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Deep Play in the Labyrinth

natschall's picture

The summer before my junior year of high school, I went to a weeklong nationwide conference for United Methodist youth groups. There is one thing from that week that stands out in my memory over all else. The second day of the conference, there was a workshop called “Walking the Labyrinth”. I thought this sounded pretty cool, so I got a couple friends together and we went to check it out. It gave the lowdown on what labyrinths were made for, what they were meant to do, and what we should try to focus on while walking through it (which was basically anything that was troubling us). At the time, there was not a whole lot troubling me, so I walked through with nothing specific in mind. But I kept getting worryingly turned around. The point of a labyrinth is that you’re always going a new direction, and not necessarily one that seems to lead to the center. But because of all the other people also walking it, right next to me, I would see them on their own path and think I was walking the wrong way or had somehow stepped off my own path and onto another, and that I wasn’t going to end up going to the middle at all. What if I never reached the center?! I was getting more and more upset until I realized that I had, indeed, been walking on the right path all along and I stepped into the center. I sat down for a while, as we were told to do, to reflect on my experience. I closed my eyes and thought. When I reopened them, I was surrounded by an entirely new group of people. I had been sitting there for way longer than I thought I had. But I also had a new perspective on what had happened to me. I wasn’t actually lost walking the labyrinth, I was on the right path all along. This symbolized, to me, that there would be points in my life where I would feel lost and all alone, like no one else was following the path I was. But God would always be right there, guiding me to make sure I didn’t stray, and I would eventually end up exactly where I wanted to go.

What exactly was it that I experienced in the labyrinth? Well, Diane Ackerman, in her essay “Deep Play”, defines a concept she calls “deep play”. Her definition has it as a many-faceted, varied thing. For the purposes of my analysis, I’ll be focusing on the aspect that stands out to me as something that I have personal experience with. Ackerman says that deep play is an ecstatic form of play; that it involves the sacred and holy; it helps to “lay aside our sense of self”, or an invincible, immortal, and ideal version of ourselves; and that “one most often finds clarity, revelation, acceptance of self, and other life-affirming feelings”.

I know that my experience in the labyrinth may not seem like playing at first sight, but to me, it matches the definition Ackerman gives for deep play almost exactly. She even says, at one point, “Perhaps religion seems an unlikely example of playing, but if you look at religious rites and festivals, you’ll see all the play elements, and also how deep that play can become… There is a way of beholding that is a form of playing.” The unconcern for anything else around me when I connected to God in the middle of the labyrinth gave me a playful feeling--I wasn’t dwelling or worrying, I had the freedom to do what I felt in the moment. I lost track of time in the center of the labyrinth, but I didn’t care. It seemed perfectly normal for me not to know what time it was, and not be thinking about things like how long I had until my next activity. Reflecting on it, I know that moment, when I was sitting without thinking of time, was when I truly shifted into deep play. “That shudder out of time is how deep play always begins” (Ackerman).

If we don’t focus on the religious aspect of deep play (which does not have to occur), we can find a definition that encompasses both my best deep play experience and what others may experience. The most important thing to deep play is the shift out of time that should occur. I believe that this is the most unifying theme for deep play. The other things, like sacredness or ecstasy, do not necessarily always happen, but the shift out of time must happen for the play to be “deep enough”.

The question comes up about whether or not deep play can happen in critical writing. If we use my new definition for deep play, the answer is that it most definitely can happen. The moment of deep play would be when the writer finally lets go of whatever is holding her back and writes without thinking or worrying about things like grammar or what others would think. The end result is something that is usually deeper and more thoughtful than critical writing that was not done in deep play. Perhaps great revelations are reached. The writer will feel attached to her work, and like she has actually done something worth bragging about. The reader will feel almost the same way, from the other side. In the best case scenario, the writing will speak to the reader, who will feel like she knows exactly what the writer was thinking because it is so clearly expressed. If deep play writing could always be utilised, I at least would feel much more connected to what I was doing for my education. I would know exactly what I was doing and why I was doing it.

For example, if I had written my Eastern State Penitentiary essay using deep play, it would have delved much more deeply into the Quaker Reformers and how they expected the prison to work. I would have been more able to analyze their thought process when building the prison and how they must have felt when they realized how wrong it turned out. Basically, I could have let go of my controlling thoughts enough to focus on what interested me without worrying about how the final product would turn out and whether or not it was correct to write about it.

Deep play drags you out of the ditch you’re stuck in and helps you find yourself, without worrying about others.