for Positive Spontaneous Living
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
See how Johnny plays! Running, jumping, climbing,
touching, flinging his arms, and poking into every hole, this little
boy can tire you out just from watching him. The whole world is
his playground, and everything a toy. A chair becomes a tall building,
and a bath towel becomes Superman's cape. But be careful; don't
leap too high!
Play is essential to a child's learning and
well-being; it is also a child's full-time occupation. Life is a
continuous flow, interrupted only by sleep and parental intrusions.
What an exuberant display of energy and joy. There is no agenda,
no ulterior motive, just the sheer pleasure of fun and games.
The child is the center of a friendly universe,
created and regulated by loving parents. Disaster will surely strike,
when Johnny is left to his own device. Even in the ideal world of
a perfect child, spontaneous play flourishes only within safe boundaries
and under watchful eyes.
But alas! The simple act of a child's play contains
seeds for both creativity and destructive monstrosity. The challenge
we face is: how can we cultivate spontaneity without the risk of
destructive self-indulgence? We need to consider the different faces
of spontaneity in order to discover the rules for positive spontaneous
What is creative spontaneity?
are some of the qualities associated with individuals known for
their creative spontaneity. How many of these are characteristic
- Playful and childlike
- Full of imaginations
- Emanating positive energies
- Generating sparks of excitement
- Being fully engaged in life
- Pursuing one's dream with passion
- Having a zest for life
- Expressing whatever comes to mind
- Following intuition and gut feelings
- Free and easy
- Fresh and natural
- Genuinely interested in everything
- Full of curiosity and inquisitiveness
- Pursuing truth or beauty for its own sake
- Constantly seeking the better way
- Willing to expand one's life space
- Willing to take risks
- Courageous and adventuresome
- Expressing freely one's feelings
- Consistently authentic
- Transparent and open
- Comfortable in one's own skin
- Saying what one means and meaning what one
- Laughing at oneself
- Willing to pay the price for being honest
- Following urges of the moment
- Disliking schedules and planning
- Not afraid of revealing one's own weaknesses
- Not afraid of making a fool of oneself
- Not afraid of getting out of one's comfort
- Not afraid of being unpopular
- Not very good in wearing a mask
- Refusing to be inhibited by fear
- Refusing to be deterred by difficulty
- Refusing to be bound by conventions
Most of the above attributes are typically associated
with the avant-garde, the Bohemians, the flower
children, the Woodstock
generation, the intelligentsia, actors, and Peter Pan wannabes.
But they can also be found among the pioneers, explorers, trailblazers,
idealistic reformers, and all those who simply dare to march to
a different drummer.
Such individuals are adored for their originality
and courage, but more often than not, they are misunderstood and
maligned. They are called misfits, rebels, iconoclasts, and by even
worse names. Why? Most people are not very accommodating of eccentric
individuals, because they feel uncomfortable and even threatened
by those different from themselves. At a deeper psychological level,
they resent the creative, spontaneous individuals for exposing their
own shallow and insipid existence.
Most cultures that value traditions or social
orders are wary of spontaneity spinning out of control. Thus, we
are conditioned to distrust emotions and free expressions. We fear
that spontaneity will lead to chaos, destructive behaviors and social
There is indeed a downside for the creative
type. Personal lapses, excessive exuberance, and not playing by
the rules can easily cross the line of ethical or legal boundaries.
Just consider the allures and pitfalls of living in
Michael Jackson's NeverLand!
What is pseudo spontaneity?
For every "real thing", there are always imitations
and counterfeits. There is no exception for spontaneity. Immediately,
I can think of various types of people who love the excitement of
spontaneous living, but don't want to risk the security and comforts
of conventionality. Hence, the increasing popularity of planned
spontaneity, which attracts a large following. They include
slickers, weekend "Hell's Angels", part-time swingers, and vacationers
gone wild. Some professional people have make it a routine that
once a year, they would travel to a far-away land, take on a different
identity, and live out their wildest fantasies before returning
to their respectable roles and the trappings of success.
is also pseudo, because it is only skin deep. The teens are particularly
good at this kind of games. Seeking to establish their own unique
identities and asserting their freedoms from adult tyranny, they
pierce and tattoo their bodies and bedeck themselves with outrageous
outfits and hairstyles. Yet, their premeditated spontaneity and
calculated cool look conspire to make them poseurs. Their self-conscious
presentation is no less artificial and pretentious than the models
of haute couture; their fashion statement is the same: "Just look
at me - see how cool I am!"
Then, there is the imitative
spontaneity. Proponents include the groupies, the denizens
of stomping grounds for the cool chic, and consumers of the latest
trend in spontaneity by design. An unruly hairdo with the appearance
of a pineapple or porcupine is more likely the creation of a hairstylist
rather than the natural unkempt look of an Einstein.
Pseudo spontaneity is always contrived and transient.
It seldom touches one's inner core, from which true spontaneity
flows. It is a product of the market place, to satisfy the need
for a more spontaneous life style under controlled conditions. The
art of practicing pseudo spontaneous is to dabble into dangerous
waters without taking the plunge. Such practice provides a temporary
relief from the boredom and banality of modern living without setting
one free from the self-made prison.
What is destructive spontaneity?
While creative spontaneity contains potentially
destructive elements, destructive spontaneity is inherently evil
because of its wanton abuse of power. Evil is at its best, when
freedom is wedded to power. Catering to the darker side of humanity
without any internal or external constraints provides an ideal incubator
for monsters. School killings, road rage, random shootings, temper
tantrums and violent outbursts at home and at work are some examples
of spontaneous expressions of the primitive emotional brain unfettered
by the executive control center of the frontal cortex.
On a larger scale, despots and tyrants are dangerous
evils because, unlike ordinary citizens, they have control of all
the apparatus of financial, political and military powers. The entire
humanity is diminished and endangered to the extent that a single
leader is free to exercise absolute power. Remember Hitler and the
little child playing with matches can set a forest ablaze. An adult
playing with power can destroy the human race! Just as Adam
and Eve needed the forbidden fruit to prevent them from self-destruction,
so do all leaders need a modern version of the forbidden
fruit - the necessary boundary to curb the destructive use
of freedom and power.
Here are some of the telling signs of destructive
- Acting without thinking about consequences
- Acting as if one is the center of universe
- Always hungry for power and control
- Resorting to force to get what one wants
- Catering to one's every whim
- Sating animal appetites
- Reacting instinctively
- Having no respect for anyone
- Freely imposing one's will on others
- Freely invading other people's space
- Yielding to instant gratification
- Resenting any form of restraints
- Resenting any form of accountability
- Breaking all the rules and regulations
- Considering oneself above the law
Leaders with the above attributes have perpetrated
monstrous evils down through the ages. Ralph Waldo Emerson once
said: "Our spontaneous action is always the best." But I say: "Our
spontaneous action is always the worst, when we are free to use
power." Whenever we mix spontaneity with power, we achieve a destructive
What is positive
So much have been written in praise of spontaneity.
For Viola Spolin, theatrical director, spontaneity is "the time
of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression." To J. F.
Kennedy, spontaneity is the creative impulse that holds a nation
together and makes a society flourish. To humanistic psychologist
Rollo May, "Creativity is not merely the innocent spontaneity of
our youth and childhood; it must also be married to the passion
of the adult human being, which is a passion to live beyond one's
But how can we achieve positive spontaneity?
Is it even possible to be spontaneous without being destructive
in a society that glorifies greed and selfishness? Can we just do
it without negative consequences? What can be done to harness creative
spontaneity to positive ends?
Taoism, one of the major philosophies of China,
provides useful insight on these questions. Tao literally means
"the Way". It is the ultimate reality and creative process of the
universe. It is only through living in harmony with nature can we
achieve simplicity and spontaneity. This Taoist ideal can be attained
through cultivating "wu-wei", the practice of "do-nothing". According
Te Ching, the classic of Taoism, inaction is characterized by
humility, prudence, and wisdom, and made possible by disengagement
from any kind of worldly pursuits, including the striving for virtues.
Such spontaneous lifestyle is free from destructive selfish impulses
only through surrendering oneself to the Way.
In Christian teaching, positive spontaneity
results from the work of the Holy Spirit. When one's life is controlled
by the Holy Spirit and compelled by God's love, then one would be
as free as the moving of the Spirit. The Bible has provided many
passages on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The book of Ephesians
has this portrait of the spontaneous spirit-filled life:
Do not get drunk on wine, which leads
to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one
another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make
music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the
Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit
to one another out of reverence for Christ. (5:18-21)
The Spirit of God cannot be contained. The joy
of the Lord is bursting out in songs and praises. The spiritually
transformed soul also manifests itself in surrendering to God and
submission to each other. One is free to do whatever one wants without
offending God, when the Spirit is in control.
Rules for spontaneous living
So what are the rules for sustainable spontaneous
living? For me, the duality of creative and destructive spontaneity
can be reconciled through the following set of rules:
1. The rule of structure and boundary: We need
a structure for spontaneity just as actors need a stage for theatrical
performance and pianists need the keyboard to create music. Similarly,
every sport and every game has its structural components and regulations.
An optimal structure exists for each spontaneous function. The structure
provides a safe environment through boundary-setting. Structural
restrictions are needed to prevent excesses of creative spontaneity.
2. The rule of higher purpose and self-transcendence:
Spontaneity needs to be rooted in values higher and larger than
ourselves. Superior values, such as love, respect, and altruism,
provide both the direction and content we need for self-expressions.
Positive spontaneity always transcends self-interests and primitive
instincts. Whether it is the Way or the Holy Spirit, we need to
surrender to a Higher Being in order to harness and channel our
spontaneity to positive ends. This rule is needed to prevent the
evil of destructive spontaneity.
3. The rule of discipline and integrity: Spontaneity
needs to be integral to our core being. Like character, it needs
to be cultivated from the inside out. It is through daily discipline
and conditioning that we can freely live out the positive, creative
energy within us. This rule is needed to rule out pseudo spontaneity.
See how the birds fly and how the fish swim.
They can be free and spontaneous only when they are in their right
elements. But what are the right elements for human beings? Above
all things, they need a safe, loving and moral environment that
demands personal discipline and responsibility.
Many parents are worried that their children
may lose their creative spontaneity because of the rules and regulations
imposed by socialization. But fear not. I submit that the true enemies
of spontaneity are fear and fearlessness.
Fear limits our life space, restricts imaginations
and stifles creative initiatives. We stop trying for fear of failure.
We stop dancing for fear of stepping on some one's toe. We give
up dreaming big dreams for fear of success. We cease living for
fear of dying. We tiptoe to our graves without ever experiencing
the joy of spontaneous living.
Fearlessness can get us into even bigger troubles.
Whether it is based on illusions or actual power, fearlessness often
propels us over the edge or plunges us into a serious crisis. An
ever expanding self-confidence will eventually implode. Sooner or
later, those who believe that they have the power to do whatever
they want will find a rope long enough to hang themselves.
Both fear and fearlessness destroy spontaneity,
though for very different reasons. Neither a fearful well-behaving
child nor a fearless omnipotent child is capable of positive spontaneity.
Children need to be in their right elements to develop the right
Therefore, let's give our children rules
so that they can be free. Give them high ideals that they may transcend
their limitations. Give them discipline and skills that they may
create a better future. Only then will they experience the joy of
positive, spontaneous living.