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Discernment with Mandalas

This sketchbook cost $5
at Michaels

A couple weeks ago I was asked through a comment on an article what I thought about getting back into spiritual practice. It made me think a bit about discernment. We ask ourselves life choice questions all the time. Should I do “this”? Shouldn’t I? What are my options? And we usually answer them on the fly. We just do or do not, depending on a quick assessment.

When I think of spiritual discernment, I think of a process that brings all that you are to the table to consider possibilities. Intentionality is key. We aren’t just taking the quickest or easiest answer. And we are probably not asking questions like “what should I have for lunch?” Generally, the questions on the table are going to be questions of personal calling or becoming.

About a decade or so ago I was introduced by a spiritual director to a wonderful tool for discernment: mandalas. A mandala is meant to open you up to your depths so that you can find what you need to know through pictures. One does not have to be an artist to create a mandala. One just has to be open.

I’m sure there are many ways to create a mandala. Here’s the process I was shown. I have no idea how much I have tweaked this process over the years, but it works for me.

This mess is where it begins

First, select some sort of book that is meaningful to you. I recommend a sketchbook of some sort since they don’t have any lines (this one might work, or this one). Keep in mind that this is a personal journal. You will probably find yourself wrestling with private thoughts and feelings, some of which you won’t want others to know about. Once you start creating mandalas, treat them as very private information, otherwise you will try to control the outcome. The more private it is, the more likely you are to be open. This book will be a sacred tool. If you decide to show snippets to others, that’s your choice.

You will also need several colored pens or pencils. Again, I recommend that you set these writing utensils aside and not use them for anything else. Not being able to find that green pen for a mandala because you used it for your grocery list is is frustrating.

Next, find a quiet place. You will probably be here for a half hour to an hour, so it also needs to be comfortable. If you are into aesthetics, adorn the space with candles, bowls of water, or whatever symbolizes the sacred to you. Now, we’re ready to begin the actual process.

Sit comfortably with the book in front of you, holding a pen. Take a deep breath. Let tensions release. Keep breathing and releasing tensions until you are ready. If you are the praying type, a prayer for inspiration would work well here.

Notice the baby, samurai,
mountain with a glowing crack,
angry fish, and swirling water

When you feel ready, place the pen in the center of the page and close your eyes. Relax. You are not in a hurry to create a product. As you see motion in the darkness, follow it with your pen. Keeping your off-hand fingers along the edge of the book will help you know your boundaries. Continue marking the page, never letting your pen leave the surface. Once you feel you are done marking, with your eyes closed, set aside the pen and paper and fall into a meditative state. Stay as long as you need to.

Eventually, it will be time to return. Open  your eyes slowly. You will see a bunch of scribbles on the page. Now it’s time to start putting them together.

What do you see on the page? What images and shapes stand out? Identify those images and start to outline and color them. As you draw out the image, ask yourself what it might mean and why. As multiple images appear and develop, ask why they are appearing together. What is going on in your life that this image took on this particular meaning as you explore it? And finally, ask yourself what it all might mean for the direction you are going.

Mandalas are tools that can help you enter into a dialogue with your deeper self. Sometimes they help you to affirm and find confidence in who you are. Sometimes they unsettle as you find yourself asking, “where did that come from?” As a tool for discernment, it isn’t a magic bullet that gives you certain answers. It is an aid to help you make decisions and to grow. Like any discipline, the more regularly you practice, the more you will benefit from it.

Image source: mine

3 thoughts on “Discernment with Mandalas”

  1. Thank you for the reply and kind words. I've never heard the phrase "Visio Divina" before. A google search brought me to this article (…. I have used images before like this, but was unaware of what it was called.

    For anyone reading, I recommend checking that link out. There is some good stuff in that article. Paul's assessment is spot on.

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