By Claudia Dauden

Is colouring mandalas just a hype or can it really help ground us in the present moment?

Colouring is an activity that we tended to associate with children, but is not restricted to them anymore. Mandala colouring books for adults have become more popular than ever – aiming for stress relief, relaxation and mindfulness, with about 3.9 million volumes sold in the UK and 12 million in the US during 2015 (1). And not only are consumers buying more physical colouring books, but they are also spending more in mobile colouring apps. In the US, the top 10 colouring books for adults’ apps from the first quarter in 2016 generated more than $21 million, doubling the revenue growth of all iOS apps during the same period (2).

Where do mandalas come from?

Despite the current hype, colouring books have roots reaching back 1.000 years in Tibet (3). Buddhist monks drew images of an enlightenment for days, placing individual grains of coloured sand alongside to create a mandala that would be later swept up as a reminder of the impermanence of life: nothing is forever. Mandalas are made of different layers that always start from an epicentre and grow outwardly. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, in general all mandalas have outer, inner and secret meanings. On the outer level they represent the world in its divine form; on the inner level they represent a map by which the ordinary human mind is transformed into an enlightened mind; and on the secret level they depict the primordially perfect balance of the subtle energies of the body and the clear light dimension of the mind. The creation and contemplation of mandalas are used to focus attention, as a spiritual teaching tool, and as an aid to meditation.

In the West, the psychologist Carl Jung was the first to suggest the healing nature of mandalas, providing tools to people for communicating through drawings what words cannot such as in art therapy (4). For the last years, mandalas have been broadly used in psychotherapy for relaxation, self-expression and raising self-awareness. For instance, Susanne Fincher claims that “making a circle always brings order to things. Order begets patterns that the mind can grasp and understand. Each time you turn a circle or colour a mandala, you invite a little harmony into your life” (5).

Mandalas and mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, bringing awareness to what we are experiencing without judgement (6). Drawing on Jung’s work, researchers have studied the positive effects of mandalas on wellbeing. For instance, Curry and Kasser compared the reduction in anxiety when colouring a mandala against a blank page (7). They found that people who coloured a mandala showed greater reduction on anxiety than those who coloured a blank page. In their paper, they claim that “when individuals colour complex geometric forms, they are provided an opportunity to suspend their ‘inner dialogue’ and to deeply engage in an activity that removes them from the flow of negative thoughts and emotions that can sometimes dominate their lives.”

Chenrezig Sand MandalaThe process of colouring mandalas is a soothing experience for many, and is not restricted to a specific material to accomplish it. People use from crayons to watercolours, paint on paper and wood, in both big and small canvas. So, what are the main principles of this practice that engage to be a mindful activity? Maybe it is because when we colour mandalas we focus on a particular activity and not our worries; or maybe it is de-stressing because it brings out our imagination and takes us back to our tranquiller childhood; or maybe because it is a multisensory experience in which we can feel the tactile-visual-smell feedback of putting pencil to paper (8).

About the Author

Claudia Dauden is an AffecTech Early Stage Researcher (ESR) and PhD student based at Lancaster University in the UK. As part of the AffecTech research team, Claudia’s broad research explores neurofeedback, and affective haptics to design and develop new interactive personal technology to support mindfulness training and emotion regulation. AffecTech is established with help from the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network funded by European Commission Horizon 2020.

Notes:

1. Nielsen BookScan. Child’s Play: Millennial Women Drive Sales of Adult Coloring Books. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2016/childs-play-millennial-women-drive-sales-of-adult-coloring-books.html. Published 2016. Accessed December 8, 2017.
2. Sensor Tower Store Intelligence. Consumer Obsession With Adult Coloring Books Is Creating a Revenue Boom on the App Store. SensorTower. https://sensortower.com/blog/adult-coloring-book-apps. Published 2017. Accessed December 14, 2017.
3. Tucci G. The Theory and Practice of the Mandala: With Special Reference to the Modern Psychology of the Subconscious. Courier Corporation; 2001.
4. Slegelis MH. A study of Jung’s Mandala and its relationship to art psychotherapy. 1987.
5. Fincher SF. Coloring Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression. Shambhala; 2000. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=zi2EMSXbAgwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA3&dq=mandala+coloring&ots=kFSLDXNMqf&sig=7gVJLp3QYB3hvT3-tcFNswWoiS4#v=onepage&q=mandala coloring&f=false. Accessed October 10, 2017.
6. Kabat-Zinn J. Wherever You Go, There You Are : Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hyperion e-book; 2009. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Y3VrAwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT11&dq=wherever+you+go+there+you+are&ots=93wh7GfoeF&sig=tCANfJzrnyA2XanyCRw_hEtsfWM&redir_esc=y. Accessed November 2, 2017.
7. Curry NA, Kasser T. Can coloring mandalas reduce anxiety? Art Ther. 2005;22(2):81-85. doi:10.1080/07421656.2005.10129441.
8. Lusebrink VB. Art Therapy and the Brain: An Attempt to Understand the Underlying Processes of Art Expression in Therapy. Art Ther. 2004;21(3):125-135. doi:10.1080/07421656.2004.10129496.

Image: Photo of a Chenrezig Sand Mandala created and exhibited at the House of Commons on the occasion of the visit of the Dalai Lama on 21 May 2008, republished via Creative Commons license.