A mandala (Sanskrit for “circle” or “completion”) is an art therapy technique that can be a powerful tool for gaining insight and self-awareness. It is a circle composed of lines, shapes, and symbols that has been used for centuries to represent wholeness and unity, or as an object of meditation. When I created my first mandala, looking at a blank circle I wondered what I was “supposed” to draw. Then I compared my basic image of a sunset to my classmates’ mandalas and wondered what the point of this was. My negative judgments and expectations set me up for frustration and feelings of failure.
Do you remember being a child playing with art materials? Before your ego was developed, you were able to make art without a care in the world. In life, when we make judgments about what things “should” be like, we can end up feeling frustrated and disappointed when reality doesn’t meet our expectations. It is natural to make judgments, but we see things through the lens of our own experiences, rather than how they are in reality. For example, you might think your art looks “bad,” but in reality, it is nothing more than lines, colors, and shapes on a piece of paper. You are the one who creates meaning out of it. I never attempt to interpret my clients’ artwork, but instead ask questions to help the person find meaning in their own creation. And if they don’t know what it represents, that is okay too.
Many times, our struggles in life are not the situations we find ourselves in but the meaning we make of them. When we allow ourselves to approach life with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance, we can start living with our eyes wide open. We can use our imagination to be flexible in our thinking and identify options. Imagination houses our deepest fears and inadequacies, but also allows us to look at things outside of the box.
I often integrate mindfulness practice into my work with clients using mandalas as a tool for reflection and gaining insight into one's inner world. When we can create with an open mind, we can find deep meaning and significance in our work. By identifying and talking about these images that emerge, we can work on resolving many of the underlying issues that are causing discomfort in life. The images act as a stimulus that allows us to examine parts that have not been serving us well.
Now that I create mandalas with an attitude of playfulness and with no expectations, I can actually enjoy the process of being free to use whatever materials, colors, lines, and shapes that feel right to me in the moment. This freedom allows me to put my inner world out into a tangible form. Sometimes I do not see anything profoundly meaningful in the resulting artwork, but it is still a relaxing mindful process. Other times, it can be a powerful experience to recognize symbolism and meaning that was not planned or intentional.
This is an image one of my clients drew to demonstrate how she felt when she first started therapy. She described herself as being on the edge of a black hole, about to fall in, and seeing me as her only lifeline.
This was a mandala the same client created several months into our work together. It reflected things that gave her life meaning as well as issues she was still struggling with.
You’re hearing it in schools, in the workplace, and on social media, this idea or concept of being “mindful” or “mindfulness”. So, what exactly is this “new” technique that everyone is talking about?
The concept of mindfulness has been around for centuries. Mindfulness provided the way in early Buddhism to liberation, “constantly watching sensory experience in order to prevent the arising of cravings, which would power future experience into rebirths”. It is believed that the practice of dhyana, which is a series of cultivated states of mind that lead to a “state of perfect equanimity and awareness” may have been the original core practice of the Buddha, which aided the maintenance of mindfulness.
Today in modern psychology we look upon mindfulness as the process of developing the skill of bringing one’s attention to whatever is happening in the present moment. To really allow ourselves to experience what is happening to us and around us at an exact moment in time, to “stop and smell the roses”.
Although it can sometimes seem very challenging to tap into ourselves at certain moments, with practice through a series of different skills and techniques, such a meditation and deep breathing exercises, you can learn how to be present in the moment, which can have a profound impact on your mind, body and soul.
The act of being mindful can lead to a reduction in stress and anxiety and provide an overall sense of calmness when done regularly.
I have used mindfulness techniques and skills throughout my therapeutic practice to help clients feel more centered and aware of their emotional state. The wonderful thing about some of these techniques is that they can be applied anywhere at any time, allowing us a moment to regroup and reset in a sometimes very hectic day.
One technique that can be used anywhere is Anchoring. It is a wonderful way to calm yourself and refocus your thoughts. You start by directing your attention into the lower ½ of your body. Begin by focusing on your feet and how they feel inside your socks or shoes and against the ground. Expand your attention to include the sensations in your lower legs and then your upper legs. Do they feel heavy or light? Warm or cold? Tingly or numb? Now move upwards to include the sensation of your breathing, really focus and concentrate on relaxing as you exhale each breath. Continue to do this until you feel you have centered yourself and are in a calm state.
This is a great exercise you can do any time with your eyes open or closed, while sitting, or even as you are walking around. This exercise can help you be mindful of your own body and what you are experiencing at that moment. It allows you to let go of negativity and center yourself in a positive calm state of mind.
So, the next time you are feeling stressed or just need a moment, be Mindful, anchor yourself and then breathe.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month – what do most people think of when they think of mental health? Most often it is celebrities such as Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, or Kurt Cobain. This often becomes the most visceral and public face of mental health awareness. The truth, however, is that the true face of mental health awareness is your neighbor who has trouble attending social events since his wife passed away. It is your cousin who has a great deal of difficulty getting out of bed each day. It is your brother who avoids family situations because of debilitating anxiety. The real faces of mental health awareness are the everyday folks who are having a tough time.
Part of the challenge of Mental Health Awareness Month is removing the stigma that is still too often associated with seeking help. The truth of mental health awareness is that we all encounter difficult times in our lives. There are times when we are functioning really well…and times when we are functioning less well. That’s just human nature! The good news is that a well-trained mental health professional can help just when we need it most.
There are a number of misconceptions that can get in the way of us taking advantage of this kind of help. Let’s talk about a few of those:
Misconception #1: “If I go into “therapy”, it means I am really, deeply flawed.”
Reality: Have you ever needed a medical professional’s help recovering from the flu? Have you ever needed Physical Therapy for a shoulder or a knee that wasn’t working quite the right way? No difference here! We all have times when we aren’t functioning at our best and good therapy can often get that fixed much more efficiently and quickly than trying to do it on our own!
Misconception #2: “Therapy takes years.”
Reality: Most people engage in the therapeutic process for a short time, often a few months at most. Some choose to continue for a longer time to work on new and different things, or because they enjoy the process, but the majority of “problems” can be worked through fairly quickly.
Misconception #3: “My therapist will think I’m “crazy” and I’ll look bad.”
Reality: You would be shocked at how “not alone” you are in facing life challenges. In fact, many of the folks that you know are likely facing issues of their own, but are afraid to get help with those issues. The reality is that your therapist is likely admiring you for taking proactive steps to help yourself. Many therapists have spent time in therapy themselves, so they’re very likely to have a real sense of what you are dealing with. They may even have been through something similar. The good news is that you now have an expert to help you to navigate this situation.
Misconception #4: “Therapy is expensive and I can do this on my own.”
Reality: The odds are that maybe you can do this on your own, but why should you have to? In therapy, you have an expert helping you to consider the most relevant factors in the situation, your own feelings and values, and your own solutions. Not only do you have an expert on board, you also leverage that expert’s considerable experience. Most people who work through an issue in therapy report that the issue is more fully resolved and less likely to recur than when they try to go it alone. They also report that issues tend to be resolved more quickly when in a therapeutic environment. Additionally, the therapist is an unbiased person, and can help see things that often we can’t see ourselves when we’re “in it”, so to speak. In short, therapy can be the most efficient way to work through issues. You invest in things every day, a few dollars invested in your emotional and cognitive well-being is money well spent. Who better to invest in than yourself?
So, the next time you wonder whether you are alone in having challenges, look around you. There are very likely others wondering the same thing. The next time you wonder whether a mental health professional can help, think back on the realities outlined above. You may just find that having a highly trained, neutral person in your corner may be the ticket to living your best life. We all deserve that.