How Coloring Books Taught Me to Meditate

I was on a flight recently when, shortly before takeoff, I noticed my seatmate take out a coloring book. Interesting, I thought—she didn’t have any children with her, and I side-eyed curiously as she pulled out some colored pencils and began filling in the black outlines. 

Fast-forward four hours: With more than an hour until we were set to land, I had already touched down somewhere in the region of Stir-Crazy. I had exhausted my pre-downloaded TV episodes, flipped through the in-flight entertainment to no avail, and was too bored just listening to music on Spotify. But I glanced over at the woman next to me, and she was still peacefully coloring. And that’s when I realized that she was on to something.

I fancy myself mindful; I’m big on the benefits of near-daily yoga and am usually my office’s go-to gal for all things New Age, spiritual, and alternative wellness. But I’ve been in a funk with meditation lately, and I blame it on getting sucked into our society’s black hole of electronic devices. It’s gotten to the point where I need to be doing several things at once in order to feel satisfied, even if it’s checking Facebook with Netflix on in the background. All of this makes it very hard to sit still and do nothing but focus inward.

Which is why it was such a lightbulb moment for me when I saw that woman coloring—even just training her mind to focus on one thing for a stretch of time seemed like good practice, and I knew that this could serve as my training wheels to get back into my ideal meditation practice. What I didn’t quite realize is just how much of a thing coloring for mindfulness already was—my fellow passenger was simply participating in a much larger trend.

You know when you learn a word and suddenly start hearing it everywhere? That’s kind of how this went down for me. Not a week after I stepped off that plane—with plans to try my hand at a couple of coloring books at some point—the aquatic-themed Color Me Mindful ($11) arrived to my attention at the office, as if I had willed it to. Just a few days later, there it was in The New York Times, of all places: “We’re All Artists Now, the headline declared.

In it, author Laura M. Holson underscores the rise of coloring for mindfulness, as well as the resurgence of existing stress-relieving doodling fads like Zentangle, the mental benefits of which are backed by science. She notes that like many other mindfulness-geared activities, it’s even helpful for dieting. And the trend isn’t limited to coloring: “Mayo Clinic recommends the benefits of painting and ceramics,” says Holson. “In a recent four-year study, it reported that people who took up creative activities in middle age were less likely to suffer memory loss.”

I’m not middle-aged, but the constant buzz of work and Internet and Instagram and Facebook and every other virtual distraction has left my mind in hazy knots lately, to the point where I forget even the most obvious things. That is, until a few weeks ago, when I finally put coloring pencil to paper.

On a weekend afternoon when I didn’t have much else to do, I shut my laptop and pulled out Color Me Mindful. Though I felt a little silly at first—the last time I’d done this had to have been nearly 20 years ago, right?—nearly three hours later, I had completed a drawing of a fish, and more importantly, my mind felt at ease—and sharp! I went to the grocery store without a list and somehow remembered everything I needed, which hadn’t happened in ages.

It’s been nearly a month, and last week marked the first time I was able to meditate again without getting up mid-session. I lay there for almost an hour and remembered that this is why I used to turn off my phone and computer for at least a short amount of time each day. The digital stuff is great—hey, it’s my job—but at the same time, there’s a fine line between having so much at our fingertips and becoming zombies because of it. If coloring is the way to remove that distraction and be in the moment, then so be it. And can we really argue with a scientific-backed reason to act like a kid again?

Have you ever tried coloring (or any other kind of creative activity) for mindfulness? Tell us about it in the comments below!