Both mindfulness and play have many definitions. They refer to a state of being, yet, are rarely considered together. Adding “play” to “mindfulness” makes the whole subject of “being aware and present” more playful.
The term mindfulness has been imported to the Western world in the beginning of 20th century and popularized in the mid 70’s, when benefits of the practice were first recognized by scientific and medical communities.
Since mindfulness has its roots in the East and most Eastern practices are meditation-based, the picture of Buddhist monks sitting cross-legged used to be a gold standard. Recently, lighter practices including conscious dance, intuitive painting, singing, storytelling, rituals and shamanic practices have expanded the classic definition of mindfulness. These vibrant outlets of human self-expression invoke the essence of the human spirit – play. Mindfulness without play is a spirit-less and heart-less mental exercise.
Perhaps playdates and playgrounds for adults would inspire the cultivation of a playful degree of presence. And regular conscious singing and dancing events could inspire spiritual self-studies more than old fashioned services.
On a personal note, I have spent 15 years engaging in different mindfulness practices. In the beginning, it was a serious endeavor, with daily two-hours meditations and regular silent retreats. With effort, I would be able to still my mind and eagerly engage in philosophical discussion about the practice, yet it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. That is when I started dancing, singing, traveling, walking barefoot, and laughing. These simple expressions of play connected me to spirit – a playful child-like quality of being in the world.
Based on a national survey of dying people, one of the top regrets is spending too much time doing things they do not enjoy – working. Yet, many adults forgot how to play. How can mindfulness practice alone evoke inner joy if play is not a part of the curriculum?
Qualities of play have the elements that mindful practitioners strive for. They include:
Curiosity is a spark of interest and inspiration that drives someone to engage in a game. Adults either lose the ability to notice what inspires them or stop themselves from following inspiration. Rules, practicality, self-judgment, and doubt replace playful and joyful self-expression.
Intuitive photography is an example of how one can re-awaken curiosity – by noticing what brings inspiration, capturing it, and even making art with it.
Unexpected turns of events are what make play engaging and fun. Improvisational music and dance have those elements. “Everything went as expected” is often considered desirable. Yet, the unexpected is a part of a humorous and engaging life attitude. Otherwise, things are boring and stale. The only true state is change. An essential part of play is an attitude that is open to change.
A good practice of this is engaging in anything improvisation – cooking, conversation, art-making – all great avenues to experiment with improvisation and enjoy change.
Joy is an experience of great pleasure and happiness. It is the birthright of every individual, yet many adults do not experience joy very often. A psychologist named Maslow created a hierarchy of human needs. The bottom tier includes physiology, safety, and a sense of love and belonging. The top is self-esteem and self-actualization. Modern society is in the process of learning how to combine the two tiers in a way, where basic needs (the bottom tier) are met through self-actualization (the top tier). Instead of contradicting each other, these tiers need to co-exist and benefit each other. This is the future of the society that transforms work into play.
Contemplating how personal talents can be used to serve others is a first step towards transforming work into play.
Skill development is a continuously upward spiral. Science now understands that the human mind continuously changes – a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. Thus, not only children but also adults learn, grow, and transform. Taking an opportunity to learn a new skill challenges the mind. Besides the element of play, it has valuable contributions to health by helping to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Play encourages original ideas. Interestingly, several famous scientific discoveries have been made in a framework of play, including the microwave, penicillin, theory of relativity, and even French fries. The biggest and most successful companies, such as Google, prioritize hiring employees who think outside of the box. The lack of creativity is one of the biggest challenges of the current educational system and the business world – not enough people actively contributing with their creative ideas. Using things in a new way, combining elements, taking a new perspective are what stimulates and encourages creativity.
A classic Latin proverb “Repetitio est mater studiorum” states that “Repetition is the mother of learning.” The more we play, the better we become at it.
Hindus refer to life as Lila – Divine play. We are given a lifetime to master this intricate art. Mindfulness helps to cultivate awareness whereas play brings a spark of life into everything we do.