from Coming Back To Life - Joanna Macy, Molly Brown 1998

Purpose & Background

This ritual exercise provides a simple, respectful, whole group structure for owning and honoring our pain for the world, and for recognizing its authority and the solidarity it can bring. The practice emerged in 1992 amidst a large, tension-filled workshop in Frankfurt, on the day of reunification between East and West Germany; since then it has spread to many lands. To many participants it has been the most significant experience in a workshop, if not in their lives.


People sit in a circle. They sit as closely-packed as possible for they are, as we often put it, creating a containment vessel - or an alchemical vessel for holding and cooking the truth. The circle they enclose is divided into four quadrants (visible demarcations are not needed), and in each quadrant is placed a symbolic object: a stone, dead leaves, a thick stick, and an empty bowl. Entering each quadrant, the guide holds the object it contains and explains its meaning. Here are some words we use.

"This stone is for fear. It's how our heart feels when we're afraid: tight, contracted, hard. In this quadrant we can speak our fear."

"These dry leaves represent our sorrow, our grief. There is  great sadness within us for what we see happening to our world, our lives, and for what is passing from us, day to day."

"This stick is for our anger. For there is anger and outrage in us that needs to be spoken for clarity of mind and purpose. This stick is not for hitting with or waving around, but for grasping hard with both hands - it's strong enough tor that."

"And in this fourth quadrant, this empty bowl stands for our sense of deprivation and need, our hunger for what's missing.--our emptiness."

You may wonder where is hope? The very ground of this mandala is hope. If we didn't have hope, we wouldn't be here. And we will see as we proceed, how hope underlies what is expressed in each quadrant..

"We will begin with a dedication and a chant. because this is  holy ground . Nothing makes a place more holy than truth-telling. Then we will step in one at a time, spontaneously.  We will take a symbol in our hands and speak, or move from one to another. We may come in more than once or not at all; there is no pressure on us to enter. Even if you stay on the periphery, you will find that, as each person enters the mandala, you are in there with them. We will speak briefly. In brevity, words are powerful."

Now the guide, entering each quadrant, demonstrates  how its symbol can be used for speaking the knowings and feelings we carry. For example, holding the stone of   fear:

"I'm scared by the spread of cancer and AIDS. Will my lover be next? Will I? Where can I go from the poisons? They are everywhere, in our air, our water, our food.

"I feel sorrow for the people of Tibet - and for the loss of all the old indigenous cultures. Now when we most need the wisdom of their ancient traditions, we wipe them out. So I weep for us, too.

"Oh, the fury I feel for our war on the poor! I can't believe that welfare bill! What will happen to the women, the children? What kind of jobs can they get?"

"I don't know what to do. I recycle, I take the bus, I change my diet, but in truth I don't know what can save us. I am empty of ideas, strategies, confidence"

Since we are not used to talking like this in public, we need the support of the whole group. After each person has spoken, let us all say, "We hear you." That's enough. Your agreement or approval is not needed - just your hearing and respect. And let us pause for three breaths in silence between speakings.  Maybe there's something you'll want to say that doesn't fit one of these quadrants, so this cushion in the center of the mandala is a place you can stand or sit to give voice to it - be it a song or prayer or story. In the Truth Mandala we speak not only for ourselves, but for others, too. It is the nature of all ritual. that it allows us to speak archetypally - not just as separate individual selves, but on behalf of our people, our Earth. Let the ritual object. - stone or leaves or bowl - focus our mind. We don't enter the mandala to perform or explain or report to the rest of us, but to let that object help us voice the truth of our own experience.

Before the ritual's formal start, ask for the group's commitment to confidentiality: "what is said here stays here." Indicate also the duration of time you are giving to the ritual; this helps  people be comfortable with the silences that arise. The ritual time begins with your formal dedication of the Truth Mandala to the welfare of all beings and the healing of our world.

And its proceedings are initiated with a simple chant or sounding. The syllable "ah" stand in Sanskrit for all that has been unsaid - and all whose voices have been taken from them, or not yet heard. 

Trust yourself to sense the moment to draw the ritual to a close. You will read clues in people's body language and the energy of the group, or from utterances that seem to provide an appropriate note to end on. As you prepare to close, tell people, so that those who have been holding back and waiting to speak can seize the chance to do so. We often say: "The Truth Mandala will continue in our lives, but this chapter of it wil draw soon to a close. Let who wish to, enter it now and speak."

The formal closing of the Truth Mandala is a key moment,  in which to enlarge the group's understanding of what has transpired. First the guide, speaking generally and on behalf  of all, honors the truth that each has spoken and the respectful support that each has given. Truth-telling, as Joanna says, is like oxygen: it enlivens us. Without it we grow confused and numb.  It is also a homecoming, bringing us back to powerful connection and basic authority.

Then the guide points out the deeper import of each quadrant in the mandala. Each symbolic object is like a coin with two sides; the courage to speak our fear, for example, is evidence of trust. Indicating one object after another, we say in effect: Please notice what you have been expressing and hearing. In hearing fear, you also heard the trust it takes to speak it. The sorrow spoken over the dead leaves was in equal measure love. We only mourn what we deeply care for. "Blessed are they that mourn." Blessed are those who weep for the desecration of life, because in them life still burns clear. And the anger we heard, what does it spring from but passion for justice? The empty bowl is to be honored, too. To be empty means there is space to be filled.

Timing & Group Size

We have never conducted the Truth Mandala with less than twelve people or more than a hundred. Even with large numbers we draw it to a close after an hour and a half, because the process is intense, and though people are riveted, they grow more tired than they are aware. Place the ritual near the middle of the day, with a break following it. Be sure participants have already had an opportunity to talked with each other in some depth (Open Sentences or Small Group Sharing) before doing the Truth Mandala, so these strong distilled utterances come out of some reflection. Afterwards, some time for rest or journaling helps people absorb the experience, and they should honor that need rather than taking off for home right away. Suggestions

1. Participate. Don't hold aloof, but enter the ritual as honestly and openly as you can, while fulfilling your responsibilities as a guide. This is not hard to do.

2. Review the section in Chapter 5 on dealing with strong emotions.

3. Feel free to adapt the arrangements to people's needs. In workshops with the elderly, the mandala is set up on a table rather than the floor; to speak each person rises from their chair and stands by a quadrant, sometimes using a can as a talking stick. In a psychiatric ward, the stone and stick are replaced with other objects, like a vine and a picture.