The blurb on the back of the book had an enticing promise: “Take a few minutes out of your day and colour your way to peace and calm”.
After decades of grappling with acute anxiety, perhaps this mindfulness colouring book would be my magic bullet. I bought a pack of fancy pencils and got to work, colouring religiously for days.
Colouring books can be fun, but mindfulness can’t be bought.Credit:James Davies
But the peace I’d been promised was not forthcoming. The panic attacks did not stop and my racing brain refused to slow down. All I ended up with was a sore hand and my unrelenting inner critic screaming, “You can’t even colour right, you f**king crazy woman!”
Mindfulness, we’re told, is the panacea for all our woes. Struggling with depression? Just stare at the intricate grooves of a raisin for ten minutes. Marriage falling apart? Eat a square of chocolate one millimetre at a time.
Douchebag boss making your job a living hell? Wash the dishes with a calm and observant mind, noticing the delicate patterns on each grimy plate.
Over the past decade we’ve seen a proliferation of mindful workplaces, mindful schools and mindful eating, in a movement that has been lauded as the catch-all cure for a sick society.
In theory, mindfulness is a helpful concept. The act of quietening the mind by staying in the present, paying careful attention to the sights, sounds, and sensations around you, has been shown to have mental health benefits when practiced regularly.
But our sense of overwhelm at the pace of modern life won’t be tackled by simply taking a few deep breaths and gazing wistfully at a palm tree. For many people with ongoing mental health issues, mindfulness is a simplistic “magic pill” solution to a complex problem.
And no amount of staring at a raisin will obscure the inescapable fact that many of us work too damn much to be calm.
It’s easier for businesses to offer token “wellbeing days” and mindfulness colouring books than it is to address workforce casualisation, poor conditions or the systemic culture of overwork that leaves so many staff racing towards burnt out.
The corporate world has hijacked the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness by commodifying “wellness” while ignoring the underlying structural issues that cause so much of our stress.
No amount of staring at a raisin will obscure the inescapable fact that many of us work too damn much to be calm.
More than half of Australian workers with access to annual leave don’t take their full entitlements while the average full time employee is clocking up 264 hours of unpaid overtime every year.
“Live to work” has become a national state of mind. We are always “on” – expected to respond to messages from the moment we wake up until we turn out the light at bedtime.
I have 1,205 unread emails in my inbox. Then there are the texts, voicemails, and messages on WhatsApp Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. I feel like I’m perpetually in the middle of a conversation I never quite finish.
As we frantically juggle work with family and social commitments – humblebragging on Facebook about our “crazy busy” lives – the opportunity for downtime diminishes, while perversely our standing in society increases.
A recent Harvard Business School study found that a busy person is seen as competent, ambitious and in demand. The busier the person, the higher up the social ladder they must be.
It’s a terrible example to set for the young people in our lives. We have to learn to slow down.
And perhaps it starts with accepting there is no “quick fix” for the psychological challenges we face, individually and as a community.
While a mindfulness colouring book is promoted as “anti-stress art therapy for busy people”, we can’t expect to colour our way to clarity while ignoring the red flags that warn us life is out of balance.
It will take concerted effort to turn this cult of busyness around. At a political level, our leaders could follow France’s example and introduce legislation providing employees with the “right to disconnect” – enshrining in law the right to not reply to emails or phone calls outside working hours.
On a personal level, we could stop viewing busyness as form of social capital and instead champion those who switch off their phone and prioritise time for stillness and reflection.
It’s worth remembering that the world will not stop turning if we don’t send that midnight email or show our face at those work drinks.
Staying present in the little moments can be helpful – observing the warmth of the water on your skin in the shower or truly savouring every bite of a home-cooked meal – but mindfulness only gets you so far.
When we’re too busy to prioritise our emotional health or tackle the underlying issues that exacerbate our stress, colouring pencils aren’t going to cut it.
I’ve found out the hard way that when I cram my calendar full of commitments, my mental invariably health deteriorates.
And so I try, whenever possible, to press pause, extricating myself from the cult of busyness.
It has been a revelation to learn that saying “no” does not mean being exiled to the social or professional wilderness but can often be the greatest act of self-care.
Jill Stark is the author of Happy Never After: Why The Happiness Fairytale Is Driving Us Mad (And How I Flipped The Script)
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