Yesterday, on the last day of 2017, I was encouraging my teenage daughter to clean her room. (If you asked for her version of the story, she might use the word “nagging”, but I’m the one telling this story, so let’s stick with “encouraging”.) She had been avoiding it for the better part of the day, despite repeated “encouragement”.
“I think I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,” she said. “You know… new year, new me?”
“So… you’re thinking that 2018 will transform you into the kind of person who keeps her bedroom clean?” I asked.
“A girl can dream.” And then we both laughed, because we both know there is no magical turning of the calendar that will transform her into a different person.
We keep hoping that will happen, though, don’t we? Even if we turn up our noses at new year’s resolutions, we create these little fantasies that “maybe THIS will be the year that I lose weight, get my finances in order, stop procrastinating, start exercising, stop self-sabotaging, pay my taxes on time, stop worrying, stop smoking, stop getting into unhealthy relationships, etc.” There’s just something about an as-yet untarnished year stretching in front of us that feels like a good opportunity for a fresh start.
But… just as my daughter already knows, at 15, that it will take more than a calendar change to motivate her to keep her room clean, we all know, deep down, that real change takes a great deal more effort and commitment.
This past week, while I was off work and taking a hiatus from social media, I had some time to think about what it takes to make meaningful change. Just like anyone else, there are areas of my life that I’d like to change. I’d like to lose weight, exercise more, keep my home more consistently clean, be more organized about my finances, etc. I ate too much over the holidays and was far too stationary, choosing the couch over the gym, and I could recognize the temptation to slip into that old familiar spiral of “I’m fat and too lazy and can’t seem to change that about myself, so I must be a bad person and therefore not worthy of love.” (I didn’t slip too far down that spiral, but could see it looming on the horizon.)
I’ve also been thinking about meaningful personal change on a broader spectrum – in those areas of our lives where we may be even more destructive (to ourselves and/or to others) such as addiction, abuse, etc. In this wave of accusations of sexual misconduct that’s resulted from the #metoo movement, for example, we’re discovering more and more men who’ve been guilty of deviant, destructive behaviour. Some have apologized and promised to do better in the future, but I can’t help but wonder… will they really change, or will they simply take their destructive behaviour further underground? Isn’t “getting caught” as ineffective a means of impacting meaningful change as the turning of the calendar? The high rate of recidivism in our prisons would suggest that getting caught and being punished rarely results in real change.
So what DOES result in meaningful behaviour change? How does a person become more healthy or less destructive to themselves and/or another person?
I haven’t found a magic cure, like a calendar change (if I had, I’d be 50 pounds lighter), but I do believe that these are some of the contributing factors to meaningful behaviour change:
1. Start with self-compassion and self-acceptance. This I know to be true… self-loathing and shame are never effective motivators for meaningful change. If you hate yourself and you’re wallowing in the shame of your unhealthy or destructive behaviour, you’ll keep behaving in the same way because you’ll believe that you’re incapable of anything better. You may, subconsciously, want to destroy yourself because of your perceived lack of worthiness, and you may even believe that you deserve to get caught and be punished.
It’s a vicious cycle – when I overeat, for example, I feel badly about myself. When I feel badly about myself, I don’t think I’m worthy of anything better and I want to bury the shame, so I eat some more. I have to break that cycle and it starts with extending love to myself so that I can begin to believe in my own capacity to do better. That requires that I first love myself unconditionally, EXACTLY as I am RIGHT NOW, at the weight I currently am, with the flaws I currently have. And it means committing to that kind of unconditional love EVEN IF I never make the change I’m longing for.
How do I do that? By committing to it on a daily basis, by extending kindness to myself whenever I can, by looking at myself in the mirror when I can and not flinching, by changing my self-talk from “I am useless” to “I am worthy”, and by forgiving myself over and over again when I slip up, and by not blocking the intense feelings (ie. grief, fear, shame, etc.) when they threaten to overwhelm me.
In the book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, Christopher Germer says “Change comes naturally when we open ourselves up to emotional pain with uncommon kindness. Instead of blaming, criticizing, and trying to fix ourselves (or someone else, or the whole world) when things go wrong and we feel bad, we can start with self-acceptance. Compassion first! This simple shift can make a tremendous difference in your life.”
2. Go deeper. A negative behaviour is never just a behaviour – it’s a mask for hidden shame, it’s a way to get a need met, it’s a response to past trauma, and/or it’s a way to avoid pain. If you can’t figure out why you can’t let go of an unhealthy pattern, it’s likely because that pattern is deeply rooted in your past pain, shame, trauma, grief, etc. It’s quite possible, that you developed that particular behaviour as a coping mechanism and there’s a subconscious part of your brain and/or body that believes that if you let go of the behaviour, you’ll be inviting back the pain or you will no longer be protecting yourself from danger. I have considered, for example, that the extra weight I carry may be my body’s way of protecting me from the kind of sexual trauma I’ve suffered in the past.
Unless you work to heal the wound that the behaviour is masking or protecting (and it may be multiple wounds rather than a single source), it will be next to impossible to make sustainable change to that behaviour. You might change the behaviour for awhile, but there’s a very good chance it will return or another destructive behaviour will move in to take its place. Our wounds have a way of getting our attention, one way or another, until we peel away the bandages and expose them to the air. I suspect, for example that many of the perpetrators of sexual abuse that we’re hearing about in the news have been victims of some kind of trauma in the past and their unhealthy use of power and their sexual deviance is really an unhealthy cry for help.
Healing of these wounds may require the support of professionals – therapists, counsellors, body workers, grief coaches, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
3. Recognize the forces at play beyond yourself. In much of modern day self-help literature, there is an underlying belief that you, and you alone, are in control of your own life. “You make your own choices, your thoughts control your outcome, you attract what shows up in your life, etc.” While there is some truth to these beliefs, they are all only partly true.
You are a product of your environment. You have been socially conditioned by the culture and system that you grew up in. You have a fore-ordained place in the social hierarchy that exists, and no matter how much you resist it, you will always be impacted by it. Your value in society is, at least in part, determined by your social status. If you are disabled, for example, you lack some of the privileges that non-disabled people enjoy. If you are a person of colour or transgender, you will likely suffer the effects of oppression and bias that others never face.
These factors limit our ability to make meaningful change in a number of ways. For one thing, a person with limited financial resources, or someone who lives in a rural location, may not have access to therapists or healthy food options or social support networks. A person who’s been ostracized for their gender or skin colour may have a harder time accessing the kind of help they need.
For another thing, there is often internalized oppression at play, even when no external force is limiting us.
A person of colour who’s grown up in a white supremacist culture will have received so many messages that they are less worthy than a white person that those messages will persist in their internal narrative. A woman who’s grown up in a patriarchal system might be a die-hard feminist, but still carry the residual shame of being a woman that she’s always been taught. Recently, while choosing a Netflix movie to watch, I realized that, though I have been overweight most of my life and believe that I am unbiased toward overweight people, I had a hard time believing that a movie with an overweight lead actor would be as good as one with a thin person. I still have internalized oppression toward fat people that’s been conditioned in me over fifty years of viewing the thin ideal on TV screens and fashion magazines.
This kind of internalized oppression makes self-compassion exponentially more difficult and therefore leaves meaningful behaviour change even more out of reach. Fifty years of internalized belief (that’s backed up by society’s standards) that fat people have less value is a pretty big boulder to push out of the way, especially when it’s complicated by the wounds that have been inflicted on this overweight body.
What can we do about this? We can educate ourselves about what forces are at play beyond us, we can choose, little by little, to release and challenge the shame and oppression inflicted on us, we can be kinder to ourselves and others who’ve suffered, and we can choose to contribute to a more just world. This knowledge does not excuse us of personal responsibility, but it does help us to be more self-compassionate when we recognize the additional burden we carry.
4. Make connections. Social isolation is one of the most significant contributors to unhealthy, destructive behaviour, whether it’s addiction, abuse, or simply poor choices. According to this article in Psychology Today, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. Addiction, the writer says, is not a substance disorder, it’s a personal disorder.
Canadian psychologist Brian Alexander discovered that rats that were placed in large cages with other rats, where there were hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters, were much less likely to develop an addiction to heroin than those rats living in isolated cages. Given a choice between pure water and heroin-infused water, those in isolation quickly became addicted to the heroin, while those living in community ignored it. Even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to communal living.
Humans are much the same – those who have families and/or support support networks are much less likely to become addicts than those who are isolated. We are social creatures – our relationships help us cope, help us heal, and help us make good choices.
Healthy relationships are those in which we can fail and still be loved, we can speak of our shame and not have more heaped upon us, we can change without being held back by their fear, and we can learn to trust even if our trust has been broken in the past. In healthy relationships, our stories matter and we are not judged for the colour of our skin, the sizes of our waists, or the limitations of our disabilities. Healthy relationships allow us to be our best selves and forgive us for being our worst selves.
In an interview on CBC radio, Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, talked about the value of amplifying constructive voices. “If we can just stop amplifying the worst voices in society, and instead, try to promote the more constructive voices, it really would make a difference,” Jacobs suggested. He goes on to suggest “looking for people who are like-hearted, not necessarily like-minded – people who you don’t always agree with but hold the same virtues like generosity, charity, and honesty.”
These healthy, constructive relationships may be difficult to find, especially if you are already mired in shame and self-loathing, but they are not impossible. You can start by taking a course in something that interests you to find people with similar interests, or join a group on meetup.com. If you happen to be in my city, you’re welcome to join our women’s circle – we meet twice-monthly for a sharing circle where nobody is judged, no advice is offered, and friendship is freely offered.
5. Find spiritual/creative practices that support your intentions. Any time I’ve made a meaningful change in my life, and/or done deep healing work that contributes to the behaviour change, it has been supported by some form of spiritual/creative practice, whether it is a mandala journal practice, a journal practice (that might be supported by something like my 50 Questions), a labyrinth practice (ie. The Spiral Path), a body practice, a mindfulness practice, or an art practice. I recently participated in an online photographic self-expression (ie. creative selfies – offered by Amy Walsh of the Bureau of Tactical Imagination) course that surprised me with some of the ways it healed past wounds.
It seems each time I uncover something new that needs healing or changing, I find a different practice to support it. Different personal growth work seems to respond to different practices. I’ve signed up for two art-related courses for early 2018 because I know that the more time I spend in creativity, the more healthy I am in body and mind. There is something about engaging the creative part of my brain that unlocks a deeper part of me and heals what’s been hidden in the past. I also have an intention to find a body practice that works for me (once my injured shoulder heals).
One of my favourite journal practices is to have conversations with myself and to write those out as dialogue on the page. It might be a conversation between my current self and my younger self that helps uncover an unhealed wound or an unmet need. Or it might be a conversation with my fear to discover what message the fear is trying send me. Or it might be a conversation with my future self that helps my desires and longings to come to the surface. Feel free to experiment with this in your own journal – you might be surprised by what comes to the surface.
6. Take small steps and start fresh each day. “How do you eat an elephant?” asks the familiar proverb. “One bite at a time.” Don’t overwhelm yourself with unrealistic goals that may doom you for failure before you’ve even begun. Instead, set small, manageable intentions. And when you fail to meet those expectations, forgive yourself and start again.
Decide, for example, that “just for today, I will make healthy choices.” And then when you wake up the next morning, set the same goal again. And again. And again. A day of healthy choices is much more attainable than a life-long change. It’s also less to forgive if you’re simply forgiving yourself for failing today rather than for being a life-long failure.
Yes, meaningful change is possible, but remember that it may also not be necessary. Ask yourself if the change you’re seeking is genuinely what you want, or is, instead, the result of cultural norms imposed on you. Perhaps, instead of setting an unrealistic goal to become a new you, your only goal should be to practice self-compassion and acceptance of yourself just the way you are. Maybe it’s the norms of society that need to be changed rather than you?
Perhaps the most radical change you can make is to believe that you are doing the best that you can with the hand you’ve been dealt and that that’s good enough.
I am writing from the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve come here with my family of origin – my three siblings, their spouses, and all of our children. I’m currently sitting on the patio of the large house we rented, just feet away from the pool. I can hear the waves crashing on the shore on the other side of the fence.
Three years ago, Christmas, for our family, was a painful time. We’d lost Mom only a month before and we were all raw and wounded and the festivities all around us were like slaps in the face every time we left the house.
We’re less raw this year, but the grief is never fully gone.
After Mom died, we decided to use the small inheritance that was left, after all of the expenses were paid, for a family vacation. We started dreaming of a week in the sun together… and then we got walloped all over again when my oldest brother was diagnosed with cancer only six months after it took Mom.
The next sixteen months were again mixed with the same highs and lows we’d been through with Mom’s cancer. Sometimes we dared to hope Brad would survive, and sometimes we were almost certain he wouldn’t. In August of last year, when the cancer showed itself to have survived two surgeries and mutliple chemo treatments, the doctors said there was no longer any point in prolonging treatment. We tried to prepare ourselves for another loss. Expecting we would have him with us for no more than 3 months, the four siblings considered going on a smaller version of the family trip we’d imagined – just the four of us making one last attempt to have fun in an interesting location before our numbers shrunk.
But then, the pendulum swung back in the other direction. The doctors decided it was worth making one more attempt at saving his life, so they cut him open again, extracted more cancer, and hoped for the best. That was shortly before last Christmas. We spent that season in subdued hope that he would stay with us and that we’d have more holiday seasons together. His energy was low, and he couldn’t travel, so the rest of us drove across the prairies to be with him instead of the other way around.
Over the course of the year, things continued to improve, and his remission continues. For now. Today is what we have, so today is what we will celebrate.
This week, we took that celebration to the shores of the Gulf. Three years after she died, we finally unwrapped Mom’s final gift.
On Christmas Day, the four of us spent all afternoon playing like children in the giant waves. Spouses and children joined us for awhile, but the four of us stayed in the water by far the longest. We relished every wave and held every burst of laughter like a sacred jewel. Some waves tossed us to the ground, some buried us and left us gasping for air, and some let us simply roll gently over the top. Long after we were so weary we could barely stand, we played and laughed, hanging onto every moment as though it were our last.
At one point, in a short lull between waves, one of us remarked that this moment represented all that was left of the tiny pittance of money mom and dad had left after all of their years of toiling on the farm. Farming was hard on all of us, and in the end it killed our dad, but it also gave us many incredible gifts, including this moment.
This trip has been both grace and gift in the middle of all of our shared grief.
And that is the way of life. We walk through grief and then we step into grace, over and over again. There are moments of profound loss, and moments of ache and betrayal, and then there are moments when we play for hours in the waves with three of our favourite people in the world.
Earlier this week, on a long solitary walk on the beach, I was contemplating what my word for 2016 would be. Unlike a resolution, I consider my word for the year like an invitation or intention – something that helps me stay open for my own longings and the gifts that come my way.
The word that came to me was OPEN.
I want to live 2016 with an open heart. I want to be open to the gifts, the grace, and the grief. I want to open myself to new relationships, new experiences, and new learning opportunities.
I want to stay open the way I felt out there on the waves – surrendering to whatever gift each one brought – riding those that were gentle, rising up again after those that were not, and always laughing and hanging onto to those people who matter.
Soon we will begin to return to our various homes. We may have another chance to play together like this, or we may not. Only God knows our future. But in the meantime, we have this moment, and in this moment I make a conscious choice to remain open.
Note: If you want to choose a word for 2016, or if you want to reflect on the gifts, grace, and grief that 2015 has brought your way, there are mandala exercises for that purpose in A Soulful Year: A mandala planner for ending one year and welcoming the next.
Also: Mandala Discovery starts on January 1st.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
Last year, as the year ended, I shared a special mandala prompt for reflecting on the passing year before you invite in the new year. In that prompt, you were invited to divide your circle into 4 quadrants, with the words “grace, grief, growth, and gratitude” in each of the four quadrants. Then, with some reflection of the year that had passed, you filled each of the four quadrants with the things that happened that were connected to those four words.
The process of filling those four quadrants helps you see the year for ALL that it was, not just the happy things and not just the hard things. Sometimes we get stuck in only one story and we assume that that story defines us, but each of us walks through many stories and each of those stories teaches us something. Life is never a perfect balance, but it’s also never only one of those four things.
That reflection mandala is now a part of A Soulful Year: A Mandala Workbook for Ending one Year and Welcoming Another. Before you begin the process of planning for what’s ahead, it’s valuable to reflect on what has passed and on what those events have taught you.
The Reflection Mandala is a useful process to do every year at this time. Take some time this week to create your own simple four quadrant mandala for 2014. Many of us have kept gratitude journals, and that is a beautiful practice that has been transformational in my own past, but sometimes that’s not enough. This practice offers an extension of that, where focusing not only on the gratitude, but on the grief and growth and what may have been really hard to walk through helps us recognize all of the complexity of our lives and all of the things that change us and stretch us.
Here’s an idea for extending the practice of reflecting on grace, growth, gratitude, and grief throughout the year…
Find, buy, or make four containers that you can keep on your desk, bookshelf, or nightstand. (I purchased 4 small jars at the dollar store for $2.)
Write (or print stickers, as I did) the words grace, grief, gratitude, and growth on each of the containers. Embellish the containers however you wish.
Cut up small pieces of paper that you can keep in an envelope close to your containers.
On a regular basis throughout the year (daily or weekly), reflect on how grace, grief, gratitude, and growth have been present for you. Write notes on slips of paper and slip them into which ever jar that reflection belongs in. You can do all four each day, or just do the ones that most apply to that day. Try to maintain a reasonable balance, filling each jar instead of focusing on only one.
Here are some prompts for the four categories:
This one is simple – what are you grateful for today? What made you happy? Who showed love or compassion? What did you have fun doing?
A simple definition of grace is “anything that shows up freely and unexpectedly that you did nothing to earn”. It can be a beautiful sunset that catches you by surprise as you’re driving home, an unexpected kind gesture from a friend, or forgiveness that you don’t feel like you deserve. What was unexpected and unearned? How did the beauty of the world stop you in your tracks? How did friends extend undeserved forgiveness or offers of help?
What made you sad? Who do you miss? What feels broken? What old wounds are showing up? What did you lose? What disappointed you?
What stretched you? What did you learn? What were your a-ha moments? Who served as your teacher? How did you turn hard things into opportunity for growth?
Fill your jars with meaning throughout the year.
It’s quite possible that some items will show up in multiple jars. For example, something that causes grief will probably also offer you opportunities to grow. And sometimes (like when friends show up to support you) grace shows up in the darkest of moments.
Keep the containers in a place where they’ll be visible and easy to access and where you’ll remember to fill them up. You might want to do this as a morning practice before you start your day or an evening practice as you reflect on the day that passed.
At the end of the year, create a new four-quadrant mandala, take all of the pieces out of the jars and write or glue them onto the mandala. Reflect on your well-balanced year.
Start filling the jars again next year.
Once you’ve reflected on the year that passed, you may want to continue with a variety of other processes that will help you welcome and plan for what wants to unfold in 2015. A Soulful Year may help.
If you’d like to receive a mandala prompt every day in January 2015, consider signing up for Mandala Discovery.
Yesterday I had this crazy idea: “Since CIRCLE is my word for 2012, wouldn’t it be perfect to usher in the new year with a small circle of women at the centre of the labyrinth?”
Almost as quickly as the idea popped into my head, the gremlins tried to shut it down. “It’s too last minute. Everybody already has plans. You’ll look like a loser for not having plans on New Year’s Eve. Nobody will show up and then you won’t have the courage to walk through the dark woods to the labyrinth alone. And besides, if anyone sees you carrying candles in the labyrinth at midnight, they’ll think you’re foolish.”
Fortunately, I have a lot of practice wrestling gremlins, so I was able to silence them fairly quickly. Within moments of having the thought, I posted my idea on Facebook and sent an email to a few friends. Before long, three of them had said they’d be there (and several others wished they could). That was enough for me!
Just before 11, I gathered a few candles, a lighter, and our camping lantern and headed out the door. Except for one of my daughters (who has as many crazy, spontaneous ideas as I do), everyone in my family thought I was a little off-my-rocker. (One of them even said “what if a pedophile attacks you in the woods?” And I said “well, a pedophile won’t be looking for someone as old as me, so I’ll be safe!”)
Pulling into the all-but-deserted park, my heart did a little skip when I recognized one of the cars parked there and saw two women standing and waiting for me. They came! I don’t have to be crazy alone! A few minutes later, another car pulled up and two more women joined our little tribe.
It was a magical night. It was warmer than I’ve ever remembered New Year’s Eve being. The clouds in the sky glowed with the reflected light of the city, which in turn made the snow glow under our feet. I carried the lantern through the woods, but we never needed to turn it on.
I was nervous and a little giddy when we reached the labyrinth. It felt a little surreal that this was actually happening – that I had managed to manifest this with a crazy brainwave and a quick email.
Without much introduction, we began to walk the path of the labyrinth, one by one. It wasn’t easy to see the path in the snow, but I’ve walked it often enough that I could almost walk it blindfolded. At first, two women walked in front of me, but when they lost their way for the second time, they stepped aside and waited for me to lead the way. It felt like a little metaphor – accepting my place as leader when I have wisdom about the path that will help keep others safe.
Once, a woman behind me stumbled and fell into the snow. The woman picking up the rear stopped to help her back to her feet and the two of them enjoyed a giggle together. Another lovely metaphor for life.
The walk was as beautiful as I’d hoped. Snow crunched beneath our feet. Far off fireworks reverberated in the air. Occasional airplanes lit the clouds above us. It felt magical. It felt sacred. As I walked, I welcomed Sophia to walk with me.
At the centre of the circle, I took the candles out of my bag. “Even though we don’t need these for light,” I said as the other women joined me in the centre, “it’s important to have a flame at the centre of the circle to give us warmth and light and to hold the centre as we around the edge hold the rim. Imagine a bicycle wheel – there are invisible spokes holding each of us to the centre of the circle.” I handed the candles to the women and lit them. One of the women had her own candle in a glass candle holder.
There was only a tiny breeze, but it was enough to blow the candles out soon after we lit them. We huddled closer and re-lit our candles from the flame in the glass candle holder. Soon we learned that the best way to keep the candles burning was to hold them together and create a common flame, and then lean in, with our heads nearly touching.
“There are two questions I’d like to ask,” I said. “First, what do you wish to leave behind in 2011? If we had pencils and papers here, I’d ask you to write it down and then offer it to the flame to be burned.”
“And the second question is, what do you wish to invite in for 2012?”
One by one, we shared our secrets. I said that I wanted to leave behind my attachment to the outcome. “I want to let go of always feeling responsible for the results. When I offer up the gifts I feel called to offer, I want to do that with faith and confidence that I am doing the right thing whether or not the result feels ‘successful’.”
And then when it was my turn again, I said “I am carrying two things into 2012. Circle and light. I want to bring the healing power of circle to more people. And I want to be a light-bearer, helping people navigate in the dark.”
After we had all shared, someone looked at a watch and we discovered that it was past midnight. We’d ushered in the New Year with the flames we held in our hands, helping each other to keep a common flame burning, leaning in to protect it from the breeze. A circle of support and light. It was pure magic.
“Before we leave the circle, I’d like to offer you a blessing,” I said. “In 2012, may you find the path you need to walk on. May you continue to follow it even when that feels difficult. When you falter, may there always be someone there to help you get back on your feet and find your way again. May you hold your light boldly in the world and may you find a circle of friends who will help you protect that light from the forces that want to extinguish it. May you have the courage to lead when you need to lead and follow when you need to follow.”
And then we blew out the flame and wished each other a Happy New Year. Each of us left when we were ready, either along the direct path out, or along the same meandering path we’d taken to get in. I chose the meandering path. I needed a little more time to process what had just happened and to dream about what was to come.
Around the outer edge of the circle, I thought about all of the connections I’ve made with people who are bringing similar work into the world – people who are boldly carrying their own light and leaning in to join it to mine to create a stronger flame together. People who are holding the rim of the circle with me. With each footstep, I spoke the names of those people and offered them a silent blessing.
It was everything I’d dreamed of and more. Circle, light, labyrinth, wisdom, hope, support, women… all of my favourite things.
The blessings I spoke for others returned to me a hundredfold.
This morning’s mandala started with a dark circle at the centre. A black hole with no highlights and no intricate designs to lend it beauty… just void.
It felt odd to start that way. Usually my mandalas are infused with bright colours. Almost immediately, I found myself wondering how I could lend light to the darkness, beauty to the ugliness. I felt uneasy, not wanting the darkness to take over.
Around the edges of the circle, I started adding smaller circles in increasingly lighter, brighter colours – trying to redeem the darkness, trying to edge it toward light, trying to move on to colour, variation, and hope.
And yet, when I neared the edges of the paper with bright yellow bursts emanating outward, it didn’t feel right. The uneasiness continued. I closed my book. I didn’t like it. It didn’t feel like the place I’m in right now – neither the darkness, nor the feeble attempts at bringing in light.
After a bit of time, I opened my book again. Almost without knowing what I was doing, I picked up the black crayon and started shading over the coloured circles. This mandala was calling for darkness, not light. The light looked too garish against the dark – unwelcome in it’s boldness.
And then I knew what was emerging. Not a black hole, not a void, not an ugly place at all. Instead, a womb – a safe warm place for gestation, growth, and waiting for birth. Not unwelcome shadows, but rather the beginnings of growth. I thought back to the circular name-tags we were given in childbirth classes sixteen years ago – 10 centimetres; the amount our cervixes would have to dilate before we’d be ready to give birth.
This mandala was my birth canal, readying itself for the birth of something new.
It occurred to me how pertinent the birth metaphor is at this time of year. First we celebrated Winter Solstice, the emerging out of darkness into new light.
Then, in close succession, we celebrated the birth of Christ – the birth of hope, the birth of new life. Surrounded, quite appropriately, by our own families of origin, and, in particular, the women who birthed us into the world, we celebrate the hope of Jesus bringing grace and redemption through His birth. It’s a birth that changes us all, that shifts our paradigms and overturns our power structures.
Next weekend, we celebrate the birth of a new year – the turning of the calendar, a chance to start fresh.
Always, something is waiting to be born, and born again, and again. Sometimes we ourselves are in the birth canal, sometimes it is our dreams and vocations. Sometimes we are waiting, gestating, growing, and sometimes we are dilating, pushing, emerging.
The season of Christmas and the dawning of the New Year offers us an opportunity to reflect on what is waiting to be born for us now.
What has been gestating?
What is ready to emerge?
What will die if we don’t let it out of the birth canal?
How can we prepare ourselves for the birth?
As you prepare for the New Year, consider asking yourself these questions. Pick up some crayons and markers, create a mandala, and see what emerges. (And then come back and share it with us.)