How Coloring—Without My Son—Became My Meditation Practice

A month after the Hanukkah gift wrap got recycled, I took a quick inventory of which gifts had made the most impact on our daily lives. Firmly in the “win” column is a set of colored pencils and a nature shapes coloring book that gets played with every single day.

By me.

My friend sent me the book, “Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Coloring Book,” and the pencils, along with an equally cool artsy gift for my 4-year-old son. Thumbing through the lovely and intricate ink drawings of flowers, leaves, insects, vines and birds, I made a decision: I would dedicate time every day to coloring in this book, and I would call it meditation.

Meditation, or mindfulness practice, is front and center in the national “how to be a sane parent (and person)” conversation, with research and anecdotal evidence converging in support of a daily commitment to time spent inhabiting the present moment. There are myriad ways to practice mindfulness, from sitting on a meditation cushion to walking to doing yoga or baking bread. There’s even a Jewish term for it: kavanah, or intention. Anything you can do in a way that cultivates presence and allows you to notice distracting thoughts and then let them go can be a mindfulness practice.

I do practice yoga, and I try to do breathing exercises before I go to bed. But I have never felt successful with meditation. (Hmm, let’s add “stop feeling the need to be successful at everything” to the to-do list, shall we?) Then I read Carla Naumburg’s wonderful new book, “Parenting in the Present Moment: How to Stay Focused on What Really Matters,” and realized that mindfulness practice is just that—a practice, something I can and should connect with many times throughout the day, whatever the day may bring.

But I still wanted to carve out some time that would allow me to access that meditative space I crave as a complementary process to trying to be in the present moment while parenting, cooking or working. Enter the coloring book, which I’ve been sitting with for at least 10 minutes before I head to bed.

I color with my son fairly regularly, but those sessions are usually collaborative—which is not at all a bad thing, but it’s not meditative and it’s not the sense memory I have from childhood of getting lost in time while working through a coloring page.

With my grown-up coloring book, I can reconnect with that feeling, with an extra little zing of guilty pleasure that I’m doing a child’s activity without my child. The repetitive, proscribed nature of filling in a coloring page is fertile ground for concentrating without working, doing without thinking. It’s more than just sitting and focusing on my breath, but it’s not so engaging as to require my brain to be active.

It’s also sometimes a little boring, if I’m honest. When I ran this by Carla, the Boston-based clinical social worker and writer whose book I mention above, she had this reassuring response: a mostly fun but slightly boring activity “challenges us just a little bit to stay focused and notice when our minds wander, which is an excellent skill to cultivate, especially for parents. And yes, parenting can be boring. Hello, Candy Land. Nice to meet you.”

When my thoughts wander, the evidence is right there on the page, in color that’s been penciled outside the design’s inky boundaries. But each time my thoughts spiral and I gently bring them back to here, now, I practice leaving the mistake and moving on.

Some pages of “Secret Garden” are symmetrical—one daisy on the right side of the design, another on the left. Sometimes it’s highly satisfying to choose matching colors for each side, watching the mirrored design come to life. Other times it feels good to mismatch the two sides, un-balancing them and realizing the page still looks beautiful. I try to notice what colors I’m instinctively reaching for that evening—and then let whatever I’ve noticed go.

So, can the calm, focused feeling I get while coloring transfer over to my parenting life? Can I seamlessly move on after I make a parenting mistake? Can I live with all manner of asymmetrical things and still feel like the day is beautiful? I’ll have to find out tomorrow. Right now, the flowers and leaves have my full attention.

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