Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Coloring Mindfully

In June, five of Amazon's top-selling titles were Mindfulness/ adult coloring books (or colouring-in books, if you are of the British persuasion). The Independent, the Huffington Post and other online and traditional publications have reviewed their favorites (or favourites). Knowing of my interest in mindfulness, two thoughtful friends independently concluded this would be the perfect gift for me. I expect lots of people will find them in their Christmas stockings this year--maybe with a nice set of colored pens or pencils.
My coloring in
The Mindfulness Colouring Book

But as much as I appreciate these gifts, I have to confess I'm ambivalent about mindfulness coloring books. On the one hand, it's good to see so many people enjoying a salutary pastime -- switching off their devices and pursuing well-being. And coloring books are a lot more affordable and less time-consuming than an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Course (mine cost £225 in 2012).

On the other hand, I have questions: Does coloring actually promote mindfulness? Is there any evidence to support this? Are there ways to maximize mindfulness from coloring? Are there any potential downsides? Would other activities be better at inducing mindfulness than coloring?

There are plenty of reasons for pursuing mindfulness. Among the best-studied benefits of 8-week mindfulness courses are the prevention of relapse in depression and reduction in anxiety. But every week another half-dozen mindfulness studies or so are added to the PubMed database. Many of these studies find at least tentative evidence of wide-ranging mental and physical health benefits. Crossing my desk lately, for example, were articles suggesting mindfulness training improved athletic performance in darts and  Nordic sports and eased emotional and cognitive problems in individuals with Parkinson's disease and their caregivers. Previous posts in this blog have discussed other potential benefits of mindfulness.

But back to coloring books. Not all of the books pitch themselves as mindfulness activities per se. Some claim they'll help you "unplug, unwind," find "calm" or happiness, "manage stress," "boost strength and courage," "relax," "smile," or obtain "balance." Some dispense with self-help claims and aim their pitch at fans of you-name-it:  A Game of ThronesHarry Potter, fantastic cities, Old-fashioned Farm Lifesteampunk fashion, American Muscle Cars, 1960-1975Moms, ugly holiday sweaters, The Zombie Apocalypse, Eddie Redmayne, or Ellen Degeneres, for example.
My coloring in
The Mindfulness Colouring Book

Then there are the books that mock the genre -- including the Color me Drunk Drinking and Activity Book, Dinosaurs With Jobs: a Coloring Book Celebrating our Old-School Coworkers, and  Unicorns Are Jerks: A Coloring Book Exposing the Cold, Hard, Sparkly Truth." And, inevitably, there are the risqué titles that put the emphasis on adult coloring, including The Fetish Coloring Book, which claims it's "a remarkable way to say 'I love you' on Grandma’s birthday." Remarkable, indeed, had my Grandma received this.

So what connection could coloring actually have with mindfulness? In theory, just about any activity can be a vehicle for mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading forebear in the field, defines mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally." He writes in Full Catastrophe Living,  “It is the awareness that is most important, not the breath nor any other object of attention.” Students in mindfulness courses (such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, MBSR) are typically assigned to practice an everyday activity mindfully. This could be eating a raisin, brushing teeth, or washing dishes, for example. So why not coloring?

Unfortunately, only anecdotal observations support the efficacy of mindful coloring books. The pro-Mindfulness HuffPost, for example, offers  personal testimony and interviews clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis who sites "a long history" of coloring-in for mental health. But beyond informal accounts, I've found no scientific studies of mindfulness through coloring.

It's understandable. Most of the research showing benefits of mindfulness tests people before-and-after MBSR or similar programs. Even after 8 weeks of classes and home practice, the benefits of mindfulness tend to be subtle. So, if I had to make a prediction, I'd say it's unlikely psychologists would be able to to prove large benefits from episodic coloring without additional mindfulness instruction.

My mindfulness coloring books give a brief introduction to what mindfulness is and how to color mindfully. Colour me Mindful has an introduction by Oli Doyle advising, "Mindfulness is the art of present moment awareness, of being alert and relaxed at once." Doyle invites you to take "a little holiday from thinking, stepping into the present moment," and "Take a breath and feel the air coming and going."

Emma Farrarons' introduction to The Mindfulness Colouring Book offers this instruction:
Being mindful is about paying attention to the present moment, clearing your mind of distractions and focusing on simply being. Pretty much any activity, done right, can be an exercise in mindfulness . . . But the act of colouring in -- carefully and attentively filling a page with colour, the feel of the pencil in your hand as you meditate on the beauty of the whole illustration -- is particularly suited to mindful meditation.
Would these instructions be enough to help people color mindfully--to assure the activity was "done right"? Signs suggest not.  In a glowing article about the Harry Potter coloring book, the thing that author Dasha Fayvinov likes about coloring is, well, basically the opposite of mindful:
I like to sit for hours and let my mind go . . . Now I can sit for hours and think about everything while my hands are furiously coloring ....
Fascinating research by Matt Killingsworth suggests that, contrary to Ms Fayvinov's experience, mind-wandering -- mentally roaming anywhere beyond what you're actually doing -- undermines happiness. And that applies even when your mind ventures to more pleasant times and places than the present.

Author Julie Beck says she colors while she watches television:
In the admittedly brief time that I have had this colouring book, it has filled a particular activity niche for me, which is “something to do with my hands while I watch Netflix.” Other activities in this niche include: knitting, painting my nails, texting, putting candy in my mouth. End of list. ... I really do think that a lifetime of multitasking has left me occasionally incapable of subduing the entirety of my mind with one activity."

Multitask-coloring is, again, pretty much the opposite of cultivating mindfulness.

What really tipped me off that coloring might not be leading to mindfulness was a Face Book post by a good friend:
I've been trying out coloring before bedtime as a possible way to sleep better. Most of the books I've tried I've found stressful—either the patterns are so detailed that it takes hours to color them and my arthritic hand can't color and stay within the tiny pieces, or the patterns are so large that after coloring a cat, I end up with a blob with a tail.
Reading the reviews of coloring books on Amazon showed my friend's experience was not unusual. One reviewer wrote, "Didn't relax me at all. I felt more stressed trying to stay between the lines and not let the color bleed through the paper." One Arkay Adkisson commented, "Every page is so similar that it is not fun, relaxing, or enjoyable." Other comments: "Not what I expected. Boring." and:
Almost every picture looks the same and the coloring area is very small. The book is advertised as 'relaxing'. How could it be when the spaces are so tiny? Very frustrating and I'll probably be unable to use the book. I was really looking forward to receiving the book with pencils, etc. The whole purchase delivery is a bad experience and a HUGE let-down.
These problems parallel the challenges people encounter all the time in mindfulness meditation practice, which can be unpleasant in similar ways -- boring, frustrating, not relaxing, not what you'd hoped or expected; strange; embarrassing.

Dealing with these and other challenges is maybe not the main point of mindfulness, but is certainly important. That's where a mindfulness teacher might be more helpful than the two-paragraph blurb on the inside cover of a coloring book. Mindful coaching would help you to notice discomfort, but not struggle; respond mindfully, rather than react automatically; and be more patient and kind to yourself.

An MBSR course would give you tips on how to pay attention purposefully, non-judgementally, in the present moment. As simple as it sounds, it can be really difficult--mostly because minds are predisposed to falling into the same old ruts. We do things on autopilot without noticing anything at all; we slip into rumination, mind-wandering, harsh self-criticism, and worry, for example.

Many of these problems stem from a part of the psyche that is constantly evaluating. Is our experience good or bad? Better or worse? As nice as expected? Am I more relaxed or more tense? The judging may turn unkind and self-critical. Human evolutionary history favored survival of the vigilant and thus left our species predisposed to anticipate and detect the negative; primed to freeze, flee, or fight even imagined threats. Cue the stress hormones! These reactions might have been beneficial when our ancestors were facing down sabre-toothed tigers, but deployed against coloring books and similar 21st Century problems, only compound our distress.

Mindfulness is intended to help people avoid the mental ruts--to experience the present moment, good or bad, and to find appropriate responses rather letting automatic stress reactions prevail. Mindfulness re-trains the brain through kind, gentle focusing of attention to the input from our senses. This input could be from coloring, or it could be from lots of other activities. What you use as your focus is less important than how you practice -- and that you practice. Over time, you may develop your skill at intentionally directing your brain along constructive paths--away from anxious chatter that can keep you awake at night, for example.

It was clear in the MBSR class I took that different practices worked better for different people. Some found it much easier to practice mindful walking rather than sitting, for example.  Similarly, it might be that coloring is not an easy place for some people to start mindful practice, especially without more detailed advice than is to be found in a coloring book.

But you won't know until you experiment mindfully. To flesh out your coloring book advice -- short of taking an 8-week course--I'd suggest trying the guided mindfulness practices at FreeMindfulness.Org. By listening to the coaching of a breathing practice or a body scan, you'll get a better picture of what mindful practice entails. Then just go to it -- dance, sing, knit, cook, drive, walk -- or color-- mindfully.

As my own personal experiment, I've created and recorded a script for a guided mindful coloring practice below. I'd be interested to hear what you think...

Bonus links:


Guided mindfulness coloring practice:

Click For Audio of Guided Mindful Coloring [oh, bother. Can't get this to play, but the link will take you to a page where you can click on "soundfiles" and then download the MindfulColoring mp3 file]

Finding a quiet and comfortable place to color, where you won't be disturbed for awhile. . .  Deciding now how long you will be coloring. This guided practice will be about 11 minutes, but if you are practicing on you own, perhaps you might want to set a gentle timer or some soft music that will play for the time you've made for this exercise.

Bringing together the materials for coloring--pencils or pens, pages to color, a blotter page to absorb extra color through the back of the page if that's needed. . . 

And making provisions for comfort--finding a posture that is relaxed and easy, but alert, dignified, and assuring your arms and back are supported. Perhaps a lap blanket if it's chilly. 

Before you start your coloring session... getting a sense of yourself, your body and mind in this place .... Noticing your breath as it moves in ..... and out. Noticing any sensations in your hands or arms; Noticing your thoughts. Experiencing a sense of your body in the chair, the chair in the room, amidst the sounds -- or the silence, just taking it all in...the body and mind as a whole right here, in this moment. Sitting with this sense of awareness for a few moments. 

Now considering the intentions for this coloring practice-- it's just to focus your attention on your experience for a few minutes, bringing a kind, friendly attitude to yourself and your coloring. To be fully present, fully engaged in what you're doing.That's all there is to it. The goal is not to create a pretty work of art, or to finish a project, to perfect your coloring technique, or even to relax--although any of those things might happen. The main thing is noticing your very own experience -- however it happens in each moment.

Choosing a page to color and a pen to color with . . . Remembering there's no right or wrong in this... Just focusing in detail your experience . . . Perhaps noticing, without judging, the thoughts that pass through your mind as you choose a color. Maybe you choose randomly. Maybe a color you haven't used in awhile. Maybe a color that seems right for the mood of the moment. Just noticing your thoughts and, as best you can, letting them go without self-criticism.

Beginning to color--pouring your attention into the area where the pen meets the paper. . . Watching as the color starts to fill the space, and the colored area grows . . . noticing, moment by moment, bringing intense curiosity to the process, as if you had never seen coloring before...

Perhaps some white space escapes from the color ...  gently returning to color in that spot, if you feel like it, or just leaving the gaps .. noticing your thoughts as you go, being kind to yourself, and gently returning your attention to the color filling the space.

You may find your mind wandering as you color. That's not a mistake -- it's just what minds do. When this happens, notice where your mind has wandered off to and then gently bring your attention back to your coloring . . .

Perhaps after a while... finding you want to change colors or shift to coloring a new area or a new page. Just notice where your mind goes as you do that and then returning the spotlight of attention to the color going on the page. . . in this moment, and this moment, and this moment.

Perhaps some color goes outside the lines. Notice that. And  notice any thoughts or feelings that arise -- perhaps frustration, or self-critical thoughts, a sense of rebelliousness, or even amusement. . . Gently let these mental events go and return your focus to the coloring. As long as you are fully experiencing your coloring in the moment, you are coloring mindfully. . . 

From time to time, you may feel an itch or a twitch, an ache or pain. Maybe some strain in your fingers or hand. Gently notice the sensations--or even the absence of sensations--without trying to change or avoid what you feel. You might want to pause in your coloring...  mindfully moving and adjusting your posture. You might want to experiment with imagining that you can direct your breath right into sensations that arise--seeing how and whether it changes as you exhale.

Over and over returning your focus to the coloring -- bringing curiosity to this millimeter of paper in this moment. 

You may notice emotions arising. . . boredom, irritation, or maybe pleasure and pride as you color. Or maybe you don't notice any particular emotions at all. In any case, the important thing is that what you feel is what you feel. There's no need to push away or change the bad feelings or to try to hold on to pleasant emotions. As best you can, just notice ... and return your focus to the color filling the page, moment by moment.

As you approach the end of your coloring session... moving your attention away from the coloring and returning to a sense of yourself.... Noticing your breath as it moves in ..... and out. Noticing any sensations in your hands or arms; Noticing your thoughts. Experiencing a sense of your body in the chair, the chair in the room, amidst the sounds -- or the silence, just taking it all in...the body and mind as a whole right here. Sitting with this sense of awareness for a few moments. 

Beginning to bring yourself back to your ongoing day or evening... Maybe giving your fingers and toes a gentle stretch. Putting the pens or pencils in a container, if that's where they belong. Having a last look at the page you have been working on. Without self-criticism, noticing the new colors on the page and giving yourself a mental hug for taking this time to care for yourself. 


  1. Thank you so much for this post on how to using coloring for mindfulness and relaxation.

    One discovery I made by paying more attention to my body and less to the coloring page is that my various forms of arthritis don't just make coloring difficult, they make it painful. (I have gotten so successful at shutting out pain that sometimes what clues me in is frustration or annoyance.) So I am now trying:
    (1) a coloring book in which the background is black, so one doesn't have to spend any time coloring the background and can focus on choosing colors or leaving certain areas white.
    (2) I ordered a coloring book and a notepad from http://www.angiegrace.com/my-books/, who has a line of larger designs for people with arthritis or fibromyalgia.

    I went to the "Colouring in the Midst of Madness" blog you recommended. Many of the books are available here in the United States. I ordered one she reviewed, Doodle Artist Fanciful Rats, because one can mostly color the beautiful rats and not bother with fancy backgrounds that seem irrelevant.

    That blog was also good for me to see some of the fun ways one can experiment with coloring a page, leaving some or most areas white, dividing the page with a grid and coloring each square differently, etc.

    Thanks for spending the time to write this post, which I will read carefully tonight and try out some of your suggestions..

    1. Hey, Shauna, it sounds like you're successfully experimenting and making your way to an approach that works better for you. One of the things I've noticed about mindfulness teaching is that it's flexible. "Try x if it feels right for you," and "as best you can"... They encourage experimentation. There are a few things that I would say definitely aren't mindfulness (like multitasking and being unkind to yourself), but lots more approaches that can be worked into a mindfulness practice...

  2. "Colouring is a great way to introduce yourself to the concept of mindfulness," Tiddy Rowan, author of The Little Book Of Mindfulness and Colour Yourself Calm tells HuffPost UK Lifestyle, Thanks for a great topic post.

  3. Hi, thanks for this. Would it be ok for me to use and adjust the script to be a written companion to a short coloring "book" I am distributing for a Church service on Balance for the Equinox? If so, how would you like me to credit it in the order of service and in the packet?