Deep Play

I heard on a radio program that some study on learning found that, not surprisingly, the deepest learning/teaching method is play. That is, when we learn something that we find engaging and fun to do and we forget that we are learning, it is more deeply learned and remembered.

A term that is sometimes associated with this is "deep play" and we have to do it it  to survive and grow intellectually and spiritually.

Children are best at deep play. Watch children playing on the beach or in a sandbox at building something. We seem to lose some of our ability for this kind of play as we get older.

This is a state of play when an activity almost puts us into an altered state of consciousness. All our senses are engaged. Time stops.

Of course, teens and adults do it too. "Play" is a loaded word because we often see it as almost the opposite of learning: "Stop playing around and get serious." We get lost in a book or working in the garden or in playing a sport or video game.

I was making a rock path in my garden last weekend and totally lost track of time, only realizing that about six hours had passed because my wife called me to eat dinner. I wasn't "working in the garden." I was playing. I'm sure I was learning too, although I never gave a thought to that and didn't sit down later to determine what I might have learned from the path project.

Sports are not a significant part of my daily life these days, but athletes often experience the "in the zone" experience of deep play. The more "playful" acts of swimming, hiking, scuba diving and other sports must contain at least some times of deep play.

My wife says it happens to her when she is cooking. I find it when I write poems and I fall into a deeper state where I feel more balanced, creative and focused.

I had found the book Deep Play  at the library and was attracted by that title. It is by Diane Ackerman (see this short post) and she focuses more on how adults engage (sometimes to the point of rapture and ecstasy) in deep play. Ackerman uses the term "deep play" while others use the terms "flow" or "the zone." I discovered that anthropologists call this "sacred play."

Sacred may seem a strong word to use, but when the intensity of concentration is that high it may border on ecstasy, another word that has not only sensual but also religious connotations.

When I was a teenager, I went surfing. I wasn't very good at it - too much fear, I think. But when I did it, I was completely involved in it. I lost track of everything else that was not about staying on that board and staying alive. When I had that rare perfect ride, there was definitely ecstasy.

When I was older, I sometimes found that again when skiing, especially on the rare occasions when I was alone on a mountain.

One of the attractions of play is that it requires freedom. It is your choice to play. Even though much organized play has rules and competition, it is outside our ordinary day.

The competition may not be another person. You might compete against a mountain in climbing, or yourself in running or walking. I can imagine that the isolated freedom of scuba diving, parachuting and hang gliding must contain this deep play.

To move play into the sacred, as in "rapture," means, literally, being “seized by force.”  That seem almost frightening - like that fear I felt surfing a wave. Consider the words that have the same root: rapacious, rabid, ravenous, ravage, rape. Even raptors, those birds of prey, have something of that in their plunge from the skies. Ackerman says that "rapture is vertical, ecstasy horizontal. Rapture is high-flying, ecstasy occurs on the ground."

Have you heard of the phrase "oceanic feeling?" I was attracted to that "ocean" aspect initially, but it is really about a sensation, an energy, a bond with the external world that is described in religions but is not an article of faith. We hear the word "spiritual" used a lot today rather than "religious" by those who feel these sensations and bonds but don't attach them to any formal religion. Some proponents of this say that you can "justifiably call oneself religious on the basis of this oceanic feeling alone, regardless if the adherent renounces every belief and every illusion."

Freud popularized this phrase in his writing but could not sympathize with such feeling. It was something he could not find in himself.

The alternate reality and timeless quality of deep play is so attractive. Past and future vanish briefly, along with needs, expectations and worries, even though in many ways your awareness is heightened. This is not some dreamy, drug-induced alternative.

Ackerman explores the types of experiences that offer entry into this space. You can be taught some of these practices (meditation, yoga etc.) that heighten the unconscious conscious.

There is a Zen-like nature to the challenging idea of being able to to bring yourself into deep play so that you are conscious to the point that it becomes unconscious.

I wonder what you do that completely envelops you trance-like in the moment. Care to share in a comment here?

Diane Ackerman

I discovered Diane Ackerman via four of her many (24?) books: The Zookeeper's WifeA Natural History of the Senses, and the Pulitzer Prize finalist, One Hundred Names for Love were my first reads.

In A Natural History of the Senses, she explores the five senses, but the essays get into topics such as synesthesia, food taboos, kissing and how music affects us. It's science, but it's a lot more about awareness.

Recently I read her Deep Play and wrote about the ideas contained in that book.

Her most recent book (which I have not read) is The Human Age: the World Shaped by Us, which looks at how and why the human race is now the single dominant force of change on the planet - which is not always a good thing.

Find her at: - on Twitter at @dianesackerman and on

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)

In 1966 the rock group The Doors recorded "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)" which I always thought was an oddity for the band. (Keyboardist Ray Manzarek plays the marxophone along with the organ and keyboard bass on it.) If I had read the credits closer, I would have discovered that the "Alabama Song" (also known as "Moon of Alabama", "Moon over Alabama", and "Whisky Bar") is an English song written for Bertolt Brecht by his close collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann in 1925 and set to music by Kurt Weill for the 1927 play Little Mahagonny. If is one of two songs in the play that were English-language parodies written for the play.

The Doors changed the melody and some lyrics such as the verse beginning "Show me the way to the next little dollar..." is omitted. Jim Morrison altered the second verse from "Show us the way to the next pretty boy" to "Show me the way to the next little girl." (Though on the 1967 Live at the Matrix recording, he sings the original "... next pretty boy.")

David Bowie, a Brecht fan, seemed a better fit for the song which he incorporated into his 1978 World Tour and it was issued as a single which reached #23 in the UK. Bowie used the "little boy" line like Morrison, but used Weill's original melody.