Election night was a rough one, this year. I was thankful for the distraction that being in class till 8 pm brought, despite it being very obvious that the entire class was tracking election results as they came in and collectively consumed with anxiety over what was occurring.

This is, perhaps, one of my favorite things about grad school: the permission to be as present as you choose to be. I think some undergraduate colleges adopt this policy, but my undergrad was private and particularly strict, so it wasn’t until grad school that I encountered lecturers unphased and unconcerned with students texting in class, shopping amazon, doodling, or working on small craft projects in class. In some child-counseling classes- play-doh is provided by the instructor. In particularly emotional evocative courses in my psych grad program, professors often open a course or a specific lecture with an invitation to disengage or step out of the room as needed for your own well being. This has all been a welcomed shift from classrooms where attention was demanded despite a teacher’s inability to present relevant or helpful lecture material or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, classrooms where students who attempted the self-care of drawing inward when triggered were punished for inattentiveness. It is good to learn in an environment where a student is invited to engage, but given freedom not to.

On election day, my school had coloring book pages of the 50 states of the United States set out for students. Though a very kind gesture, I knew that to keep my mind occupied and not-too-anxious through the tension of the long evening, I needed something a little more consuming than filling in blank spaces with solid colors.
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Instead of simply filling in the coloring book page with colored pencil, I used a fine point sharpie pen to create a unique texture or pattern within each state. In the final hour of class I used a set of blendable grey alcohol based markers to add depth and shading to my pencil textures. Using a black pen and grey markers to create this doodle of 50 states created depth and interest without color.

While I prefer Copic markers for grey shading, these illustration markers aren’t a great fit for a student budget. The set linked above is a non-refillable alternative to copics that’s priced for a student budget- for an even cheaper option, try the Zebra MildLiner in Grey (essentially, a grey highlighter available in singles from Amazon). Though it doesn’t blend, it works fine for creating basic drop-shadows. Experiment with a single grey highlighter and crosshatching for a shaded gradient effect.

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Why I think “Mindfulness Coloring” Isn’t Mindfulness

I’m a psych grad student studying with an emphasis on interpersonal neurobiology, and I call bullshit on the vast majority of mindfulness coloring. I’m researching this for potential publication in the future, but essentially what is being sold as mindfulness is more often dissociation. Mindfulness is, by definition, a practice of intentional awareness to the body and surroundings, and attunement to what thoughts, feelings, and sensations are found there. Dissociation comes in many forms, but one form of dissociation is becoming lost in an automatic behavior or movement- allowing that behavior to dull our awareness of ourselves and our environment.

The interesting thing is, coloring can be mindful, almost any activity can be done as a mindfulness activity, and mindfulness has HUGE benefits to our emotional and physical health and our ability do relationships and parenting well, but dissociation has the opposite effect. It’s important, if you use mindfulness coloring books, to learn to use them in a mindful way, simply coloring the pages of a mindfulness coloring book does not create the same results as regular mindfulness practice.

I hope to publish much more on this subject in months to come, but here are a few tips to make sure when you color you are getting the benefits of mindfulness:

1. When you color, only color.
If you are coloring while watching TV, listening to music, or otherwise have your attention split, you won’t be able to be present enough to mindful color.

2. Pay attention to coloring.
Ask yourself as you color: what do you notice? Notice smells, textures, colors, feelings, sounds, etc and sit with those sensations, notice them, enjoy them.

3. Invite Creativity
Filling blank spaces with color can be a difficult task to give your full attention to. Consider more complex patterns, like the ones shown here, which allow you to stay more engaged via creativity but establish boundaries to keep you from wandering too far.

4. Keep it Short
It’s difficult to do mindfulness well for long periods, especially at first. Instead, enjoy short 5-10 minutes of coloring in which you are attentive to the sensations and feelings around coloring in your mindfulness coloring book.

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Pen & Ink Prayers

As I carefully penned the detailed pattern in black and white for each state, I found myself praying and mindfully moving through prayers for the state as I spent the 5 to 10 minutes per state carefully creating a texture. As someone who struggles with prayer in the traditional sense but has found it easier to meditate and pray with pen in hand, this didn’t surprise me- but I did appreciate how the structure of the task – filling each state with a tiny inked pattern- structured my prayer.

 

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