Pace, Breaks and the True Nature of Play

“Instead of trying to empty my mind, as one does in meditation, and letting my thoughts drift by like moving clouds, I followed my thoughts, but in an unhurried and liberated way.”
Alan Lightman

I was delighted to find—among other things at Chartwell, Winston Churchill’s country abode—a swing hanging from an old oak.

I made good use of it.

nature of play
A little afternoon play at Chartwell. Play allows us to relax, excite and touch fleetingly that elusive thing: innocence. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Did he? Perhaps Winny and Clemmie (they called each other thus) ran out between London cables and Prime Minister’s Question Time. Did Churchill conceive his best thoughts when his rump hit the seat? “Push me, Clemmie. I must consider the Empire.”

No, they didn’t. The swings were installed post-Churchill. And I digress.

Back to “convergent thinking,” as physicist and humanist Alan Lightman calls the “logical and orderly step-by-step approach to a problem.”1 It is with convergent thinking that we make lists, order preferences, and run empires. It is with convergent thinking that we, leaden with purpose, get things done.

However, Lightman also makes a grand case for enabling a mind of play, what he labels “divergent thinking.” How? By inserting breaks in periods of convergent thinking.

American existential psychologist Rollo May, a most trusted oracle of the creative process, agrees. May extols the “necessity of alternating work and relaxation, with the insight often coming at the moment of the break between the two, or at least within the break.”2

A break is shrugging off the burden of purpose. (I imagine it resembles playing with pets). Moreover, May recommends we actively initiate this break, and that we withdraw consciously from stimulation. We ignite the unconscious and coax creativity, and collect creative moments of beginning.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1821. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

I grappled with “pace” the day I kept company with a snail. Pace is different from a break. Pace is slowing down. (Or speeding up, but is that an issue these days?) It is also about letting someone—something—else take charge. In my case, a determined little snail who led me around my apartment.

Slowing down to a halt could also be a measure of pace. In fact, travel writer Pico Iyer argues in his contemplative study of being quiet and still that existing in this state of “going Nowhere” is difficult yet critical.

The idea behind Nowhere – choosing to sit still long enough to turn inward – is at the heart a simple one. If your car is broken, you don’t try to find ways to repaint its chassis; most of our problems – and therefore our solutions, our peace of mind – lie within.

A break, unlike Iyer’s ‘going nowehere,’ is the moment of change. Pace is letting someone else take over. But what about play? What is the nature of play?

When inveterate Londoner Peter Mayle moved to Provence, he found that fresh, local markets, wine, warm days, and bright smells invited different values of time and energy.3 His British friends asked whether he grew bored of the less-stimulating life, Mayle answered easily:

We didn’t. We didn’t have time. We found the everyday curiosities of French rural life amusing and interesting.”

To be amused and interested all day sounds like the nature of play to me.

Play is the swing. Freedom, wind at the face. Play is my most orderly mind cascading down a hill on a sled. Fast freefall and caring not. That is the nature of play.

For Lightman, play is exploration. He remembers the early play of childhood:

There were many creations. None of these projects were assigned in school. They were just things I did for fun in the long afternoon after school when I wasn’t wandering about. Many of the mixings and tinkerings didn’t lead to anything. They were merely explorations of the world and the hidden paths in my mind. I was at play.

When British comedian John Cleese recalls his best moments, those moments of “perfect, timeless happiness” they were far from any feelings of work.4 They included things like “sitting in a deckchair in the garden of my house in Holland Park, gazing at two Burmese kittens doing cabaret; looking at Vermeer’s painting of Delft in The Hague and allowing it to affect me […] .”

Cleese notes these moments had nothing to do with work or striving.

John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822. © The Tate Collection.

In play, we don’t strive. We let something else move us, take us… Down a winding path or vertical hill.

Led by his thoughts, Lightman writes, “I followed [them], but in an unhurried and liberated way.”

The details of pace, breaks, and play are different for each of us, but a few qualities abound. For example, how we approach time, control, ownership of thoughts, and even ownership of our lives.

I found these few lines from Thoreau and I think they perfectly capture the necessary qualities of break, rest and play. In 1849 Thoreau and his brother spent a week drifting up the Merrimack River. He wrote:5

There are moments when all anxiety and stated toil are becalmed in the infinite leisure and repose of nature. […] While lying thus on our oars by the side of the stream, in the heat of the day, our boat held by an osier put through the staple in the prow […] .

Striving towards nothing, feeling amused, and being held or steered by something larger than ourselves. A hill, a tree, or our own thoughts.

(I wrote this post while striving towards nothing and following every possible cloud overhead.)