During the dark days of World War II when Carl Jung was an ambulance driver, he would re-center himself and calm his shaken nerves by drawing geometric shapes of concentric circles. It was only later that he realized how pervasive Mandalas were as a cross cultural spiritual practice, from the intricate ancient forms of Tibet to the illuminations by the 12th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen. Modern scientific research is confirming what Jung intuited: making such images (even if only by coloring them) can have a calming effect on our nervous system, restoring equilibrium in times of trauma.
I remember watching a group of visiting Tibetan monks in profound concentration, painstakingly laboring to construct a gigantic sand mandala, ever-so-carefully placing tiny grains of sand in place with tweezers. At the end of their weeks-long project, they took it outside and let the wind carry it away. It was a profound lesson for me in non-attachment. What I took away was this: Even the most beautiful creation will disappear. What matters is giving yourself fully to creating beauty in the moment.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Lent has often been trivialized as a time of either superficial deprivation (doing without sweets, alcohol or coffee) or eschewed as a time of gloomy morbidity. But I believe that Ash Wednesday with its reminder of "ashes to ashes, dust to dust" was meant to be a reminder of how fragile and brief our life is, just like the Tibetan Sand Mandalas. Perhaps all the Lenten practices of fasting across the ages were intended as ways of waking up from our habitual addictions and comforts so that we stop taking our privileges for granted. I dare to dream that this has been a year of "waking up" for many of us, the year when we have realized, at last, how completely interdependent we are with one another, and how the smallest of gestures- a cough, for example- can snatch away the life of a loved one. We‘ve also realized how precious the simple things we once took for granted are: singing in a choir, gathering with friends or walking down a street without either a facemask or fear of a disease.
There is a growing movement to not “give something up” but “take something on” for Lent. My own practice this season will be to create Gratitude Mandalas to offer as thanks for someone who has been a light in my life and who embodies qualities to which I aspire. In the spirit of those Tibetan monks and my favorite living artist, Andy Goldsworthy, my creations will be ephemeral. They will also be confined to being created from things that I find “ at hand” in my yard and home and on my walks in my neighborhood, as a way to remind myself that beauty is always possible, even with limitations.
This first mandala, which you see above, is sent out as a thank-you to my favorite living poet, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. If you don’t already know her work, I can imagine few better spiritual practices to transform your life than to subscribe to Rosemerry’s daily poetry post, which you can find here.
Inspired by Rosemerry's astonishing productivity, disciple and devotion ( she writes more than a poem a day), I will be trying to write one poem a week this Lent. Here is the first:
Ash Wednesday by Kayleen Asbo
Our days are fleeting,
And soon we shall be dust,
But I want to be the kind of person
Who leaves behind in the ashes
Seeds of hope and love
That might sprout in the years to come.
So while daylight is here,
And while I still have any struggling breath within me,
Let me give myself again and again to beauty
Over and over opening my eyes
To bow at what is right here before me.
Let me make a wreath of roses
To crown a passing stranger in friendship.
And if there are no roses,
Let me extend my hand with dandelions,
So that we might make a wish together for a
World of peace.
And if there are no dandelions to be found,
May I remember that
Even the clover is made of hearts
And can become a doorway to hope
If only I have the presence
to pay attention
and give thanks.