Wednesday, November 13, 2013

5 Mandalas in 5 Days: A Guest Post By Amy Flaherty

Today's guest post is about a new and creative therapy technique I (before now) knew nothing about! Hence, the guest post by play therapist and creative thinker Amy Flaherty. I know you'll learn a great deal from her, as I did. Thanks, Amy, for sharing! ~Stephanie

The mandala symbol has been around for thousands of years. It is probably best known from Eastern religions as tool for focus, meditation and creating sacred space. But nowadays, they are gaining additional traction in many therapy circles as well.   Art therapy, play therapy and mindfulness communities are finding therapeutic use in this this powerful technique. 

The word “mandala” originates from the Sanskrit language meaning circle.  Sounds simple, but mandalas are so much more than simple circles.  Just in the process of creating 5 mandalas, I experienced an array of emotions, including but not limited to anxiety, despair, enlightenment, fear, delight, and gratefulness.  Quite a large and varied set of feelings to originate from a simple circle! 

I found that for me the power of the mandala lies in its ability to allow one to just be.  Not do or think but just sit with yourself.  For me, this was a scary risk to take.

To fully experience the power of the mandala, I chose to complete 5 mandalas in 5 days.  I believe that in order to endorse a technique to my clients, I need to understand the process of the technique myself.  I came into the project fairly open-minded, given the rave reviews from fellow therapists about the power of mandalas.  However, I must admit I was somewhat nervous about sitting with my thoughts for ANY length of time.  My thoughts, left to run wild, usually end up in a continuous spiral of anxiety. Nevertheless, I decided to give this ancient meditative practice a chance to help with my issues.

Photo Credit

I purchased a mandala workbook pretty cheaply from Amazon.  In addition, I found that many Pinterest boards or websites have them for free to download.   
The defining aspect of mandala is a circle with a smaller circle inside near the middle.  The circle draws the eyes inward and aids in meditation, inspires mindfulness, and harnesses energy.  Some expressive therapists encourage clients to make their own mandalas. I’ve seen some really detailed and inspiring ones created for therapy purposes.

Because I did not feel like I had the time or energy to undertake an art project from scratch, I choose to color the already formed mandalas from my workbook.  I used colored pencils because they are efficient at working with the tiny details in the mandala (make sure you keep a pencil sharpener close)!
Photo Credit Hannah McLain-Jesperson

The instructions to complete a mandala are simple: Just color. No rules, no time tables.  I usually instruct my clients to try to breathe deeply into relaxation and be aware of what comes into the mind.  When thoughts creep in (and they will), notice them and then let them go. 

While I was completing my mandalas, I noticed the several things about myself.  For me, completing a mandala was a lot like meditating.  I got twitchy, wanted to get up, and thought about everything I need to be doing.  The trick, I found, was to keep going...even when I felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin. 

Noticing my thoughts while doing my mandalas often served to provide a magnifying glass for all of my automatic thoughts that try to run me, wreaking havoc in form of anxiety. Here’s some of the thoughts I noticed (and tried not to dwell on) while I was working:

  • This is NEVER going to be over
  • I’m so stupid for doing this. I could be doing so many more productive things
  • Those colors are nice together and I didn’t even try!
  • Did I pay the water bill?
  • How am I ever going to get everything done?
  • Did my friend get the results from her medical test? I need to check on that.
And so on and so on…..

Sounds exhausting right?

It was! But oh so worth it!  I was able to notice my automatic thoughts, breathe them out, and return to what I was doing.  It was hard, but I did it.

 Your clients will likely react in a similar vein.  Tell them it just stick with it and just notice what comes up. Clients can use these as a way to practice breathing, being still, or attending to thoughts.

Encourage clients to write and report the thoughts that appear.  These will be excellent fodder for future therapy sessions (I’m sure my therapist will be rubbing her hands together when she sees my list!) 

Here’s a picture of my favorite mandala I created. 

Your mission now? Use mandalas with your clients!  Think of it as another technique in your toolbox. Mandalas have been shown to be effective with the treatment issues ranging from ADHD to anxiety.  I recommend, though, before you assign this as homework to your clients, try a few for yourself.  Notice your thoughts and feelings while creating.  It may be hard, but the insight gained is always worth the effort. 

I’m interested to hear from you about how you've made mandalas work for you in your therapy practice. With what types of populations do you see these having success?

Have you already used mandalas in your practice? If so, what were the results? Please share! 

Amy Flaherty is a Licensed Psychological Examiner-Independent and a Registered Play Therapist in Arkansas. She has been in private practice since 2007 and currently specializes in work with children and the LGBT population. Amy specializes in sandtray therapy and teaches many introductory and advanced sandtray classes.