Our ‘Truth Mandala’ Reality

Better to be slapped with the truth than kissed with a lie.

Russian Proverb

Yep. Being a lifelong learner really does pay off. In spades. I am continually reminded of this by my dear students. Today, my gang spent the day outside, and it has become a daily exercise for us. COVID has given many of us ‘four-walled classroom dependent’ educators much freedom and and excuse to “get the heck outside.” This post is not about outdoor and experiential education and its powerful affect on learning; decades-long research has result is a very clear verdict. No, my learning has been expanded today through witnessing the amazing activity known as The Truth Mandala exercise.

Our most recent day-long outing was led by one of our amazing class parents, Malin Christensson. Malin is an outdoor educator, environmentalist, and “advocate for the planet”. As our group sat in circle under the shade of a stand of secondary growth cedars, adjacent to a fast-moving stream, Malin introduced us to the Truth Mandala exercise. She explained that the purpose of the exercise was to “help us deal with difficult feelings” particularly those “with big things that we cannot control” (i.e., climate change, systemic racism, institutional oppression, etc.).

During our pre-planning session weeks before, Malin shared with me her intention to conduct this exercise with the students to help them “process emotions about [the] things that they can’t control.” In particular, she referred to the recent and devastating finding of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School two weeks prior. Ironically, our class was knee-deep into a six-week long inquiry focus on oppression, struggle, patriarchy, and the healing power of poetry. The news from Kamloops only added to the emotional burden of the weight already held by students. Our near daily conversation about ideological and institutional oppression definitely forced a number of students to run on overload.

In the classroom, I recognized the symptoms that the emotional weight was taking on the class, as a whole, and I attempted to provide solace (of sorts). At the end of each day in our closing circle, I encouraged students to talk and share their feelings with family or friends and to never hold in their grief or sadness (“It’s OK and natural to feel those feelings we’re feeling. But these feelings want and need a release. A healthy release.” I recall telling them). Malin’s recommendation of the Truth Mandala was both serendipitous and timely; a safe space for our children to feel and share their emotions about very hefty learning experiences.

For this opportunity alone, I was grateful.

Created by eco-philosopher, activist, and author, Joanna Macy, the Truth Mandala, is a powerful exercise in which “participants are invited take turns stepping into the center of a ritual circle, divided into four quadrants, each containing an object through which they can speak their pain for the world.” The objects–dry leaves, a stone, a stick and an empty bowl–are picked up and used to express the emotions of fear, sorrow, anger and confusion, each of which has its opposite side.

After a brief explanation and a model from Malin (on how the exercise is performed), it was unusually quiet within the circle. I mean, twenty teenagers and no one is saying a thing? Odd, indeed. Admittedly, I felt the need to break the thirty-five seconds (or so) of awkward silence by offering my truth (My fear for the students are the world that they will inherit.). But, I waited. A few extra seconds. And sure enough, our first courageous volunteer stepped into the middle of the circle and ‘offered their fear’ at the mandala. “We hear you,” acknowledged the rest of the group. And just when I thought that it could not get any more serene…

The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.

Lao Tzu

A trickle of offerings lasted nearly twelve minutes with some volunteers making multiple offerings during the exercise. Each offering received the same acknowledgement: “We hear you.” And while not every student participated in the offering (everyone in our circle has the right to ‘pass’ at any time), every student participated in the exercise as they held a sacred and safe space for their courageous classmates. Many of the offerings were similar in nature: fear of the future, fear of secondary school on the horizon, fear of not being accepted, fear of what will remain of the environment when they become adults. Interestingly, no student made offering of ‘anger’ or ‘confusion’ during the activity.

During our debrief session later that day, several of the students shared that what they enjoyed the most (we call them the ‘stars’ of their experience) was hearing how others felt “inside” as a multitude agreed with what was shared. A few described that deeper “understanding or sort of a connection” was fostered through the process. One student remarked that it was “admirable that people in our [class] would have courage to share [their fears] with…the entire group of us.” Word.

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