There’s a new mindfulness craze sweeping the nation: colouring books for adults. It’s supposed to help you relax and be more mindful, but does it work?
The idea is that keeping your hands occupied allows the mind to become still. If you struggle with normal meditation, where you have to sit and do nothing but breathe, then colouring might be for you.
Things like colouring, knitting and even cleaning, are a form of active meditation where you focus your attention on a simple repetitive task. You have to concentrate, but not too much, and this can free you from negative thoughts and create a more peaceful state of mind.
The books are filled with intricate patterns, abstract mandalas, and psychedelic designs. Some have animals, birds, or flowers, while others feature drawings of your favourite celebrities, like Ryan Gosling, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hiddleston. There’s even a Game of Thrones colouring book coming out later this year. The celebrity ones seem a bit silly, but they may be more creative, as we’ll see.
The colouring books aimed at the anti-stress market have names like Art Therapy, The Can’t Sleep Colouring Book, and Zen Colouring. They’re sold as a way to colour yourself calm and achieve a state of mindful repose. Concentrating on filling in the intricate designs helps to focus your mind in the moment so you can’t worry about the future or brood about the past. It’s also a way to recapture some nostalgia for your childhood, a time when perhaps you were happier and less stressed.
Lucy Fyles reviews colouring books on her blog Colouring in the Midst of Madness. She struggles with anxiety and an overactive mind, and finds colouring helps her to calm down. Talking to Zoe Williams in the Guardian, she said:
“I’ll go to a colouring book, I’ll be incredibly stressed, I cannot stop the thoughts swirling around in my head. And half an hour later, I’ll notice that I’m calmer. My mind’s calmed down.”
How to Not Be Zen
I used to enjoy creating colourful mandalas when I was a child. I’d spend hours carefully filling in the fractal-like designs. I wasn’t very good at drawing so the mandalas gave me a way to be creative without trying too hard. When I saw the Zen Colouring book in my local supermarket, I snapped it up – keen to relive my childhood and recapture some of that blissful ignorance.
I can’t say it’s been successful. It seems I’m quite capable of colouring and thinking at the same time. I can fill in as many swirls and flower petals and zigzags as I like, but my mind still buzzes away like a demented bee. No matter what I do, I can’t get into the flow state necessary for true relaxation.
I feel focused and in the moment for about half an hour, but after that I just get bored. I look at my design and start to question the colour choices I’ve made, or begin to think about all the other things I need to be doing and how I don’t have time to sit about colouring in unicorns.
The trouble is, calling something Zen-like doesn’t make it so. It’s the intention behind the act that makes it into a Zen practice. You can colour without being present in the moment, as I’ve found.
When you do something (colouring) in order to get something else (calmness), then the desire for the thing you want tends to work against you getting it. You get in your own way. For it to work, you have to do it for the sake of itself.
Kids don’t colour in order to relax and be mindful. They don’t need a reason to colour – they do it for fun!
Adults, as per usual, are doing it wrong.
Mindfulness is about being present in reality with whatever is happening in the moment. Focusing on the breath helps to calm the mind and creates clarity. Then you can deal with your problems more effectively. There’s nothing wrong with colouring in order to be mindful – it should work, if you do it right.
Anything can be done mindfully, then everything becomes Zen-like.
But colouring seems to be an escape from reality, a way to distract yourself from your problems. Mindfulness is the opposite. It challenges you to be present, no matter what you’re feeling. Obviously that isn’t always easy or comfortable, and certainly isn’t guaranteed to make you feel calm. Not in the short-term, at least.
Like anything worth doing, mindfulness takes practice.
Colouring Outside the Lines
Another claim made for colouring books is that they encourage creativity. Susan Striker, creator of The Anti-Colouring Book, says that “colouring books are not just innocuous but they’re actually very bad for you.” Her designs encourage you to add to the drawings because they’re deliberately left unfinished.
A bit like the Navajo tradition of creating textiles with imperfections to ensure the artist can continue to create more work. A ‘spirit line’ is woven into a rug to give the weaver’s spirit a way out so it doesn’t get trapped in the pattern.
Colouring books could be a trap for the mind. Rather than being creative, the art therapy books encourage a kind of anal obsessiveness. They’re about staying between the lines and colouring by numbers. As Kate Mossman points out in the New Statesman, they’re “the artist equivalent of writing a shopping list.” When you fill in these designs you’re not originating anything. You’re just finishing someone else’s work.
Being creative provokes anxiety. You may get into the flow while you create, but the process isn’t effortless. Colouring books are easy, and could end up discouraging imagination because they switch off your mind. Susan Striker explains:
“A colouring book can help you empty out your mind. Yet to be ‘mindful’ is not to escape from your problems, but to face them head on. The new mindful colouring books are mindless. You should be drawing your own pictures!”
The Colour Me Good celebrity books may be ridiculous, but at least they give you the opportunity to exercise your creative muscles. Here’s a lovely drawing of a horse (not by me 😉 ):
I’ll keep my colouring books and keep practicing mindfulness, but perhaps I’ll loosen up a bit. Maybe I’ll add to the designs and dare to colour outside the lines. But for a calm mind, I’ll stick to good old meditation.
Of course, for the ultimate in mindful creativity you need look no further than Tibetan mandalas. These are created using coloured sand, rather than felt tip pens, and take many days to build, starting at the centre and working outwards. A mandala is created as a blessing, and once complete, is ritually dissolved in water to symbolise impermanence. This video is a great time-lapse film of the creation of one such mandala. Enjoy!
Images: Tom & Horse