There has been a lot in the news about the importance of meditation in both physical and mental health. There are loads of articles on doctors prescribing meditation for physical pain and depression. Meditating has been proven to change the brain in ways that reduces inflammation, a condition that leads to many health problems. I’m an advocate of meditation and have been meditating on and off for a couple of years. Experts say you need to start slow and build up your time. I’m shooting for twenty minutes twice a day. I am currently up to ten seconds once a day. There’s the rub. It’s really hard for most of us to do!

I’ve discovered a solution: making art as a meditative practice. And no, you don’t need to be Pablo Picasso to enjoy the benefits of making art. As I’m sure we can all agree, you can reap the rewards of exercising without being Serena Williams and many of us are committed to at least walking a few times a week. Tapping into your creative self is as important as exercise for the mind and the body. People seem to be figuring this out if the proliferation of paint and sip studios, community woodworking shops, senior artist colonies, and adult coloring books are any indication.

Read an article on the benefits of making art and you will see the following list over and over again: making art helps people to relax, gives them a sense of control, reduces depression and anxiety, it encourages socialization, improves cognition, increases self-esteem, reduces boredom, sharpens problem solving skills, causes the release of dopamine and develops the brain. It has very similar rewards as exercise and meditation. When you make art you are generally focused on what you are doing so you are not thinking negative thoughts. When you make it in a group, it is relaxing and social and fun. Compliments on each other’s creativity tend to fly around the table.

I had an epiphany about the connection between making art and meditation during a not too long ago Palm Sunday mass. Historically my children have behaved pretty poorly in church except for one day out of the year: Palm Sunday. Why? Because everyone is given a long piece of palm when they enter the church. During mass my kids would braid and weave the palm. This phenomena brings to mind the quote, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop and its inverse, “Busy hands, calm mind.”

I find this notion intriguing. I teach a lunchtime art program at my local elementary school. The kids come in pretty wound up and excited. While they eat, I show them a slideshow of the days project. They are very interested and engaged and we discuss the images. Once I hand out the materials and give them direction, a quiet comes over the room while they work away making their art piece. It never fails to happen. I’ve brought art projects to several girls’ get-away weekends and the same phenomenon happens. On a visit to Cape Cod, our group missed going to the beach because everyone was working on a mini paper hat project for hours! At Christmas, I gave each one of my kids a coloring book and was shocked to see them all sitting around a table, quietly coloring.

It’s not just the fine arts that are good for you but also music, writing and dance. There is a lot of buzz about living a creative life to ensure healthy aging. The documentary, Alive Inside, shows what happens when you take near catatonic older folks and hook them up to iPods loaded up with music from their pasts. They come alive, singing, sometimes dancing, and crying with gratitude for the music. The Music and Memory Project provides iPods to assisting living facilities for this purpose. The music opens up pathways in the brains of dementia patients and it can often access their memories, which they express both verbally and physically, even after the music stops.

In 2006 the NEA sponsored the Creativity and Aging Study in three different cities around the United States. The study used two groups: the Control Group who did regular activities and the Intervention Group who were given access to intensive art programs. Within a year the results were startling. “Results reveal strikingly positive differences in the Intervention Group (those involved in intensive participatory art programs) as compared to the Control Group not involved in intensive cultural programs. Compared to the Control Group, those involved in the weekly participatory art programs, at the one and two year follow-up assessments, reported: (A) better health, fewer doctor visits, and less medication usage; (B) more positive responses on the mental health measures; (C) more involvement in overall activities.”

So how do you go from being a non-creative to a person who practices art? The same way you go from being a non-athlete to a person who exercises. As the non-athlete you might start walking or jogging, join a gym or take a yoga class. Art is the same way. You can buy a coloring book and set aside some time to color each day, or if you’re more intrepid, get a sketchbook and start sketching or take an art class with an instructor. One is exercising the body, which also helps to take care of the brain; the other is exercising the brain, which helps to take care of the soul.

Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a teaching studio, art gallery and retailer of its signature art kits in Western Springs. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs: Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. Check out the Doodle Art website at www.doodleartanddesign.com.

Kathleen Thometz

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the mid.com and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...