Zen and the abstract art of detangling the mind

Zentangle is a form of meditative drawing that helps people relax their minds


I’m sitting in on a Zentangle workshop at St John of God Hospital in Stillorgan, south Dublin. The participants – men and women of all ages – sit at two tables with pencils and black markers at the ready to work on their white Zentangle squares.

Occupational therapist Peter Connolly starts by explaining that Zentangle is a new art form with roots in calligraphy, drawing and meditation. “It’s a kind of mindful drawing which encourages you to bring a deliberate focus and attention to what you are doing. The mind gets quite busy and used to doing so many things at the same time, but with Zentangle, the mind naturally begins to settle down,” he says.

Within about 10 minutes, everyone is quietly drawing lines and filling in the pattern on their square, following the line drawing Connolly has done on a large sheet of paper. “It’s a bit like a recipe. You can follow it as closely or loosely as you like,” says Connolly.

The Zentangle classes have become some of the most popular sessions on the wellness and recovery programme at St John of God since they began two years ago.

Zen and calligraphy

Zentangle was founded in the US by Rick Roberts, a Zen monk, and Maria Thomas, a calligrapher, when they discovered that the act of drawing abstract patterns with the constraint of a few basic rules was extremely meditative.

They registered the Zentangle Method and now run courses for people who wish to become certified Zentangle trainers. Historically, Zen Buddhist monks used drawing as a form of meditation.

Connolly completed the four-day course with Roberts and Thomas in 2013 and has since become Ireland’s first certified Zentangle trainer. “We were researching new group activities for people dealing with anxiety, depression and stress, and we came across Zentangle,” says Connolly.

He was particularly moved when he got a strong reaction from one client. “She said to me: ‘I’ve been waiting for something like this all my life.’ Zentangle won’t make your problems go away, but it gives you a safe contained space to regulate your emotions, calm down and manage your time,” he says.

Connolly describes Zentangle as a gateway to meditation for those who find it hard to be still and direct their attention. “When you’re drawing, other things come up, like whether you’re creative or not, whether you’re hard on yourself or perfectionist, how much pleasure you experience from drawing. I encourage people not to use a ruler or rubber. It’s an abstract, non-representational art form. All the [original] Zentangle patterns are named after things they don’t look like.”

Back in the group, some of the participants share their experiences of Zentangle. One young man says: “It’s very good to slow the mind down and relax and sit with it. You can do your own thing. There are no rules and it suits all skill levels.”

A middle-aged woman adds: “It’s very portable, so you can work on it any time.” And an older man says: “I found that my thoughts were all over the place this morning, but when I come here, I can focus 100 per cent on what I’m doing.”

From time to time, Connolly encourages the participants to notice how they are breathing and sitting. “Notice the pen in your hand, following the line, and have a relaxed focus. If you’re agitated, it’s easier to be faster, but we tolerate going slower as we become more relaxed,” he says.

College student Julie Horgan, who is 22, found Zentangle helped her relax and slow down when she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression.

“It helped me challenge my perfectionist tendencies, because you can’t erase any mistakes you make,” she says. “It made me realise that when things go wrong or not exactly as you want them to, that’s when the most interesting and beautiful things occur. Zentangle has been a big part of my recovery and I still spend about half an hour a day doing it. It helps me maintain a calmness.”

Mindful colouring

In some ways, the interest in Zentangle is part of a larger interest in mindful colouring in. Detailed landscapes, geometrical and mandala colouring books for adults and children are now widely available in bookshops. There is also a huge online community sharing Zentangle patterns on sites such as pinterest.com and zentangle.com.

This activity expands into a wider interest in patterns to do with fashion, tribal art, architecture and nature, and some people even buy and sell their images on etsy.com.

However, Connolly is keen to point out that the Zentangle form of meditative drawing is not the same as doodling. “When you are doodling, drawing is your secondary activity, but with Zentangle, your primary attention and focus is on the drawing. There is a lot of nourishment to be found in having quiet times in our days.”

See zentangle.com. The Irish group has a Facebook page called ZentangleIreland; email zentangleireland@gmail.com

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