Every human being feels the need for self-expression, the urge to say, “This is who I am” in some concrete, visible way. Even if we don’t know exactly who we are, we feel that urge.
For example: Me. I’m a longtime writer, but something inside me was bursting to be expressed in a way that wasn’t black letters on white paper, that wasn’t linear, that didn’t have to be viewed one word at a time, one page at a time.
I envied my artist friends who worked with brilliant colors and fascinating forms, and who could view a whole work in one glance.
I am no artist. And that thing inside that was bursting to be expressed? I didn’t know what it was.
At the same time, I was engaged in a cycle in the spiritual search that has preoccupied me since I was a child. Inspired by my Protestant upbringing, fascinated by the Bible stories and how to interpret them for our time, interested in what other world religions had to say, I’ve sought answers to questions that all religions, and all spirituality, are meant to answer: Who are we? Why are we here? How should we live? Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live?
I no longer expect once-and-for-all answers. I suspect that most spiritual seekers do not walk a straight path upward to full understanding, but a spiral. We circle back to familiar spots but see them each time from a slightly deeper, more informed perspective.
So there I was, longing to create something visual to express something vague, and contemplating life’s general questions as they relate to me in particular.
Then, along came a coloring book of mandala designs. I saw it in a catalog. The book spoke to me. It said, “You need me now.”
I knew nothing about mandalas.
I’ve since learned that traditional mandalas inspire both their maker and the viewer to contemplate her own nature and her place in the universe. A mandala is circular; the circle represents the universe. It contains a repeating pattern that draws someone into contemplation. Mandalas are most often associated with Eastern religions, but they appear in Christianity as well – rose windows in Gothic cathedrals, for example.
The mandalas in the coloring book measured more than 9 inches in diameter. I knew I’d find it tedious to color those big surfaces, so I reduced my favorites on my copier to about a third that size.
After a while, I began to find the basic designs rather plain. I decorated them with tiny circles, zigzags, diamonds, swirls, whatever made them more difficult and interesting or me.
Then I thought, “Why should I always use somebody else’s designs? Most of these don’t speak to me.” I decided to try designing my own. As I said, I’m no artist. But I can use a compass and a protractor and templates, and I can trace really well.
So far, I’ve made about three dozen mandalas of my own design.
Sometimes, concern for a friend inspires a mandala and I’ll hold her in my heart as I work. One mandala celebrates our new baby granddaughter. One honors my button bowl, which holds spare buttons from my mother, my grandmother and my great-grandmother. Occasionally, a design pops into my dreams, or comes to me while I do housework; I don’t know what these are about but I make them anyway. Sometimes I make one just for fun, like the Christmas candy design. Even a search for spiritual meaning needn’t be serious all the time.
Will I create mandalas forever? Maybe not. Perhaps they are a temporary phase in my spiritual search and I will move on.
Have I figured out exactly what I’m trying to express? Not really. Probably each time I do a mandala, little elements of my soul hustle out, make their marks, then scurry back into mystery. Maybe some day I will understand the message in the mandala.
Inside each of us, something creative is bursting to be expressed. We should pay attention. We should let ourselves be drawn to those forms of expression that speak to us. Why does someone choose to paint, or play the guitar, or cook gourmet meals, or create a family scrapbook? Does a person choose her form of expression? Or does that form, in fact, choose her, as the mandalas seemed to choose me? Who knows? Probably her soul knows, but her soul’s not telling – at least, not in words.