Sacred Play

A boy frolicking in the ocean surf (see below* for more information about this photo)

Each time I sit down to write for this blog, something inside me becomes very intent and serious – earnestly feeling around for what wants to be said, searching for words to capture it, imagining how those words will be experienced by you, writing, rewriting, and rewriting. For this part of me, soul is a serious, urgent matter, and I feel a need to communicate everything I can about it. To give it form. To ignite something inside you. And yet, once I have posted my latest thoughts, I often feel to some degree that, once again, the essence of this soul thing has partially eluded my efforts to express it and share it.

Logic says, yes, of course, that is to be expected. After all, we aren’t talking about some observable, known quantity here, some scientific experiment. But the frustration isn’t soothed by such dry, reasonable arguments – knowing you have undertaken something that is going to be elusive doesn’t make it easier when it does, really and truly, prove to be elusive. Knowing it is going to be challenging to channel your aliveness doesn’t soothe the anguish when your efforts at expression feel less than the vibrant swirling that is inside you.

So what do I do with that? What do YOU do with that? Beat yourself up? Give up? Pretend you don’t care? Buckle down and try even harder because, darn it, I’ll nail it this time? I know I am guilty of all these responses at different times. I bet you are too.

Instead, why not give ourselves permission to play?

What do I mean by play? I mean allowing room to be spontaneous and experiment with your usual way of being and doing – fuzzier edges, more flexibility. Letting go of what’s “right” or “good” and simply finding inspiration in your efforts. Remembering (and this can be really hard for many people) to be compassionate toward yourself and the new life that is emerging in what you are trying to do or say or create.

This changes your efforts from high-pressure, all-or-nothing struggles to more playful, successive approximations where each attempt is some thing. Not THE thing, captured wholly and exactly, once and for all. But SOME thing. A portion that strives for your truth, even if it’s a little awkward or fumbling or sits a bit crooked.

Watch children play sometime. Yes, they are playing in the usually understood meaning of the term – frolicking, pretending, laughing. But their play also has a serious tone to it – they are intent in their activity. Ask them what they are doing, and they will explain it in a very earnest way. At the same time, there is also plenty of room for a cardboard box to become a house, or for the rules to change in the middle of a game, or for chaotic blue and green crayon scribblings to be sky and trees and grass.

So expressing what is alive inside you is most certainly a serious matter, but it is serious in the same way that children at play are serious. You are expressing your essence, giving form to your soul’s strivings, but at the same time, you can express it in many different ways and there aren’t nearly as many rules as you think. In fact, rules tend to suffocate it. I think of it like tossing a frisbee with someone. Some tosses might be good, others not so much – one toss might go that way, the next one another way, another one might roll off into the bushes. If you try too hard to get it right, your throwing becomes awkward. If you give up because you feel like you’re never throwing it right, well, that obviously doesn’t lead anywhere. But if you can enjoy the experience of tossing the frisbee because it just feels good to do it – to feel your body moving when you run to catch it and to laugh when the frisbee flies off in a crazy direction and to feel the sun shining on you – then the game of tossing it, instead of, say, sitting inside in front of the television, is what matters.

In the field of psychology, D.W. Winnicott, a psychoanalyst and British pediatrician, did extensive and very touching work with children, and he showed play to be not just an amusing pastime, but an activity that is crucial to healthy development of the self for both children AND adults. “It is in playing, and only in playing, that the individual child or adult is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self” (from Playing and Reality, p. 54).

Or to put it in the less formal but also wise words of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of my favorite bands:

Give yourself a chance
To find a way.
The holiness of play
Is here to stay.

(from “Dance, Dance, Dance”)

I am moved by their use of the word, “holiness.” Play is, indeed, sacred – have you ever thought about it that way? It is sacred because it softens the rules and, thus, creates room for something new. We all need it whether we’re 8 or 80. And if you think you are playing because you habitually shun structure, it might be that, for you, play means toying with adding some structure. Play is simply doing things differently, making a point to break out of the old habits, and then noticing what happens and how you feel. No judgments.

So I end this post by saying with full sincerity (and a giggle) to you and to me…

Run along and play now.

© Amanda Norcross and Learning to Listen to Soul, 2011.

*This photo is provided with credit to chrisroll whose portfolio is at

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