Activity by children that is guided more by imagination than by fixed rules

One thing that guides us all in our adult life is the need to be serious. In our work, our family life, our duties to the country, and to god. Life is one long need to be serious. Now, we have covered fun in another topic, and this isn’t about just having fun. This is a way of approaching life, a way of working, a way of letting go of the internal and external controls.

The question is, will society let you play when all it wants is for you to conform?

From the beginning of their lives, children are encouraged to play. Whatever they do, from “drawing” with crayons, to splashing about in the water, or just running round in circles, they are encouraged to do, without judgement, without a goal. The activity doesn’t have a goal, there are no winners, no losers, and no constraints or rules. It just is.

How far we are from that love of play as we reach puberty. As soon as we hit twelve or thirteen, there is a new word enforced on us. Expectation (belief about (or mental picture of) the future). Adults and teachers suddenly want us to be something in the world. Every activity must have a purpose. If we go running it should be in a race, and we should race to win. If we study Mathematics, it should be to pass our exams with an A. If we paint, it should be a picture of great beauty. If we play an instrument, we should play it so well we join the school orchestra.
It is not enough to simply do something just as method of expression. From those days on, our inner lives are controlled. Nothing without purpose. Nothing without purpose. Everything must mean something. Every activity MUST be perfect. We must control ourselves.

All this does is lead to pent up frustration, so let’s try to break down these constraints we place on ourselves. Let’s try to do what is not expected of us, something people would be shocked to see us do, and

I’m not talking about running around naked in the street. Although you could if you wanted to!

We have spent many thousands of years trying to become “civilised” (marked by refinement in taste and manners, or having a high state of culture and development both social and technological). We have quelled the brute inside, we are homo sapiens, the most intelligent species on the planet.

People look down on humans who are not polished; who say the wrong thing; who do not conform to the idea of the civilised society. But civilisation, as I see it, is a facade. It belies the true nature of the human, the true self that is lurking underneath all that refinement. Not that we are crazed animals underneath, just that the true “us” is different from the person we project, the person others expect us to be.

Think about this carefully for a moment, and think back to your childhood (the state of a child between infancy and adolescence) if you can. What were people expectations of you back then?

Could you do as you please, or were you controlled? Was the most important part of your life play, or was it study? Now think about adolescence. Did your parents’ attitude to you change? Did they suddenly start to shout and tell you to do your homework and stop thinking about play?

There is an important point to make here and we must try to distinguish real play from just messing about; you see, in my mind, real play is constructive. Real play isn’t sitting in the park drinking beer with your friends instead of doing homework, or hanging around a fast food establishment with your peers, trying to look cool; nor is it going out on your mountain bike in the country. Real play is in your mind.

Real play is the way you approach any situation, whether it be work, exercise, or study. Real play is something you find deep inside, not in a sandpit or on an easel drawing.

Of course, your teachers, parents, and employers don’t want you to think like that, they need to control your mind! They want you to think a certain way, conform in thought, act a certain way – conform in action. If you didn’t, how would they ever get you to perform any tasks they wanted you to do? Admittedly, if you want to be a brain surgeon you will have to learn brain surgery, or if you want to be an engineer you will have to learn engineering.

But I am not talking about specific skills here, as some are necessary for us to know. This is about using your imagination. Just letting your imagination take you on a journey into a game; a game where there are no rules, no competitors, no winners or losers. A game of play you are not even in control of. A game you just let happen.

Just in case you think I’m crazy, think how advertising agencies come up with some of their best campaigns, or the most inventive films or books are written? It certainly isn’t through self-control and being civilised! It’s through letting the mind go on its own path, if only for a short time.

If you are like me mid thirties or older, and have spent the best part of your adult life working in a controlled environment, or lead a controlled, but civilised life, this next section is for you.

It is only until recently I discovered what a powerful tool play is. It helped me to understand myself more. It helped me realise I was putting a front on everything I was and did. I did and said things I believed people wanted to hear, or because they would be impressed by the knowledge I had. This facade was the two dimensional being that most of us are brought up to become, but that is not who we are.

Sing, sing, sing!

Imagine for a moment sitting and just singing out loud. Right now. How would you feel? Go on try it. I’m not talking about singing a known song, or even something you have made up; unfortunately that requires interaction from the brain, which requires language and thought which interfere with play. No I mean, just making noise from your throat, expressing yourself from deep, deep inside. Go on, try it now. No one’s watching you, no one’s listening. Be as loud as you like. Get the sounds from places you didn’t know existed. Break down the barriers of civilisation! Scream if you like!

Except, sorry, I forgot to tell you, you’re on a packed commuter train.

What would people do? How would they react to you? Would they think you were mad? Probably. Would they look at you strangely?

Probably. What would they be thinking? “Don’t look over at him, he’s a crazy man, just ignore him,” and you would probably be thinking the same. You see, it doesn’t feel comfortable doing something with no control and no order does it?

As humans, we must feel that what we are doing fits in with everything we have been taught. A painter has been taught how to paint, and a musician has been taught how to play his instrument. For them to use their inner play instinct and just make noise or just express whatever comes out of their head onto the canvas wouldn’t seem right would it? Except that would discount some of the greatest art of the last century and would certainly have put the brakes on jazz ever being invented.
The greatest intelligence comes out of play. Play makes connections in the brain that we couldn’t ever make if we followed the rules. For some things you need rules, but play changes the game.

Do this play exercise with me right now. Grab a piece of paper and a couple of pens. We are going to play. Are you having fun yet? I am!

Take a pen in your hand and stare at the paper. Do you notice what is happening in your brain? The same thing happened in mine for the first few times. That is the barrier between the pen and your brain coming in. It is your resistance to just let the pen flow onto the paper.

You may be thinking “What will I draw? Should I draw a tree? Should I draw a line?” or even, “ I can’t draw.” That is always the one I used. So the only way to break this control barrier is to lift the pen right now and touch it on the paper. Do not let it leave the paper until you have finished playing. What did yours look like? Mine was some kind of square with some wiggly circles in the middle and some other stuff!

Did you notice the whole time you were doing the exercise that your brain was trying to interfere by offering you suggestions as to how to control the pen? Was it making judgements about the quality of your drawing, maybe suggesting things like “it isn’t good,” or “this is a stupid game, I’ve had enough, I’m going to put this stupid book down. He’s gone to far this time, this is rubbish!” I wouldn’t be surprised.

Remember: Thought interferes with play

Make a direct connection between the mind and the pen

Let’s have one more play exercise. This one requires no skill at all, like the other exercises we have just done. Wherever you are at the moment find something to bang. You know, like a drum! But not like playing the drums, you see playing drums requires control. It requires learning and requires a certain skill. I want you to bang a table or any surface you can – loud as you like.

But when you start to bang, notice how your brain is trying to control the rhythm. It will not let you just make noise, the beats must be evenly spaced, there must be conformity; is that happening to you? Let the sounds come, do not control them.

When you have had enough, reflect on the interference that happened between your hand and mind. The intention may have been to bang in a random way, but something was holding you back, wasn’t it. What do you think that something was?

Play in the mind is as close to being mad, or being under five as you will get, or so civilisation would have you believe. Screaming or making sounds that aren’t “tuneful,” drawing patterns which don’t “mean” anything, banging which does not have a beat or a “rhythm,” this is what thousands of years of civilisation has tried to control. They would have you believe that after childhood you must learn and conform to what are recognised acceptable patterns of behaviour. That involves singing in a controlled fashion, drawing in a controlled fashion, and playing drums in a controlled fashion.

There is nothing wrong with hearing music that is pleasing to the brain, or looking at art that is pleasing to the eye. But there is also nothing wrong with making discordant sounds, and drawing patterns that don’t mean anything. Once the judge and the censor have been removed, these things “just are.” The more you invent and do play exercises, the more you will start to relax. The more you will start to enjoy the experience, and what an experience it is! It is direct, with no interference from “civilisation.” As with all skills, this one requires great mastery and you must spend at least two hours a day doing it.

Sorry, that’s a joke. Play can never be a skill, or it would be called a skill! And how can you master something when the intention is not to master it. Play brings a little bit of joy to everything you do. Ultimately it is not about drawing, singing or banging, but about taking the feeling of play with you in your mind, and applying it to everything you do in life. Mad? Uncivilised? Childish? Good!

by alan macmillan orr

‘the natural mind – waking up’



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