Playing Dirty: How Making a Mess Can Make You Feel Better


When was the last time you painted? Or played in the mud? Chances are, it’s been years.

There’s something about unplugging and using all of our senses for our downtime that is profoundly relaxing.

Many people find a zen-like satisfaction from gardening or doing yard work, but even something as simple as digging in the dirt can have the same effect. It seems silly; adults don’t just dig in the dirt without some sort of purpose — that’s for kids, we argue.  Yet, we will spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on technology to help us relax — technology that actually makes us more anxious. We feel like our activities need to have a point. We need to get things done, move forward, accomplish something. Sometimes in order to be better at our purposeful work, we need to spend some time being aimless.

A few suggestions if you’ve forgotten how to play:

Dig in the dirt.

Seriously. If you feel ridiculous, plant something so you can feel like it’s a more serious, adult activity. This simple act of being outdoors, getting a little exercise and getting dirty can lower stress hormones and improve our mood. Let yourself get muddy and just enjoy it. Don’t rush through getting it over with and getting cleaned up. Just stay present with what you are doing until you decide you are done.

Jump in the lake.

Or river, pool or ocean. Going for a swim restores us on so many levels. Besides the obvious health benefits of swimming as exercise, there is something profoundly soothing about being in the water; even a long soak in the bath is a good way to go. Don’t do laps or track anything; just swim and play. Don’t rush to dry off and clean up either. Lay in the sun and let yourself dry naturally. Take your time.


Not your bathroom or garage — a picture. Or even less than a picture, just play with paints and enjoy (bonus points for finger paints). I was stuck on a particular chapter I’m writing in my book and needed to put it aside, so I spent most of Saturday painting. I love how everything turned out, but the best part wasn’t the end result, it was the process. The smell of the paint, watching the interplay of the colors, experimenting with different textures, finding paint on myself for the next 24 hours … all of the process is why it’s important. Stepping outside of the box creatively often taps into parts of our brain we aren’t used to using, which then in turn can assist with more effective problem solving when we get back to work.

Eat with your hands.

I’ll admit, I’m a big fan of eating with my hands. It’s more enjoyable. It makes you slow down. It’s more sensual sometimes, simply because we are including more of our senses — and because we give ourselves permission to get a little messy. Take a pomegranate and slice it open. Flip it over and smack it on the back over a bowl until a bunch of the seeds fall free, and eat them with your fingers. There is something that feels a little bit uncivilized and wild about eating pomegranate — in the best possible way. Maybe it’s the mythology behind it. Whatever the reason, it’s a great way to get messy and relax, even better if you share it.

Don’t think about goals.

You know when you were five and you’d just head out with no objective? Like that. Go outside, shoes optional. Walk, not toward anything or to anywhere, just around. When you see something interesting in the grass, pick it up and look at it. Eventually, you’ll drop it as you walk on. When you get to where you were headed (nowhere) have a seat. Actually, don’t sit; lay all the way down. Look at the clouds for a few minutes. Roll over on your stomach and look at the grass and the microcosm of life crawling around. Lay there and just be for awhile.

It sounds funny, but these are the things we used to do without anyone having to tell us.

Take a break. Get dirty. Make a mess — might be the most important thing you do all day.



 Photo Credit: bee wolf ray/Flickr


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