My girlfriend and I went to see the "Mandala of Compassion" exhibition at the Hammer Museum on the last day it was up. We decided to watch the ceremony on the live-cam and then go into the small room where the monks were after they completed the mandala.
While I was explaining to my girlfriend how anyone could come watch as the monks chanted over their intricate designs infusing them with prayers of compassion for all beings, the ceremony began. Then suddenly, just after painstakingly placing grain after grain of colored sand, a monk swiped his hand swiftly through the finished piece.
I was shocked. Somehow, I'd forgotten the main point: mandalas are a ritual. By definition, they are "destroyed" as soon as they are finished. But was anything really "destroyed"? I asked myself. A good question.
After watching the procession, and remembering the meaning of the mandala, my girlfriend and I were able to laugh at ourselves. We kept our tickets as a humorous act of self-acceptance, to remind ourselves of how silly we were to forget the main lesson of the mandala ceremony at first. We didn't judge ourselves and moved on.
It occurred to me then that the mandala ceremony could teach us all about how to make peace with self-judgment and doubt. Here are six particularly helpful steps ...
1. Give up on "what ifs."
As we approach a new goal, we're often overwhelmed by all possible "what if" statements. What if I try and try and try and still fail? What if I never finish? What if I'm not talented/disciplined/smart enough?
We are so focused on outcome that we can't bring ourselves to place that first grain of sand on the board. We forget that the idea of "finished" is an illusion. We are always learning, changing, doing and redoing. We need to make peace with that constant state of flux in order to grow.
2. Picture where you might be going, and then ditch the idea of a single destination.
The lesson of the mandala also reminded me of the Mother Teresa poem that hung on the wall of my college's career center. One line read: "What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway." In fact, her answer to all disappointments, setbacks, and complications in life was basically, "Do it no matter what."
If we are able to maintain our focus in the present, and to speak and act with full connection to our experiences, we aren't so focused on expectations for ourselves. When we are present, we allow ourselves to be surprised and open to new opportunities we may not have considered.
3. Practice. Practice. Practice.
Watching the monks carry the sand out to be brought to the ocean, I thought of all the times I had to make a leap of faith to begin. Going vegan. Getting on the yoga mat at the gym for the first time. Every time I've started a new job. Looking back, all those "what ifs" seem silly now. I can hardly remember how hard it was in the beginning.
If starting over is hard for you, practice. Erase the photos on your phone. Have an Etch-a-Sketch or mini Zen garden or PlayDough on your desk. Do anything that gives you joy independent of outcome.
Kids are good at this. They dig holes. They spend hours building cities just to knock them down. They think bubbles are amazing.
4. Don't be afraid to throw things out and start all over again.
Recently, a screenplay I spent several years writing was optioned. I was so proud and excited thinking that this was the end of all my hard work. At my first meeting, I assumed they'd ask me to do a few edits. Instead, the development coordinator asked me to write a brand-new outline.
She explained that starting from the beginning would help me let go of lingering problems from all the other drafts. Doubts began to haunt me. Maybe they never liked the script in the first place? Or what if I flat out wasn't a good writer?
Then I remembered the mandala. I decided I could let go of the old design. I could create another and another. That knowledge gave me the ability to start again.
5. Remember that destruction is ALWAYS part of creation.
We all have scripts we have labored on for years: the ones in our head. It's scary to let them go. We wonder if we really can be different. And yet, change is our very nature.
But really we are always creating and destroying. How do we get stronger at the gym? We tearing down our muscles by working them. Then they build up again, stronger. We cook elaborate feasts for our friends and family, and then what happens? Our efforts are digested by our guests, and we're left with nothing but crumbs. We get rid of things we've outgrown. Always, no matter what, something must end for a new thing to begin.
6. Give meaning to your process (heck, even dedicate it to someone else).
Think of the monks who woke every morning to chant over their work. They used their task as a way to focus their minds on compassion. Can you dedicate your journey to compassion rather than doubt?
When I begin to doubt my abilities as a writer or a yogi, I switch my thinking to other people. Who will my readers be? Who are my students? Then, I think about what I want to show them. My abilities become secondary. The work and the time all become worth it because I can't put a price on the message I want to share.
We all have people watching us, learning from the way we live. As you work on the mandala of your life, find freedom — not fear — in the knowledge it can all be swept away and transformed again.
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