finding joy through losing yourself in deep play

 

Eleanor and the Rabbit. 2018. Mixed media and digital collage. 

One of my favorite ways to spend my time is doing things that cause me to lose myself and find myself at the same time.

Yesterday, this was me: sitting on the couch for four hours straight, working on a new painting for my fairytale series. When it was time for me to leave the house and make my way to my office for the afternoon, it felt a little like I was emerging from hibernation. The entire morning had flown by without me realizing it. So immersed in solving the creative problems I’d set for myself, I was entirely unaware of the passage of time. I’d forgotten to eat anything and my coffee was sitting by my side, completely untouched.

There’s a great book on this topic by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He named this phenomenon, and the book, “flow.” He, and other researchers in the field of positive psychology, have found that the more time people spend in the state of flow— doing something so engaging that we are fully immersed in the present moment and we lose track of time— the more enjoyment we experience in our lives. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprising for anyone who spends time on creative activities, Csikszentmihalyi first observed this state of flow by studying artists. 

Right now, as I prepare to start creating my first online class, I am in the midst of honing my philosophy of healing through experiences of deep play and creativity. Accessing the state of flow regularly seems essential to this philosophy.

Thinking back to the period of my life when I was going through a divorce, I spent uncountable hours writing and journaling, embroidering, and doing collage.

I sat at the coffee shop for hundreds of hours over the course of several weeks, embroidering the words of The Journey of the Magi, my favorite poem by T.S. Eliot, onto a piece of muslin cloth. I collaged my ancient refrigerator with vintage magazine ads. I collaged the inside of my (also ancient) car. And in the process of losing myself in these meditatively “mindless” activities, I healed. 

 
 T.S. Eliot embroidery as art therapy
 

I no longer have the refrigerator or the car and I gifted the embroidered T.S. Eliot poem to my sister. This lack of object permanence feels just right to me, because the meaning of these activities was in the process of creation, rather than in the end result.  

Thinking about process vs. product makes me think about the difference between joy and happiness.

Happiness is an emotion. And, like all emotions, by nature, it’s fleeting. The more we are in the present moment, the more fully we can experience happiness when it occurs. And then the moment passes. The feeling isn’t something we can hold onto indefinitely. 

I think of joy differently; to me, it’s not so much an emotion as a state of being that comes about through a mixture of present-moment awareness and feeling a deep sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. When we clarify our values in life and we engage in activities that mirror those values, our lives contain a wellspring of joy, one that we can return to again and again. It doesn’t mean that our lives are continually joyful.

In fact, when I think of the things in my life that provide the most joy, they are also the things in my life that provide the most challenge. Raising children is the first thing that comes to mind. And interestingly, parenting provides an example of the distinctions between happiness and joy. Because when researchers study happiness, what they find is that parents are less happy than non-parents. 

When I first learned this, it was surprising and honestly a little disturbing. Being a mother is at the top of my list of what has made my life worthwhile. But, when I read about how the researching went about studying happiness, this finding made sense to me. Researchers provided study participants with beepers that went off at random points throughout the day and participants were asked to rate their in-that-moment level of happiness on a 0-10 scale. I’m imagining that if you’d checked in with me in a moment of trying to wrangle three little ones into their snowsuits and boots while running late for school, my happiness level in that moment would have been pretty close to zero. But, cuddling in bed at night reading The Hobbit to boys fresh from their baths? Can we agree that a 0-10 happiness scale simply isn’t equipped to measure that kind of experience?

I love Shakti Gawain’s book Creative Visualization.  My favorite affirmation from her book is “my work is the highest form of play.” I thought about this affirmation a lot when I was starting my practice as a holistic psychotherapist. Before starting my own business, my work experiences ranged from “counting the seconds until I can get out of this place” to “am I really going to spend the rest of my life doing this?” The idea of work as play (much less the highest form of play) was at first like seeing the world upside-down— it made no sense to my brain. 

I’ve been running my business now for six years and I think I have come to understand this idea of the highest form of play as an experience of flow. So my work is most definitely not a game of Cards Against Humanity. It’s deep work that I do with people and it takes immense amounts of focus, mindfulness, intention and attention, and emotional attunement. It takes a heart connected to Love. And when I gather my things to go home at the end of the day, I am both tired and deeply satisfied. 

Art-making and writing are like that too. 

I’ve discovered through my own experiences and through working with hundreds of people that as much as our hearts are longing for experiences of deep play, for meaning and challenge and joy, fear is usually there in equal measure to our desire. And as we gather our courage and move along our path in life, following our dreams and desires, what once scared us no longer does and in its place comes larger desires and their accompanying (and larger) fears. In fact, I’ve come to see fear as a flag waving us over to say, “look here… here is something important for you to pay attention to.”  In this way, fear can become something to befriend, rather than to master. It can become something to intentionally invite to come along our journeys with us, like a friend of sorts (though one who gives terrible advice and always worries about the most absurd things and just won’t stop following us around.)  

 living a creative life.

If you are interested in being notified once my online class is open for registration, you can sign up here.

And, as always, much love to you.

xo,

Angela

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