Understanding Mandalas on a Symbolic-Body Level
In the book "Metaphors We Live By," author George Lakoff explains that our fundamental language is metaphorical. As children we live in a world of stories, symbols and metaphors before we grasp literal language.
I explore mandalas as a symbolic experience in my body. This is done through the combination of spontaneous mandala making and meditating into my body to find and express correlating metaphors, stories, memories, movements and symbols through inner body focusing.
Focusing Psychotherapy, pioneered by psychologist Eugene Gendlin and elucidated by Focusing teachers Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin is a method of going within to sense into our next emotional "growth edge." My intuitive mandala making process is inspired by the work of Focusing teachers Ann Weiser Cornell's and Barbara McGavin's Focusing Student's and Companion's Manual.
My Intuitive Mandala Process
By regularly sensing into my body metaphors and symbols I can playfully and curiously witness what is next emerging from my unconscious mind for healing. Pairing this inner meditation with the outer visual form of spontaneous mandala making is how I deepen my body's experience of emerging change.
As a Focusing Teacher in training, I use Focusing on myself to more deeply sense visual and verbal symbols in my body. This process helps me to understand the “felt-sense” meaning of my mandalas.
I sense into my inner body symbols through:
- Words or phrases that spontaneously pop into my mind
- An image that is symbolic - either imagined or created
- A thought of a past memory, a current situation, or a future vision
- A gesture, dance or movement that describes my felt-sense
- A sound or a remembered song
Creating Optimum Space for Symbols to Emerge - A Focusing Journal Process
1. Being in Presence
"I am sensing something in me that feels...." It is much easier for the "something" that is newly emerging to receive my company, and make steps and change, when "it" is not "me." When I say, "I am angry," it is hard for the "angry" to be accompanied unconditionally and witnessed objectively. Whenever I catch myself saying, "I am..." or "I feel..." I notice how it would feel to say, "I am sensing into something in me that feels..." From this place of witnessing I can be with anything without feeling overwhelmed and without denying my feelings.
2. Going Slowly
"I am taking time to...." Keeping the edge of my emerging awareness company as it makes itself known takes time to enter the body where "more" lives. Sometimes when I am feeling tangled up with many feelings it can feel like I am facing a big wall.
Ann Cameron writes, “Our natural inclination is to bring in a bulldozer or the battering rams to force down the wall. Instead, we can take it much slower and metaphorically pitch our tent by the wall. Make a campfire and have a hot drink. Get to know this wall. Dwell with it. When we keep company with our wall in this way, something new happens.”
3. Sensing in the Body
"I'm noticing how this feels in my body now...." The body brings the gift of present time and gives me the fundamental truth of how I am feeling right now. Our bodies cannot lie.
I might want to ignore what I am feeling in my body, but if it is there, it is real. My body also brings wholeness, depth and nuance to my mandala witnessing. It brings the totalling of the whole situation - all of my past and future relating to this situation, this problem, this stuckness, this feeling in my body - together in this single felt moment.
As I keep company with my something, each time I think, feel, have images, make gestures, move around, talk, laugh, cry - I acknowledge it, describe it, and say "hello." I describe each new way of feeling as it emerges in my journal.
4. Staying in Contact with the Unclear Edge
"I am sensing for what is unclear here..." What I do not know will always be greater than what I know. We know a lot about our problems, but we do not know enough to solve them.
Staying on the edge of my emerging awareness, attuned to what I do not yet know, change can happen. When I say, "I am sad," nothing really changes. To help the "more" to open, I need to go to the edge of the sadness: to the unexplored places within where mystery resides.
It is important to notice and be curious about what is fuzzy, vague, puzzling, unclear and hard to put into words. This is where the "more" is to be found. This unclear edge is where my next life-forward energy is enfolded. It is from this place that I allow my unconscious emerging "edge" to unfold into my next conscious steps in the world.
5. Holding the Space for Something New to Come
"I'm letting it know it can be the way it is for as long as it wants to be..." As I take time to keep company with my something, sensing the unclear edge in my body, knowing I don't know what needs to be known next, or what the right next step is, I am creating a space for something new to emerge.
At this point I can do nothing but keep company with what is there and wait. It can feel very difficult to stay with something, keeping it company, when it feels like nothing is happening. The more I can trust that there is a right timing for the emerging of my healing, I can rest, listen and wait for grace to create the shift.
6. Whatever Feels Like "Fresh Air" is a Step, No Matter What it Looks Like
"I am saying 'Yes' to what has come." If I already knew my next growth direction I would not have to sense into the unclear edge of my arising awareness. So when my next growth steps arrives, I am usually surprised. Likely, it will not be what I expected at all. Whenever I sense some kind of a movement, shift, relief, opening, or flowing in my body - when I have been with my something - I know that I am experiencing a step.
Any shift in the body that feels right - even though it may not rationally connect with the problem is a step. Sometimes it feels good to say a random or surprising word or phrase, or even see a bizarre or unrelated image in my mind's eye. Often a simple insight will introduce itself into my awareness.
I might hear an emerging part of myself directly speaking to me. An intuitive body gesture may create a feeling of release or shift. I might even have an urge to take action on something in my real life that is not practical - but the inner urge for growth is symbolic nonetheless. The body shift I am looking for is not agreeing or disagreeing with what emerges but is a "process shift" that creates a feeling of flow in my body. Even a slight shift of openness is enough.
Because my unconscious mind speaks in imagery, poetry, insight, movement and mystery, whatever reveals itself may not have an immediate meaning to my conscious mind. I track my inner emergence process over time through a daily focusing journal - simply recording what image, word or thought created my felt-shift and reintroduced a feeling of relief and flow in my body each day. Following these small shifts over a longer period of time reveals the larger pattern of positive growth that is emerging.
Sensing the Emerging Growth Edge Symbolically
Long before I can understand the meaning and roots of my emotional discomfort, I can paint or draw my emotions as energy. My emotions can describe what is moving through me in shape, line, color and pattern. As I paint and draw, I simply listen within to what wants to emerge intuitively. I invite myself to release my emotional energies by painting one color and shape at a time until my mandala is complete.
Watercolor is an ideal medium to invite creative flow. I like to draw and collage on my mandalas too. Emotions can be described through shape, line, sound, movement, color and pattern. I find it is helpful to paint a mandala with a mind that is empty of concepts prior to inner body focusing to help me center more deeply into what is coming forward for healing and recognition. Or, oppositely, I sometimes focus inside of my body first - listening for symbols in my written journal, and then paint my mandala afterwards.
A Personal Example
This year is all about mandalas for me. Because I love to delve deeply into the creative process, I am in the midst of a 365-day mandala/inner body focusing process. I have completed a full year of mandalas before, and I have found them to be profoundly nurturing of my feminine nature.
To better illustrate the accompanying writing process above, I share one of my daily journal entries and subsequent mandalas with you. Some days, I draw my mandala first, and focus inside my body in a journaling process after. In this case, because I was in emotional pain, I journaled first and a healing mandala formed in my mind's eye as my "growth step," which I painted after.
Journal Focusing Process
1. Being in Presence: I am sensing something in me that feels...sticky and sad.
2. Going Slowly: I am taking the time to...be with this sticky sadness and see if it offers me any words, images or feelings... I see a big black spiral with edges of raw red fire... The spiral feels dark and damp...neglected and forgotten. (Tears start to burn in my eyes. My body wants to take big gulps of air.)
3. Sensing Into the Body: I sense an inner body shift when I pay attention to my inner imagery. I feel a small sense of relief that I have paid attention to this feeling and I am able to breathe a little deeper in my chest...I take several deep breaths...and I breathe love into this dark space within. And as I do, I sense a loss or a grief that I cannot name. I will keep this grief company for a little while...and, when I do, my heart pain intensifies. I cry a little and I feel some relief.
4. Staying in Contact with the Unclear Edge: The dark spiral seems to live in my heart...so I go to the red fiery edge of my heartache and stay with it with loving presence. The burning then moves up the left side of my throat and into my mouth. I am sensing that I need to communicate something about my femininity.
5. Holding Space for Something New to Come: After a period of quiet attention, unexpected words come to my mind. I hear, "Restful attention. Tenderness...Honour the colour pink."
6. Whatever Feels Like "Fresh Air" is a Step, No Matter What it Looks Like: In this case, I sense that my growth step is to draw a healing pink spiral mandala to represent my healed femininity. As I paint my mandala, something shifts inside and I feel lighter and freer.
My Healing Mandala
When I am emotionally hurting, I always journal prior to mandala making. It is interesting to note that had I drawn my mandala prior to my inner body focusing process, I would have likely created what I inwardly visioned in the beginning of my focusing journal process.
I would have probably drawn the black spiral mandala with fiery edges that came through in the beginning of my journal writing.
Once my forward-movement step came through my journaling process, I was able to access this pink healing mandala image to meditate upon.
Final Note: Journaling prior to mandala making is unusual for me. I usually draw my mandalas first, especially when I am feeling good emotionally - which is most of the time now.
After years of creating spontaneous art, I love to draw my spontaneous mandala first thing in the morning as a visual awareness practice, then I journal afterwards to deepen into the meaning of my mandalas.