Within the seriousness of meeting what makes us suffer and what generates unhappiness, I believe it is important to not lose sight of how playfulness can be a tender-hearted assistant. It is not making light of the experience or situation, but it can tease apart some aspects of experience that get tightly bound or fused together. Playfulness has a noble function, found in the courts of kings, found among many tribal cultures, to disrupt, deconstruct, and disassemble habitual understanding.
In his beautiful book, Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovich discusses the sacredness of play, the importance of making mistakes and the art of improvisation, imagination and intuition. As a child our life is imbued with imagination. We see faces in the knots of the wood grain, we talk with the fairies who live under the bushes, we race down the hallway to escape the wolves hiding in the shadows. Lila is the Sanskrit term for sacred play across the flow of time, the rippling movement of the divine, creating, destroying, creating again. In Latin ludo is the word for play and is the root of words like illusion, elusive, delusion. The play of light is part of the creating of dreams, mirages, elusive images just slipping from the grasp of our conscious awareness.
The vividness of our personal images
Even as an adult the depth of our experience is at play with our imagination all the time, expressing itself in the vivid imagery of memory and association, colour coding our experiences, playing a magical sleight of hand with reality and the facts. It was Aristotle himself who said that knowledge begins with wonder.
We are continually making meaning of our world. Our lived experience is what leads us toward meaning. Over and over, in particular, pertinent, poetic ways our individual experience helps us understand life. Each of us is a unique vessel for describing and expressing the world. Again and again, certain things stand out for us, entering our awareness with an intensity that others may not even be registering. We continually focus the lens of our personal perception, selecting what we see, hear, scent, taste and sense. And I believe each individual’s perspective is a gift to the whole field.
All the humans at play, in the playground of existence. All the humans, internally self-organising and self-realising organisms, creating their worlds, making sense of their worlds, their multiple realities slipping and sliding, falling and flying, contacting and colliding. A dance. A wild music. A game. All of it spontaneously arising, each one of us finding and discovering, falling down and getting back up, in this teeming flowing river of all of us.
And yet it seems, the art of spontaneity, inherent as it is to our humanity, is in need of re-fostering. Gestalt Psychotherapist Malcolm Parlett highlights that in our current education system and in our dominant paradigm culture, spontaneity no longer comes naturally to us. We over-value the well-considered response, find safety in evidence, and reward left-brained analysis. And so now, bizarrely, we require spontaneity training. That seems an oxymoron. But spontaneity is a practiced skill. We need to listen to our embodied responses, recognise if they feel congruent, authentic and true. And offer them to contact without rehearsal.
People often think all this madcap spontaneity belongs to the extroverted theatrical people. But conversations are improvisational adventures in spontaneity as both Nachmanovich and Parlett assert. From moment to moment, we move into uncertainty, not knowing what the other will say and needing to be adaptable enough to respond to whatever emerges. We can’t prepare, we just have to turn up, sentence after sentence. What a great training!
In his book Future Sense Parlett talks about how humans are energised by creative experimentation but also how we are very much creatures of habit. “In our adult lives we conform so deeply and perform so uniformly”, as John Cremer says. There is always a tension between novel development and the familiar ground of safety. The part of us that wants to try something new has to accept risk. The part of us that is up for new experiences needs to honour that navigating the unknown requires the expertise learned from everything we did before.
Experimenting is a universal feature of existence, Parlett says. In the progress of evolution, it has been the capacity to adapt, collaborate, and find creative solutions that allows our species to survive. A continual feedback process of innovation and changing course. We often find if we go back to something that we rejected before and try it on for size once again, this time it works. The field conditions have changed.
Experimenting in Therapy
Within therapeutic work the invitation to experiment is a subtle pivotal moment. It takes some persuading, because most humans can get caught in the dominance of thinking. We are reluctant to let go the vigilance of our cognition and our belief that thinking-our-way-out is the best form of escape. Ruminating often keeps us in the labyrinthine prison however, caught in the dead ends of the maze and turning back to think the same old thing again. We need to pry ourselves away from how our brain thinks it has all the answers.
Energy needs expression, contact needs a response, sensation motivates us into desire, awareness mobilises us into action. The field itself is in search of good form, grace, aesthetic and integration. Within the therapeutic hour, we collaborate to find a safe way to experiment, to edge into risk, to explore seeming contradictions and impossibilities. Often in simple ways, the repetition of a phrase, literally standing up to something, asking to be seen in a moment of openness. A cellular reorganisation can happen. Right in the here and now. I am so grateful to all my students and clients who have leapt in, felt the fear and done it anyway. I am so often moved by their bravery and what we find out.
Getting it wrong
You can’t get this wrong. In my trainings as a warm up I often invite participants to point at things and call them the wrong names. It is amazing how liberating that is. Peter Trotman suggests using the phrase “Bucket” as a catch-all expression to capture the moment when the stuff-up feels irretrievable. That is so liberating as well. Bucket it all. Bucket it often.
Giving it a Go
Sometimes we need to lighten up, loosen up, laugh and follow where that leads us. We might get lost but we have to keep the faith about how good we are at returning to normal. Right side up. Head on top. Bum in the seat. You will make it back. In the shake up, some new awareness may have dawned that helps everything else fall in place. Come to therapy and give it a go.
Stephen Nachmanovitch http://www.freeplay.com/
Witness the genius of Peter Trotman playing with experiment here: https://vimeo.com/374375422
Malcolm Parlett has contributed many articles to edited collections on Gestalt Psychotherapy and has influenced the contemporary revision of field theory in our practice. Here is a snippet where he discusses unfinished business and the need for work on yourself https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlWvB7z6KqI&ab_channel=BeingHumanPodcast
Information on Aristotle from Sylvia Crocker’s article in the British Gestalt Journal 2009, V,18.1. and are further explored in her book A Well Lived Life.