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Heraclitus on Meaningful Play



“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”

Heraclitus (535–475 BC)


One of the luxuries of childhood is the lack of logistics. Grown-ups take care of everything, so we can focus only on that right in front of us.

When in a state of pure play, like that of a child, we lead with curiosity. We do what we do for sake of doig it. We formulate little questions like, “What if…?” and “What happens when I …?”

And through these explorations, we learn about the world around us.

As adults, we have more on our minds. We hold a thousand little (and not so little) responsibilities. We manage projects, have relationships, and work within the confines of time of resources.

And while these are unavoidable, they’re not always as meaningful and fulifilling as we’d prefer. For that, we may need to step outside of our roles and responsibilities, at least for a time. We may need to release our lofty aspirations and personal stories in order to fully engage in serious play.

When we step outside our everyday lives, status concerns and mental constructs, we can be as children at play: present, engrossed, curious, willing to try and fail and try again.

When Heraclitus said we’re “most nearly ourselves” when we achieve the seriousness of a child at play, he may have been speaking of these qualities.

And while we can show up and hope this seriousness happens, we can also engineer it. We can aim for the qualities of attention and mindset that will help us get there.

To set up the conditions whereby we enter states of child-like play, we can:

  • create a practice environment that suspends interuption and distraction (both physical and digital).
  • have everything we need close at hand.
  • set creative boundaries that offer both structure and freedom.
  • set a timer so we don’t have to worry about time.
  • act as if we have all the time in the world to explore and experiment.

Afterward, we can reflect on what moved us towards total engagement, and what distracted us from it. Then next time we can act on that information to optimize future practices.

Over time, we fom habits of this playful “seriousness”, and in doing so, find more flow and fulfillment in our music.


“Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.”

Heraclitus (535–475 BC)









Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 


I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two stellar teachers – one focused on the technical, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully. Click here for a sample formula.




Hi Allen,
First public performance ever! I am up to Level 1E in The Woodshed program. It is certainly mega helpful.


-Peter Graham

Great advise here. I find I am taking more time with the pieces than I would have in the past as I am focusing on the technique you have taught me. It is slower going at first but has fewer frustrations, is easier and sounds better in the end.


-Karen Richardson



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