Using combinatory play to get unstuck

Published 10:47 am Saturday, October 14, 2017

By Erin Smith

I wake early, before the sun is up. I pour a cup of coffee and settle into the couch to meditate.

It’s quiet, only the sound of my breath and Cat Stevens’ purrs audible. My heart is full of stories to tell. I open my laptop and start a new document. I take a deep breath, my fingers perched over the keyboard and … nothing. No words come.

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The Muse remains as silent as the Sphinx and the page remains as blank as my mind. I sit so long my computer shifts into sleep mode, even my trusty laptop tired of waiting for inspiration.

Nothing is more frustrating to a writer than a blank page. It mocks us, stirring the inner demons that ask who we think we are to have anything the world wants to hear. The blinking cursor curses over and over, “Shoot. Shoot. Shoot.”

Humans are creative beings. The word inspiration comes from the Old French inspiracion, meaning to inhale. It was often interpreted as a feeling of creative force received from the gods breathing insight directly into our bodies. Far too many of you would argue that you aren’t creative. You’re just a mom. Or a CPA. An Uber driver, a fireman, a sister, a farmer. But if you are breathing, then you are creative.

Some of you write. Others take great Instagram pictures. Maybe you’re the one that tells the best stories or understands how to arrange flowers or furniture or children’s birthday parties. You’re the one to start the dance, the story, the dinner, the painting, the business, the dream. And living a creative life means there will be times when vision is nonexistent.

We get stuck mentally and find ourselves in that state I call analysis paralysis, unable to figure out the next best step and simultaneously unable to think about anything else. How do we break the cycle to get our groove back?

When Albert Einstein hit the wall in a mathematic equation, he would set aside numbers for a while and play his violin. He believed he could open up one mental channel by dabbling in a completely different pursuit. This combinatory play, as he called it, “seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.”

Do your cakes keep falling? Set down the whisk and dance. Feeling blocked on a project at work? Take a long, hot bath. Can’t balance the checkbook? Do a crossword puzzle or simply doodle.  When you feel stuck in one area of your life, partake in an endeavor that asks different things of your mental real estate.

Analysis paralysis resides in the left brain, the area responsible for logical or linear thinking. It’s where numbers and facts live. Combinatory play asks us to get into our right brain more, dipping our toes in imagination, intuition and visualization. This is a time of unconscious processing.

While you are exerting no direct thought toward the original task, your mind is actually quite busy in the background. You are unconsciously connecting dots and clarifying glitches. When you return to the original problem, solutions often appear that were invisible before.

Combinatory play is fun. It’s an undertaking that has no goal other than sheer enjoyment. My least favorite day is the first of each month, because I have several hours of running monthly reports for the studio. I have to see which classes had the best or worst attendance and compare those numbers to the same month of the previous year. I have to figure out how much I owe each of my teachers. I compute my taxes for the state and set aside a percentage of sales toward my salary. I analyze reports for client retention. It’s an entire afternoon of numbers and it always makes my brain hurt.

When I’m done, I spend some time playing my guitar. This isn’t the time to run scales or practice complicated finger rolls. This is a time to mindlessly strum and sing along. A time for James Taylor and Willie Nelson, Motown and doo wop. A time to give my brain a break from numbers and let my heart enjoy the simplicity of the moment.

And how do you know which activity will balance you out? Remember what you loved doing as a child. Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional. If you’re feeling stuck in one area of your life, give yourself a play break. Playing will help you solve very adult problems and keep you young-hearted in the process.

Back on the couch, I trade my laptop for my hiking boots. I lace up and heading out.  As I close the front door and turn around, I notice that the sun is now shining through the trees as if the world had been whispering all along to just look up. The words will come when they come. Meanwhile, I’ve got a date with Mother Nature.

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. Send her a shout out at or play along at