Adult Play: Needed on Our Journey Towards Wholeness
Adult play is seriously misunderstood, and very under-rated. In our culture, we adults are not very good at playing. Yet, we need to play, in order to grow.
When I use the phrase “adult play”, what comes into your mind? Perhaps it’s thoughts of video games or the casino, or even a sport like tennis or golf. Yet, while those activities would definitely fit the definition of “leisure activities”, I mean something different when I refer to “adult play”. The type of play I’m referring to accesses a different part of the self.
C.G. Jung offers us insight into the nature of this type of play:
The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable. It is therefore short-sighted to treat fantasy, on account of its risky or unacceptable nature, as a thing of little worth.
Jung uses the terms “fantasy” and “play of imagination” in this quote, and seems to value these things very highly. Why is that? How can something that can seem so trivial be of such value?
Adult Play is Fundamentally Creative
For Jung, the key lies in the creative nature of play. Jung tells us that we can see this in the kind of play in which children engage. If you have the opportunity to really observe a child who is deeply engaged in play, what you see is very striking. One key characteristic is that the child is completely absorbed in their play in a way that is completely lacks self-consciousness. By this, I mean that the child is entirely absorbed in his or her pretend worl. They are not embarrassed by it and they do not “feel silly” At the moment of play, the child is completely given over to his or her fantasy, paddling a canoe up the great river to reach the city of the elephants, and there is no self-criticism. Children enter right into their imagination!
Jung stresses that entering into this creative play state actually has immense benefit for adults. Yet it sometimes can be difficult for us to get there. As Notre Dame psychology prof Darcea Narvaez points out,
Play breaks down when people become self-conscious about making mistakes, start to compete or compare, become hostile, seek power, or start justifying actions.
Yet, if we can get past our strict and stiff inner critic, and past our anxiety about what others will think, entering deeply into experiences of play can open us up to the vast array of creative resources in the unconscious mind. As Jung relates in Memories, Dreams, Reflections , this is something he himself found vital to do in the crucial period after he broke with Freud, when he was experiencing a sense of complete lost-ness and disorientation in his life.
When We Deny Our Need for Imaginative Play
It’s very easy for us to reject play. After all, we’re competent twenty-first century people, aware of all of our responsibilities, the realities of the business world, the financial and technological realms, etc. etc. It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re much too busy or too adult to spend time with our imaginations. Yet, Jung emphasizes how important it is not to treat our fantasy as something of little worth.
If we lose our capacity for fantasy, we are also losing our capacity for spontaneity, and, what is more, losing our connection to possibility, to the awareness that things could somehow be different than they way they are. We also lose vital contact with parts of ourselves that may be striving to come into consciousness. This capacity to open up a new and fresh perspectives on things is essential to our mental health and to the on-going growth in our journey through life that Jung and others call the individuation process.
If we deny our need for imaginative play, we risk cutting ourselves off from the flowing current of our own real lives. This is always a matter of great concern, but it is especially so when we are undergoing a major life transition.
Play That Opens Doors
Adult play opens doors in our lives. Sometimes that play is something that we share with others, as in psychodrama, authentic movement or improv. Often it can be a process that we do on our own, as we create space for the various parts in ourselves to speak to us. This happens in what Jungians call active imagination, or in a wide variety of forms of creative expression. Contrary to that kind of play being a form of irresponsible self-indulgence, we need this kind of activity to open up our awareness of the undiscovered self.
Connecting with the creative fantasy or adult play part of ourselves is a very important part of Jungian /a-midlife-transition. Working in a supportive relationship with a Jungian analyst, can be one of the best ways of creating a capacity for valuable and constructive adult play.
Wishing you every good thing on your journey to wholeness,
© 2022 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)