Coloring: Not just for kids
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, brightly colored covers. My favorites had horses, unicorns, and princesses. 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.
Coloring is Making Art
We tend to think of coloring as childhood play and nothing more, but coloring is making 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 or make.
As our lives have become more and more specialized (and commercialized) we’ve reduced art to something professionals do. Art today is 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. Art is the act of creating something beautiful or evocative. And that is something we all can do. Adult coloring 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. A few adult coloring books even 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 its affects on both patients with serious illness, and healthy adults. They found that 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.)
Because coloring 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.
Why I color: Spiritual Coloring
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. I believe that coloring is (or 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 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 the use of prayer beads to keep my fingers active. Movement helps short circuit that constantly yammering monkey and let me get interiorly still.
Coloring does something similar.
My attention span has grown quite short and jagged as the internet and smartphones 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. This too is the gift of coloring.
How to Get Started with Coloring Meditation
Spiritual coloring, or coloring meditation (or whatever you choose to call it) can be a very rewarding spiritual practice. It combines physical movement as talked about above, with creative expression. In other words: it lights up your whole brain. To make it holistic and include your spirit takes one thing: intention.
If you want to turn your coloring into a spiritual practice you will need all the tools you’d need for regular coloring. A color book, coloring sheets, or coloring pages (there are many, many free options for download). You’ll need something to color with, crayons, colored pencils, markers, even watercolor pencils (color and then activate them with water for fun shading and blending).
And the most important thing: time. For coloring to be a spiritual practice requires time and space. I like to set aside at least ten minutes, preferably thirty. You might find music helps get you into prayerful or meditative mood. If you have kids set them up with their own coloring supplies while you do your practice.
Have you ever tried coloring in tune with your breath? One of the keys of mindfulness meditation is breathing and the way our breath keeps us centered and present. Try putting down sweeps of color in time with your inhalations and exhalations. (This works best with big patterns, not tiny fiddly scenes). Let your body settle into the rhythm of breathing and moving.
You may find that your need to stay in the lines grows less and less, that your worry about choosing the right colors recedes and that you can relax and sink into the creative process in a more instinctive way. Now play, play is an important spiritual practice that we tend to let atrophy as adults. What tends to work for you in meditation practice? Play with how you can adapt that to a coloring practice and see what happens.
Praying with color
Years ago I came across a book called “Praying in Color” by Cybil MacBeth. She teaches about “doodle prayer” and praying using color, shapes, and doodling. Her book is a great guide, but you can pray with your coloring with very little instruction.
It boils down to this: coloring helps to focus your mind. And that focus can either be for stillness (as with mindfulness meditation) or for a specific person or issue (as with prayer). Try it. Choose a page, perhaps have the list of people or situations you want to pray for nearby. Choose a part of your design that feels right and while holding a particular person or situation in your heart and mind (in the presence of God) begin to lay down color.
You can (say after you have colored in leaf) ad the name of the person you are praying for to that leaf. Move on to a flower and another prayer concern. Vocalize your prayers if you like, write them in contrasting or coordinating color right into your design. Or simply hold those you are praying for in the presence of the Divine as your pray. Let the beautiful thing you are creating be an offering.
Hang it up somewhere when you are done, where it will remind you to pray for them again and again. Remember: there is no wrong way to pray, or to color.
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. Our local NPR station plays the Complines service at the Episcopal Cathedral here in Seattle every Sunday night. It is a popular service with Seattle residents of all (or no) faiths. And the rise and fall of the beautiful music is a natural aid to praying and coloring quietly. (What a peaceful way to end and begin the week.)
Choose tools that you love. Don’t make yourself use a coloring book whose designs you dislike (or find too fussy or complicated) just because you spent money it. You won’t enjoy your practice and you’ll end up quitting. If you don’t like colored pencils, don’t use them. If you prefer big wet markers, use them even if they bleed through your paper. Remember: the only wrong way to color is the way you don’t get joy from.