In the aftermath of his professional split from Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung began an experiment of writing and reflection on his life and career. Jung wrote of visions and fantasies he had as he opened himself to a confrontation with his unconscious during his personal struggles. Later he added complementary imagery, mostly in the form of mandalas (based on the Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings). The text became known as The Red Book, and although compiled from 1913 to 1950, the book was not published until 2009.
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Jung incorporated mandalas into his psychotherapy practice, as a mean through which his patients could give form to what was troubling them. Jung seemed to hit on the idea that illustrating problems can help us speak about them more fluidly. He conceptualized the mandala as a circle that contained an image or design based on the thought of the moment. (His designs were a bit different than the traditional Buddhist mandala sand paintings.) Often, through drawing, we reveal what our unconscious has been chewing on, and, in so doing, come to understand our struggles. Once a feeling or thought is out on paper, it becomes approachable. The contemporary practice of art therapy uses this technique (expressing feelings/thoughts in an artistic context) to help individuals explore their struggles and traumas.
I have always gravitated to the practice of art therapy and have used art (and crafting) as a way to express emotions and relax. When my mother died, I thought back to Jung’s use of mandalas in The Red Book. I relied heavily on the book for my dissertation, and thumbed through the color reprints of his drawings as I thought about incorporating them into my own healing practice.
I did attempt to draw a mandala image of my bursting and broken heart and the pain that felt like it was pouring out of me. I didn’t get a chance to finish it, but I did a decent job of beginning my image. Unfortunately, the image got wet and damaged so finishing it wasn’t feasible. I also realized that drawing just wasn’t for me. I loved to draw years ago when I had more free time but for this period of my life, it seems like drawing isn’t on my hobby list.
I started thinking about the geometric coloring books I used as an adolescent. They were just pages of patterns put together in a book. My mom used to buy them for me for Christmas. I loved developing my own color schemes and quilt-like designs, and I would sit with my markers or colored pencils and color for hours. I took the books when we traveled as well. It was a great way to pass the time and engage my creativity.
I thought that I could combine the idea behind mandala making with coloring. At the time, adult coloring books were becoming more popular. I passed them all the time at Barnes and Noble and at Michael’s, two of my happy places where I just stroll and explore. As I thought about how I wanted to untangle my grief and calm my mind, I decided that coloring would be helpful. I purchased some watercolor pens and a coloring book of Art Deco animals (that reminded me of Art Deco stained glass patterns) and set to work.
I found the process of coloring quite therapeutic. I could empty my mind while slowly and diligently filling in my selected image. I took my time and never rushed through a picture. The point wasn’t to hurry up and get something done; the process of completing the page is what mattered more.
I didn’t just use the book after my mother died. I used it to calm my mind during my father’s subsequent hospitalizations. Markers and a coloring book travel fairly easily. After eight weeks of isolation and an undefined end-point to this pandemic, I am going to use it again to gain a little more calm.
Adult coloring books have really taken off, and there are books of all kinds, including mandalas (of the Buddhist variety). I’ve curated a variety of coloring books in my shop at Bookshop.com (unfortunately, coloring implements aren’t included). Be forewarned that two of these coloring books include swears (if you really need to get things off your chest). Those of you who find these distasteful: kindly reserve judgment as everyone needs a different canvas in order to express themselves.
Given what we’re all going through as we live with this pandemic, taking sometime to slow down and color could be a helpful, mindful, and peaceful way to pass the time. You can make this a family/group activity as well, all coloring one design or each doing your own. You can hang the finished products as a way to document your pandemic journey. Or you can keep the images tucked away for your private viewing.
While the books are labeled “adult” there really is no reason to limit who can use them. As my daughter gets older, coloring is one of the coping mechanisms I will introduce to her as a healthy way to de-stress and channel her emotions. Kids color as a means of self-expression. Letting them know they can continue coloring as they get older will help them support their mental health in the future.
Use color palettes that fit your mood. These images aren’t meant to be shown off as a homage to your ability to color and wow people. These images are meant to represent your feelings and struggles at the moment. Don’t worry about whether someone else might think your colors are too depressing, or not bright enough. The images aren’t for anyone but yourself. You could even use a single color or shades of a single color that best represents where you are at present.
Coloring books also make good gifts for grievers in your life. Sometimes a plant or flowers just adds more work for the griever. A gift like a color book and a set of markers or colored pencils extends their attention to their own self-care.
I love these books and hope you will too. They are a great way to process your grief, examine thoughts, empty your mind, and have an artistically-driven meditation experience. Find the right book for you, select your color palette with thought, and take your time developing your piece.
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