When you think of spiritual practices, does play come to mind? I can’t say that I would have considered play as a spiritual practice a few years ago…and even now it’s not always at the forefront of my mind.
In 2015. our family had been back in the States for less than a year from life overseas. We were still in the throws of culture reentry stress and transition, and I hit bottom from the stress I was carrying around and trying to manage. As I sat across from my therapist, the last thing I expected her to assign me for homework was to “have fun” for fifteen minutes a day. While there was a part of me that was intrigued by the idea of having fun, the majority of me doubted that this would help me with the anxiety and depression I was experiencing.
She saw my stunned face and smiled—”You’re not really sure about this assignment are you?” I admitted—”Well, I don’t really see how having fun for fifteen minutes a day is going to resolve my anxiety and insomnia!” She simply replied, “Give it a try and see!“
As I drove home from our session, I spotted a store off the side of the road that I had driven past many times—the “Blue Octopus“—painted a wild and bold blue color. I thought to myself “that looks like fun!” So instead of passing it by as I had done so many other times, I pulled my car into the parking lot and decided this would be my first 15 minutes of fun. I had no idea what was inside Blue Octopus, but I soon discovered a feast for the eyes—beach themed furniture and artwork.
We needed a new dining room table and chairs, but it had just been another stressful decision to make. And now here was a beach distressed table and chairs! I excitedly called my husband to say, “I think I found our table!” I had allowed myself to have fun and found something our family needed but had been too stressful up until that moment!
While buying a table and chairs did not fix my anxiety and depression, it was an invitation to not wait for healing before allowing myself to play and have fun. My therapist was inviting me to add play into my life, knowing it would not be natural or easy, but would be an invitation for my weary brain to refocus on something I desperately needed—a break from trying to fix myself and my problems. Her invitation to play and have fun was a much needed practice in my life—and to start with 15 minutes a day seemed like an easy goal for someone who had forgotten how to play!
You might be wondering how play relates to you? That’s a good question!
I recall friends moving overseas after finishing seminary. They sold everything and he left his beloved mountain bike behind. After living in their host country for a year and struggling with the realities of suffering and hardship in the lives of the people around them, he concluded that he needed his mountain bike to deal with all the stress of his life. While it didn’t fit the script of being simple and living like the locals, he realized that he needed this outlet of play to stay healthy (and stay on the field).
Twenty years later they are still living and working in their host country, and mountain biking has had a huge role in keeping him healthy and able to stay. (I will add here that mountain biking alone wasn’t/isn’t the answer, but I would venture to say that it is part of a bigger discussion on how we care for ourselves.)
When we look at our lives overseas, it can be easy to fall into serving and giving and meeting spiritual and physical needs of those around us. Play might sound overly indulgent or like something that “people with lots of time” do. But what if you allowed yourself permission to play daily or even weekly as a spiritual practice? What if you saw play as an invitation to experience God’s delight in you just because? What if you intentionally “ceased striving and working” and engaged in a playful activity? For some this might seem easy to imagine, and for some it might seem foreign to consider what “fun” or play would look like. If you are the latter, perhaps you can start by asking God to help you learn how to play again.
“God, I want to learn how to play again. I want to experience delight and joy in my life, and yet it feels really hard to allow myself the luxury of play and fun. Can you show me how to play and have fun? Can you help me to be free enough to pause meeting the needs of others and simply enjoy life for a few minutes/hours today? I am not really sure how to start, but I trust you to show me how to play. And I also trust that you are inviting me to the gift of play, so I give you all of my fears about whether it’s okay to take the time to play. Thank you that you delight in me and want me to experience joy in my life! Thank you that I don’t have to figure this out by myself! Amen.”
Dear friends, I hope that whether play is a practice you already engage in, or if it’s something you find yourself resisting, that you will allow yourself to be curious about a God who invites us to rest and to play. I pray that you will know a God who laughs and takes pleasure in your laughter. And I invite you to share with us about your own experience with play as a spiritual practice. Peace and joy. dear friends!
Photo by Vita Marija Murenaite on Unsplash
I love this! Just last week at a pre-field training, I was facilitating a session on “Living Well” in a new culture and we talked a lot about having fun/playing/finding what you enjoy about the culture. People were a bit surprised but also very happy that this was something we talked about in the training. We had a great time brainstorming ideas 😊 Some of this was made so much harder for people who transitioned in the past year because of lockdown and all the Corona restrictions but hopefully things will continue to improve.
Hi Bayta, I love that you brought fun, play and enjoyment into your session on how to live well in a new culture! I imagine this is even more needed in this season of covid–a wearying season for all of us. Thanks for sharing your reflections with us! Keep playing!
This came at just the right time. We have lived overseas for a number of years and are about to embark on a new transition once again. This was a good reminder for me to just take 15 min. a day to do something fun. I actually felt pressure release from my neck reading this article. =)
Hi MaDonna, Yay! I’m glad to hear that the goal of 15 minutes feels doable and helped you feel a sense of stress lifted. I think my therapist was wise to set the goal at one I could do in a season when it was hard. If she had said an hour, it’s doubtful I would have ever succeeded at her assignment! 🙂 But allowing ourselves to taste it, even in small doses can help us feel the joy and freedom of play. And perhaps we will surprise ourselves when more time than 15 minutes passes…when we’ve actually lost ourselves in play! Prayers for you in this season of transition.
Oh! This might be just what I need. I’m also really struggling with insomnia. It came up out of nowhere. I hardly know what I would do for fun, though….
Hi Phyllis, I’m sorry to hear that you are struggling with insomnia. I think that what was helpful about being encouraged to play in a season of high anxiety, was that it encouraged my brain to engage something in the present rather than fixating on the problems. It definitely wasn’t the only thing I needed to help me deal with anxiety and insomnia…and that is why I was skeptical when my therapist proposed the idea. What I have noticed with time is that it’s easy for me to get stuck in anxiety spirals. Play helps us be present and let go. You’ve mentioned that it’s hard to know what “fun” would be. Sometimes I find it helpful to ask myself “what do I want to do?” It can take time to really listen in, but I notice that this helps counteract that voice that says “what should I be doing?” It might take some trial and error, but even attempting to play and add fun into your life is a step in the right direction! Prayers for you as you find your way.