Every day, Donna Bearden makes a mandala. An artist and educational psychologist, she has developed a daily spiritual practice of taking photographs and fashioning them into mandalas—circular, kaleidoscope-like images with a rich spiritual history.
Dr. Bearden is a member of University Park United Methodist Church in Dallas (where her husband, Leighton, served as senior pastor for five years, until his retirement in May) and is the author of a new book, Mandala Messages: Do Not Fear Your Potential. She spoke recently with staff writer Mary Jacobs. Here are excerpts.
How did you discover mandalas?
I was reading about Carl Jung and saw a reference to him drawing a mandala every day when he got up for a period of two years. It was another way he used to get to the subconscious. I’m a photographer, so I wondered if there was a way to do this with my photographs. I found some online photo mandala sites, and began taking one of my photographs, selecting an area where I like the detail and the texture, and then cutting a piece out of (the photo), twirling it, mirroring and playing with it. I love the geometry of it.
What exactly is a mandala?
It’s a circular pattern. Mandalas are found across cultures and across time. Buddhist monks make sand mandalas. Navajos have a mandala they use in healing ceremonies. In the Christian religion, we have examples of the prayer labyrinth and the rose windows of the great cathedrals. I think people are drawn to circles and the symbolic nature of the circle. When you think at the geometry of the world— the planets, the sun, circling around—there’s so much symbolism in the circle.
What is the spiritual significance of mandalas?
The mandalas are my way of getting in touch with something deeper than day-to-day—meditating or praying, whatever you want to call it. To me, it’s a very spiritual practice.
It’s very difficult for me to just sit and be still, so I’ve always had to do something physical to quiet my mind. I do a lot of journaling and writing, and these mandalas were kind of an extension of that. When I begin to create a mandala, I really lose track of everything around me. I can really become quiet, focused, very relaxed. The process of combining the journaling with the mandalas has been powerful for me.
I was working through some childhood issues, and I started this process of writing about specific things. I would write then go to the computer, select a photograph that seemed to fit whatever I was feeling and create a mandala to go along with what I had just written. After I had four mandalas, I could see some progression and some changes. The patterns that are created as you create a mandala – you can’t predict them in advance. I would have some kind of new insight from just sitting there looking at them. I would notice something I hadn’t before. It really was a shift in my thinking. I came to some resolution about some pretty deep issues that I was dealing with, and I could let them go. So that was beginning of my practice. I showed them to some friends, and one thing led to another. An organization called Courage and Renewal North Texas, based on the work of Parker Palmer, began sending out my mandalas with the messages as a regular email, and now they go out across the country.
At one point someone said to me, “I would love to see these on fabrics,” and now I make mandalas on silk scarves. When somebody wears one, I feel like they’re wearing a little piece of my soul.
What do you hope people might take away when they see your mandalas?
I think the mandalas appeal to people from all walks of life because there’s something deep there, a fascination with patterns. A few years ago, we put up an exhibit of about 60 of my mandalas in a local conference center. As we were putting them up, it was fun to see people walk by — everybody from the director of the conference center to the custodian – and they would just stop and look. You could see this look come across their faces and they would get so fascinated. They would talk about a kaleidoscope, about using one as a kid. There was something there that touched them, this childlike wonder of pattern.
Do you see your work with mandalas as a ministry?
Yes. A few years ago I was part of a group of women on a mission trip, doing Katrina repair work in Dulac, La. We used mandalas as a quiet time activity in the evening. We had mandalas sitting around for people to color. It was really fun to observe what happened, the way they affected the whole mood of the group, just having this contemplative time, for people to get quiet and think about what we had seen and what we had done. We were dealing with destruction and poverty, all kinds of emotions. To just sit and be quiet, and do it in a way where we were actually creating these mandalas—it was a beautiful way to step back and do some introspection about the whole experience.
Do you get inspiration from scripture or worship?
Yes. One time it was a prayer in one of our church services, an act of confession, which had the words, “Forgive me when I think too small.” And I thought, oh yeah, how often do we think too small instead of being all that we can be? Another time the inspiration was the words of a hymn: “Love so amazing/so divine/Demands my soul, my life, my all.” I think it’s this idea of our connection with something bigger than us, bigger than my life.
Some of the words that come to me, they’re not mine. They just come through me. I’ve tried journaling with my right hand and my left hand, and it’s like I have two different voices. Some of the words I’ve used with the mandalas come from that left-handed writing. Part of my problem has been, I have been so analytical all my life that this has thrown me into another part of my brain or my soul. Instead of being so analytical, I’m moving over to the feeling and the mystery. It’s all, to me, the wonderment of creation.