By Ronald Alexander
You see things, and you say “Why?”
But I dream things that never were, and I say, “Why not?”
—George Bernard Shaw
In Buddhism, a mandala is a beautiful, intricate, circular sand painting of many colors that depicts the relationships among the celestial bodies in the cosmos and represents the turning of the wheel of fortune. Jungians say a mandala can be a depiction of the parts of the self, united in harmony and balance. It’s an exquisite symbol that visually renders the cycle of life, from birth to death to birth again. Yet, after spending countless hours creating this work of art, the one who has designed it and meticulously laid the colored sand will sweep it away, obliterating the carefully constructed lines. As the image of the mandala fades into memory, its creator reflects on the impermanent nature of everything we experience.
When dramatic shifts occur in our lives, we can become nearly paralyzed with fear, anger, grief, and resentment. We enter a state of shock and forget that with loss comes rebirth. On some level, we understand that we must design a new life, a new mandala, but we struggle between trying to figure out what we want to do next and being overwhelmed by the intense emotions associated with loss. Clinging to the past, we resist the opportunity to embrace the creative process that requires us to let go of the mind’s limited way of thinking about ourselves and the situation at hand. But if we can find the courage to enter this process, to experience the state of consciousness Buddhists call “open mind,” accessing our deepest, or core, creativity, we can begin to tune in to what we most want for ourselves. You can ensure that your new life is in sync with your deepest values. You can let go of your attachments to what was and what you thought would be. You can choose to let go of fear and trust that a palette of many colors, some of which you may never have seen before, will be available for creating a new mandala: a new life of beauty that’s in harmony with the song of the soul.
A Creative Transformation After Tragedy
A few years ago, a couple named Mark and Selena came to me on the advice of friends, asking me to be their therapist and help them cope with the most devastating of losses: their two young children had been killed in a car crash when their teenage babysitter, who was driving, took her eyes off the road, crossed the centerline, and caused a head-on collision at sixty miles an hour. The babysitter had somehow survived, but Mark and Selena were overwhelmed with guilt, anger, and feelings of loss. They could barely function and couldn’t begin to imagine how they could go on without their children or why they would want to. Although they couldn’t have anticipated the accident that took their children’s lives, they still felt crippling guilt, profound sorrow, and bottomless grief. They revisited that fatal day over and over again in their minds, obsessing about what might’ve been if they hadn’t left the children in the babysitter’s care. Only the repeated urgings of their closest friends brought them to my office to begin to work through their suffering.
I counseled them for several months and taught them to use the program in this book, which requires cultivating a mindfulness meditation practice and undergoing the three-step art of creative transformation. I knew that to help them begin healing, I needed to guide them in letting go of their resistance to this change that had been forced upon them so dramatically. Understandably, they felt no desire to move forward with their lives, so our initial healing work focused simply on the first step of letting go. Both Mark and Selena had to give up their feelings of guilt and the unconscious belief that if they were to enjoy life again and make new plans for themselves, they would be bad parents, betraying their children. To help them stop embracing this belief that kept them focused on their loss, I explored with them what their children would say to them if they could have one more conversation. Mark and Selena recognized that their son and daughter would tell them to continue living, rather than compound the tragedy by sleepwalking through life and feeling too guilty and afraid to move forward.
I also taught them practices to fully experience their grief and be mindful of the moments in the day when they could feel positive and focused on what was happening in the present. Only when they fully embraced this step of letting go—of the past, their guilt, and the old dream of watching their two children grow up—could they begin to take the second step in the art of creative transformation: tuning in.
When faced with the question, “And now what?” most of us are less likely to find the answer among our thoughts than if we were to enter open-mind consciousness. Open mind is a state of creativity that’s very familiar to artists, one that all of us experienced as playful children but many of us have forgotten about. Also known as “the field of possibilities,” “the creative void,” and even “the creative soup,” it’s the state of awareness in which we feel a sense of timelessness, openness, and unlimited possibilities. It’s the source of the most authentic and original concepts, which spring forth naturally and spontaneously. In this state, we can begin to imagine situations and opportunities that would never occur to us in our ordinary consciousness.
As Mark and Selena’s therapist, I knew that I could use the usual clinical methods to try to help them continue the healing process, but clearly, it could take several years before they would be ready to move out of their grief and begin to envision a new life. I decided to meditate on their situation, and in doing so, attained open mind. What came to me was the visual image of the subcontinent of India. “That’s curious,” I thought, but I sat with it rather than dismiss it as the product of an overactive mind. Soon, as if a voice had spoken to me, I had an inner knowing that I needed to suggest to Mark and Selena, who had conveyed an openness to the idea of traveling, to take several months off from their jobs and go to India—to a city called Varanasi. Varanasi is known as a holy place where the dying go to prepare for death and where bodies are prepared for the traditional cremation and return to the sacred Ganges River.
My logical, rational mind said, “Ron, that’s crazy. Why would you send two grieving and suffering parents who have no spiritual connection to India, and who are Lutherans from the Midwest, to Varanasi, where they know no one and would see death and suffering all around them?”
Rather than talk myself out of what my intuition had told me, I discussed it with several of my colleagues, whom I think of as my wisdom council of support (see chapter 11). They come from a variety of therapeutic traditions, and all are thoughtful, wise professionals whom I knew would carefully consider what I was presenting and give me honest, helpful feedback. The verdict was unanimous: it was a terrible idea.
Wisdom Council of Support
Your wisdom council of support consists of respected and trusted people in your life, whom you rely on for advice and creative ideas.
I took in their words and valued their opinions and insights, but in my mindfulness meditation practice each morning, I connected with my intuition, and it kept telling me the same thing: encourage Mark and Selena to go to Varanasi. Finally, one of my old teachers and mentors, Ram Dass, told me, “I think you may be on to something. They need to immerse themselves in their grief instead of denying it. Where better to do that than India?”
Mark, who was from a blue-collar background and had never traveled, and Selena, who distracted herself from her deep sadness by working long hours as an administrator at a nonprofit organization, had begun establishing a mindfulness meditation practice, as I’d instructed. They had begun to open up to the possibility of change but had no idea how to go about exiting their suffering and moving forward with their lives. Although they weren’t sure how they would benefit from a trip to Varanasi, they meditated on it and told me that taking the trip felt “right” to them.
In India, Mark and Selena connected with their grief as they observed the dead and dying, but at the same time, they started to feel a sense of connection to other people and to a world in which suffering is inevitable. They didn’t know the language and couldn’t converse with most of the people they met, but their eyes expressed compassion toward parents who stood by the river, ready to undergo the sacred rites for their children who had died. Mark and Selena ended up spending a couple of weeks working with a committed humanitarian in her facility for the poor. She did not try to explain to Mark and Selena how they might handle their loss but instead invited them to join her in her everyday work of attending to the sick and dying.
When they returned to the States, Mark and Selena told me they had finally begun to heal. The deep compassion that had been awakened in them had eased their grief, and they felt they’d transformed from suffering parents who had lost their children to people who reached out to other suffering parents. They said they no longer felt quite so alone.
Over the next few months, Mark and Selena continued their mindfulness meditation practice and began to immerse themselves in the state of open mind often. Selena, who had always loved music and had earned a fine arts degree but never pursued art as a career, tuned in to her own creativity, taking the second step in the three-step process of creative transformation. She accessed her passion for playing piano and sharing her music with others. Selena soon returned to school to earn a master’s degree, and began to envision herself working with children as a music therapist.
Mark went back to his work as an electrician, but he now approached it in a very different way. His compassion had been awakened by his terrible suffering, and his time in India had inspired in him a sense that he had more to offer than simply repairing what was broken and doing whatever work his customers requested. Now, when he spoke to his clients about the work they wanted done on their homes, he suggested bold changes they hadn’t considered. He pointed out ways they could change the lighting in their homes to create a feeling of spaciousness or comfort and calm. He listened closely to their plans, asking them how they wanted to use their space and making suggestions for how he might rewire a particular room to better suit their vision rather than simply do what they’d asked. When he worked with a couple who were renovating their home now that their last child had left for college, Mark was able to be patient and compassionate as he dealt with their ever-vacillating decisions, recognizing that they were still coming to terms with the difficult transition of no longer sharing their space with their son.
Selena began to work as a music therapist, and as she got to know her students, many of whom had special needs, her heart began to open to the idea of being a parent again. In time, Mark and Selena adopted two special-needs children and had another child of their own. They continue to talk about their children who died and keep photographs of them in their home, but they’ve now completed the third step in the art of creative transformation, moving forward into a new life and a new mandala.
Adapted from Wise Mind, Open Mind: Finding Purpose and Meaning in Times of Crisis, Loss, or Change by Ronald Alexander (New Harbinger Publications, 2009).