Some weeks ago I wrote about self-care, pointing out that self awareness is the basic skill we need in order to find a natural way of caring for ourselves. While working with many people as a caregiver, nurse, and coach, I’ve found again and again that what is missing for most of us is a well integrated practice of self-care. Here I’d like to share an unusual way to think about it, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The challenge is that we live with too much input and too many demands upon our being. We develop many desires and interests based on the things coming at us, with so many decisions to make, that our nervous system hardly finds a moment to rest. So many things to do, to watch, to want—and also many things to miss out on.
It’s not easy in these times to find a clear line, to have good boundaries, and to limit what comes at us. Naturally then, it’s not easy to develop a home environment of balanced positive activity and rest, such as might be evoked by the idea of mandala.
The mandala is an important symbol and element in many spiritual traditions. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition uses mandalas in many different ways. For example, monks create beautiful and complex sand mandalas to use in rituals, often spending several days to accomplish them. Such a mandala of an enlightened deity depicts a complex environment which embodies and symbolizes the deity and his or her retinue, their activity and enlightened qualities and energy. Similarly, Buddhist teachers are understood to unfold their own mandala or environment of blessing and activity.
Psychological pioneer Carl Jung explored the meaning of mandalas that appeared in his own dreams and visions, and which he found throughout the cultures of the world. He saw them as natural, organic images of wholeness, growth, and integration:
“A premonition of a center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy. The energy of the central point is manifested in the almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is, just as every organism is driven to assume the form that is characteristic of its nature, no matter what the circumstances.”
I really appreciate this sense of the center as a source of energy to become what one truly is. For myself in my own spiritual practices mandalas have had a powerful meaning. But also, simply on an everyday level, the symbol has helped me to understand and relate to the environments I live and move in. I see different social contexts and different people in the professional and private fields as different mandalas. I feel my own being, activity and life as a mandala.
When I work with others, one of the first things I try to do is establish the feeling of a kind of inner home from which life in this environment can happen and unfold. At times when I feel confused, overwhelmed, or helpless I feel a loss of this inner home and orientation. In that case I’m more prone to moods and reactions which would at other times not be happening. So finding my way “back home” into the center and clarity of my inner home, my “mandala,” feels like a healthy and also somewhat magical journey and unfolding of a more natural way of being.
A mandala is a picture of powerful activity, but always within the context of a center and its related circumference—an integrated meaning. In this way the idea or symbol of a mandala can help us to envision, find, and maintain an inner place where we can come home to again and again. Activity and complexity radiate outward from the center, but the center does not move. Our natural ability for self awareness helps us notice when we have lost our connection with this natural sense of alignment and healthy boundaries. Meditative skills and practices, which naturally promote integration, can even act as an early warning system and immediate first aid when we forget our mandala, helping us to reconnect with it.
More about these topics in the coming weeks.
Enjoy the late summer wherever you are.