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The spirituality of coloring
When was the last time you colored? Were you in grade school? I still remember the coloring books of my childhood. They were printed on cheap off-white art paper, bound between two shiny and brightly colored covers. My favorites had horses, unicorns, and princesses. Some included activity pages in with the coloring which I strongly disliked, what a waste of paper that could have had more coloring. Most of us left coloring behind years ago with the other trappings of childhood. It would be odd to see a man in a business suit with a handful of markers and a brightly colored page. But there are good reasons why we should still be coloring. Chief among them: coloring is excellent spiritual practice.
We tend to think of coloring as childhood play and nothing more, but coloring is making art. Art? But you don’t have to draw, it’s just filling in an outline with color! True, but that too is art. There was a time, when most human beings made the stuff of survival with their own hands, and traveled very rarely where art was something everyone did. Women embroidered designs onto otherwise utilitarian clothing and linen. Men whittled simple instruments, toys, or statues in their rare downtime. Everyone sang, and most played some sort of instrument, whatever they could afford. Sketching and drawing was considered a basic skill for a well rounded lady or gentleman. As our lives have become more and more specialized and commercialized we’ve reduced art to something professionals do. Art today is something only for master painters, or sculptures. The rest of us are meant to consume, look at, and be in awe of art; but not create it.
Art really is simpler than that, it is creating something beautiful or evocative, and that is something we can all do. Adult coloring totally counts as art in my book. Every time you pick up a marker, crayon, or colored pencil and chose what color this particular piece of the page will be you are making art. You are inventing combinations of color and form that are totally new, and expressing something that has never been expressed before. Coloring opens the world of art up to we mere mortals. Anyone can play with color, there is no need to be skilled at drawing the human form, or a master of perspective. Your hands don’t have to be rock steady, and your vision doesn’t even have to be good.
Studies on adults & coloring
When I was a child coloring was something reserved entirely for children, or perhaps their parents or babysitters playing along. But a few years ago coloring for adults took off in popularity with a few key releases that topped the bestseller lists, many without a single word inside their pages. Suddenly coloring was everywhere, there were adult coloring books, downloadable coloring sheets, mandalas, fancy coloring implements (because crayons are so 1st grade). An entire industry was born, seemingly overnight. I think most of us were a little surprised by it, but maybe also a little delighted because we really had enjoyed coloring as kids. It was nice to have permission to do it again. Coloring for adults was so popular that a number of studies were done on its effects on the adult colorer. The results of these studies surprised many who had assumed coloring was just a juvenile fad for idle people.
Coloring it seems, especially in adults, has healing qualities. Art therapists have known this for a while, but art therapy is a specialized field in a culture that does not value therapy as a standard practice for everyone. When coloring went mainstream scientists studied how it affects patients with serious illness, and healthy adults as well. Coloring reduces stress in adults, increases concentration, raises mindfulness, and helps train our brains to pay attention and remain in the moment. You can find more information in articles like this and this. Googling “adult coloring” will return pages and pages of news reports and studies chronicling all the ways that coloring benefits us as adults.
Why I color
If you needed more permission to color there you have it. Even science says it’s good for you. The benefits of coloring are strikingly similar to the benefits of meditation. In fact I would argue that coloring is (or at least can be) meditation. One of the things that makes meditation hard for many of us is the requirement to sit still. While there are good reasons for the stillness requirement in most meditation practice it creates a real struggle for people who were not raised with stillness as a skill or value, or who have physical issues with remaining still for long periods.
I for one have an annoyingly active mind, in meditation this is called our “monkey mind” because it refuses to sit still and is constantly yammering and jumping about from one thing to another like a monkey. When I first began meditating I was told that I should count my breathes as a way to still and focus my mind. After all, the mind is only supposed to be able to do one thing at at a time. But I would find myself mentally composing a grocery list while I kept count of my breathes. My poor overly active brain just took on the breath counting as one more thing required of it and kept going without slowing. Clearly something else was needed. I find that physical movement is one of the best ways to slow and calm my monkey mind. This can take a variety of forms such as yoga, walking, or even the use of prayer beads to keep my fingers active. Movement helps short circuit that constantly yammering monkey and let me get interiorly still.
When and Why
Coloring does something similar. Because it gives us repetitive, simple motions on which to concentrate part of our mind many people find it helps calm and quiet their mind and slow their thoughts. It’s a good way to wind down at the end of the day. For healthy sleep we’re told we should turn off all electronic devices at least 60 minutes before bed. A perfect time to pull out the coloring book and your favorite colors and spend some time getting quiet and still in preparation for bed. Bring coloring with you to a lecture or meeting and see if it helps you concentrate better one what’s being said, try adding your notes right into the design for even better recall. Try coloring when your mind is racing or you are feeling overwhelmed as a way to calm and center yourself before tackling whatever is on your plate.
I like playing an audio book or record while I color, letting my mind follow the words or music while my fingers add color and shade to a design. My attention span has grown quite short and jagged as the internet and smart phones have changed the way I work and live. It seems I’m always reaching over to compulsively check Facebook, or email. Sometimes the phone is in my hand before I even realize what has happened, there’s nothing new, but my brain is always looking for that stimulation. Coloring helps short circuit that knee jerk reaction. My brain relaxes and I can stay with whatever it is I am trying to concentrate on for far longer. The mental relaxation coloring brings is a boon in this crazy life.
Examples of adult coloring books
Pretty much any bookstore will have a plethora of options these days. And there are equally many options available for free download online. Below I’ve listed a few of my favorites, I’d love for you to share your favorites in the comments for us all to enjoy.
You Are Here – Jenny Lawson
Jenny’s book is my newest coloring book and probably my most unique. Unlike most coloring books hers includes words, sometimes whole pages of words. There are phrases and mantras worked into many of her images. The whole thing is a journey through darkness to light, Jenny holds our hands as we encounter our own struggles. An amazing book for anyone who struggles with depression, or anxiety. But also good for those of us who are human, and therefore have days that aren’t all sunshine and roses. In other words: everyone. I love this book, I love it’s honesty and the incredibly variety in the images. Jenny’s writing is honest and supportive and a boon to anyone.
Enchanted Forest Coloring Book
The one that started it all, or at least that seemed to ride that initial wave into insane sales. These first books (there are a number from the same author) were the first I got as an adult. The designs are incredibly complicated, I think I’ve only really “finished” a single page but for some folks the detail work will seriously appeal and the results when completed are stunning. The paper is higher quality than some other books which means you can use wetter media for your coloring if that’s how you roll. There are even “art” editions of these books (quite a bit more expensive mind you) with heavy paper suitable for painting that tears out easily so you can work flat and even frame your creations when done.
Swear Word Coloring Book
The Doctor Seuss Coloring Book
And last but certainly not least, who doesn’t love Dr. Seuss? I’m sure there are people who cannot stand his books but I still love the whimsy of them. His art is so fantastical, his world building so bizarre and strange that there is simply no way you could “make a mistake” coloring in a Dr. Seuss book. Mistakes are his M.O., the stranger the better here. Throw caution to the wind and just throw color at the page and it will make all sorts of delightful Seussian sense. Less serious than some of the other options and therefore an ideal coloring book. We all need to be less serious now and then.
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