Deep Play: #A-Z Challenge

“Deep play requires one’s full attention. It feels cleansing because, when acting and thinking become one, there is no room left for other thoughts. Problems aren’t shelved–they don’t exist during deep play. Life’s usual choices and relationships are suspended. The past never happened and the future won’t arise. One is suspended between tick and tock.” 

Deep Play by Diane Ackerman

Suspended between tick and tock. What a lovely image for the transcendent experience that Ackerman describes as deep play.

‘Flow’ is a similar concept to deep play. If you’re a runner, you may also know it as being “in the zone.”

Fortunately, you don’t have to love sports or be a risk-taker in order to partake. Ackerman tells us that it is not about the activities we pursue, but about how we feel when pursuing them.

And that feeling? Well, that’s where it gets really good.  Ackerman describes deep play as “a waking trance,” “a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who developed the better-known concept of ‘flow,’ would agree, although perhaps not with the word ‘trance’. He explains that many people think of flow as “spacing out” when it is actually the exact opposite. Binge watching Game of Thrones does not qualify!

Some Activities are More Likely Than Others

Art-making, religion, and some sports lend themselves to an experience of deep play. Csikszentmihalyi studied what the experience looks like in the workplace, so he would add jobs that demand our full attention, like surgeon or computer programmer, to the list of likely activities.

We can’t ever guarantee an experience of deep play or of flow, no matter what we do. But there are things we can do to increase our chances of feeling this wonderfully absorbing and exhilarating state of mind.

The most important is to drop the multi-tasking and focus our attention on all of the emotional and sensory aspects of the activity at hand. And then, if the gods allow, we just might have some of our own moments suspended between tick and tock.

Have you ever had an experience of deep play or of flow? What were you doing at the time? (ahem – sexual activity doesn’t count. I can explain why in another post if you want to know.)


Join the tribe:


  1. Kayaking, painting, snorkeling! These are just some of my deep play activities. Everything else falls away and I am focused entirely “in the moment”. And when I come back to myself, I find I am replenished somehow.
    Sometimes with meditation too, but I am still not very good at it.

    1. Between this comment and the B post in your A-Z posts, it’s easy to know where you’ll be on summer weekends, Deb. It sounds idyllic and if you can do your painting en plein air, you’d never have to go inside at all. Even meditating to the sounds of the water lapping against the shore – that would be so pleasant.

  2. Last weekend we played the game of keep the balloon from hitting the floor with our grandsons, and we all got into it to the point where I felt what you are describing. What a lovely way to put it – suspended between tick and tock. This morning it happened again when I was reading a book called Orthodoxy by C. K. Chesterton which is the story of his transition from agnostic to Christian. It is difficult reading but I have a hard time putting it down now that I’m into it – clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder – yes! My absorption in the reading had all of this and more!

    1. I know that balloon game. What fun! And if Orthodoxy grabs like that, I’m definitely going to have to add it to my reading list. Thanks for the recommendation, Molly.

    1. Ah, then tune in tomorrow AJ. I’m going to make this Sunday (our non A-Z challenge day) an ‘E’ day. It will include my versions of deep play activities. Maybe consider doing some of yours??

  3. It sounds like we have similar taste in books! I have at least four by Csikszentmihalyi, and recently purchased Deep Play by Ackerman. Though I haven’t read that one yet, your review makes me anxious to get to it. When I get all the preparation right, so that I can just work without thinking, letting the randomness I have planned for take control, I get into a flow state. Also in the garden…more likely when I’m pulling weeds rather than planting or pruning…and now and then when I’m really getting involved in cleaning out a drawer…

    1. I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised by our common enjoyment of Csikszentmihalyi, Cindy. There’s something in your writing about your life that made me think you were probably a woman who could immerse in flow states fairly often and easily. I love your phrase “letting the randomness I have planned for take control.”

  4. Karen – Interesting new term/perspective for flow. I’ve been looking for activities that create that feeling in me. I had it sometimes at work and those moments are when I loved my job! Since then, the only thing that truly does it is writing. I’ve lost track of time when I get into the flow of crating a blog, working on editing my book… even when getting into commenting on others posts. I’m hoping something else joins writing as a passion/flow area…so I keep trying things! Today hubby and I are taking a glass-blowing class! It is something that’s been on my bucket list (and he’s going for moral support). And it’s part of my “Soar campaign” – activating things, trying new things.

    1. I hope you enjoy the glass-blowing class. I think I wrote a post about when I took my glass-blowing class. I absolutely loved it. But I can tell you that it will be a long way from a flow experience for you. It’s hard and heavy work and there’s way too much anxiety for it to be flow. However, if you really love it and decide to pursue it, in a few years it might be flow.
      You’ll find more of those experiences, Pat, no doubt about it. I’m engaged in the same search. So far for me it is writing, and sometimes collage making.

      1. Karen – yes we took the class. Hubby was my partner and we enjoyed it. I didn’t expect flow. I did expect to get a bigger appreciation of the skill required to make the pieces of art I love to admire and buy. So it did accomplish that! Talking with the folks who are into-it also made me aware that I don’t have the desire to put in the work to pursue it. I’m wondering if I will ever find something I want to put the work into to find flow…on something besides the writing. Although your collage making does inspire me… I’ve found flow when creating my (collage) vision boards in the past.

        1. Hi Pat,
          I came to the same conclusions about glass blowing. After taking the course, I definitely had a new appreciation for the work of masters like Dale Chihuly, but also knew that one day was perfectly fine for me. I checked it off the list.
          You’ll find what you’re looking for, Pat. Just give yourself time and don’t worry about it. When it’s right, it will happen.

  5. Deep Play… after my father died 2 years ago, while we were snorkeling at Grand Cayman, I decided to push even harder to accomplish my long list of to dos… My son and I jumped from an airplane, followed by para gliding in the Alps, and a wonderful hike into a volcano in Iceland. But my favorite play time – a day at home in the garden watching my bees go from plant to plant while pulling weeds and drinking tea.

    1. Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your father, Cheryl. I wasn’t there when my father died either, and it still haunts me sometimes, almost four and a half years later.
      I’m glad to hear that it spurred you on to do some of the things that matter to you. The adventures with your sons would have been amazing and exhilarating, but I’ll bet that some of your best flow experiences have been watching those bees.
      Thanks so much for visiting, Cheryl. I’m very much enjoying your A-Z posts.

  6. What a great feeling being suspended between tick and tock! I have had that feeling sometimes when reading 📖 (I feel like I crawled inside the book and saw things play out in my minds eye as I read), when playing Minecraft in creative mode time does disappear when I get so involved with building and planning where to put things and listening to music 🎶 (usually praise & worship). I get transported and though my hands go about mundane tasks like doing dishes or cooking/baking dishes I have made tons of times before I am completely wrapped in the songs and nothing else exists. Hmm, thanks for your post now I know it as Deep Play! 🤗

    1. Hi Susan,
      Diane Ackerman would be wholeheartedly in support of the music you listen to. She is a big promoter of deep play as transcendent, so there are lots of religious connotations.

  7. Hi, Karen – I can completely relate to the “waking trance” that you describe above. For me, that’s writing. Thank you for another great post in this series!

    1. Thanks, Donna. I’m caught by the number of regular bloggers who are saying that writing is their flow or deep play experience. I’m so glad we’re all making the time for play that brings us such pleasure.

  8. I didn’t realize there was a name for this state of being. I love it. My husband gets angry because when I’m writing I don’t notice the world around me. For example, the dog will be barking like crazy to get in the house and I don’t even hear the poor pup. I’m in my story!

    1. Not only is there a name for it, Jacqui, but you now have complete and total justification for getting lost in your writing. As both Csikszentmihalyi and Ackerman explain, it is such a relatively rare and magnificent state of being that no one should dare to criticize you for it. Tell your husband he’s just jealous because you are special!!

  9. Hi Karen, I love that you include religion in the deep play category. Each year I go to a hermitage for some time in silent solitude. Most people wouldn’t consider that deep play, but I get so much joy from it. Writing is very much that way, too. My husband will say, “You work too much,” because of the fact that I am always writing. But I get so much joy from it, especially when I am in the “flow.”

    1. Hi Heather, I’m fascinated that you go to a hermitage for solitude. Can I ask – how many days? Where is it? Is there a program connected to it or is it a solo retreat? Do you read while there? Do you write?
      I went to Santa Fe a decade ago for a writing program with Natalie Goldberg. We were at a Zen monastery and we had a 12 hour period of silence but because it was in the middle of a week of talk and activities, I never felt that I moved into that silence very well.
      By the way, I’m grateful to you that you are always writing. You have many useful and interesting things to say and you write very well.

    1. Ah, the telltale slip of the keyboard! Freud would have a lot to say about ‘do-do’ instead of ‘to-do’. The internal chatter gets so exhausting.
      I finally got my internet back on line – the winds are fierce today – so I can now come to your site to see your choice for D.

  10. Hi Karen,
    Love this topic! My deep play has certainly changed over the years — but the mainstays seem to be cooking and the mundane tasks of housekeeping. I love to go from many parts to a delicious whole through the chopping, stirring, etc and to go from the big mess to organization and cleanliness. I can cook and clean for hours and not know where the time goes. Good rock-n-roll and motown in the background makes it even better.

    1. Hi Janet,
      What a great phrase – “from many parts to a delicious whole.” I’ve never met you but can picture you immersed in your deep play activities while bopping to your tunes.
      Over to visit you now.

  11. I can only remember one time in my life that fits the definition of deep play, and that was the first time I skydived on my own. It was “a combination of clarity, wild enthusiasm, saturation in the moment, and wonder” all rolled into sheer terror.

    1. I used to think I wanted to skydive and was sure it would all be a deep play experience. Now the only term that applies when I think of the possibility is “sheer terror.”

      1. The sheer terror only lasted until the canopy opened – then the other elements of deep play took over. Put it on your bucket list!

  12. I hadn’t hear that term before – deep play – although I am familar with the concept and the feeling. I believe it comes out of intense presence allowing oneself to be fully in the moment- as you say not something we can order up and yet it is a skill we can acquire. I also think it carries a quality of transcendence timelessness – a moment can stretch forever when fully present. I endeavour to practice it by bringing myself fully into the moment whether it is in an activityof loving my grandchildren or in the forest in nature or on retreat in meditation or driving the car anywhere anytime that I remember to clamber out of the tiny mind the do do mind and wake to the moment.thanks so much karen so good to meet you.

    1. And you, Sandra, Reading your posts, I can imagine that you have many, many moments of transcendent deep play in your life. I admire you for being true to yourself and so deeply aware.

  13. I could not agree more that putting aside multi-tasking is key. Unfortunately, we’re all so accustomed to doing ten things at once! When we can take a break from it, though, the results can be so fulfilling!

  14. I often find myself “in the flow” when I’m writing… not the tortured writing I experience when I’m trying too hard to make things work, but those times when I don’t have to try at all. All my feelings flow through my fingers and my sometimes swiss cheese brain doesn’t lose words in the middle of a sentence. I love that.

    I think I also can experience the flow when my husband and I are dancing. It doesn’t always happen, but sometimes the music and the mood are one… and our feet just know what to do.

  15. I can identify with flow when writing, Janis. I’ve experienced that many times.
    I can only envy flow when dancing. 🙂 Not only do I not experience flow, I won’t even get on a dance floor. Way too intimidated!

  16. I think the closest to this form of “deep play” is in journaling. Once I start writing, time seems to stand still and get lost in the words (and the memories)

  17. Like many before me, I like the imagery of *being* within the space between tick and tick where everything is acutely sharp. Sadly, I can’t think of the last time I was “in that zone”. Hmmm – it seems I might have some work to do! … or perhaps I should say ‘deep play’.

    1. It’s actually great that this is one of the few things you can’t work at. But I must say, I’m surprised. I would have guessed that you would have had some of those moments when taking some of your photographs. Many of them, for me, are little slices of clarity and wonder.

  18. Blogging and jigsaws and reading do this for me – I lose track of time and am always surprised that hours can pass without me noticing – I like that it’s okay for this not to be about getting a runner’s high or being in an exercise zone – I’m much better at the “gentler arts”!

    Leanne |
    E for Enjoy Life Today

    1. I can imagine the runner’s high, Sue, and I would love to experience it, but I’m afraid it’s too late to take up that particular sport. How long have you been a runner?
      I’m really enjoying connecting with you too, Sue. I look forward to reading and commenting on your posts every day.

  19. Sometimes swimming, doing laps, can be a sort of mediation for me–I clear my mind and just focus on my breathing. Painting–oil painting–gets me in the ‘zone’ where I lose track of time until my back aches! And doing family history…I’ve been known to be absorbed in searching for dead relatives for hours (7? 8?) at a time, forgetting to eat. It’s a great diet tool! haha.

    1. I can only dream of being so absorbed in something that I forget to eat. 🙂
      You’ve got some great deep play activities, Gail. I’m going to need to search for a few more to add to my repertoire and find the one that works as a diet while I’m at it!

  20. I can reach a flow state when I am painting, writing, skiing, hiking, cycling, yoga, and researching. Of course, it does not happen every time, but when it does, everything clicks and the body and mind unite. There is a magical feeling of rightness and intense connectedness. And no fear. At other times, writing is sheer hard work, the paint does not do what I want it to, and in a physical activity all my muscles are screaming at me to stop or that I can’t do it. I have to show up and do the activity (write, paint, ski) despite my internal resistance, and the more often I do it, the more often I am able to slide into flow.


    1. You’re very fortunate, Jude, to have so many activities that bring an experience of flow. That speaks to you having practiced these activities for a considerable time, since a level of skill is required before flow appears. Thanks for writing.

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