Derrick was 13 years old when he stepped into my office complaining of "just not enjoying anything in life." His parents told me they'd tried everything. They had him playing piano, going to soccer and involved with drama practice, along with a few more activities. "He just doesn't seem to be interested in any of it," the mom said.
One day Derrick came into session, and I asked him if he could tell me his happiest memory. Sitting slumped into the couch, his head perked up and he said, "I remember when I was six my parents bought something that came in a big box. When they emptied it out, I played in that box for hours. It was my favorite place. It made me happy." It was clear Derrick was missing out on his natural right to have more play in his life.
Play deprivation doesn't just apply to kids, but to all of us. To bring mindfulness into our lives and cultivate a healthy, flexible and resilient mind, we need to loosen up on ourselves, allowing openings to arise. Then, like cultivating a garden, we add in nutrients that facilitate the kind of change we'd like to see. You can think of play as a fundamental way of bringing mindfulness into your life, creating spaces for your healthier mind to take root.
I created the acronym PLAY NOW to help us remember the essential attitudes of mindfulness to bring into everyday life:
- Play: This is the essence of being curious, loose and having fun with these writings and practices. We can easily fall into a state of being overly-strict with ourselves and taking this work too seriously. This only tends to harden the soil of our minds and sap our energy. So allow yourself to adopt an attitude of playfulness where there's lightness to the work. One way to cultivate an attitude of play is to bring a beginner's mind to each practice, noticing what we're paying attention to as if for the very first time. This is an effective way to prime the mind to break free from habitual ways of perceiving and reacting. Notice when you're beginning to take this too seriously and putting pressure on yourself. We could all use a bit more play in our lives.
- Love: To be present in our lives can be deeply joyful and also unutterably painful. When I say love, I'm talking about compassion, empathy and bringing heart to this practice. Lack of self-compassion might be thought of as the great unnamed epidemic in our culture. Know that part of this work is learning how to care and love ourselves, even in the midst of difficulty. Cultivating a compassionate eye to our pain sends the message that even the most difficult parts of ourselves are worthy of love. Imagine what might happen if we watered the seeds of love and compassion over and again.
- Acceptance: Much of the tension we have with life is through subconscious drives to avoid what's here. If there is stress or pain, we'd rather be somewhere else. Acceptance simply means accepting the reality that something is here and letting it be. This is at the heart of helping the mind learn how to be here, for this life that is only happening right now. We're training the mind to move from an avoidance mindset to an approach mindset, otherwise we maintain a cycle that's simply not healthy. When we avoid what's here, we miss out on this moment of our life. It's gone. It's really that simple.
- Yoga: When most people hear the word yoga they picture people in a room with their mats stretching and moving their bodies. In Sanskrit yoga means "to yoke," which is another way of saying "to unite." Famous yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyengar said, "Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open." We can use the word yoga as a reminder of uniting our minds with our bodies. An essential part of coming into the now is getting connected with our bodies. Our bodies tell us when we're stressed, anxious, sad, angry and afraid, and when we need to recalibrate. The actual physical practice of yoga creates many openings in the body, which also reminds us of the space that is there.
- Non-Judgment: This is another core attitude to apply to help break up rigidity of our minds. Unconscious snap judgments come so fast you'd have a hard time seeing the space between reading this sentence and the thought that arises. "This isn't going to work for me." "Nothing's really going to change." Or, "This is going to change my life." Practicing non-judgment helps us step beyond the lens of right and wrong and into the direct experience of the now as it is.
- Openness: Part of the reason we miss out on the moments of our lives is because we're not open to them. If we paid attention to the body when we're feeling stressed we might notice a sense of constriction somewhere. Openness encourages novelty, curiosity and the opportunity to break out of habitual patterns and engage life with fresh eyes. When we're open we're more receptive to all of our senses of touch, sight, sound, smell and taste. We miss out on a lot of life because we're living on automatic. We can encourage our minds to open up to what we may be missing.
- Welcome: While we can be open to the experiences of our lives we can even take it one step farther by welcoming what is here. The way we talk to ourselves has a tremendous effect on how we feel. When we're hateful and judging toward our uncomfortable feelings we basically feed our minds hate and judgment. That simply doesn't make us feel better. When we're welcoming with what's here -- even if it's a gathering of sorrows -- we feed our minds with warmth and care. This supports a healthy mind. On the other hand, welcoming our joy allows us to savor the moment This reminds us of the joy in life, which can support resiliency. Either way, welcoming is good.
Just like you can focus on any one thing and your mind unintentionally wanders off onto something else, your intention to integrate these core nutrients into your life will surely wander. That is perfectly fine and expected. Treat this in a playful way, as if you were training a puppy. Simply forgive yourself when this happens and invite yourself to come back to this post as a refresher whenever you like.
There's nothing mysterious about applying PLAY NOW into your life. It's very practical. In the same way you can learn, practice and repeat how to read, and over time it becomes automatic, the experience of cultivating this playfulness can create a natural sense of flexibility, resiliency and a healthy mind.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Adapted from a publication on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy at Psychcentral.com. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is Co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook. You may also find him at www.drsgoldstein.com.