Last Sunday morning found Penny and me and Penny’s cousin in his house in Normandy, drinking coffee and watching the rain lash almost horizontally against the window panes. Lunch – an event I always look forward to in France – was to be taken in a nearby town in an hour or so. A walk seemed out of the question. There was one other option. Penny suggested that we each draw a Mandala.
A Mandala is, as I understand it, a symmetrical decorative pattern usually in the form of a square or circle: a kind of formally structured doodle, if you like. Its origins and purposes are, of course, a bit more sophisticated. This website says that it’s originally a Sanskrit word and ‘represents wholeness and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself: a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds.’ According to this one they help you gain wisdom, transmit positive energies to the environment and posses a healing power which extends to the whole world.
Let’s do it, I said. If even one of these things could result it would surely go down as a good morning’s work. There are many less edifying things one can get up to on a rainy Sunday.
Penny had explained that these are sometimes made from coloured sand. Once completed, the artwork is swept up, so reminding us of the transience of worldly concerns. This moral seemed worth bearing in mind but I pointed out that we didn’t have any coloured sand. Even if we were to find or make some it might make a bit of a mess but I didn’t mention this: two minutes with the hoover seemed a small price to pay for all the other benefits on offer, .
“You can also do it with coloured pencils,” she said. John produced some. Penny began to tear some A4 sheets into squares. We were good to go.
I don’t know why it is but normally when you’re confronted with a set of coloured pencils, no matter how many there are, there are no red ones. Where do they go? If you don’t believe me, empty out the pot or box of coloured pencils that most homes have and count how many reds there are. See what I mean?
On this occasion the situation was otherwise. Out of the sixty or so pencils in the box at least fifteen were red of some kind, ranging from coral pink to deep crimson. What’s more, these were all gathered together with a rubber band. I didn’t ask why this was but it seemed a good omen. We set to work.
Penny is an excellent artist. John seemed competent as well. The only thing I can draw is an elephant from the back. As a preparatory flourish I executed one of these (in red) and presented to my host. I also signed it – you never know.
Drawing a Mandala involves developing and repeating a pattern four times, each at a 90-degree angle. This was quite easy when I started, and proved quite easy throughout for the other two, but after a while my pattern started to veer off in a way which threatened to undermine the sense of harmony and balance that the exercise was designed to achieve. I do some things more comfortably with my right hand and some with my left. After a while I switched over the pencil from left to right but it made no appreciable difference to the results. At least my incompetence was balanced even if my angles weren’t.
After a while a sense of calm started to overcome me. I was now colouring in the various shapes, attempting to apply some symmetry to this task as well. The activity made no demands on my intellect and, as I have no pretensions to being able to draw, none on my self-respect. Ten minutes later it was finished. The results were rather pleasing, if only because they had flowed unbidden down variously my left arm and my right and onto the paper in a way which if not technically accomplished was at least spontaneous.
I felt unexpectedly satisfied. I had been granted a short period of tranquil detachment with, beyond it, perhaps the briefest glimpse of a temple shimmering in the Himalayan snows. I recalled a conversation I’d had with my friend Owen – a man who like me spends a good deal of his spare time writing and recording songs (except he has the courage to perform his in public) – who’d recently come back from a month in Nepal, where Mandalas doubtless abound. Whilst there he had not only taken the photograph above but also recorded some yak bells which he intends to use in a future song. (The link to this on Soundcloud will be publicised in Penny Post as soon as it’s available.)
“There we go,” I said, tossing my sheet into the middle of the table. “I’ve released my inner yak.” This announcement was greeted with polite congratulations. My effort looked kindergarten. Theirs more resembled preliminary sketches for the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Still, my yak was out: that was what mattered.
Then over-confidence kicked in. I decided to use a ruler to trim off the parts of the paper to which my design hadn’t extended. As often happens, something that kind of works when you’re following instinct or emotion goes all to hell when you begin thinking about it. The first three cuts went fine. On the fourth my hand slipped and I tore the whole sheet from one corner to the other.
Was my recently-released inner yak constrained or harmed as a result? Not a bit of it. Remembering the lesson of the monks who obliterated their hours of careful sand-art with a few strokes of a broom, I faced the transience of my creation head-on. I screwed up the two pieces of paper and threw them in the bin.
Feeling much refreshed, we then went out to lunch.
The following day on the way back to the ferry we stopped off in Falaise in search of a rather good restaurant I remembered from a previous visit. Falaise was the birthplace of William the Conqueror, a man as far removed from any Buddhist sentiments as I can think of. Judge then of my surprise and delight when we saw a small circus setting up in a park and, tethered to a post nearby, a yak calmly contemplating the castle battlements.
“That’s my yak,” I said to Penny. “The one I released.”
“So it is,” she replied.
I slowed down and studied the yak more closely. Although I have no standard by which to judge a yak’s reactions to its circumstances, it appeared perfectly content. Our gazes – his ruminative, mine inquisitive – might briefly have met. Then, pleased that some small circle in the Mandala of my own life seemed to have been closed, I changed down gear and went on my way rejoicing.