Mindfulness and LEGO® bricks
Over the past few years, more and more people have been using LEGO® building to help them practice mindfulness.
In 2019, we even teamed up with DK Publishing and the author Abbie Hendon to publish a self-help book entitled ‘Build Yourself Happy’, which contains more than 50 mindful LEGO building activities and tips. (We’ve featured some of our favorites below!)
Yet despite the growing popularity of mindfulness, there remains some confusion surrounding it. Mindfulness isn’t just some pseudo-scientific popular fad, but can actually physically alter the brain of depressed patients for the better, as an increasing number of scientific studies are showing.
So we thought it would be a good idea to explain a little bit more about mindfulness and see why psychologists are recommending LEGO building to achieve it.
We’ve even created our own step-by-step guide on how to practice mindfulness through LEGO building!
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a therapeutic practice designed to help people who are struggling with varying levels of anxiety, stress and depression manage those feelings. It is not, as some people think, a fix-all cure. However, there are a growing number of people speaking to its benefits.
Mindfulness is essentially a form of meditation that emphasizes being aware (or mindful) on what is happening to the individual at a particular moment, in terms of their surroundings, body and mind. It asks you to notice and acknowledge all the feelings and sensations in the body, without judging them.
This concept of no judgement is important. We all have internal chatter in our brains, an internal dialogue. Unlike what some people think, mindfulness (and more generally, meditation) isn’t about stepping in and stopping those thoughts. It’s about stepping back.
Who is ready for a good metaphor? I know we are.
Imagine you are sitting on the bank of a river, watching the flow of the water. Any objects that are carried by the water’s current – wood, leaves, even boats – represent your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness encourages you to sit on the bank of the river, and simply watch all of it float by. Sounds easy, right? But in reality, it’s actually quite difficult. Especially if there is something floating in the river that you don’t like. So, because we are humans, we try and jump in, trying to fish some objects out, or try to stop the flow, or swim after the debris. And we forget that all we were trying to do was sit on that river bank and watch everything drift by.
This is why mindfulness isn’t a cure for bad feelings or thoughts. It’s instead all about handling them in a more positive, constructive way than we often tend to. And if your thoughts ever become too difficult to address through mindfulness, you should, of course, try to seek advice from a professional.
Here are a couple of tips to help you get started.
Find a focus
Mindfulness techniques often ask us to concentrate on our breath. The breath is useful because it is continual, giving us not only something to focus on initially, but something to return our attention to after our mind has wandered.
And the mind will wander. It’s not a problem. That’s just what it does. All you have to do is note it and guide the mind back.
Your focus, however, doesn’t necessarily have to be on the breath. You don’t have to, for example, breathe in a particular way (beyond keeping it steady and calm). That focus can therefore be replaced by any repetitive activity. From sewing, to sweeping or... you guessed it... building LEGO® sets.
(And it’s not just us who are saying that, by the way. Interacting with LEGO bricks is regularly brought up by academic researchers on mindfulness, as a perfect example of a relaxing activity which nonetheless requires a level of mental engagement.)
But whatever the focus, the most important thing to do is to consciously pay attention to it.
If it’s breathing, think about the sensation of your chest rising and falling. If it’s sweeping, note the sound of the brush against the floor. If you are using LEGO bricks, you can focus on how they connect with each other, the sound when they do, and the feel of the material against your fingers.
Don’t worry about the end result. At least to start with, your aim isn’t to produce something ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but rather on producing an... output… simply an output. For this reason, it’s best to avoid building from a LEGO manual. The focus should instead be on the process of building, which can be the thing to return to whenever you notice that the mind wanders.
Besides, there is value to be had in not worrying about an end-product. As Abbie Headon writes in ‘Build Yourself Happy’, “it can be a lot of fun to live without a plan sometimes.” Try throwing all your cautious planning instinct to the wind and allow yourself to choose and connect bricks without thinking about where you’re going. You’ll be surprised at what you can create – and your internal planner/worrier/killjoy may realize that it can let go more often as a result.
“When you turn off your inner critic’s running commentary, you can enjoy the sheer pleasure of creation, just like the kid you used to be”
For those of you new to mindfulness, (or, at least, to LEGO mindfulness), we’ve created a step-by-step guide to help get you started.
- Get comfy – You know, you don’t have to sit next to waterfall in order to get a sense of zen… Find somewhere quiet, somewhere familiar, a place where you know you won’t be accidentally disturbed. Don’t worry about crossing your legs if it’s not comfortable, just because it seems like ‘the right thing to do.’ Just do you.
- Make a Phone Blocker – People check their smartphones on average once every 10 minutes. While they help connect us to the world, they aren’t great for getting us into a good frame of mind(fulness). For this, Abbie Headon has a cute solution. She writes, “the simplest way to put your phone out of service for a little while is to choose one of your bricks – whichever one is most in need of a rest – and give it a short vacation from its building work” by laying it on your phone. That way, the next time you feel like checking your phone, you’ll see the snoozing brick on top of it… and you wouldn’t want to wake it, now would you?
- Start to focus – Spread your LEGO bricks out in front of you and begin to build. Don’t worry about building something in particular, just focus on the process of building brick-by-brick. You don’t need a lot in order to do this, indeed Abbie reckons you can even get away with having just 5 or 6 bricks. “Sometimes less really is more,” she writes, “and by limiting our choices we can limit distractions and open ourselves to creativity.”
- Check in – As you concentrate on the sensations of the build, take note of how your body is feeling. Sometimes it helps to do a mental scan from head to toe. Is your jaw clenched? Your shoulders hunched? Your toes scrunched? Note it and gently relax them.
- Be aware – Your mind will begin to wander, even as you build. Note when this happens. Don’t be annoyed with yourself, don’t get frustrated. Just ever so gently bring your focus back to the building and the feel of the bricks.
- Wind down slowly – After you feel like you have achieved your aims for your session, there’s no point rushing straight back to reality. Winding down slowly is a great way of ensuring you will bring mindfulness to the rest of your day (or night). For this, Abbie has another tip for us. “Choose a selection of bricks. Without thinking too hard, connect them together into a structure, and then take them apart again. Repeat as many times as you like, either making the same build every time, or creating different variations. As you build and dismantle, allow your mind to relax a bit more each time. If you’ve had a stressful day, you can imagine that the bricks represent something that has been troubling you. By dismantling your problems and building their parts into something more satisfying, you might feel like you can put the day behind you.”