Recreational mindfulness

About ten years ago I worked as a recreational therapist in a hospital unit for patients with severe acquired brain injuries. Many of them could no longer walk, communicate verbally, eat food or look after themselves. While within the hierarchy of the hospital system, the job title ‘recreational therapist’ doesn’t carry quite the same weight as ‘neurosurgeon’ or ‘consultant’, I know that my role was important to the people I was working with. They often lived in this unit for years as they slowly tried to improve through slow-stream rehabilitation, and my job meant the difference for them between spending most of their time alone in a room with a blaring TV, or taking part in activities like wood work, gardening, cooking, sharing their favourite music with others, singing, going to a café or the zoo, celebrating special events and interacting with students, animals, and the general public. Their rehabilitation goals were integrated into the the therapy program, but, perhaps just as importantly, they had opportunities to interact, express themselves, participate in meaningful activities, lift their spirits and feel happy. There was a lot of sadness and grief in this unit, but also joy and resilience.

This experience gave me a wonderful insight into the importance of recreational activities, both individual and group-based, for our health and wellbeing. Adult colouring books are something many people clearly find helpful, and I think it’s great they’ve become so popular if it helps people to calm their mind and feel more relaxed. Nonetheless, as a mindfulness teacher I do cringe when I see them being marketed as ‘mindful colouring’ books, or even ‘Zen colouring in’! Colouring in can be done mindfully or mindlessly, as can gardening, cooking, playing sport, or any of the other recreational activities we enjoy. Just because something is beneficial doesn’t mean it’s mindfulness. We all have mindfulness within us, and some people can spend quite a bit of their lives in a mindful state without ever learning and practising it formally. Yet it’s misleading to call something ‘mindful (…)’ when the activity doesn’t actively develop non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.

When the word mindfulness becomes a marketing tool for colouring-in books, we’ve come a long way from Buddhist mindfulness and therapeutic mindfulness. If we want mindfulness to be an ongoing part of our lives, rather than something which appears and disappears by chance, we do need to challenge ourselves through a commitment to an ongoing, formal practice. It’s when we step outside our comfort zone and try a new approach to our difficulties that the changes mindfulness can make to our lives begin to happen. It’s not easy to learn this through books and apps alone, which is why I always recommend attending courses or retreats with an experienced teacher. Mindfulness is simple, but not easy – regardless of what the marketing tries to tell us!

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to reflect on what mindfulness means to you, based on the four meanings of mindfulness we’ve discussed – you could do this sitting quietly somewhere, or perhaps through journalling. What emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane