Sand Mandala Blueprint
More and more I see art as the by-product of an experience. The experience happens in both process and product during art making and in art therapy. Nothing illustrates this quite as well as the collaborative sand mandala.
I got the idea from the Tibetan monks who spend their lives memorizing grain by grain and color by color these beautiful, symbol-laden traditional designs, or yantras. They then painstakingly create the image in colored sand with a special funnel tool. It is a form of meditation, specifically group meditation, and a beautiful metaphor for art and life. Upon completion, the mandala is swept into a bag and carried to the nearest body of moving water to be released in a ceremony about the transient nature of all life.
Not being Buddhist and out of a deep respect for religious symbolism I decided to draw my own secular pattern. I used skinny blue tape and a visual vocabulary of leaves, pods and waves. This came easy and led to a lovely tabletop line drawing. I determined to divide the design into three concentric color themes – cool, neutral and warm. That was when I realized that the mandala held lessons to teach. The nature and size of the mandala required us to start in the center so our bellies would not mess up the carefully placed sand. Lesson? One must be centered to participate in the meditation. Amazingly two Buddhist women arrived first to start filling in the design. As they worked others joined in.
Eventually some children participated to teach the next lesson: there is no such thing as a mistake. Even when these children “broke the rules” and colored outside the lines the design worked. In fact these little “mistakes” gave it syncopation and rhythm. By the time we got to the outer edge it was obvious that each person’s “style” contributed to the overall interest and texture in the piece. In fact there were places that had designs within designs which only added to the successful collaborative feel of the mandala. Lesson? Groups are made up of individuals who all bring something slightly different to the table. This diversity is desirable!
By the time the mandala was complete, many people had registered their complaints about sweeping it up and taking it to the river. It was too pretty! they said. Suggestions included pouring polyurethane on it, topping it off with a piece of round glass and painting the design directly onto the table. I pressed on with the lesson about impermanence, enlisting my husband’s help sweeping the colored sand into my saffron bag. Even this part was pretty. I felt good about my ability to “let go” so gracefully.
Sweeping into a Saffron Bag
Soon the only thing left on the table was the blue tape. As we peeled the tape up a whole new subtle lesson on the lasting effects of temporary beauty revealed itself, and the resulting faint “un-drawing” took our breath.
As we carried the bagged sand to the Tennessee River we reviewed the process and the lessons we learned. We gave the sand to the river at the Passageway; where downtown meets the river. It wasn’t until I woke up the next day that I panicked. I didn’t take any pictures! I had no record, nothing left of the mandala to show and share. I got on the phone, found a friend who had taken pictures and talked her into sending them to me. I had to “keep” something. This final lesson? Letting go is one thing. Staying “let-go” is another!