Thursday, January 5, 2012

Divine Play

Carl Jung mandala

One does not become enlightened
by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious.

On New Year's Day our friend George of Transit Notes posted “Measures of Happiness” in which he brightly contemplates happiness, defined as “a wet dog, bathed in the golden light of a late December sun, breaking through the surf and calling upon me to forget myself and return to the world of divine play. . . .” (my bold) The post is full of poetic delight, as lively as waves crashing and spraying on a sunny beach. I hope that you, too, will read it and begin your year with that happiness.

It just so happened that within hours of relishing George's post, I returned to my shelved copy of Memories, Dreams, Reflections, to a chapter called "Confrontation with the Unconscious." I had read the quote at top recently and wanted to go back to Jung's memoir.

Just before WWI, Jung began deep work to make darkness within himself conscious. He had encountered childhood memories, with intense emotion. He realized this meant that the things in his memory were still alive, and that to harvest what was in them, he needed to play. And so he did. As he played each day, as if he were a boy again with building blocks, or constructing walls with stones and mud, memories and feelings surfaced, and he began to develop his personal myth, which had a profound impact on his entire life's work.

The first thing that came to the surface was a childhood memory from perhaps my tenth or eleventh year. At that time I had had a spell of playing passionately with building blocks. I distinctly recalled how I had built little houses and castles, using bottles to form the sides of gates and vaults. Somewhat later I had used ordinary stones, with mud for mortar. These structures had fascinated me for a long time. To my astonishment, this memory was accompanied by a good deal of emotion. “Aha,” I said to myself, “there is still life in these things. The small boy is still around, and possesses a creative life which I lack. But how can I make my way to it?" For as a grown man it seemed impossible to me that I should be able to bridge the distance from the present back to my eleventh year. Yet if I wanted to re-establish contact with that period, I had no choice but to return to it and take up once more that child’s life with his childish games. This moment was a turning point in my fate, but I gave in only after endless resistances and with a sense of resignation. For it was a painfully humiliating experience to realize that there was nothing to be done except play childish games.

Why play our childhood games? Why seek to discover our personal myths?

To find the elements that assist a writer as she writes poems or stories. To inform a painter of what connects him with the world. To enrich every aspect of life, as we meet loved ones and give them our best selves. To find inner strength. To go deeper into what is most alive in us.

"Perhaps creating something is nothing but an act of profound remembrance." (Rilke)

Maybe next snow I'll build a snow house like I did with my brothers when I was five, and discover something sacred worth remembering.

~ Ruth


  1. It's my belief that every human life re-enacts, through the stages of growth, the development of the species over its 3 million-year lifecycle: infancy is for the earliest, dimmest recollections of homo sapiens, while childhood seems to stand in for our long Paleolithic heritage as hunter-gatherers: the spontaneous creativity of childhood replicates the earliest cave-painting and shell-jewelries, aesthetic acts without knowledge of the aesthetics. As such, play is Adam and Eve in the garden before knowledge of the fruit of good and evil, the polymorphous perverse delight in sound and image and free association. Swinburne loved to swim nude and ride naked backwards down banisters, and his meters had that sort of joyful fluidity. Play is to live inside the undifferentiated sacred, no distinction between I and Thou. "I do not seek," Picasso famously said. "I find." We pick up sticks and make villages, we voyage on paper boats to shores beyond the main of puffy clouds passing over on a long summer's day. And when we write, we try to set aside the studied scholar-ego and let the kid out to do his/her dirty work first, joyfully experiencing the One Day. Then we fret and revise and sweat, burdened with all we know, making something out of all that nothing. - Brendan

  2. Oh, I love this. I suspect it's part of why I have moments when I'm playing with my children (something that I often resist doing, and I'm not sure why) when I am overtaken by a feeling of surpassing peace and joy, utterly unrelated to the activity at hand.

  3. Wonderful, Brendan. What an expanse, this life . . . Life, vast and encompassing. We live within the Soul of it, not the other way around. And yet, It is all in here all the same. Your comment about Adam and Eve reminds me of the Nina Simone song "Forbidden Fruit" about Adam and Eve, and by the last verse she sings . . .

    The Lord made Eve Adam's madam have his kids and all
    Placed some labour laws on Adam and he made the snake to fall
    Ever since the days of Eden folks been sinful my
    Nowadays they're even eating apples in their pie

    The creation of apple pie is what humans do when forced to grow up and out of childhood, I guess. It is a poetic response, divine play, in a world of rules and clothes.

  4. So beautiful, Lindsey! What doors and windows are opened by your play? Oh lovely.

  5. A wonderful second building block—and we are at play—for this promising new blog. And there is no better way to begin than with the subject of play and its role in the full blooming of our lives, our consciousness.

    So much of our great wisdom and literature reminds us that there is a circular quality to progress—that we need to return "home," that place we briefly inhabited before falling into the vortex of cultural conditioning. Many are trying to return to the mythical Garden of Eden; Odysseus was trying to get back to Ithaca; and Eliot reminds us at the end of "The Four Quartets" that we shall ulitimately "arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." As we grow older, we also learn, ironically, that the most important element of learning is "unlearning."

    The Rilke quote is absolutely on point! All creativity is "an act of profound remembrance." When I paint, I return to the instinct of exploration and discovery that marked an adventurous childhood. When I take my long-distance walks, I am returning to a world of freedom and innocence that is driven at some level by the memories of childhood. We search and search for complex solutions to our complex problems, but the best solution may be the least obvious—returning to the uninhibited, divine dance of PLAY!

    Thanks for the supportive references to my New Year's day post on "Measures of Happiness." I'm honored to be a part of this play-filled discussion on those matters that reside in our deepest longings.

  6. Thank you, George, for your "circular" response. :-) And thank you for your marvelous work, always, in divine play, especially for that great post that inspired me, and was only the start to at the very least five readings about memory, childhood and play in different books within just a few days. I take from this that PLAY and CHILDHOOD are in the air.

    By the way, I read the opening quote at the very start of the book you recommended: What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America, by Tony Schwartz. I read it Sunday, and closed the book. It was enough for that day; I've read more since and am harvesting much from it. Thank you.

  7. I was assigned Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections as a freshman in college. It remains on my bookshelf, yellowed, slightly creased, but essentially merely skimmed over the ensuing decades. Think it is time to really read that work, for who, at 18, could truly grasp its implications?
    This, too, is a perfect post for a new year. Time to search the mental toy chest for our own building blocks. Thank you.

  8. Jung continues to give me courage to believe in and share my inner being.

  9. Play clearly is something fundamental to our being. Think, for example, of children in such war-ravaged countries as Iraq and Afghanistan; they find their way back to a smile when a soldier engages them in play or to a memory that they can understand only through the dynamics of play. I did a post about a photographer working in the Middle East who photographs children as they use toys and games to recover and heal.

    I hear so many adults say they wish they still had the ability to play as children do. I don't share the opinion that as adults we've lose our sense of play. Something else suppresses it. Sometimes we can get it back only when we give ourselves permission to not fear what play might reveal and instead welcome it as a way to tell our stories.

    I think we always hold onto our sense of play, hold it inside, the way we never forget lyrics to music or how to hold a paint brush in our hand years after we've stopped singing or ceased painting.

  10. i find i can breathe easier after visiting here. thank you.

  11. Replayed the Past and try to understand the Now. This is what this post inspire me. Thank you!

  12. DW Winnicott, a British contemporary of Jung's wrote of play being an expression of ones internal self, working things out from within. The playing space is neither inside nor out but somewhere in between. Jung's recognition that play was the only way he could reach himself was inspirational and very wise. Thankyou for this thought provoking post.

  13. It's funny how unquestioned, conventional concepts get turned on their head the older one gets. We think we're progressing up a life-mountain of knowledge and wisdom. No! The 'progress' is more circular. We think one day in the future we'll become mature, enlightened. No! It's happening in the moment now if we did but realise it. And we think, as 'sensible' adults, that we must put away childish things. No! Play is, as you say, divine, and, as such, not frivolous but profoundly serious (serious in the sense of important, creative, necessary). What struck me most about Jung's piece was the last sentence: 'For it was a painfully humiliating experience to realize that there was nothing to be done except play childish games.' Painfully humiliating. What truth and honesty here. And when we are able to dissolve the humiliation, what a relief.

  14. ruth, i laugh. this is what i wrote as a prompt to this day, the first day i have alone after the holidays, we should all consider ourselves lunatics. it is based deeply in the notion of play, of not minding judgement, of being the eternal and unfettered self. this is my exercise in life. this is my path to me and my path to me is the same (and only) path outward to the world.

    indeed, why is it everywhere we look we see the road to childhood? because we are too bound by the formulas we heap upon ourselves as we age. the formulas are steeped in fear. we must return to a time before we have created the formulas of fear, which are lies. only there can we recognize the real potential in life which is to relish this experience of body and spirit. how else do we manage to do this but through play? let us play at our lives. this is the only serious work that will take us anywhere real. let us not mind being lunatics.

    what a beautiful post, ripe with a gift to our own potentials.


  15. As a silent listener who has been deeply moved by the wisdom found here .... thank you for another year of connection.

  16. What is play? What is fun? What is love? What is a child? How to be childlike? Ack! And yet I know it true...this insistence within us that there is more than just responsibility. That going through the motions is an adult notion with no logic. Rilke (whoever the heck that is) is right. Profound remembrance, and it will keep insisting what it knows until acknowledged. "Ain't no gettin' around it Shelby!"

  17. We don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.
    — George Bernard Shaw

  18. I remember one of my high school teachers saying, "adults are only part time."


Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.”