Sunday, March 9, 2014

Yoga for the brain
Zen Doodling
Originally published February 7, 2014 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel
Jann Griffith has drawn several beautiful underwater
 scenes using her vast collection of Zentangle designs.

The author of "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers," Stanford professor Robert M. Sapolsky, has focused much of his neurological research on the effects of stress on animals, and by extension, humans. Sapolsky believes it is vital to understand the difference between survival stress, and the everyday human kind brought on by memories, emotions and thoughts.

"For 99% of the species on this planet, stress is three minutes of screaming terror in the savannah, after which either it's over with or you're over with," he writes. "if you're running from a lion, your blood pressure is 180 over 120. But you're not suffering from high blood pressure--you're saving your life. Having this same thing happen when you're stuck in traffic, and you're not saving your life. Instead you are suffering from stress-induced hypertension."

"When you look at the diseases that do us in (heart disease, cancer, adult-onset diabetes, Alzheimer's), they are predominately diseases that can be caused, or made worse, by stress," Sapolsky writes. "As a result, most of us . . . will have the profound Westernized luxury of dropping dead someday of a stress-related disease. That's why it's so urgent that we understand stress-and how to better manage it."
A classic Zentangle—by Jennifer Miller—is drawn
 on a 3 ½ x 3 ½ paper tile, using a black archival pen
 to draw patterns in each random section.  Jen calls
 drawing mistakes “a beautiful oops,” since you can
 easily incorporate an unplanned line into a new design.

While studying laboratory rats that received random electric shocks, Sapolsky observed several ways rats are able to cope with stress. The first way is to take their stress out on another rat by “biting the crap out of it,” writes Sapolsky. The second is to anticipate stress with predictive information—for example a warning bell ten seconds prior to the shock. The third stress reducer is having the perception of control—even if it’s only a placebo—such as having a lever to press. The fourth is to have a friend—social affiliation helps control stress.

But for me, the most intriguing stress-reducing strategy for a lab rat was the fifth way: gnawing on a piece of wood. “The guy’s not going to get an ulcer, because he has an outlet for his frustrations. He has a hobby,” writes Sapolsky. If this is true—if hobbies help us cope with anxiety and live longer healthier lives (and not resort to “biting the crap” out of our family and friends), then having an artistic outlet—especially one that is therapeutic by design—may be worth exploring.

The Joy of Zentangle

Zentangle is an art form that promotes drawing as meditation. The theory behind Zentangle is that, by making simple, repetitive strokes, you become totally focused on what you’re doing. As you become absorbed in the process, you find yourself getting calmer, less stressed, less judgmental, and feel happier and more content—like yoga for the brain.

Matthew Fitch, 7, proudly shows the
 valentine he’s just created to the January
 meeting of the Morgan Hill Zen Doodler Club.
Maybe you already doodle on a notepad when you’re bored or daydreaming, or just want to escape. It’s relaxing and transporting. Like doodling, Zentangle (also known as Zen Doodling) is easy and requires no artistic skill. says, “You cannot fail to create a Zentangle. Since it is not a picture of something, you have no worries about whether you can draw a hand or a duck. You always succeed.”

I recently took one of Nancy Domnauer’s monthly Zentangle classes at BookSmart in Morgan Hill. I’ve never practiced any form of yoga or meditation, but I definitely experienced a calming, focused state while creating my first Zentangle. A classic Zentangle is drawn on a 3 ½ x 3 ½ paper tile. Using a pencil, we drew a dot in each corner of the tile about ¼-inch from the edge and connected the dots with straight or wavy lines to create a border. We then drew a loopy “string” inside the border creating four or five random sections. Using a black archival drawing pen, we drew patterns she taught in each of the sections.

Jennifer Miller draws Zentangle
 designs on shrink plastic squares
 and then hinges them together
 with jump rings to make bracelets.

The creators of Zentangle—Rick Roberts, a former monk, and Maria Thomas, a lettering artist—developed Zentangle ten years ago as a method for anyone to achieve a peaceful, meditative state through simple drawing. Today there are more than 400 CZTs (Certified Zentangle Teachers) worldwide, thousands of Zentangle enthusiasts, and many books and websites devoted to the practice.

Nancy has also organized monthly meet-ups—the Morgan Hill Zen Doodlers Club—where her student can gather, exchange new patterns and resources, and draw together. Karen Fitch, who brought her 7-year-old son, Matthew, to the January meeting, says Zentangle is great for her son because “he can do it and be successful. We try to draw something together at least once a week, after he’s done his homework,” she says. “You’re really engaging both sides of your brain.” That evening they each worked on making valentines—filling in the letters L-O-V-E with Zen Doodle patterns.

Pam Drayton is quite enthusiastic about her latest hobby. “I’m addicted. I have to get every book there is. I’ve given this to all my nieces and nephews, and now they are Zen Doodling all over the Midwest,” she says. “I work in high-tech and it’s a very stressful job.” She says that within minutes of drawing her first Zentangle, she felt calmer. “It’s just the most relaxing thing in the whole wide world,” she says more than once. “You don’t expect it to be pretty, but this is so cool. I’m a 70s girl. I used to get detention for drawing stuff like this in class.”

Zentangle can be done anywhere with only a black pen, white paper and a pencil. No eraser is needed because there are no mistakes. An errant mark can be easily incorporated into the design, and may even “take you in unexpected and exciting new directions,” says Nancy. Its portability also allows you to improvise wherever you are—on a business card or a napkin—anytime you feel the need to relax and focus.

Jolene Hall and her daughter Nikki work on designs during
 the January Zen Doodler Club at BookSmart in Morgan Hill.
 Jolene says, “This helps me to concentrate better.
 I’ve always doodled, but now I feel I have purpose to my doodles.”
The official Zentangle website ( offers instructional videos demonstrating the basic technique, products, a newsletter, CZT training dates, and a blog with project ideas and links. There are quite a few books available on Zentangle and hundreds of pattern ideas and applications online. Zentangle patterns can also be used to decorate fabric, note pads, shoes, jewelry, cards, mugs, journals, scrapbooks, furniture, gourds, tiles—any surface that will accept ink.

Nancy Domnauer writes that, “A completed Zen Doodle project looks complicated, yet if you slow down, focus and take your time, you will create an attractive work of art!” She views the Zentangle process not only as a stress-reducing, art-producing hobby, but as a metaphor for life. “You can transfer the insight and experience of success and accomplishment to any life experience,” writes Nancy. “Something may look complicated, but you now know that you can do it, one simple stroke at a time.”

Side Note: Nancy Domnauer’s next Zen Doodling for Adults class meets Monday, February 17, from 6:30 to 8:00 pm at BookSmart at 80 E. 2nd Street in Morgan Hill.  Call BookSmart at (408) 778-6467 to register for the class, or email Nancy for more information at  Also check-out her collection of Zen Doodle designs and applications on her Pinterest page: 

Sandra Dunie of Morgan Hill made her Christmas cards
from Zentangle designs. She says, “Sometimes you
 wake up in the middle of the night and think, what can
 I do next. I never felt like I had the talent to do art.
With this, I just feel comfortable.”

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