Woman with sunglasses looking out to sea

The playful spirit

In Insight and Experience by Galina PembrokeLeave a Comment

On the road to enlightenment, don’t forget to laugh and play.


There’s a famous ethical question reserved for struggling philosophy students: What would you do if you had a ring that made you invisible? Though the answer to this question depends on who your classmates are, there’s one similarity: Lack of self-consciousness. Witchcraft aside, none of us will possess a magic ring. Yet in a blink of an eye we can have the freedom this allows. All we have to do reconnect with our animal self.

It’s been called the “id” by Freud, and hedonism by zealots. In truth, the animal self is the part of us that reacts naturally. Labeling this limits our experience of it. Still, we could describe this very free, intrinsically joyful aspect of being as ‘animal’ – this encapsulates it. The living world seeks out pleasure and avoids pain, without fear of appearing lazy, foolish or greedy. The irony is that for many animals this creates productivity, dignity and unselfishness. By looking at their actions from a spiritual rather than biological viewpoint, we have a tool to unhinge ourselves from our hang-ups.

You otter play

Almost all animals play and act silly when young. Otters continue this into old age, making them fun furry dudes to be around. They romp, wrestle, snow slide, chase each other and play catch-and-release with their dinner. Most of us, myself included, are not nearly so free-spirited. For example, I haven’t tobogganed since I was eleven and my romping is confined to running to return overdue library books. I could learn a lot from otters. Most importantly: Play is good.

Yes, play is good. We forget this in our rush to achieve and amass. In the otter’s game of dinner lost-and-found, he shows us that losing can be just as much fun as winning. This is contrary to ego but so is spirit. In the otter’s dinner-game, he loses lunch but finds freedom: He doesn’t need to eat if he doesn’t want to. Spiritual aspirants who fast for greater consciousness believe the same but have a lot less fun in the process. The otter has a better idea. He relinquishes without regret or strain.

Dances with spirit

Play is one of the few ways we can lose ourselves without trying. Caught in the moment we may realise a meditative-type bliss. Dance can feel like play but for some it is meditation. The spontaneous spasms that characterise ecstatic dance allow us to express spirit with the body. When else can we do this? Compared to ecstatic dance our movements are rigid as a robot’s arm. When we are brave enough to dance ourselves into freedom it’s usually in a class full of similar souls or alone to a video. When did we become so reserved? Play and dance help us to become more spontaneous. For some this will be met with cheers. For others, and unfortunately, jeers. It takes courage to march to the beat of a different drum. Yet in practising courage, we develop it. Dancing our private dance in front of the marching crowd is a challenge.

Besides unknotting our muscles, ecstatic dance unties our mind. Though historically this practice has been thought to exist only among humans it seems that the otter, with his flipping and wriggling, would make a great ecstatic dancer. Unlike us he doesn’t wait for the music to start to move in a musical fashion. His body is free and expressive. He chooses to move with the fluidity of waves rather than the rigidity of trees. We have the same choice. We don’t have to jump in the water to enjoy this experience. Mind-body exercises like Pilates, yoga and tai-chi cultivate this creative body motion.

Joyful errors

People make mistakes; animals evolve. This is due to our human perception of right and wrong, good and bad. Obviously these distinctions are necessary in terms of moral issues. The problem begins when we assign these definitions to arbitrary issues, such as appearances and effort.

Nobody likes to feel humiliated. Most of us are concerned about looking foolish or feeling like we’re on display to be laughed at. Now, feeling humiliated and being humiliated are two separate matters. I once watched a show called Pet Star, where an anteater was called to perform an exceptional feat: Climb up a ladder, eat from a bucket, and climb back down. His trainer/owner watched anxiously as the scaly critter ascended the metal stairs. There were a series of clunks on his journey as his tail patted the ladder and a louder clunk when he reached the bucket. He had toppled the pail. A heap of berries and throngs of audience members bore witness to shame. But it wasn’t the anteater that cringed – it was the owner. The blushing young man proceeded to stammer out excuses for the creature, which by this time had climbed down and was happily eating his dinner off the stage floor. Under the glaring stage lights that illuminated his owner’s red-face and sweaty brow, no change could be found in the anteater. He was intent on claiming his reward. Whether or not anyone was impressed didn’t matter.

Failure is relative

That anteater didn’t catch any awards that day. He did, however, capture my heart. I don’t remember the winning ‘Pet Star’ that day. I just remember what that anteater showed me about the mistakes we make on our way to victory, and that sometimes when we take what we are entitled to, others may have not feel we have earned it. We can let this bother us or we can dine on what we deserve.

Though his efforts were obvious, the anteater didn’t perform as desired by others. The anteater dealt with this in a better way than most people. Unlike the anteater we try to interpret other’s interpretation of us. This is agony for both inner peace and performance. When feeling as if we’ve failed we interpret every blink as shock and mouth twitch as dismay. This creates the disappointment we fear. We can turn a stumble into slapstick if we have the confidence of Chaplin. Similarly, a misplaced streak on a canvas can create abstract perfection if we desire. Either way we must persist. What if the anteater was to stop striving when applause wasn’t forthcoming? Motivated by the end result instead of appearances he continued. All he won was some berries, but then again that’s all he wanted.

Getting what you want

What is your heart’s desire? If it doesn’t seem important to others you may be told, or may feel that your efforts are wasted. It’s not. Nobody has the right to determine the value of your dreams. This is between you and the Universal Source. As natural beings our desires are natural, and as long as they don’t harm anyone it is our divine right to aspire to them. Whether you want enlightenment, a BMW or the ideal vitamin regimen your work will be rewarded. This is providing that you keep trying. You may not get your prize in the way or at the time you first imagined, but it will come to you. Just remember to dance and play along the way. This will make the journey a lot lighter.

Galina Pembroke is an internationally published writer on spirituality and health, as well as an active supporter of animal welfare. She lives in Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada.

Share this post

Leave a Comment