"The mandala, a sacred circle, carries many symbols such as balance, wholeness, completion and infinity." - Mary How
Meditation is a widely popular practice for people searching for inner peace and healing in their lives. Before I included it into my everyday routine, the word meditating itself conjured an image of a person laying quietly on a spread out yoga mat surrounded by floating clouds of incense. I currently impose that same relaxing position, but without the incense. Rather, I've taken to deep breathing (two seconds of inhaling and exhaling) to catapult me into a blissful state of being. To change things up this year, I decided to join this year's Artist-In-Residence Mary How for her virtual sessions on mandala meditations.
Mary How, MA, ATR-BC, is an artist, board-certified art therapist, and emotional wellness coach with 20+ years of experience. From February to April, once a week for 45 minutes, she led participants in daily meditation workshops focused on topics such as breathwork, self-love, non-judgement, abundance, and color visualization. The first half of the class centered around a 10-15 minute guided meditation followed by a mandala prompt. According to an article in the Times Union, "Mandalas, meaning 'circles' in Sanskirt, are sacred symbols that are used for meditation, prayer, healing and art therapy...[They've] been shown in clinical studies to boost the immune system, reduce stress and pain, lower blood pressure, promote sleep and ease depression." The workshops culminated with an exhibition showcasing drawings from How's personal journals and from the community.
For the activity, we needed a sheet of paper and a coloring utensil. Once a circle was traced, we were prompted to divide the circle into fourths where we would then trace or color in the areas with different designs. Doing this creates a trancelike state, where your focus is on the shapes and lines you are creating. After a few minutes of this, you would be hard pressed to focus on any negativity besides the colorful mandala in front of you.
It only takes a few minutes of your day, but something as simple as coloring in circles can create healing and balance in your everyday life.
What made you decide to become an art therapist?
I heard about art therapy my first week as a freshman at Columbia College of SC. I was an art major, and as soon as I heard about the profession, I knew that was what I was meant to do.
What techniques and tools are used in art therapy?
It often depends on what’s going on with the client and their individualized goals that determines what methods an art therapist will use. Art therapy is a masters level profession, similar to counseling or social work. Just like other master’s level clinicians, art therapists have training in psychological theories, human growth and development, assessment and psychopathology. Additionally, art therapists have a broad understanding in art mediums and techniques such as painting, drawing and 3-D design. We combine both art and psychology to help clients reach their treatment goals. For instance, paint is a fluid material, which means it can help with opening someone up; at the same time, paint could cause someone’s symptoms to progress if they are struggling with more regressive or psychotic symptoms. Because we are trained to understand both art and psychology and how those two things work together, we are able facilitate this process in a way that helps clients align toward their goals.
Why do you think people find it hard to meditate?
We tend to be addicted to our thoughts rather than allowing our thoughts to be an experience that comes and goes just like a wave. Instead we attach to the thoughts and keep them going. The problem with this addictive tendency is that it largely contributes to our suffering. Another reason people find it difficult to meditate is because they often believe they can’t meditate. There is a commonly held misbelief that in order to meditate you must not have any thoughts. The truth is that it is rare to be completely free of thought. Instead, the reason to practice meditation is to train our brains so we become better of letting thoughts come and go. It’s this practice that helps reduce suffering and provide a solid foundation to create more peace and love and joy in our lives.
What tips would you give to people who haven't meditated before?
The biggest thing is this: You can do it. We call it “mindfulness practice” because it is a practice. If you have never meditated before, don’t expect that you’re going to be “free of thought”. That’s the biggest misperception people have, they’ll say, “I can’t do it because my mind is too active”. And I’ll say, “that’s precisely the reason to do it”. For me it’s all about emotional suffering. When we are willing to commit to a practice, eventually we will get to a place where we can alleviate our suffering.
Most experts agree that 15 minutes of meditation daily is the magic number, but I say that if you can’t commit to 15 minutes, it’s okay to just start with 2. For 2 minutes every day, simply notice your breath going in and out of your body, or you can just listen to the air conditioning vent. Focusing on that one thing allows you to give your mind a break. When your mind wanders, simply bring it back. The practice is doing this over and over again. While 15 minutes may be ideal, it’s the doing it every day that makes a difference, so 2 minutes every day is better than 15 minutes once a week.
What do you find is the one thing that clients have a problem with the most during the sessions with you?
Art making can be intimidating and vulnerable for someone who believes they aren’t an artist or can’t draw. Of course being a “good artist” is not a requirement for clients to work with me. What’s more important is that they are open to making art and willing to grow from the process. That brings me to another difficulty client’s have, at least in working with me, which is moving the process of change and growth. Change and growth is hard, and I can be pretty pushy about that. I believe we all have the ability to grow, so my work involves a delicate balance of validating clients’ experiences while pushing them to make necessary changes so they are able to create more peace and love and joy in their lives.
What other forms of meditation or mindfulness do you practice?
I like listening to guided meditations I find on YouTube. It’s nice to just have someone else direct me through the process. Generally, I’ll type in a subject like “self-esteem” or “gratitude” along with “meditation.” There are several different meditation apps that client’s have shared with me too. There are plenty of free resources out there that make practicing a little easier...I also teach informal mindfulness skills which basically means bringing mindfulness into your daily activities like cleaning, interacting with people or creating things. These informal moments are the reason why we practice meditation. No ones goal is to be a “good meditator”, the goal is to create more peace and love and joy moment by moment. The formal practice helps us train our brains so we can create more of those moments in our day to day lives.
What are some misconceptions about art therapy?
A lot of people automatically think I work with kids, but the truth is I primarily work with adults. Art therapy is great for kids, of course, but it can be equally helpful to adults because it allow the use of metaphor for things even adults don’t like talking about. Another reason it’s helpful to adults is because it’s a more primitive, yet universal, form of communication that allows us to access information that talking alone doesn’t always address. Because we experience life through our senses, the art process can be an easier, more effective way to access that information. It can help people drop defense mechanisms and recall information that verbal expression can’t. Art therapist are trained to understand this process and be a bridge between the art making process and bringing words to the experience so clients are better able to integrate and heal...One of the biggest misconceptions is that you must be able to draw well in order to benefit from the process. While you must be open to the process, the goal is never really about making pretty art. It’s more about using art making to learn and grow into a more peaceful existence.
What can we do to get back to mindfulness and peace in our hectic lives?
As a culture I don’t know that we’ve ever gotten to mindfulness and peace. We’ve all had mindful or peaceful moments, but it seems like we work really hard to have bigger and better things. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s working for you. For me, that’s stressful, and I don’t want to live that way. Over the last 10 years or so, I’ve simplified my life a lot. I’ve sacrificed some things to create more balance and peace in my own life, but it’s worth it. I think when we begin to understand mindfulness, the things that aren’t important begin to fall away. The best way to get to that mindfulness and peace is by committing to practicing every day, and ultimately you will get there.
Through consistency (a few minutes a day is sufficient) and self-compassion (realizing it's OKAY for your mind to wander), anybody can reap the benefits of meditation and achieve serenity in their lives.