This is what you need to remember when life is hard

snow on window

This much I can tell you – hard times are going to come your way. Grief, pain, anger, disappointment, hurt, tears – you’ll face them all in this lifetime.

I wish I could promise you otherwise, but my life story bears the truth of what I’ve just said. You will face the death of people you love, you will find yourself lost in the abyss, you will be betrayed by those closest to you, and you will go through periods of devastating self-doubt.

Last night I had a powerful dream that the whole world was falling apart. It was probably a reflection of the many conversations I’ve had with people recently who’ve felt like their worlds were falling apart. In the dream, there was a major catastrophe (something like an earthquake) and there was calamity all over the world. I spent most of the dream trying to find and rescue people who were lost in the damaged world. It wasn’t a stressful act – it was just something that needed to be done.

I know what the dream means. This is my work in the world – helping people navigate their way through broken places in their lives; helping them see the light when they’re lost in the dark. Quite significantly, in the dream I was doing it with the help of my Mom and Dad. Both Mom and Dad have been my torchbearers, and even after their deaths, they continue to help me in this work.

I’ve gotten mad at God sometimes, for not giving me a calling in which I could invite people onto an easy path. Instead, I got the calling to help people navigate in the dark. It’s hard to market the dark path – it just doesn’t sell the same way “ten easy steps” does. Once I finally surrendered to it, though, I realized that my calling is much deeper and  more beautiful than the easy one I longed for. This is a good life, despite the pain – and maybe even because of the pain. Light is so much more stunning when you know what darkness looks like.

Here’s what I’ve learned about navigating in the dark:

  1. You can survive more than you think you can. You’ll hit what you’re sure is rock bottom, and you’ll think “I can’t possibly live through one more hardship”, and then rock bottom will be taken away from you and you’ll be falling again, to a new bottom. You can survive it. Trust the Source of your strength, the God of your understanding, and the strength you need will show up.
  2. You can fall apart, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be permanently broken. In the cycle of life, deconstruction has to happen before construction can begin. The falling apart is necessary – let it happen. Don’t try too hard to hold yourself together. Old patterns need to die (painful but true) before new patterns can emerge. Think of the seed that needs to crack open for a tree to grow. Yes, it’s painful for that seed, but if it doesn’t crack open, it withholds life.
  3. Your greatest enemy is the shame of what you’re trying to hide from the world. Shame will cause you to do unhealthy things just to maintain your reputation as a “pulled-together” person. Let go of your image of a pulled-together person and practice letting go of the shame. I say “practice”, because it takes time, effort, and some pretty deep personal work to recognize the shame and gradually let it go. (See Brene Brown’s work or Cath Duncan’s work for more on shame resilience.)
  4. Let go of any illusion you have that you are in control of what happens.  There are many in the self-help world who will tell you that your thoughts attract what comes to you in your life, but if you believe that when hard times come your way, you will be side-swiped by self-hatred in the middle of your grief. You didn’t bring this on. The best you can do is live through it with some measure of grace. And if you don’t always feel full of grace, forgive yourself for that. Let the grace come from some other Source than you.
  5. As any white-water rafter will tell you, your safest bet is to surrender to the waves and stay vigilant for the rocks and whirlpools. Let the grief happen. Ride it out and do what you can to guide your boat between the rocks, but don’t try to resist it. You can’t stop the river, so you might as well ride with it and trust that it will eventually take you to a place of calm. Embrace the word “surrender”.
  6. Search for the points of light. Pay attention to those moments when the sunset is particularly stunning, your friend shows up at just the right moment, a breeze kisses your cheek, you’re drawn to a blog post that was just what you needed to read right now, or someone offers to take over a task that’s become too difficult for you. Each point of light is God shining through the darkness. Those tiny points of light will guide you through the darkness until you see the dawn again.
  7. Trust that this hardship is a deepening of your spiritual journey. Everyone wants an easy path to enlightenment, but nobody gets it. As Caroline Myss reminds us in Sacred Contracts, all of the leaders of the world’s major religions – Jesus, Muhammed, and the Buddha – had to go through times of testing before they could be commissioned into their roles as teachers. Your hardships will deepen your work and take you further into your calling. This I know from personal experience. I would not be doing the work I’m doing today if I hadn’t gone through the loss of my son.
  8. Reach for other people in the dark. There are people who want to walk with you through this dark place. There are people who can help you see the light. It’s okay to reach for them. You don’t need to do this alone. Darkness is easier to navigate if you find someone holding a flashlight.
  9. Life won’t always be this hard. When you’re down there at rock bottom and you haven’t seen a pinpoint of light for weeks, you’re going to become convinced that this is all there is to life and you’ll never be free of the pain. I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy or that you have to have faith. (Read Ronna Detrick’s excellent post about faith in the darkness.) I’m simply going to tell you that there will be light again. And the light will have a deeper, richer shine to it than anything you’ve ever seen before.

Return to your Wild Heart

 I have seen too many wounded women.
I have watched them lose the light in their eyes when the shadows overcame them.
I have heard a thousand reasons why they no longer give themselves permission to live truthfully.

I have seen too many wild hearts tamed.
I have witnessed the loss of courage when it’s just too hard to keep being an edgewalker in a world that values conformists.
I’ve recognized the fear as they take tiny brave steps, hoping and praying the direction is right.

“I feel guilty whenever I indulge in my passions. It feels selfish and irresponsible.”
“My husband doesn’t like it when I talk about feminine wisdom, so I keep it to myself.”
“If I write the things that are burning in my heart, it will freak people out. So I remain silent.”
“I used to love wandering in the woods, but I never have time for it anymore.”
“I just want to have a real conversation for a change. I want to feel safe to speak my heart.”
“My job makes me feel dead inside, but I don’t know what else I can do.”
“People expect me to be strong and hide my feelings now that I’m in leadership. I feel like I have too much bottled up inside that I can’t share with anyone.”

“Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t fit in.”

“There is so much longing in the world. I get lost in that longing and don’t know how to sit with it.”
“I wanted to be a painter, but I needed a real career. I haven’t painted in years.”
“People think I’m strange when I share my ideas, so I’ve learned to keep them to myself.”
“I can’t go to church anymore. I don’t feel understood there. But I haven’t found another place where I can find community, so I often feel lonely.”
“There’s a restless energy inside me that wants to be free. I long to be free.”

So much woundedness has been laid tenderly on the ground at my feet.
So many women want their stories validated. Their fears held gently. Their tiny bits of courage honoured.
I hear them whisper “please hear me” through clenched teeth.
I see the tears threaten to overflow out of stoic eyes.
I recognize the longing.
I know the brokenness.
I feel the ache of silenced dreams.

They come to me because they know I have been broken too.
They trust me with their whispers because I am acquainted with fear.
They look to me for courage and understanding because they witness my own long and painful journey back to my wild heart.

I see you.
I know you.
I honour you.
I love you.

You are beautiful.
You are courageous.
You are okay.

You can be wild again.
You can trust your heart. She will not lie to you.
You can live more fully in your body. She will welcome you back.
You can go home to that part of you that feels like it’s been lost.
You can find a circle of people who will understand you.
You can step back into courage.

You have permission to be an edgewalker.
You have permission to speak the things that you’re longing to say.
You have permission to be truly yourself.
You have permission to step away from your responsibilities for awhile.
You have permission to wander in the woods.

You also have permission to be afraid.
And to wait for the right time.
And to sit quietly while you build up your courage.
You don’t need to do this all alone.
And you don’t need to do it all at once.

You don’t need to shout before you’re ready to whisper.
You don’t need to dance before you’ve tried simply swaying to the music.
You can give your woundedness time to heal.

Take a small step back into your self.
Move a little closer to your wild heart.
Pause and touch the wounded places in you.
Just breathe… slowly and deeply.
And when you’re ready, we can do this together.

If this post resonates, please consider the following:

1. Join me as I host a circle of amazing women at A Day Retreat for Women of Courage in Winnipeg on October 20th. Pay what you can.

2. I’m creating a new online program called Lead with Your Wild Heart (related to the themes in this post) that feels like a coming together of a thousand ideas that have filled my head in recent years. Add your name to my email list (top right) to be the first to hear about it and to receive a discount.

Embrace the Grit and Live Authentically

My daughters and I are home from vacation. We spent a few days camping in the woods (complete with our family’s traditional goofy conversations around the campfire that usually deteriorate into fart jokes), and then a few days doing more hedonistic things, like visiting the Mall of America and Valley Fair. (We try to satisfy everyone’s interests on our trips, and my teenage daughters are more inclined to shop than sleep in a tent in the woods.)

After a couple of days of consumerism and entertainment, I went for a walk near our hotel. First I found myself in a progressive independent bookstore in which a local social activism group was discussing which protests they should participate in. Then I wandered through a gritty, ethnic, low income neighbourhood, where my pale skin put me in the minority.

As I wandered, I found myself smiling. Though the shopping and amusement park had exhausted me, I found myself coming alive in this fascinating place where women in hijabs and men in long cloaks stood chatting in the streets. It reminded me once again how comfortable and energized I feel when I am in places where I don’t speak the local language or know the customs – places where it’s okay to be an edge-walker instead of a conformist.

This neighbourhood was as different from the mall or amusement park as it possibly could be. This neighbourhood showed its brokenness, its flaws, and its heartbreak. Most of all, though, it showed its heart.

Like my trip to Kensington Market a few months ago, I was reminded again how much better I fit in gritty, colourful, artful neighbourhoods than in places where shiny, happy people pretend that consumerism and entertainment will fill the empty spaces in their lives.

Our society likes shiny happy places. We like to gloss over the mess, fix the holes, and pretend the brokenness doesn’t exist. We pretend our relationships are fine, we put on happy faces in our social media interactions, we flock to “gurus” who will help us fix our lives in ten easy steps, we pretend grief can follow simple stages, and we seal ourselves off from relationships that get too messy.

But all of that shininess doesn’t make us come alive. It only makes us look like we’re alive. It’s like Weekend With Bernie – we’re already dead, but still propped up by lies that make us look like we’re having a great time at the party.

Real life is in the grit and the messiness. Real life is about embracing the shadow. It’s about diving into the depths of our grief instead of glossing over it. It’s about wrestling our way through difficult relationships to try to find the value under the layers of brokenness.

In a workshop I once did, I challenged the participants to consider what it meant to be authentic in their relationships. One woman struggled with the exercise I’d given them, and finally approached me about it. “I’m always authentic in my relationships,” she said. “If someone gets on my nerves, I just stop being in relationship with them.”

“That’s not exactly what I mean,” I said. “Stepping away from difficult situations is not what authenticity is about. Authenticity is about diving deeper into the brokenness and trying to find the oyster buried in the ugly clamshell. It’s about being real and living in such a way that others can be more real in our presence.”

Living authentically is not about fixing every flaw, abandoning every broken relationship, or following every self-improvement guru we can find to better ourselves. It’s also not about airing all of our dirty laundry in public.

Authenticity is about embracing the grit, celebrating the mess, living with discomfort now and then, stretching beyond our comfort zones, asking real questions, honouring our brokenness, and holding our place in community despite the difficulty it may bring.

I believe in the resurrection

I love Easter. There is so much good in it. There’s something about the resurrection story, and the many little reminders nature offers us at this time of year of how new things are born out of last year’s death that keeps me coming back to faith.

By the end of almost every Easter weekend, after the Easter services, the time with family, the great food, and the easter egg hunts, I’m in a happy, contemplative mood.

Almost every year… except last year.

Last Easter was horrible. Epically horrible.

On Maunday Thursday – my mom’s birthday – we received confirmation that my mom had cancer. A fairly serious kind in her internal organs that had way too many unknowns for our comfort.

Three days later, on Easter Sunday, my 18 year marriage unraveled. On the way home from an Easter “celebration” with my family, I told my husband that it was either time for us to live apart, or else we’d need to find someone who could help us overhaul our severely broken relationship. It just wasn’t working anymore. We’d forgotten how to communicate and I was tired of feeling angry, hurt, and lost.

I did a lot of crying in the weeks after Easter.

Ironically, a month before Easter, I’d started a series on my blog called “Let go of the Ground“, about how we are all called to surrender – to the Mystery, to the God of our understanding, to our calling, to Love. The premise was that – like the caterpillar who must surrender to the cocoon and enter the difficult transformation process before becoming a butterfly – we too must surrender and learn to trust what is emerging for us. I interviewed a bunch of wise people about their own surrender stories, and I was preparing to create an e-course on the subject. It felt like important work and I knew I had some wisdom to share, having experienced groundlessness and transformation many times in my life.

But then… Easter came, and groundlessness wasn’t just a topic for a blog post. I was living it all over again, and not by choice. The ground had been whipped out from under me and I was plunging through space without a parachute.

It’s easy to talk about surrender when you’re on the far side of transformation and you know what it feels like to fly. It’s another thing entirely when you’re in the messy, gooey chrysalis stage, you’re hanging by a fragile thread, and you have no idea when and how you will emerge.

The months after Easter continued to be hard. Mom started chemo, lost all of her hair, got continually sicker, went for surgery in the summer, and then spent a few more months in chemo. Normally an energetic, young-for-her-age woman who takes delight in climbing trees with her grandchildren and being the fastest one (and sometimes the only one) up the climbing wall when she goes to seniors’ camp in the summer, Mom could hardly handle the many hours she was forced to spend sitting or lying around. I could see her muscles twitch when someone else was in HER kitchen making food for her.

As for my marriage… we agreed that it was best for the kids if we stayed in the same house while we tried to repair what was broken. Like a couple of brick-layers trying to rebuild after a tsunami has wiped out the village, we gathered the pieces that still looked like viable relationship-building bricks, added a few new ones, and started piecing them together slowly but surely. Fortunately, we found a counsellor who was good at helping us do that.

Now it’s a year later, and I’d be lying if I told you I feel like a butterfly with freshly dried wings, fluttering effortlessly through the air. No, there’s lots of effort still involved, and lots of unknowns. I still feel pretty groundless.

But things are changing, and Spring has come again. When we rake away the dead leaves of last year, we see the tiny shoots poking their way out of the dirt built from many deaths in seasons past.

My mom started baking buns again last week, a sure sign that some of her energy is coming back. (When she starts distributing them to everyone in the neighbourhood who could use some nourishment, we’ll know she’s truly back.) Her chemo is finished, and it appears that the cancer has been halted for now. She cooked us a big meal for Easter and we celebrated together. True to form, she’s headed off on a trip with her husband later this week, headed to places where tulips bloom in rows and rows of wild and glorious colour.

Though it’s not perfect, my marriage feels much more stable than it did a year ago. We’re finding new ways of being truthful with each other and we’re working on rebuilding our trust. It feels hopeful, like there’s something worth fighting for. There are enough salvageable bricks that we can build a relationship that is better but still carries with it the stories of the old one.

It’s because of these stories that I continue to believe in the resurrection. Life comes out of death. Hope emerges out of darkness. Beauty follows surrender. God makes good things grow when we let our egos die.

There are many, many people who will try to tell you otherwise. They’ll try to sell you magic. They’ll try to tell you that life can be easy if you have enough positive thoughts and you surround yourself with people who are always happy, happy, happy. They’ll insist that if you attract good things, you won’t have to suffer.

I’m here to tell you that those people are telling you half-truths. Don’t get caught up in their deception no matter how convincing they are. They’re snake oil salespeople trying to make a quick buck out of your desire for an easy life.

Easiness is not the path to true happiness. Surrender is.

It’s not that I don’t believe in miracles – I do. I’ve seen them happen many, many times.

But the best kind of miracles are those that show up in the middle of the grit and suffering and messiness of life. The best kind of miracles are the hugs from friends when you need it most, the breathtaking sunset that brings tears to your eyes, the offering of support when you feel like you’ll crumble, the first crocus of the season – blooming despite the threat of frost, the fresh baked buns after a year of cancer, the tender touch of a loved one after you’ve regained trust, and the butterfly that flutters past when you’re lost in the woods.

The best kind of miracles don’t take you out of the suffering or make you immune to it, they simply help you bear it.

We need the suffering if we’re going to get to true beauty. We need the dying compost if we’re going to get crocuses in the Spring. We need the gooey chrysalis if we’re going to learn to fly.

Without the death, we wouldn’t get to celebrate the resurrection.

Tears + Art + Healing + Birthdays + Murder = Messy, Painful, Beautiful Life

I was standing at my kitchen sink yesterday afternoon when the tears started flowing down my face.

I wasn’t crying because of the drudgery of having to clean the house again, and again, and again. I was crying for the sheer privilege of being able to clean the house for my daughter’s sixteenth birthday.

Wilma Derksen didn’t get to clean the house for her daughter Candace’s sixteenth birthday. When Candace was just thirteen years old, she disappeared on her way home from school. Six weeks later, her body was found, tied up and frozen in a shed not far from the Derksen’s home.

Just last year, twenty-seven years after Candace’s death, her murderer was finally found and convicted.

Yesterday, before cleaning the house, I visited an art show made up mostly of art created by Cliff Derksen and Odia Reimer, father and sister of Candace, during and after the murderer’s trial. Every piece bore marks of pain, anger, guilt, anguish, and love.

The first piece I saw was a set of simple pencil drawings Cliff drew during the trial. There were sketches of the judge, the security guard, the jury, and various other players in the narrative that was their life for those twenty-three days. Mixed into the human characters were images of the guardian angel that protected them throughout, and the demons who were never far from their minds.

The piece that first made me cry was a set of simple black and white photos Odia took of the steps her sister would have taken on her way home from school. Just a simple, ordinary street, with simple, ordinary stories happening all around, and yet those everyday images took on a whole new layer of meaning because they represented her sister’s last view of the earth. Under the images were snippets of text representing the moments and thoughts the family experienced in the days after Candace’s disappearance – the way they’d been treated by police who interpreted their deep faith as religious fanaticism, the day that five plates were set at the table and one had to be put back in the cupboard, the guilt Wilma felt over not picking her daughter up from school that day.

Below the images stood a sculpture that represented Cliff’s anguish. It was titled “Suspicion” and was ostensibly about his youth, growing up on a farm… “how impossible expectation resulting in judgement, created an environment loaded with suspicion and distrust on all sides.” He felt trapped like the first post of a barbed wire fence – something I could immediately recognize, having grown up on a farm with similar expectations. At the bottom of the text, though, was something I had no way of relating to. “Is this symbolic of my 22 years under suspicion?” Imagine… 22 years he lived with the knowledge that some in the police force suspected him of murdering his own daughter.

My own memory flashed back to the day when I’d returned home to the farm after suffering at the hands of a rapist. My father, overcome with emotion and the pain of knowing he’d been unable to protect his own daughter, left the house for a few moments. When he returned, with great pain in his voice, he told the story of a man he’d once known who’d spent five years of his life hunting for the man who’d raped his daughter, with the intent of killing him. “Suddenly,” my pacifist father said, “I know exactly how he felt.” My father was not under suspicion, but like Candace’s father, he probably felt trapped, knowing he could do nothing to change what had happened.

The next piece that caught my attention was one that I’d seen before – 490 crocheted teardrops created by Odia. 70×7 – the number of times the Bible instructs us to forgive those who’ve wronged us. With each teardrop crocheted, I imagine Odia trying to find a drop of forgiveness in her heart for the man who’d taken her sister from her. I’m sure the tears she shed as she crocheted them were more full of rage than they were of forgiveness.

Upstairs in the gallery, two last pieces provided the final frame for the story that the other pieces began. One was a line of six black and white images of feet drawn by Cliff, called Sacred Ground. Each set of feet represented a different member of his immediate family as they sat in the trial waiting to hear the verdict. Most of the feet were barefoot. During the trial, they’d often removed their shoes to remind themselves that, like Moses at the burning bush, they were on Sacred Ground. God was with them in the courtroom and had been with Candace as she lay dying in the shed. What great faith that simple act of removing their shoes must have required!

The final piece moved me even more than the rest, and makes me determined to go back to the gallery so that I can sit quietly in its presence for a little while longer. It’s a set of 23 crocheted circles in red, black, and cream. Each day that Odia sat in the court room, she crocheted a circle. The colours represent the state of her emotions while she sat and listened to the proceedings – cream for neutral, red for pain, black for rage. Some days were mostly cream, other days were a complex mix of all three, and other days were pure black. One day that intrigued me was almost purely cream, with a tiny shock of black. Not unlike my own mandala practice, she brought the complexity of the experience into a simple circle.

With me at the gallery was my friend Gabby with her two small girls – beautiful, vibrant children who made the viewing of the art even more complex and meaningful. While I processed the sadness, little Sadie was busy pulling treasures out of her bag to show me. One was a large plastic sparkly diamond. Surrounded by stories of death, this little girl reminded me of the joy of life. Our stories are messy and complex and the beauty doesn’t stop even when the sadness overwhelms us.

As I stood at my kitchen sink processing the fullness of what I’d seen, I cried for Wilma and Cliff and Odia and the rest of their family. I cried for the day that Candace would have turned sixteen and their basement wasn’t full of the laughter that would soon ring through mine. I cried for the gift that my three daughters continue to bring to my life. I also cried for the sixteenth birthday I will never be able to host for my son Matthew.

Several years ago, I heard Wilma Derksen interviewed on the radio, and she shared a story about the one year anniversary of Candace’s death. She’d been holding her emotions together, when suddenly she’d noticed fingerprints high up on the wall on the way down the stairs. She knew those could only have been Candace’s fingerprints, left there on the many times she’d bounded down the stairs and jumped up to slap the wall above her on her way down.

As I wiped the fingerprints my own children had left around the house yesterday, I thanked God that there will still be fresh fingerprints to wipe off tomorrow, and the day after that, and… I pray… the day after that. I also thanked God for the fingerprints Matthew left on my heart, though he will never leave any on my walls.

A few weeks ago, I heard Wilma Derksen speak at TEDx Manitoba. She said that one of her greatest learnings during the trial was that you can’t hold two things equally in your heart. Though she tried to hold both love and justice during the trial, she knew that there was not enough space for both. And so, for the sake of her family that remained with her, she chose love.

Yesterday, as I prepared to celebrate my daughter, I too chose love. It’s the same choice my dad made after the rapist harmed me. And the same choice I made eleven years ago after human error resulted in the death of my son.

Again and again, I choose love.

Question mandala: A creative process for getting unstuck

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.


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