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Colouring-in cats is the opium of the people.

I was just down in Cardiff to teach and on Friday evening I gave a talk on mindfulness, exploring what it is and what it definitely isn’t. In the Q&A afterwards we got into an interesting discussion about mindful colouring-in books.

Glancing at Amazon on the train down to Wales I was unsurprised to see 17,000 + titles for Mindfulness but was a little scandalised that there was a ‘colouring-in’ book in the top 20. In fact, Jon Kabat-Ztinn the grandfather of contemporary mindfulness only scraped in number 20, just one ahead of “Cats: 70 designs to help you de-stress”.

I have been rather startled and arch-eyebrowed about the sudden explosion of colouring-in-books at every supermarket check-out counter.

Sometimes if colouring in is what gets you through a stressful day

To my mind, the time-eating spaciness that these activities involve has nothing at all to do with mindfulness and everything to do with dissociation.

There’s nothing at all wrong with dissociation per se. We all do it and sometimes if colouring in a thousand-petalled lotus with a hundred different coloured felt-tips is what gets you through a stressful day – then so be it. But it isn’t mindfulness.

The definition of mindfulness is knowing what is happening as it happens without preference. The simple repetitive activity of colouring-in (along with playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds on your smartphone) is about choosing to not know what is going on but to fugue out into a simplified and uni-dimensional world. A world significantly designed and controlled by someone else.

People are not playing to win, they are playing to disappear into a disembodied state

There is a wonderful book by Natasha Dow Schüll: “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas” on the terrifying technology of gambling in the US. The biggest proportion of money harvested by US gambling comes, by a huge percentage, from one-armed bandits, or what we used to call fruit machines. Slot machines make so much money because the technicians behind them realised that people are not playing them to win, they are playing them to disappear into a disembodied and dissociated state.

For the modern gambling addict, winning is an unwanted break in the comforting fugue-state of sitting at the machine for hours upon hours. Some people are known to sit for up to 8 hours at a stretch and even wet themselves rather than leave the machine. Anything that breaks this spell has been programmed out. You no longer have to put money in because you used credit cards. There is no disruptive payout because you are credited your winnings. No arm to pull, it’s an electronic button.

What matters to the player is the out-of-time fusion with the machine. For the machine’s developers it’s all about “playing to extinction” (what a chilling term!). And in the most sinister of twists, there are some machines that develop a personalised relationship with known players. They will call after them by name if the player decides to leave before they have emptied their credit.

Is there a similarity between the dissociation of fruit machines and colouring-in

The slot-machine addict is the most shocking example of this addiction to dissociation. It’s not about winning, it’s about not being. Or being so one-dimensional that there is no space for worry or the jangling, horrifying demands of reality. That is until the money runs out and the players have to face the even more horrifying reality of what their 8 hours at the machine have cost.

I was talking to a fan of the colouring books about whether there was a similarity between the dissociation of fruit machines and the pernickety art of colouring-in. In the end, we decided it was to do with how we felt at the end of it. I certainly know that when I got caught up with Angry Birds I never finished a session feeling particularly enriched. I have to admit that I haven’t done any colouring-in but I imagine that it’s not so different.

It’s not art. It’s the same sort of structured dissociation as the fruit machines where we might feel like we’re being creative but actually, we’re just doing what the designer tells us. Contrast this with normal drawing. Picking up a pen and drawing a landscape in front of you is intensely mindful. You are fully aware of the world around you, your emotional response to what you like and don’t like and you are co-ordinating your eye with your hand. Colouring in a mass-produced template is not.

It occurred to me that something similar (though not identical) lies behind the resurgent popularity of minimal music.

The colour-inner disappears into the timeless realm of felt-tip pens

The 1970s minimalism of Reich and Glass was a reaction to the complexities and opacity of much serialist music but the more recent surge in these artists’ popularity in the iPod age (Glass particularly has profited from a massive upswing since the 90s) might have something to do with the similarly timeless, narrative-less quality of their music in an age of painful overstimulation. (The same is true, of course, of the timelessness of the ecstasy fuelled rave and its minimally inspired music.)

Just as the gambler disappears into the timeless, stressless dimension of machine-fusion and the colour-inner disappears into the timeless realm of felt-tip pens and clearly defined boundaries, so the music listener can disappear into a timeless, spaced-out repetitively soothing world of sound.

I found Glass’ Einstein On the Beach, deliriously exciting when I discovered it in my teens. But I was a closeted gay teenager that had a great need to disappear into something exotic and other. There was indeed something dissociative about my fetishism of his music.

I want to repeat that this is not necessarily a moral distinction. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with escape or switching to a less-stressful timeless zone when one is overwhelmed. What I am objecting to is that escape being branded mindfulness.

Just because you’re stressed or unhappy or feeling criticised, you don’t check out

Mindfulness is the very opposite of being an ostrich with its head in the sand. It is about – sometimes painfully – opening up to the realities of your life. Your senses, your thoughts, your surroundings, your relationships and crucially, your emotions. Just because you’re stressed or unhappy or feeling criticised, you don’t check out. You stay with this whole 10-dimensional mess and own it.

It’s this thickness of experience that allows change, development, narrative, story.

There is something symptomatically directionless about minimal music. And I’m thinking more about the million and one pale imitations of Reich and Glass that plaster many adverts and film soundtracks. As well as the hordes of ‘ambient’ imitators of Brian Eno. There is a comforting lack of bothersome conflict, resolution and development which were the mainstays of ‘sonata form’ for so many centuries of music. Even the temporal blocks of the chorus, refrain and middle eight have more vectors than a ‘soundscape’.

Again, I’m not disparaging this wallpapery aspect of music. Sometimes you want something inoffensive to just off-sett the jangle of the day. But it’s interesting from a dissociative point-of-view how often, for example, I end up picking Spotify’s ‘concentration’ mix to work to and sometimes I don’t want a big ‘story’ or even words in my soundtrack. I just want something to disappear into – nothing blowsy or operatic, just something unchallenging and preferably unending.

The relentlessness of consumer society is abrasive and exhausting

For a mindfulness practitioner, this is the very thing that practice exists to challenge. We resist the urge to ‘zone out’ and hide our heads in the dissociative sand. We stay in the story and the abrasion of life in order to respond skilfully to it. The relentlessness of consumer society is abrasive and exhausting – but pretending it isn’t while we colour-in is not the answer. Because – from a political point of view – dissociation is the very thing that allows this crazy system to exist. If we didn’t check out into colouring-in or Angry Birds or inoffensive TV. Then we would notice how relentless the demands of the Moloch are and we’d be up in arms.

Not religion, but colourful cats. This is the new opium of the people.

I’d love to know your thoughts about colouring in. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.

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