Rocks on the beach

Improvisatory Play as a Mindful Practice

Dec 22, 2021

By Fred Marshall, MD

I never met my grandfather, who died a year or so before I was born, but somehow I felt that he was a dear friend of mine and an excellent confidant. As I write this, I am sitting at his roll-top desk, which I inherited on the death of my own parents.  He had been a young officer in World War I, and my grandmother had joined him in Europe after the Armistice.  Upon returning and being decommissioned, they settled into a quiet domestic life in a tidy brick house in Denver, walking distance to Elitch Gardens, at that time the home of the tallest wooden roller-coaster in the United States. 

As a child, I used to love going to my grandmother’s house.  There were three model ships that were not to be touched, sailing in a stately procession across the top of an old cabinet radio.  There was a blanket-trunk with carved figures of Turks in battle.  There was often homemade lemon-meringue pie.  I could whisper messages to my brother and sister through a copper speaking-tube that went from the first floor to my grandfather’s study in the basement.  I could drop things through the laundry chute.

Of all the magical treasures in that house, my very favorite was a small wooden box of stone blocks that they had brought back from Europe.  It was about the size of the Denver phone-book (the largest city in Colorado, and therefore, in my mind, the world).  The sliding lid had decoupaged scenes of castles and cathedrals.  Inside, the blocks were perfectly tessellated, russet and cream colored sandstones, cool to the touch and with a perfect heft that meant they would stay where I placed them.  The largest was an arch, about the size of my small hand.  There were cubes and rhomboids, triangular stones and columns.  My siblings and I could spend hours together playing with these blocks — learning about structure and balance and gravity and imagination.  Learning about the joy of creating something brand new from foundations.

I’m thinking of these blocks now, as I ponder two aspects of our work as healers — the concrete and the improvisatory.  In the analogy I am considering, the blocks can represent the established knowledge that constitutes the fundamentals of a standard professional curriculum.  But might they also represent the fundamentals of mindfulness itself – our sensations, our emotions and our thoughts? 

When we bring awareness to the flow of our experience, we can find ourselves poised on the edge of new discoveries.  Our physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts can stream along in seemingly well-worn channels, but somehow there is always a surprise around the corner.  We can use these blocks to help us create new structures with our patients and their families, our students, and ourselves.  Each time we open the door to the exam room, step into the operating room, walk onto the ward, or sit down to a conversation with others, can we imagine sliding open the old wooden box of our experience and creating something entirely fresh and new? Can we do it with the invigorating sense of discovery and improvisatory play that enlivened us as children?

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