I finished the first draft of my memoir in the Spring. The writing flowed freely and quickly, mostly because it was a story that had been simmering and growing for more than ten years since my son Matthew died and then was born.
Once I had about 60,000 words and it felt like I’d reached the end, I set it aside for a couple of months so that I could return with fresh perspective.
But then… every time I tried to return to it, I felt stuck. “Re-writer’s block” you might call it. I knew it needed work, but I didn’t know where to start. I knew I was losing the thread in parts, but I didn’t have a clear enough sense of what the thread was to fix the places where it was broken. Every time I’d come to the page, I’d do a little tweaking here and there, knowing full well that it needed more of an overhaul than a tweak.
Finally, in mid-October, I felt ready to put some serious work into it.
My return to it started in a roundabout way. First I cleaned my studio. Call it a metaphor… “clearing space, clearing mind”. Once there was space for my creativity to blossom again, suddenly I found myself eager to return to the page.
I got back into it and started doing some deeper editing than I’d done before, re-arranging ideas and playing with threads. But something told me I still wasn’t going deeply enough. The primary thread still looked blurry.
That’s when I knew it was time to step away from words and let colour and play do their magic.
I picked up my coloured markers, made space on the floor for a large piece of posterboard, and got busy. Before long, I had the beginnings of a question mandala on the page. Over the next few days, whenever I could find a few minutes of spare time, I’d disappear into my studio, grab my markers, and add a few new elements to the design. I think it’s complete now.
And guess what? I’m unstuck! I found the thread for my book and I know how to weave it more strongly through the weak places! I’ve already begun to rewrite it, and my new goal is to have the next draft completed by the end of 2011.
In case you’re stuck in some project, here’s a bit more information about my process:
What’s a question mandala? A mandala is a circular art form that is common in Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It is considered sacred art and is used as a form of meditation and spiritual discipline and awakening. In Jungian psychology, mandalas are seen as representations of the unconscious self and as a way to work toward wholeness in personality.
To create a mandala, you start at the centre and move out to the edges. Different traditions have different meanings and rituals involved in mandala design. In Tibetan mandalas, for example, there is generally a square in the centre (the palace or temple) with four doors (symbolizing the bringing together of the four boundless thoughts namely – loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, and equanimity), surrounded by three concentric circles (representing the spiritual birth, the awakening and the knowledge).
Some mandalas are very symmetrical and follow “sacred geometry”, while others simply look like free-flowing art in the form of a circle.
For me, mandalas are free-flowing (yet generally fairly symmetrical) and I don’t attach meaning to any particular shape. I simply allow things to evolve as the mandala grows. In recent mandalas, I’ve begun to incorporate questions and words as they come to me, as in my Occupy Love mandala and this most recent mandala (at the top of the page).
How does a mandala “work”? First of all, it’s important to remember that a mandala is not a means to an end. Yes, I used it to help me get unstuck, but I didn’t sit down with a specific problem in mind and expect the mandala to resolve it for me. A mandala, like any form of meditation, is meant to help us step away from our thoughts, logic and problems into a deeper level of the unconscious. Like prayer, it’s a way to clear space for an encounter with the Divine.
How did it help me get unstuck? Words emerge from the left side of the brain, so the writing and re-writing I was doing, though creative, was largely left-brained work. When I get stuck in my left brain processes (logic, analysis, naming, critiquing, defining, judging, fixing), the best solution is to step away from the problem and engage my right brain. That can be done with colour, movement, play, images, and free-flowing creativity – all of which are incorporated into my process. Before long, my left brain is jolted out of the old patterns that got it stuck and begins finding new pathways to unexpected solutions.
How can you make your own question mandala? Your mandala will be as unique as you are. It emerges out of your own brain, so it shouldn’t look like mine. If you’re new to this process, though, and want some guidelines, here are the steps I took for this particular mandala.
1. Start with a large white piece of paper. Something heavier like poster board or watercolour paper works well, especially if you’re using Sharpie markers, as I do. (You could also use paints or pencil crayons. Or if you’re doing this at work – at a board meeting perhaps – use a pen or pencil or whatever you have handy.) I find it best to get down on the floor with the paper and markers and let my body movement around the circle become part of the process.
2. Think about a simple image that is connected with whatever you’re wrestling with, or one that helps you define yourself. In my case, a butterfly is closely connected to the story that emerges in my memoir. For you it might be a candle, a walking stick, a pencil, a book – anything.
3. Draw that image in the centre of the paper. Don’t worry about what it looks like – this process is for you alone and you’ll have to let go of perfection for now. (Note: many mandalas don’t start with an image in the centre, but for this particular process, when I’m wrestling with something specific, it’s where I like to start.)
4. Draw a circle around the image. If you want it to be symmetrical, use a protractor, stencil, or bowl. If you’re not worried about symmetry, simple draw it freestyle.
5. Outside of the circle, begin with whatever shape comes to mind. Don’t over-think this. This is meant to get you out of logic and self-critique, so don’t let yourself get stuck in what will look best. Just draw! If triangles feel right, draw them. If circles feel better, then just go with it. Spirals, boxes, ovals, hexagons, squiggles – whatever. Just choose a shape and repeat it all the way around the edge of the circle.
6. Keep adding new shapes around the edge, always repeating whichever shape you choose around the entire circle.
7. Once you have a fairly substantial circle, begin a spiral of questions. Again, it’s important not to over-think this. Ask whatever pops into your head without sensoring it. (As you can see, I chose to blur out the questions in the image above, because some of them are fairly personal.) Keep writing until no more questions show up.
8. Add a few more rings of shapes outside of the questions.
9. When you feel like it’s almost complete, incorporate a circle of words that represent the themes that began emerging in your mind once you wrote your questions. Again, don’t over-think it. Even if a word seems puzzling or challenging when it shows up, write it down. It might surprise you with some new insight.
10. At the edge, decide intuitively whether you feel it needs closed energy or open energy. If you feel the need to enclose it, draw a complete circle around it and decorate the circle if you wish. If you’d rather have more open energy, finish it with shapes or squiggles or spirals reaching out beyond the page.
In the Tibetan tradition, where monks make elaborate mandalas with coloured sand, they destroy them soon after they’re complete as a meditation on impermanence (a central teaching of Buddhism). The sand is brushed together and placed in a body of running water to spread the blessings of the mandala. Though I haven’t managed to destroy the mandalas I create on paper (I suppose I’m not as evolved as Tibetan monks), I occasionally do body mandalas on my skin (like the one below) that disappear after a few baths.
I love my paper mandalas and find places to hang them on the walls around my studio or in the hallway leading to my studio. They remind me to bring colour and meditation back into my life, and sometimes they surprise me with new insight when I look back over them.
Try it next time you’re stuck. Even if you don’t have a huge epiphany, you might be surprised just how much fun it is to play with markers again.