Saturday, October 31, 2015

Susanne Shares Information About Coloring Books

The word “therapy” is used loosely these days. We say things like, “I need a little shopping therapy,” or “being with family is all the therapy I need.” What we mean is that we enjoy these activities, and that they help us feel better. Strictly speaking, for something to be “therapeutic,” it must be scientifically proven to heal, or at the least to support and maintain, a desirable level of functioning. So, when we talk about adult coloring activities as being “art therapy,” it is important to know that we are primarily referring to the “it makes you feel better and it’s enjoyable” type of therapy.  While there are a few studies that suggest that coloring mandalas can have positive impacts such as reducing anxiety, I know of no studies that examine the coloring of other designs. 

It is also important to note that “art therapy” is a mental health profession, and that this term is not correctly used when referring to art activities that are enjoyable.  Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy in which a client and therapist work together in a relationship committed to alleviating troublesome symptoms of anxiety, depression, and/or other diagnosed mental health problems. Art making by the client becomes a medium of communication that clarifies problem areas, relationship strengths and weaknesses, and increases self-awareness, self-acceptance, and ability to function.  Art therapists prefer that their clients create their own personal, original art as self-expression, rather than working with structured designs such as coloring books. The art work then is clearly symbolic of the personal processes of the person creating it, and becomes rich material for exploration of meaning in the psychotherapy relationship between client and therapist. However, some art therapy clients are unable or unwilling to risk creating their own original work. For such clients, an art therapist might encourage coloring pre-formed designs to build client confidence so that they can produce their own art. 

Coloring sheets are sometimes used in “activity groups” for people in educational and treatment settings: students with special needs, Psychiatric patients, addicts and alcoholics, or elderly dementia patients.  This is not “therapy” but the effects are worthwhile, such as: exercising hand and eye coordination, making choices of colors, paying attention to a single point of focus, enjoying a sense of  accomplishment when a project is completed, and providing a topic of conversation—or not. A woman recently shared with me that during a visit with a beloved, but somewhat irritating, family friend, she suggested coloring mandalas as an activity. First one, then another of the family members happily took up the activity, relieving the need to converse, and providing a quiet shared activity that all could take part in – “Even my husband!” she marveled.

I recommend coloring to those who are anxious or depressed who need help learning how to love, care for, and nurture themselves. Coloring books are easily obtained,  not expensive, and provide an activity you can come back to again and again. Coloring is easily done at home, and it can also be taken along for boring moments in an airline terminal, a jury pool, or a hospital room. Coloring is good for those who want a creative activity, but are intimidated by blank canvases.

I hear from teachers that coloring is a favorite reward after completing assigned work, and coloring mandalas helps students calm, settle, and focus before taking important tests. I read recently about a nursing home in Texas where coloring was very popular with residents, and seemed to give residents a great deal of pleasure. (“Color Me Happy,” Ft. Worth, Texas Magazine, Sept. 2015) I am not aware of any research that confirms the usefulness of coloring for children and adults with special needs. However, I recommend offering coloring as an activity to anyone. If they like it, allow them to do more of it. The fact that they like coloring tells me that it is doing something good for them!

My art therapy specialty is creating and coloring mandalas (circular designs).  The word “mandala” is Sanskrit for center, circumference, or essence. Mandalas are sacred in Eastern religions, and many other religions use mandalas in their places of worship in the form of stained glass windows, gilded domes, and intricate floor patterns of colored tile, marble, and semi-precious stone. The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung adopted the word “mandala” for the circular drawings spontaneously created by his patients when in intensive psychotherapy with him. He observed that these mandalas helped anchor his patients during times of profound change that otherwise might have threatened their psychological stability. Jung attributed the appearance of mandalas in his patients’ artwork to a manifestation of a human impulse to strive for balance and wholeness.

Interestingly, all children spontaneously create mandalas between the ages of 2 and 4. This is the time when children are developing a psychological sense of self that is more than just the body that they are. They are learning that they can initiate action themselves, and produce an effect on their surroundings. They are growing out of the infant’s sense of being “at one” with everything, and learning their own limits, physically, psychologically, and socially: where they end, and others begin. The fact that mandala making is universal among children suggests that creating mandalas is part of the process of developing a sense of self.

It makes sense, then, that when adults are forced by life circumstances to make adjustments in who they think they are, creating mandalas is a natural response that supports health, healing, and wholeness. In my work as an art therapist I have observed that creating mandalas helps people stabilize and re-orient themselves amidst their life changes. It is for this reason that I am deeply committed to creating mandalas and leading others to experience for themselves the healing potential of mandalas. No doubt the buyers of coloring books have discovered this for themselves, and keep coming back for more mandalas to color!

I am as surprised as anyone by the popularity of adult coloring books. People tell me they find coloring relaxing, that they get satisfaction from completing a design with their own color selections. It is my hope that coloring books serve as a comfortable step toward exploring other forms of creative self-expression, such as drawing one’s own mandalas, painting, or clay work.  Creativity is healing in the widest sense: it helps us reach beyond ourselves, and rehearse the making of choices that can result in a more satisfying life. This all seems good to me!

For someone who is starting their first coloring project, I would suggest:

-        Pick designs you like.

-        Use simple media (good quality colored pencils are my favorite).

-        Have “try paper” at hand, so you can see what the color looks like before you color with it.

-        Experiment with different ways of putting color on the paper: light, heavy, layers.

-        Be gentle with yourself: set aside expectations for perfection (whatever that is!).

-        You might enjoy using your coloring book like a journal: record the date(s) of your coloring, and jot down a few lines about what you are thinking and feeling. 

-        Revisit your work: you may not like the results of your work at first, but taking a look at it a day, a month, or a year later your opinion may be quite different.

-        Coloring is about making choices, and the colors you choose express something important about you and what you are experiencing at the moment you do your coloring. To go deeper into the significance of your color choices, see my book: Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression (Shambhala, 2010) Chapters 3 and 4.

To someone on the fence about buying their first adult coloring book: Try it! You just might like it! A lot!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Counselor's View on Mandalas and MARI

My letter to the editor was published in the most recent Counseling Today issue. Here is the complete text before editting for length.

As a former student of art therapist Joan Kellogg, I was delighted to find an article about her work in Counseling Today (Takei, Michele, “A Visual Picture of the Human Psyche,” Counseling Today, Vol. 57: Number 10; pp. 40 – 47). I discovered Kellogg’s ideas following a challenging time in my life when I spontaneously began creating mandalas. I found her informal research into color, form, and symbols in mandalas to be fascinating, and I have continued my exploration of mandalas ever since. 

Kellogg’s schema of the Great Round resonates with my felt experience of life’s varying stages: ups and downs, with high and low energy, productivity and repose. The Great Round taught me that each and every life experience is worthwhile.  Nothing is wasted, there are no dead ends. It appeals to me because it allows me to befriend myself. Before, I had lived life as a wrestling match where I wheedled, bribed, or shamed myself into maximum productivity at all times, in the hope of inching closer to an elusive goal of perfection, attainable only now-- or never. Embracing the concept of the Great Round, I have come to know the value of waiting, the importance of celebrating successes, and of letting process unfold along more natural lines.

While trained in the use of MARI cards, I have always preferred creating mandalas myself. The mandala designs of Kellogg’s Great Round are evocative, and derive from some of human kind’s most ancient art forms, but there is insufficient research to clearly connect any image with a particular meaning. While a connection between the color red and blood is compelling, as mentioned by Ms. Takei in her article, the meaning of colors is also influenced by culture and individual experiences. For example, the color red can also signify flowers, birds, happiness, anger, sunset, sunrise, a sports team, or an Asian wedding dress. Therefore, a counselor cannot speak from a place of certainty about the meaning of a particular image or color. Furthermore, even the most sensitive counselor cannot fully grasp another person’s experience adequately to interpret what their client’s choices mean.

Any image which stimulates imagination can be termed a projective, and can be useful to a counselor working with a client who has difficulty verbalizing. When using a technique such as creating mandalas or choosing MARI cards and colors, we as counselors must remember that we are ethically bound to do our best not to force our ideas on our clients. As a longtime teacher of creating mandalas, I encourage my students to claim their own tendencies to project onto their client’s image by prefacing their comments with, “If this were my mandala (MARI card, color choice), it would suggest to me ________.” And then invite the client to join this line of exploration with “I’m curious about your ideas on this.” Or to observe, “I see you have chosen red. Please tell me something about what red means to you.” Or, even better, to simply say, “Tell me about your mandala (MARI card, or color choices).” In my books about creating and coloring mandalas for self-care, I give additional guidelines for supporting persons entering into their own informative dialogue with deeper, unconscious parts of the psyche.

As counselors we cannot interpret another’s experience. We can, however, witness, reflect, support, cherish, and accompany our client on their journey toward wholeness.

Susanne F. Fincher, MA, LPC, ATR-BC, CPCS   
Author: Creating Mandalas, The Mandala Workbook, and Coloring Mandalas 1, 2, 3, and

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Coloring Books for Adults

I was contacted a few days ago by a writer at CNN doing an article about the popularity of coloring books for adults. The article was posted on the CNN website April 21, 2015. Here is the full text of her questions and my answers.

CNN: What are the general benefits, if any, of coloring as therapy?

Art therapists are specially trained to provide psychotherapy combined with the visual arts. Art therapists assist clients in their use of art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to meet personal goals and needs. Art therapists abide by a professional code of ethics that requires they carefully consider the needs of their clients when determining art projects. People who do not have training and professional credentials cannot ethically refer to themselves as art therapists or their ventures as art therapy.

Art making is a powerful intervention. Neuroscientific research has shown that through the use of art therapy, the human brain can physically change, grow, and rejuvenate. However, offered by unskilled practitioners, art making can make chronic problems worse, or awaken the painful symptoms of traumatic stress.

Most art therapists encourage their clients to create their own original art work rather than color pre-formed designs. However, coloring designs in coloring books is one of many projects a professional art therapist might use. 
   For a person who is afraid to draw
               For a person with brain injury who is unable to draw
               For a person who needs help controlling anxious, angry, sad, or lonely feelings between art therapy sessions
               For a person who would benefit from the pleasure of a creative outlet

CNN: Do you utilize coloring books or materials in your therapeutic practice with adults? With children?

I sometimes give clients one of my mandala coloring books for homework between sessions with me. Since the coloring book is created by me, it is a reminder of our therapy work together. Coloring mandalas can empower a client to manage thoughts and feelings on their own with the positive activity of coloring, instead of, for example, overeating or abusing substances.
The mandala coloring books I have created are intended for adults. Each one has a text introduction with color illustrations explaining what mandalas are, and how best to benefit from using the coloring book. Each of my mandala coloring books has a theme. Coloring Mandalas 1 is about the process of growth and transformation. Coloring Mandalas 2 includes mandalas that inspire balance and wellbeing. Coloring Mandalas 3 is focused on symbols and traditions of the divine feminine. Coloring Mandalas 4 is comprised of mandalas that stimulate energy and taking appropriate action.

CNN: Would the coloring projects you assign differ by the age of the client in intricacy or pattern?

Although my mandala coloring books are for adults, people tell me their children enjoy coloring them. Teachers copy designs from my coloring books and give them to students for focus before and relaxation after test taking. Church leaders use coloring mandalas on church retreats with people of all ages, and find sharing mandalas enhances connection between the different age groups. Those sitting at the bedside of a sick loved one in the hospital report welcome relaxation for themselves and the loved one observing them color.

CNN: Do patterns matter? More specifically, do you use abstract patterns to provoke a certain therapeutic outcome versus using representational images to achieve other outcomes?

I include mostly abstract designs in my mandala coloring books. This gives the person coloring more freedom to project personal meanings onto the design. Designs do matter. I rely on the circular form of mandalas in all the designs in my coloring books. The circle conveys a sense of safety, focus, and energy that most people find comforting.  I consider coloring a mandala to be the safest (least likely to re-traumatize) the person coloring. This is because mandalas are familiar: we all created mandalas when we were small. Children’s art from around ages 3 – 5 always includes mandala designs in the form of suns, people, and animals. A symmetrical mandala design with 4, 6, 8, or more even numbers of elements (such as flower petals, star points, circles, etc.) seems to be most soothing. Mandala designs based on a structure of 2, 3, or 5 tend to stir up energy. Different designs pull for varying qualities of emotional energy, so I do give careful thought to the needs of a client when recommending a coloring book.
CNN: How does color or hue factor in?

People have free choice of colors for their coloring book projects. The freedom to choose is empowering, especially for those who may feel powerless because of a personal situation, emotional problems, or physical disability. Color meanings are very personal. There are no assigned meanings for colors supported by research. An individual will have associations with colors based on their life experiences, cultural background, and emotional state at the time of coloring. I encourage my clients to choose colors that feel right to them at the moment, and not worry about what the color means. Later, if they choose to, they can go back and look at their completed project, and gain personal insights about their choices of colors. I give guidelines for interpreting colors in one’s own mandalas in my books Creating Mandalas and The Mandala Workbook.

People also have a choice of medium: colored pencils, crayons, water colors, marker pens, pastels, paper collage, glitter. For beginners, I recommend good quality colored pencils. They are easy to use, give bright, colorful results, and can be blended. For those with a weak grip or eyesight problems, markers are a good choice. Water coloring gives beautiful results for those who have skill using the medium. Mixing media is fun. Adding glitter, a tiny cut out of a bird, a dried flower, or even a snippet of a ticket to a memorable event can enliven and personalize a coloring project.

CNN: What are the physical and mental outcomes you look for when employing art therapy such as coloring? For example, are you hoping to achieve: lowering blood pressure, stress relief, or relief of mental illness symptoms?

Outcomes I hope for from a mandala coloring book experience:
               Stress relief
               Better mental focus
               Improved mood
               Reduced anxiety
               Pride in accomplishment
               Sense of personal efficacy
               Courage to try making their own art


Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What is Special about Drawing in a Circle?

What is special about drawing in a circle? Isn’t any kind of art making beneficial for discerning our unconscious?

Drawing, painting, collage, or pottery: all carry very personal messages from hidden parts of ourselves that deserve our conscious respect and attention. Working with our hands using such materials stirs healing energies within us, and allows expression of feelings that we cannot put into words. Journaling; paying attention to our symbol vocabulary as expressed in our dreams; discussing our creations with a trusted person or group are ways to gain awareness of these messages. This is all very good, and good for us. However, it seems that doing this creative work inside a circle has additional benefits.

The shape of a circle is embedded in elements in our body (eyes, breasts, pregnant womb) and this similarity naturally attunes us to respond deeply to the form of the circle. We take in and process information about our surroundings through the circular openings, or pupils, of our eyes.

Orienting ourselves in our natural surroundings, we refer to the horizon line when we can to establish the furthest point we can see. This line is a huge circle around us, clearly marking a portion of the earth to which we can relate with visual knowledge. In some way we consider this our territory, conflating it with our physical being/identity.

In our social milieu, we tend to claim our social space, a circular space a few inches outside our physical body, as our personal safe zone. We prefer that most people come no closer to us than the boundary of this personal zone. Our intimate friends and family we are comfortable allowing them to come closer.

Examining the art of young children around the age of 3 reveals the importance of circle drawings. At this important time, children are developing a personal identity, such that they begin to call themselves “I” instead of the 3rd person naming such as “baby,” or “Billy.” They create mandala drawings of suns, stars, …. And people. I have witnessed a toddler name her drawing of a circle “baby,” her nickname in the family. She was processing the idea that she was an individual, a little person like no other.

This alignment of the circle with personal identity is one that CG Jung experienced in his art and that of his patients. He constructed his theory of the psyche as a central organizing principle anchoring personal development. The psychological experience of this psyche, Jung found, is often expressed in a circular design he called mandalas.

Gestalt psychologists find that the circle is a powerful form that organizes information, and tends to structure what is placed inside.

When we draw in a circle, we are inviting all these layers of meaning, personal identity, and potential for organizing and understanding to reveal themselves in our personal symbolism. The circle, like a microscope, brings context and focus to our self-reflection. For Jung, drawing a circular mandala was the pre-eminent indication that the process of individuation was actively shaping the psyche to become a more complete expression of its potential.

Mandalas in Fiction

I'm reading The Plumed Serpent by D.H. Lawrence. It's about a man who is deeply called to revive the pre-Hispanic religion of Mexico. He channels Quetzalcoatl, the god of the Aztecs. He liberates the local church, and paints it inside in bright colors: green, yellow, red, black, white. Natives are summoned there by drumming. They dance their ancient circle dances. I love the descriptions of the drum circles, the firelight, and the energizing influence these have on the local people. The book is placed near Lake Chapala, Mexico. I just came back from a two week stay in this area, happy to see that bright Mexican colors are everywhere in the village of Ajijic where we stayed. It's an old book, and not exactly politically correct, but I find it quite interesting.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Center in Mandalas

Circles appear in nature, in the sun, moon, stones, caves, flowers, and so on. Human beings have learned to draw circles, perhaps imitating the forms they saw in nature. A circle can be created with a single flourish, a stroke of the brush. This is an important meditative action in Zen Buddhism. The resulting empty circle is called an "enso." The more common way to draw a circle (without a paper plate!) is by establishing a point to become the center of the circle. Using this center as an anchor point, a string, stick, or other instrument is swung 360 degrees around the center to draw a circle. This necessary action in the creation of a circle has become intensely layered with meaning. For example, in a large circle, a person may stand on the center to draw the circle. Thereafter, the center point becomes cognate with the person herself. The surrounding circle can manifest the universe of which the person is a part. Even looking at a smaller circle, the artist can identify with the center as if they were standing there. Therefore, the centered circle can help the artist feel a part of the Cosmos. This establishes a line of thought whereby the center of the circle can also be thought of as the Center, the navel of the world, the Oomphalos where creation manifests, where all that is enters into being. 

Many legends and folktales describe the birth of a people as emerging from such a center (a cave, an underground spring, a mountain). So, the reverence for caves and mountains among ancient peoples can also be considered a focus on “centers”. People began to build structures to emulate such natural sites. The ziggurats of Iraq are stepped mountains. They are also prototypical 3-D mandalas. To mount the steps of the ziggurat is to move closer to the center of the mandala. We see similar designs in the great mandalas of India and Tibet. The message seems to be: the center is a point of perfect alignment with the powers that be, i.e., the Cosmos. Mandalas are apparently built to commemorate such an experience, and also as a guide back to that experience.

CG Jung built on the Eastern traditions in establishing his concept of the psyche (which is illustrated as a mandala). The center in Jung’s schema is the Self. So, one way to interpret mandalas is that the center symbolizes the Self. However, it is more complicated than this, because Jung opined that the whole mandala also exemplifies the Self, as well as all the psychic elements being arranged by the matrix of the Self: ego and other archetypal elements.

I personally believe that the design construction of a mandala can flow between having a visible center and having a non-visible center. Just as a center point is necessary to draw a circle, I believe that a circle establishes a center, even when you cannot see the center. It has to do with the way our brain organizes visual gestalts, or patterns. In creating mandalas you may emphasize the center or not. Depending on your goal for your mandala work, you might establish a visible center or not. I prefer to let people decide for themselves about whether to make a center point or not, so as to have a more natural expression of what they are experiencing at the time.

The center of the mandala is very important.

Friday, September 13, 2013