Mindfulness Gets a Hobby

The next generation of mindfulness courses go beyond the meditation cushion, mixing play and mindfulness instruction.

Sergey Nivens/Dollar Photo Club

Play shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s vital to how we approach our lives, but it also changes the way we approach mindfulness. Mindfulness teachers have known this for some time, and Stefanie and Elisha Goldstein, cofounders of the Center for Mindful Living in Los Angeles, are running a series of classes in the new year on photography, cooking, improv, and even surfing.

Mindful: What made you decide to expand your center’s offerings from more run-of-the-mill mindfulness courses to branching out into photography, cooking, etc?

Elisha Goldstein: I think people come to mindfulness because they are suffering from pain or stress. So what’s been offered up until this point really is classes in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)—classes pointing toward relief from something that’s aversive. Which is fantastic, but one of the things that is sometimes missed in the very approach to mindfulness is playfulness and creativity. We want to bring the fun back into it.

Stefanie Goldstein: I think mindfulness and meditation are often taken very seriously. Some of the older teachers reflect on how rigorous and intense their early training was and how for many years they felt that was how mindfulness needed to be taught. They are now seeing how mindfulness is really about practicing in every moment—with more forgiveness, compassion, heart, and play. That is what we are trying to embody with these classes. 

MF: Creativity has become one of the next big trends that mixes mindfulness (to varying degrees), and there’s a lot of talk about adult coloring books and trying activities that can enhance your inner mindfulness.

EG: People have defined mindfulness, and we’re defining mindful living, the qualities of mindful living. People who live mindfully engage these 7 different things: they’re curious, they make peace with imperfection, they are kind to themselves and others, they find courage, they show gratitude, accept change, and they play more. These are all inner strengths that you can enhance that are inevitably correlated with feeling happy and resilient. It’s an evolution in the discussion of how mindfulness has mainstreamed: awareness, paying attention to the here and now, etc.

Play, creativity—even laughing—opens up the body. It’s a metaphor for opening mind.

This thread of playful and creative aspects of learning mindfulness is a really important thread that needs more attention. We already have a negativity bias as it is. That leads to a sense of rigidity in the way we see the world and we don’t have much cognitive flexibility in the way that we see a situation, and we’re more likely to shut down because we don’t have the wherewithal—we’re overwhelmed. So play, creativity—even laughing—opens up the body. It’s a metaphor for opening mind. We need that opening of the mind to actually be receptive to mindfulness. It’s almost a prerequisite to allow ourselves to be more playful.

MF: When I look at these course offerings, I would see them as hobbies—things that I know people in my life would love to do, but haven’t gotten around to doing them for whatever reason. We all know a lot of people like this. You’re both psychologists. Why do people put those things off?

SG: I think it’s hard to be good to ourselves. It’s also interpreted as being indulgent when in fact it’s self care. It’s self-compassion. In an airplane, they always tell you to put your mask on first. If you’re not alive, you can’t help the person next to you. Doing these things aids our soul. When we choose not to do that, that’s painful, because we’re not choosing ourselves.

Even if it’s playful things, or exercise, or meditation, whatever it is, each time we put it off or we put someone else first, there’s a little bit of pain there because we’re not taking care of ourselves and nurturing our own needs and our own desires. We’re in such a productive time in society and if your time isn’t is being “productive,” whatever that means for you, it’s hard to allow ourselves the space to do that.

Playing in general is for kids. In our culture, the only kind of play that we do allow for is competitive.

EG: Playing in general is for kids. In our culture, the only kind of play that we do allow for is competitive. Play, as it turns out, enhances learning—there’s a number of studies showing that play enhances our ability to remember things. Learning mindfulness through more playful modalities, we’re more likely to internalize the practice and remember the experience of it and it’s potentially going to be more impactful as well.

Why don’t adults play? There’s a confusion around importance and urgency. Things appear to be urgent when they’re not necessarily urgent. We don’t actually take that time to say what’s actually important to me—if I took more time to do this, these more playful things, I might be more present as a parent or more present in the workplace. I might be a little looser and less stressed, I might be more open to things in life which are correlated to feeling happy. I would do the urgent thing before I would do the important thing because it’s not right in front of my face. We don’t have the space to pause to consider what really matters.

Of course we have the metaphor from mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to ride them.” With the surfing class, you are quite literally doing that.

Of course we have the saying from mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to ride them.” With the surfing class, you are quite literally doing that. Mila Supynska/Dollar Photo Club

MF: Give us an overview of these mindful living courses.

SG: For the photography course, the instructor takes you through a meditation, and he has you open your eyes—you imagine that you are the camera and that whatever your gaze is upon, you really focus on it as if you’re the camera and the lens. So really priming your mind so when you go out into the world to take pictures, you’re connected so deeply to that vision in yourself that the camera becomes a transmission of that. You can come with your phone or whatever device you use to take photos—no fancy device needed.

EG: Allow yourself to get curious—you see what you notice that you don’t usually allow yourself to notice. Within the actual class, you look at the pictures as if for the very first time. So you’re aware of your judgments. You learn about maybe what you think are mistakes in how you took the photos, and you learn to settle into that and notice that as a thought and practice self-compassion around that—forgiving your mistakes, having the courage to show others your photos. Your inevitably being more playful.

With the cooking class, it’s about being aware of where the food is coming from, the act of feeling the knife in your hand, the colors of the various vegetables. We’re making soups because it’s winter.

SG: It culminates in a shared community meal together. It’s all about the intention you put into the preparation as well. I know as a harried parent at times cooking meals I’m not necessarily imbuing the food with love. But the course is about being able to connect to making the food in a really intentional way.

Improv is all about forgiving mistakes, loosening up, laughing at yourself, having courage, connecting to the person in front of you. It really naturally embodies all of those things.

EG: With the surfing course, there you are with this board—that’s your cue to be aware of savoring what’s good, savoring the good moments. And you have to be aware of how the waves come and go. Of course we have the saying from mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to ride them.” You are quite literally doing that.

So you’re trying to be aware of your vulnerability while you’re out on the water. You’re finding the heart, the courage, to just engage in playing. You’re learning all these qualities from surfing. You come back in after 45 minutes and do some processing around what came up in respect to these 7 mindful living qualities.

x