Zentangle once saved a Fortune 100 meeting from certain ruin.
Imagine yourself at a random table at the end of a corporate dinner. The waitstaff is clearing away the remains of baked Alaskas while the event coordinator tries to get everyone to simmer down. It’s not easy. They usually have a musician or a famous speaker at the end of these dinners, but this time it’s some married couple no one’s heard of, and the events staff is passing out pencils and paper. The chatter rises, glasses clink, people get their things together to leave, they almost can’t hear the introduction. Somehow, amid the clatter and murmurs, Maria Thomas and Rick Roberts manage to explain how to do Zentangle using a few simple strokes. Then they tell everyone to begin.
Then it got weird.
Some 300 jaded professionals shut the hell up. As they filled their 3 x 3 cards with simple strokes, complete silence blanketed the room. As they finished, each card was pinned to the wall to form a growing mosaic that became a collaborative work of art.
Later, Maria Thomas got a call from the events coordinator about ordering Zentangle kits for the corporation’s entire staff. “That meeting is always a sh-t show. Arguing, bottlenecking. No one looks forward to it,” she said. “But after your presentation, the next day’s meeting was a breeze. People worked together. Amazing energy and creativity. It was the most productive meeting we’ve had in years.”
OK, But What the Heck Is a Zentangle?
I know what you’re thinking: When does he start talking about crystal chakra tuning or essential oils? But stay with me here.
I’m writing this while we’re under lockdown. I’m writing this while the news is larping 1968. That low-key (maybe not so low-key) anxiety we’re all feeling is our subconscious constantly on the lookout for the gloveless, maskless maniac who’s going sneeze in our face. Like you, I’m pretty busy boiling my car keys and bathing my dog with Lysol and this level of paranoia and nerves takes brainpower. We’re all like an ’05 Gateway desktop PC trying to maximize RAM so we can boot up. Our minds are shutting down superfluous systems to conserve power and it’s stressing us out and sapping our creativity.
I’m serious. Look, I’m an award-winning writer. I’m supposed to be good at this. Here’s a poem I wrote yesterday in a fit of ennui:
I am on a couch
I have a dog.
Lo, the desultory tones of the illegal ice cream truck are funeral bells; forsooth
I’ve always worn a mask.
It is Tuesday.
Zentangle Is Meditating by Drawing
It uses simple tools: a pencil, a small card and four basic shapes — essentially the letters i, c, s and o. These four glyphs are surprisingly versatile. You can combine them in a seemingly endless variety of patterns to fill spaces on a card that’s divided by light, swooping lines sort of randomly added. You choose a pattern and fill the voids between the random lines and … actually, Maria and Rick explain it better:
Wait, But Why Would I Zentangle?
Because creativity is vital, not just for touchy-feely arty types but for you, too. You solve problems for a living. You’re a logic junky and a policy wonk. But the fog of quarantine is thick. You know how you told Steve from operations about how you’re doing yoga every day and meditating to stay focused and how that was a lie? This trick of filling in spaces on a slip of paper won’t carve your abs like an upward-facing plank pose, but it will cut through the bracken of working from your kitchen alcove like a hot knife through butter.
But Couldn’t I Just Doodle?
First of all, must we use the D-word? Doodling is drawing a rabbit. It has an end goal that you can screw up. It takes practice to get good at doodling. Until you do, your rabbits will look like amorous potatoes. Zentangling has no end goal. You’re not drawing a known image, you are just filling space. You can’t screw up. Even if you are a subpar artist (ahem), even on your first try (see above), your results will most likely be pleasant.
I’m Not Really Meditating, Right?
Really, you are. As soon as your pencil touches the paper you enter into a state of flow. You draw a few shapes to fill a small space and you’re in the zone. This is not hippy psychology. It’s a recognizable cognitive state named by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a pioneer in positive psychology. He defined flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.”
When you’re in a state of flow, you are fully absorbed, fully engaged, feeling fulfilled and using a skill. During these moments, you disconnect from temporal concerns. You don’t feel hungry. You lose track of time. You stop focusing on yourself. According to Csikszentmihalyi in an interview with Wired, being in a state of flow means:
[B]eing completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.
Meditation is wonderful, but it’s not instant.
A lot of people give up on meditation because they can’t seem to get into a zone. They try to dismiss the flood of thoughts zooming into their consciousness, but they can’t. Not right away. You have to train. You have to try. You can’t fail at Zentangle. In fact, incorporating mistakes is a feature. By looping your errant strokes into the evolving image, you kind of let go of the idea that you’re making mistakes.
You realize you are creating something beautiful.
The 3 x 3 card you fill with Zentangle shapes will look pretty good tacked up on your cubicle wall. And it will feel great to make something that looks this good. As you fill in the spaces you might get a little excited — maybe it’s been years since you even tried to draw. Or meditate. Yet every time you do a Zentangle, you zone out and end up with a gorgeous token of your mindfulness.
Yeah, But How Will Zentangle Help My Firm?
Mindfulness training. All those benefits people are all-capping about mindfulness (irony) are achievable. Getting your staff to meditate is not. Nobody meditates on command. Most people won’t do it. They think it’s weird or they think they can’t. But drawing via Zentangle delivers that mindful Zen focus instantly — and they can do it at their desk. “A traditional mindfulness program is weeks long,” Rick says. “We noticed people access this flow state as soon as they put their pen to paper.”
Building trust in creativity. As you create these little squares of art, you begin to make creative executive choices. You broaden a shape here; you give another shape more of a slant; you make up a new shape that wasn’t in the book. These are all creative choices that work out. You learn to trust these decisions and soon your Zentangle squares are being stolen off your cubicle wall and everyone else in the office is asking you if they can borrow a blank. Your trust in your own creativity will influence your co-workers to develop the same trust. Which is good because this trust affects other work modes. “You’re not drawing a duck,” Maria explains. “You can’t fail. In Zentangle there are no mistakes. This sneaks into your life.”
Problem-solving. Isn’t this pretty much your job description? While drawing these simple fills, you disconnect from the endless churn of document curation and case law. It gives your brain a break while remaining completely engaged.
But Here’s the Real Benefit of Zentangle
It makes you feel good. Right now, you’re reading this on your iPad while explaining to your fourth grader how to throw a curveball, fixing the fonts in a 14-page brief, and cooking a steak Diane. You haven’t been out of the house for anything real in 45 days. You haven’t sat in a bar with a frigid martini since Valentine’s Day. Happy is a distant glimmer at best.
A little peace, a little Zen, and a little beauty — even at 3 inches on a side — will go a long way.
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