your inhibitions and awkwardness go and throwing yourself headlong into this ‘game’ may also turn out to be a spiritual practice for you. For me, I remembered that I loved to dig in the garden. I would spend hours and hours just digging the earth as a child to see what tiny creatures I could find. I had long considered, as an adult, that I had ‘more important’ things to do than dig up the ground. How wrong I was! It turns out that few things are as important as that which brings us into the present moment, restores our inner child and connects us to spirit itself. Now I dig whenever I want to dig. It brings me back to my childlike nature, which never really went away but was covered up by all of my seriousness for a while. I dig without any agenda and not for any other reason aside from the deep joy and abiding sense of peace it brings to my heart.

We are human beings and not human doings, as a wise person once said. We can become so consumed with doing that we forget to just simply be, our spirit getting lost under layers of striving. When we unleash our playful nature and stop chasing external gain, even for a little while, we begin to remember who we truly are. Life itself is play, the play of consciousness dancing and experimenting blissfully with form and possibility. Taking life so seriously only drains the essence from what was always meant to be a joyful experience.

An element of playfulness can also form a beautiful part of our yoga practice. I had a lovely moment a few months ago in a group Kundalini class. I was in a room full of people who were rocking back and forth at frankly alarming rates in bow pose whilst my bow remained absolutely and irrevocably still, no matter how hard I tried. The image of an upturned crab flashed through my mind and I felt a wave of giggles threaten to engulf me. I bit my bottom lip in the fear that this wasn’t the time or place for such shenanigans. Just on the cusp of being unable to contain myself any longer, my yoga teacher walked over to me and whispered playfully; ‘why don’t you just let yourself laugh, it is funny, no?!’. It was! To me it was hilarious. Since then, I not only allow myself to laugh as I practice, but positively welcome it. Laughter is such symphonious music to the soul.

What did you enjoy as a child? How do you plan to return to this as an adult? Are you able to bring an element of playfulness into your yoga practice? Please join the conversation and add your comment below.

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