I think in circles: using Mandalas for project planning
It’s true – I think in circles. The circle, in some form, shows up in almost everything I do. When I need to connect with Spirit, I walk the labyrinth. When I want to connect with others, I gather people in circle. When I want to connect with myself, or I want to bring my swirling ideas into some form of clarity, I make mandalas. In this post, you’ll see how I used mandala-journaling to help process the ideas that are emerging in the book I’m writing. Any of the ideas in this post can be used for your own project planning, whether you’re writing a book, starting a business, or just trying to gain clarity about a new direction your life is taking. If these ideas tweak your interest, you may want to consider signing up for Mandala Discovery (which starts January 1st), or you may want to use A Soulful Year to help you release 2014 and plan for 2015.
Last week, when I went on my personal retreat, I didn’t plan to spend most of the three days in the art room with scissors, glue, markers and chalk pastels, but that’s where I was and it was the best place I could be. By the end of the weekend, I’d made 10 large mandalas, all ranging between two and three feet across.
My primary focus for my time away was the book I’d worked on so diligently for a couple of years and then set aside after my mom died because… well… because it just wasn’t feeling like I’d taken it where I needed to take it and because grief was clouding my judgement and focus. With a two year break, it felt like it was time to revisit it. It was one of those unfinished projects that just wouldn’t rest easily until it was resolved.
When I first arrived at the retreat centre on Monday morning, I headed toward the art room down the hall. I’ve been doing these personal retreats for about 10 years now, and there’s one thing I’ve learned – it takes time to settle in to the stillness of retreat. The first few hours are always full of restlessness and monkey-mind – “Did I remember to buy bus tickets for the kids? Do I need to check in on them? What if I don’t use my time here wisely and it’s a waste? Should I have a schedule so I get stuff accomplished while I’m here? Should I have spent this money so close to Christmas? Speaking of Christmas, maybe I should be finishing the shopping instead. Etc., etc.”
The best way I’ve found to deal with monkey-mind is to distract her with art supplies, which is why I love going to a retreat centre where the art room is just down the hall from my bedroom (and the library is at the other end of the hall). Inspired by the online Dreamwheel circle Lisa Rough was hosting on Facebook, I started with a circle in the largest paper I could find and started collecting images that reflect what I want to invite in and host in 2015. At the edges of the images I did some intuitive journaling with a white paint marker.
After completing that circle, I didn’t want to stop, so I decided to make a dreamwheel specially for the way I want the book to unfold.
I had already considered, before going on retreat, that it was a very real possibility that I’d need to scrap all 180 pages of what I’d already created and start from scratch to create what really wanted to emerged. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the book that’s in my heart right now is called “Circling Around to This” and it’s part memoir about the way circle keeps showing up in my life and part invitation to others to consider how circle can become part of their lives. The book I finished and set aside two years ago was called “Butterfly at the Grave” and it was about the spiritual transformation in my life that began with the stillbirth of my son Matthew.
When I went on retreat, it was with the expectation that I would be starting something brand new, so I started my dreamwheel from that place – imagining a new book called “Circling Around to This”. As intuitively as possible, I chose the images and words that reflected the themes I thought would be present in the book.
Some surprises showed up, and some things challenged me to think bigger than I’d thought before. For example, I’m not sure where “outrage” came from, but it wouldn’t leave me alone until I put it on the page. And when I added “A time of change” I began to open myself to the possibility that I was being called to write something that would invite people into significant cultural paradigm shift. While that idea was exciting, it started to feel bigger than what I’d allowed myself to dream.
I thought I would go back to my computer to write after creating the dreamwheel, but the creation of it left me feeling more unsettled than I’d felt before. Suddenly the book started to morph and become even less recognizable than when I’d arrived. Suddenly I felt like the ground was getting shakier and I was being called into something even scarier than I’d thought before.
So I cut out another large circle and I started another mandala. This time I started with an image that reflected the work of writing the book (a woman gathering water at a stream – a reflection of me gathering the ideas that I would use to water the seeds I have planted). Around the image, I started writing intuitively about what I thought the book would become. As I wrote, more and more ideas started flowing, and the concept for the book grew in a way that felt wild and outside of my control.
That’s when I started to get nervous. Because maybe this book is bigger than me. Maybe it’s bigger than just a nice little memoir that those who already love my work will cozy up in their armchairs to read and then pass on to their friends. Maybe it will require more courage than I expected because I’ll be nudged to say counter-cultural things that won’t sit well with the dominant culture and revolutionary things that will be taken seriously by people longing for change. Maybe I’ll even offend people and make those close to me wonder why I’m acting “too big for my britches”.
That mandala didn’t leave me feeling any more settled than the other, so I grabbed another circle and kept going. This time I had to deal with the resistance that kept showing up to let me know I am not worthy of this book, not capable of writing a book that will invite change in the world, not spiritual enough, not smart enough, not organized enough, not rich enough, not influential enough, etc. etc.
This time I used the spiral that shows up a lot in my mandala journaling. The spiral is usually used like a labyrinth, inviting the release on the inward journey, the receiving at the still point at the centre, and then the return that brings whatever gift was received at the centre back out into the world. I coloured a spiral with chalk pastels, and then spiraled inward with my Sharpie marker, trying to release the resistance and the voices of self-doubt. At the centre, I paused in stillness, and then began the return, journaling about the gift that this book could be and what I was being called to bring to it. When I reached the outer edge, there was still resistance in me, so I began the journey back to the centre and once again out to the edge.
That journey brought me back to the term “paradigm shift” and that’s when I started to get really freaked out. Because that term transported me back to the hospital when I was waiting for Matthew to arrive. It took me back to those transformational three weeks when some pretty unusual and remarkable events occurred, including some that I hardly ever talk about because they’re hard to explain. Events that included other-worldly visitors and grand visions and even prophecies (some of which have come true since then). Events that felt big and scary and made me feel like I had some kind of Messiah-complex every time I tried to talk about them. In one of those unusual events, the term paradigm shift was spoken to me, and not by anyone physically present in the room. It left me with an unsettled feeling that I might be called into the kind of change-making work that few people around me would understand.
And that’s when I started to realize that the two books – the one I set aside about the events surrounding Matthew’s death and birth and the one about the paradigm-shifting power of circles might actually be one and the same. Sitting in that art room, playing with chalk pastels and markers, a gradual awareness was growing in me.
Fourteen years ago, when I was in that hospital room for three weeks, a paradigm shift was growing in me, inviting me into something new, a little scary, and much bigger than me. Since that time in the hospital, that paradigm shift keeps showing up as some form of circle.
I cut another circle, used chalk pastel to colour the waves of change across it (that reflects the Two Loops that I learned from Deborah Frieze), and started journaling again. This time, I asked myself what a paradigm shift looks like and why it matters. I also asked myself how the paradigm shift had shown up in my life in the fourteen years since the term had attached itself to me in the hospital. Every one of those times it showed up could somehow be linked back to the circle. Sometimes it was in the many circles of people I’ve been part of and hosted over the years, sometimes it was at the centre of the labyrinth, sometimes it was while I made and taught mandala journaling, and sometimes it was in models like Theory U and the Two Loops that use the curve as their primary shape.
The more I sat with the idea and the more I brought it to the mandala, the more I realized the ideas that have become so much a part of my work all had their seeds planted in me as I sat in a hospital room waiting for my son to be born. If I were to chart my life’s work (and the book) on the story arc, that time in the hospital, when I had to put my busy life on hold to try to protect the life of my unborn son, was the “inciting incident” that was the catalyst for everything that came afterward.
I have always known that my son Matthew’s short life, that was only lived in the confines of my womb, was as meaningful as any that had been lived out for ninety years on this earth. This revelation in the art room was even more confirmation of that. If I hadn’t paused to spend those three weeks with Matthew, I would never have found myself here, doing this work, fourteen years later.
So much was swirling around my head by then that I cut out more circles and kept going. I knew I had more work to do before I was ready to sit at a computer and string the words together that would tie the old pieces of the puzzle in with the new, so I stayed in the art room.
One of the mandalas was a “through” mandala that is one of the lessons I teach in Mandala Discovery, where the idea/emotion/challenge you’re traveling through is written in large letters across the circle. (In my case I wrote “circle”.) The journaling then follows a meandering path in and out and across the word at the centre, allowing the questions, fear, invitation, resistance, and excitement to show up in all its complexity and unpredictability. Another one started with a spiral at the centre that reflected the central theme of the book and then smaller spirals spreading out around it that reflected the secondary themes. In a third, I placed an image at the centre that was a reflection of me, making an offering of the book to the world. Spreading out like the sun’s rays, I wrote what might become chapter headings in the book. In the fourth, a flower represented the blossoming of the ideas in the book. In the final one, I found a new, bigger and bolder image that reflected what the way that the book could potentially serve the world, and journaled about what my thoughts were now that I’d worked through these fresh ideas and all of the resistance that came along with it.
By the time I had finished all of these mandalas, it was Wednesday morning and nearly time to leave the retreat centre. I had just enough time to sit down at my computer, write a couple of pages of what would be the new version of the book, and then re-open the file that held the old version of the book.
In the last couple of years, each time I’ve opened that file, I was filled with a sense of uneasiness, discomfort, and disappointment that I couldn’t seem to bring this project to completion. I’d read a few paragraphs or flip through the pages, but always close it in frustration. This time was different. This time there was freshness and hope and a new sense of possibility.
There is still a lot of work ahead of me. There will be lots of moments of self-doubt and resistance. I’ll get lost in the challenge of stringing together complex ideas and this new, emerging paradigm. But at least I now have a clearer picture of what wants to be born. And I have my mandalas to return to when I get lost.
I expect there will be many more mandalas made before this book is published. Here’s hoping that a publishing date will happen in 2015.
If you want to use mandala-journaling as a planning tool, you might want to start with A Soulful Year. If you want to use it as a tool for self-discovery, try Mandala Discovery.