In 1986, I sustained a traumatic brain injury in a car accident, resulting in temporary left-side paralysis, severe short-term memory loss and other cognitive deficits. The moment my head hit the car windshield, I went from being someone for whom most things came easily – college, athletic endeavors, playing musical instruments – to someone whose brain no longer remembered how to remember. Through three years of intense physical, occupational and speech rehabilitative therapies, I recovered the ability to walk, talk, read and write again; it took another seven years to do these things well. When I was released from treatment, my neurologist and medical team designated me as 30% permanently disabled – an assessment that for a long time seemed to be true.
Three years after my accident, I suddenly began waking every morning with brilliant colors, shapes and symbols in my mind’s eye. What I found really curious, and for some reason comforting, was that the colors, shapes and symbols were always contained in a circle. Even thought I was not an artist, I decided to buy some crayons and drawing paper and whenever one of the morning circles popped up I would draw it. And it felt good. So I kept doing it. The circles then began appearing at other times of the day whenever I would close my eyes, so I drew those circles too. Eventually I noticed that whatever was contained in a circle seemed to reflect an emotional state or feeling. So I started to write down what those feelings were beside the circles. And that felt good, too.
Ten years after I first began drawing circles, I came upon a book in a used bookstore titled, Creating Mandalas for Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression by Susanne F. Fincher. Paging through the book I was stunned to realize the circles I regularly made were actually mandalas, something the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed to be a symbolic reflection of the self, intuitive self and wholeness. Upon further reading I found out the expressive process of mandala-making is used therapeutically to foster insight and healing – something I had experienced personally as I sought to regain a sense of meaning, purpose and inner balance after losing my home, finances, job, and many friends in the pain-filled aftermath of my traumatic brain injury.
I have been teaching mandala-making for the past 18 years and have repeatedly seen how creating a mandala when grief is present provides an effective outlet for expressing the pain of loss in an unspoken inner language of images, colors, shapes, forms and symbols that can bring forth insights often not found through words. While the conscious mind is still struggling to analyze and comprehend the meaning of a loss, the intuitive mind/self is already helping to heal that struggle by providing inner images of restoration that will serve to create wholeness anew in the aftermath of loss; creating mandalas provides us with a concrete representation of that wholeness.
Creating a Mandala
Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘whole world’, ‘sacred circle’ or ‘magic circle’. Mandala-making is used for insight , healing and self-expression. Making and filling-in a circular design with colors, images, shapes and symbols, reflects the wholeness of the person creating it and provides a pathway of connection with the intuitive and unconscious parts of ourselves where insight and deeper understanding reside. The practice of drawing a mandala does not require artistic skill or experience – only a desire to learn more about what is going on inside of us as we move forward through loss and grief.
- White paper in the size of your choice (8 ½” x 11” multi-purpose paper can be used).
- A paper plate; the plate will be used as a template for your mandala.
- Your choice of crayons, pastels, color markers or color pencils.
The Steps for Making Your Mandala
- Lay out all of your coloring implements in front of you for easy access.
- Relax the body and mind. Take a moment to do this quick relaxation exercise:
Close your eyes. Breathe a bit slower and deeper than usual to comfort. Focus on taking air in through the nose and letting it out through the nose or mouth. Do this several times.
Now focus in on the feelings inside of your body. See if there are any areas of discomfort, tension or pain, as well as areas of lightness, comfort and ease. Do an inventory of your body. Start with your head and face. Move down to your neck and shoulders, then to your arms and hands. Check each area of tension. Then move down to your chest and abdomen, your back. Then your pelvic area and buttocks. Your thighs and knees, calves and feet.
Go back to any areas of tension. Continue to focus on each inhalation and exhalation as your breath, allowing the tense areas of your body to relax, one by one. Each time you release your breath, release the tension right along with it. Name each area and as you release the tension from that area say to yourself: My (body part) is feeling very relaxed.
Now focus your attention inward. Notice any forms, colors and shapes dancing before your mind’s eye; using as little though as possible, select a color, form or feeling from your inner vision as a starting point for your mandala. If nothing appears to you, that is o.k.
- When you are ready, open your eyes and look at the colors before you. Guided by your inner vision or simply in response to the colors, choose a color to begin your mandala. You may feel as if the color has chosen you.
- Draw a circle using your plate as a template. Continuing to use as little thought as possible, begin to fill in your circle with color and form. It is usually easiest to begin either at the center of your mandala, working outward, or begin at the edges, working inward. If you feel moved to draw beyond the borders of your circle, feel free to do so.
- A mandala usually takes 5 – 20 minutes to make. Create your mandala at the pace that feels right to you.
Steps for Interpreting Your Mandala
- Turn and look at your mandala from all angles – what feels like up - like the top? Put a T at the top.
- Sign and date your mandala anywhere on your paper. If you make more than one mandala in a day number each mandala in the order made.
- Name your mandala; try not to over-think the name - go with your first response.
- Ask yourself: How did I feel when making this mandala? How do I feel when looking at my completed mandala? What is my mandala trying to tell me that I need to know? How does the name of the mandala relate to the three questions and the answers to those questions?
Only you truly know the meaning behind the colors, shapes and symbols of your mandala; however, doing an on-line search to gain knowledge regarding the universal meanings of specific shapes, symbols and colors can provide much food for thought and thus a deeper level of insight. Some examples of universal meanings include: red as the color of love, suffering or anger; a bird as a symbol of the process of transformation, flights of thought, or messenger.
About the Author
Elizabeth Lewis is a certified grief support specialist, stress resilience teacher, spiritual counselor and motivational speaker. She travels widely in the United States and Italy presenting talks and workshops on a wide variety of subjects including trauma healing, resilience-building, forgiveness facilitation, mindfulness, and healing art and writing. www.elizabeth-lewis-coach.com