Into the Living Mandala

Groundswell Mural by Chris Soria
Groundswell Mural by Chris Soria

During the experimentation process of the film, we came across this beautiful piece by Robin. We shot a powerful scene with her, in which we reference the ideas expressed in this piece.

by Robin Gunkel via Reality Sandwich

“…from an awakened perspective, all pain and confusion are merely the play of wisdom. And that play has a recognizable pattern called the mandala principle. If one can identify difficult situations as mandalas, then transformation of painful circumstances is possible.” – Judith Simmer Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath

I wasn’t thinking about mandalas when the trip began. But it’s only through the interplay of the outer and inner mandala – microcosm and macrocosm interconnected – expressed as self and family, community and world, that I can make any sense of the chaos that unfurled that night. It began with my hand pressed against the tome of Derrick Jensen’s The Culture of Make Believe. The cover, a photograph of a hand bordered in absolute darkness with a window of possible hope (or imprisonment) etched like sutures into the palm. I pressed my hand into the open palm of the cover and said that I wanted to journey into the darkness. I said that I needed to understand the darkness in order to be a light worker. These words effectively sealed the trip. The medicine took the message and did its work that night in dismantling me. Michael, Jamie and McKenzie – my Evolver family – were there to witness my violent dissolution that night, as they too also felt themselves die. My death was the most harrowing to absorb, like being caught in a super nova, I’ve been told.

The Outer Mandala

Close to a year into my sporeganizing for Evolver Baltimore, I met my boyfriend, Michael in late April when he came down from Evolver Philly to attend a potluck I was hosting at my friend Rula’s home in Sowebo – an arts community struggling to hold its ground in a typically drug-torn neighborhood of the city. Rula was teaching me how to make Palestinian food, and it seemed to take hours to finely chop all the onions, tomatoes, and parsley for the tabouli. ‘Like this’ she shows me, holding the handle and the top of the blade to speed cut the vegetables that I was ever so slowly making my way through, diced onions piercing my eyes. When the doorbell rang, I found a serene and kind face on the other side of the door – curiously familiar, fair skin, and lashes, red facial hair, dark-rimmed glasses and a perfectly shaved head. He found me familiar too, later telling me that on first seeing me, he saw me first as a young woman and then as a very old one, instantly aged before his eyes. Michael was one of the coordinators from Evolver Philly, and had come down to check out the Baltimore spore and see what we were up to. He joined us in the kitchen, absorbing the steampunk array of sculpted metal in his walk through the house. Dave, Rula’s boyfriend, a union ironworker and artisan had refurbished the gutted row house from scratch with materials salvaged from a row of condemned homes. Skeletal metal dinosaurs, made in Dave’s welding shop held the austere and awesome space. Neither Dave – an anarchist weary of hippie movements but with a kind heart – nor Rula had an interest in Evolver besides supporting me as a friend, but they were gracious to open their house to us and provide a space for the evening. This day, Rula stood crying in the kitchen, not unlike her to bare her emotion raw and public. Her life is a living story with the interior flowing to the exterior as Rula heals what she has borne witness to and had the will to endure. Rula told us about Deir Yassin and how the Israelis had slaughtered the people of her mother’s village – a battle which had been a turning point in the Israel/Palestine war – her mother and aunts barely escaping, delivered to an orphanage in Palestine. Rula’s father would later be killed in random crossfire.  She told us how for the longest time she would lie when people asked her about how her father died that she would tell them that it was cancer because it was better than saying he had been murdered. Michael sat and listened; I chopped vegetables and listened. Rula spoke and cried. Michael connected to us, deeply present, deeply listening. He did not turn off; he did not turn away.

Rula said to me later, “Robin, I really liked him. You could tell he was really listening. Not a lot of people do that you know, not a lot of people listen.”

After meeting and connecting with Michael, a couple weeks later, he invited his good friends Jamie and McKenzie, a young couple in their early twenties, who both live and work off the land, to attend Evolver Baltimore’s Dream Spore, an overnight, dream/yoga campout I had helped to host on a friend’s farm in northern Baltimore county. We first met each other camped out on a field for a night, sharing pancakes together in the morning. Jamie and McKenzie instantly became regular sporegoers who attended the following Resilience/Currency Spore in June, jumping on board to assist with the regional currency project, and then became collaborative partners in putting together the Life in the Universe art opening/party we hosted in July. There at their farm, I got to visit their tiny one room cabin, dark lumber walls in the living area with the kitchen nook painted lime green and bright, rosy orange. McKenzie’s intricate and tiny line drawings of girls and gardens mirrored the tiny-ness of their living space, as McKenzie finds voice in the wonder of illustrating what look both like sophisticated child drawings and aboriginal expressions of woman’s connection to nature. Their cabin is stock full of preserves canned for winter from tomatoes Jamie brings home from his work at a CSA, where he’s paid in vegetables. Everything in their cabin is either handmade or bought second hand, as McKenzie combs thrift stores for eclectic finds of vintage china, kitchen utensils, and handmade quilts. Jamie and McKenzie’s cabin, along with their garden and animals (alpacas, a sheep, and hens) represent a complete mandala, their lives wholly integrated with each other and the land.

mandala. time is art

The Inner Mandala

A couple months after meeting Michael, I took my bodhisattva vows. I had been planning on taking these vows for a number of years and was ready to fly to Iowa to receive them with Lama Dawa, the Tibetan Rinpoche who I had taken refuge with nearly ten years before. It turned out though that I didn’t need to fly to Iowa; Artraya John was offering the vows in Baltimore at the Shambhala Center. As much as he was a new teacher to me, and I had strayed from regular practices, it was right to take my vows with Artraya John when they were offered in Baltimore. But I also still felt the need to fly out to Iowa to receive them again with Lama Dawa, the tiny, Nyngma lineage, crazy wisdom teacher who gave me my refuge name, Yeshe Llamo (Wisdom Dakini).
In essence, the bodhisattva vow is when you vow to help all other sentient beings achieve enlightenment before yourself. In daily practice, it’s about becoming the fertile soil of life for others. You cease to focus on your own needs because you already have everything you need, so instead you take care of the needs of others. It’s both a point of liberation and a tremendous responsibility. I’ve read of how the bodhisattva, when dressing for the day, wears her clothes not for herself but as an offering for the world. This reflexive offering embodies itself in all tasks. When first taking the vow, you’re an aspiring bodhisattva – working to live in accordance with this new view of the world until you grow to embody this vow in all speech and action. I can say that when I dress myself in the morning, I am still dressing myself for me, but the vow feels native. I feel like I’ve taken it before, and I’ll take it again, and also that there’s a tremendous amount of work to do in this universe and the vow is the path towards doing that work.

In Buddhism, certain medicines are generally frowned upon because they are thought to confuse you, to intensify your samsaric delusion. My experience this evening, to make a huge understatement, would not prove this belief wrong. However, as a radical tool for therapy and transformation, I find meaning in the chaos that unfurled this evening. I would not claim the experience had inherent meaning (though sometimes it seemed like that as I enacted my traumas and beliefs into being), but we do have choices in life in how we seek and find meaning in our experiences. When you stare at the ugliest and most terrifying part of yourself, it’s better to find meaning and transformation in the experience because, simply put, if there is a reason we’re here to experience life, that reason is to transform, evolve, love, and grow. These are the sole acts in life that have any true meaning.

Ricocheting Retinas

None of us were fully prepared for the journey at hand. It was the furthest any of us had gone and would soon be directed by my plunge into the shadow. It began with the normal tingling sensations, cresting and coming on in waves, as we were watching the director’s cut of Avatar on Mike’s laptop beneath black light illumination Jamie & McKenzie had originally purchased for our “Life in the Universe” spore. At first we attempted to watch the film. I already knew the narrative. I had seen the movie last December, but I knew (as so many of us plainly saw) the narrative of how our lives on Earth run alongside this story. The film told the dark secrets of our culture exposed in Jensen’s book, the tale of our disconnection from ourselves and from each other in a hyper-modern world of dwindling resources, where all economic growth hinges on the exploitation of indigenous lands. In the director’s cut of the film, the viewer sees that nature on Earth only exists on the television, watched from a shoebox-sized bedroom, and broadcast on a wall-to-wall plasma screen. I knew the main character’s falling out and falling away, the isolation of someone who has no community or purpose. I thought of the US wars abroad, as the film unfolded in full blown 3-D, with long engrossing scenes, so spellbinding that some viewers wish for a life on Pandora instead of recognizing that the relationship to ourselves, each other and nature is where real enchantment lies – such an amazing, if not unsurprising, irony.
But, as we expected, the film began to be too much to watch. And the black lights started to create the strange doubling effect of the movie and life sorrowfully bleeding together. Time was beginning to get difficult to manage. Did time exist outside the cabin? We hadn’t even gone outside to visit the baby alpaca that was born the other week. It was cold with the outdoor chill seeping into the house. Using the resources she had, McKenzie had stapled blankets to the rafters of the cabin in an attempt to insulate the space, but mostly we had to huddle near the fire and in our jackets to stay warm. And after turning off the film, each of us became engrossed in our own world, busying ourselves. McKenzie was drawing with chalk on the dark wooden front door two silhouette faces. Jamie was washing the dishes. Michael got lost in music. I was kneading bread that McKenzie had prepared before the journey. I had never kneaded bread before and didn’t know how long it needed to be kneaded. Time became longer and everything that I had previously perceived of as wealth became poverty. Caught in a cycle of kneading because we needed to eat, I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t stop because we would need to eat. The bread became a dilemma and the task never seemed to be complete. My energy was endless, over and over again like Playdoh bending beneath my will, restless energy pushed and spent into the bread.

The saturation of colors in the room reminded me of the stage setup for a play – Darb TV – Michael and I had seen a month before. It was a play about incest conducted as a children’s TV show. Jamie and McKenzie’s cabin seemed to take on the brown, navy blue and puke green stage, as Michael actually went to the bathroom to vomit. The characters in Darb TV had also puked on stage, the abject breakdown of body paralleling the violations that weren’t seen. The play had ended with the characters shooting their father and burying his body – the cold, unheated theater full of the musty smell of dirt.
At one point McKenzie came over and sat by Jamie, resting her head on his shoulder, “When is this going to be over? This is way too intense.”

“Five hours,” Michael said, no longer puking, “It lasts about five hours.”

Time is Art Production Photos
Groundswell mural by Chris Soria

I thought back and remembered that we had coated our medicine in Nutella and clinked our plates in ‘cheers.’ I reminded everyone of this. The distortion of time was bizarre and selective – remembering and associating with a play I had seen a month ago, but trying to recollect the hour before was like claiming a memory from the other edge of the universe. I had to focus to selectively remember times outside of this time. Once I realized that I could do it, I started pulling in other memories.

I remembered then that years ago I had also tried another medicine, ayahuasca (actually Santo Daime), and had remained solidly, if not even somewhat disappointingly grounded, through both my Santo Daime experiences. And I remembered my friend Liz in Japan, with whom I had first experienced the Santo Daime.

“When my friend Liz first took ayahuasca, she went straight to heaven and experienced Alex Grey-style webs of interconnected light. And her boyfriend who first took her to Santo Daime was jealous because it had taken him years and years of ceremony to not go to hell,” I told Jamie and McKenzie, beginning to share stories to entertain, distract and bring perspective to our experience.

The stories brought some comfort with them, but I also started to get high on the traveling of time. Like a wobbling drunk tight roping time, I wobbled on the narratives, working to weave them faster, moving back and forth, talking in a circle, spilling the same thoughts over and over until I was hunched over the toilet bowl myself ready to puke. I stared into the toilet and reflected how the water in the bowl mirrored my mind, how awesomely absurd, my mind is a toilet bowl with me leaning over it. I was screaming, “Oh my God, it’s my mind.” Or was I screaming in my mind?

At this point had I puked, the coming turn of the trip would probably have been circumnavigated. If I had purged, I would have released the toxins, my own or the medicine’s that needed to spill, but I couldn’t puke. I was strong and had held my own on ayahuasca, withstanding hours of nausea all the while dancing. That’s when I found myself in the hall on the floor outside of the bathroom, legs kicked up against the wall, staring at my cowboy boots. And then as I reoriented my perspective, I was a small child in the basement of my house. A serrated disc sat mounted on a heavy orange machine near a workstation. I was in my father’s saw room, looking for a bouncy ball that had fallen through the upstairs floor, tall shelves more than triple my height were covered in sawdust. There was some beginning awareness in this room that there was a world that existed before me, and everything in this room, revealed by the accumulation of sawdust, bore this truth. A lonely, foreign and looming place – I obviously could never have articulated it then, but I recognized the beginning of my own consciousness in this basement. I was an observer in a foreign world that I didn’t belong in, a world I feared for its old, neglected energy. The divisions between past, present and dream dissolved – all time was happening simultaneously.

From Inside My Mind

The next memory was me lying flat backed on the hard wood floor by the woodstove, my head next to the legs of stove. It felt comfortably uncomfortable. I had always lain close to the floor and peered out from furniture as the room lay in decay around me. This is how it’s always been. I was in my childhood house with my family, and I was also in Jamie and McKenzie’s cabin with them as family. I lay staring at the drawing that McKenzie etched in chalk on the door earlier. I saw the drawing as a cave painting. It represented a “tribal” way of living and knowing. Jamie, somewhere off behind me, kept repeating, “Don’t worry we’ll forget about it later,” in a bemused just-discovered-this-now-and-I’m-reporting-it-to-you voice. His words were my mind. We’ll forget about this later – because none of this really exists. We’ll forget about this later – because this is only a dream experience. We’ll forget about this later – because we’re all dying right now. We’ll forget about this later – as we huddle together clumped on the floor, before falling apart and away. As the mind was speaking, inside and outside dissolved and I felt reassured. We were doing the shadow work of our community. We were folding into each other to save the world from humanity’s material view of the universe. This view had to die along with ego. As long as we thought matter made the heart of our existence, we wouldn’t recognize our true wealth in each other.

Thoughts broke faster and faster as the medicine laid bare the ricocheting nature of the mind, as it stared at itself, staring back at me. Every thought threatened to rip me apart from everyone else, and I had to keep returning each moment to the knowledge that we were together, that I was not alone. Each time, ‘reality’ would disintegrate, and each time I collected my thoughts back into one thought, which was my sole ground of being: “It’s all of us together. I am doing this work for everyone.”

I screamed on the floor for five hours, like it was a test and I was determined that the universe could be rebirthed. Five hours!!!! … and I would pass through hell to arrive on the other side. I could endure this. I was stronger than the darkness. I was stronger than my own mind that threatened to rip me apart. FIVE HOURS!!!!! Like terrible labor pains, bloodcurdling and shocked…

Michael said it was like there was a sword plunged in my stomach, and I kept leaning further into the hilt.

Then I became quiet and still, and my view narrowed to a circle of light. Michael, Jamie and McKenzie stood over me, “Is she dying?” they queried. I was. I felt myself mingling with the debris on the floor, as I went back into the Earth. I felt my body break down and decay, like crystallizing dirt. I remembered the film The Lovely Bones, and I was the girl at the bottom of the pit, the dismembered victim who could finally go back to the earth with soil falling over her head. I was certain that I needed to let go of the ego identity of Robin. If I let Robin go, then the grasses would grow up through me, and I would return to the Earth as home. The medicine interred me, a vanguard species on Earth, the first life that had always been the edge of life, bringing old back to the fold of new. Jamie, Michael and McKenzie stood over me, and the light went completely dark, crowded in their silhouettes, until it was white again on the other side and the frequency shifted.

Still, white, tension, release…freedom, safety, peace…and murmuring anticipation on the other side. Someone, many others, on the other side, listening and murmuring. “We are getting stronger,” they said within my mind, like a new pulse had come into existence. The quieter I became inside, the closer I came to crossing over. “We are getting stronger,” waiting, watching, hushed quiet and loving, would it happen, would she do the work? The bodhisattvas, the burners, the Evolvers waiting for me to make the full cross over. Curious, hushed, anticipating love … quieter and quieter until totally hushed and no more light.
On the other side, I opened my eyes with a growing awareness of myself and my body – curled in a fetal position, my shirt half pulled up, my hand cupping a breast. What?

Coming back to the disarray of Jamie and McKenzie’s cabin. Wood was tangled in my hair, alpaca fur that had been sitting bagged on top of the wood stove lay in loose clumps all over the floor, hundreds of colored pencils were exploded in all directions. I crawled over to Michael sitting on the couch and rested my head on his knee. “Oh my God, you’re back,” he said in thankful amazement, hugging me like a stray that had finally returned, “I thought you were dead. I thought we had lost you….. I thought we had lost you.”

Personal and Planetary Healing

“You wrangled some serious energy there tonight, Robin,” Jamie says, not angry but stunned. These are the second words said to me after I return.

Curled on the couch wi th Michael like it’s a small island of safety, I absorb the disarray around me, as I try to process the gap between having arrived at final peace and tranquility, with being born back into the shell-shocked stillness of the room. My horror grows as McKenzie tells me about how I grabbed a fist of her blouse, attempting to yank it off her. “Do you remember this?” she asks with a soft edge in her voice. No. Nothing. Nothing at all. The weight of horror and also foolishness settling in, I can’t understand how battling so hard inside for everyone I love has brought so much outward destruction…. Emotions of disbelief, relief, weariness, and exhaustion run high in the room…

Yet, we pick up the pieces, Jamie and McKenzie bagging alpaca fur and me collecting colored pencils until I collapse on the couch and fall asleep.

Michael tells me later, “Even God gets tired on the seventh day”…. but then we are all God, our ego-deaths birthing us into the world again.

Justin gray morgan, time is art
art by Justin Gray Morgan


The most terrifying aspect of the trip was in seeing how my internal journey ricocheted out, pulling everyone into the eye of the storm – attacking McKenzie, the most mind blowing of ironies. A little nymph-child-woman and more than ten years my junior, I see in her a pioneer, resembling a woman of last (and by virtue of the last also the first) century. With a deep understanding of and connection to her world, McKenzie knows how to plant a garden, tend to alpacas, chicken and sheep, bake cherry pies and bread from scratch, spin wool, dip candles, and can preserves – not woman’s work, but rather the creativity of interconnection when we directly engage with our world. McKenzie found it interesting when I told her how closely she resembles my mother when she was younger. Both thin, petite, fair-skinned, brunettes, with glasses, both with a quiet and shy demeanor. But then opposite, where my mother absorbed the worst of the culture, her memory obliterated by the heavy regiment of drugs (not medicine) she took her entire life first for manic depression and then later (re-diagnosed) as schizophrenia, McKenzie carries knowledge of past generations. The parallel for me is striking. And in my madness that night, I became the point of amnesia, the blank in between space expressed as the madness of my mother, which is more accurately the madness of our culture.  I understand that in another cultural context that my mother’s weaknesses may have become immeasurable strengths.

Daniel pointedly discusses this in 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl:
As the polarity of Shakti/Kali suggests, there are two sides to the mother archetype: She can be nurturing, generative, and benevolent, or aggrieved, possessive, and devouring. In the modern world, we become obsessed with material goods, hypnotized by “false needs,” possessed by our possessions. This obsession was caused by our subconscious enslavement by the bad mother archetype. Kali Yuga humanity, deprived of proper nurturing, became devious, desouled, insatiably greedy. Electronic culture created soulless replacements for connective rituals-television supplanted tribal legends told around the fire; “fast food” consumed in distraction took the place of a shared meal. We substituted matter for Mater, money for mother’s milk, objects for emotional bonds.

This confusion between mother and matter carries also the terrible irony that the Earth is raped of resources to manufacture Stuff, and most objects in our lives are made from and shipped to us using fossil fuels. As Derrick Jensen discusses in The Culture of Make Believe, we directly turn the living subjects of our world into dead objects. This compartmentalization of a living system into disembodied, disconnected objects shows where the mandala of our worldview is broken. We’ve lost our sense of interconnection to ourselves and our community – the inner mandala. We’ve forgotten that our community is our larger interface with the world – the outer mandala.

In the trip, the most terrifying part of the struggle was the sense that somehow the fabric of community could be torn apart, that I would be split from my Evolver family and that all community could be wedged apart by matter, the stuff of our lives that convinces us to act as consumers instead of community… I felt like I was dying, and it also seemed that we were all dying together in one compound ego-death, falling into each other in a mound on the floor. Yet, I see the four of us, as the four gates of the mandala, bringing each our corner/direction of the world to the experience. I ponder again Judith Simmer Brown’s words about being able to identify painful experiences as the mandala. I believe this is the crucial key to the transformation of our world.

The mandala crosses cultures from East to West. For Jung, it was an archetype that expresses the individuation of the Self, as the mid-point, center of all paths. In Buddhism, it’s an image for the mantra, the frequency of the universe vibrating into being. Universally, it’s a symbol of unity – everywhere is the center, the relationship between inner and outer, relative to whoever perceives it. The mandala is described as an integrated structure around a universal center, separated by an interior wall.  It represents the microcosm and macrocosm, the self and community, the community and world. I imagine the interior wall of the mandala to be the retina of an eye – with awareness expanding inwardly and outwardly simultaneously – stillness reflecting the porous boundary where meaning and life proliferates – there is no mandala without you. Simultaneously the mandala dissolves the boundary between subject and object – at the center of unity is only sight seeing.

At the beginning of our trip, while it was coming on in waves and before all hell broke loose, I was sitting by the fireplace, crouched in front of the fire that barely kept winter at bay. Indian coals burned flowers of sharp, carved light. “There’s so much darkness,” I said to myself while staring into the coals that warmed my face as my back chilled behind me, “yet still so much beauty.” I remembered a conversation I had with an artist during a summer festival in July. A discussion spurred on by the oil spill, commiserating about the destruction of the world’s natural spaces. The artist who I spoke to said, “Yes, but there’s still so much beauty left,” with a cautionary look in his eye, as if to communicate the danger of believing that everything is already gone. But now I understand another dimension to his words: there is beauty in our perception of the world, not just passive beauty in the eye of the beholder, but replicating, dynamic beauty in the eye – we bring beauty into the world by seeing, nurturing, creating it, by being beauty ourselves. This beauty does not undo the work of corporations destroying the world, but it does reaffirm on the level of self that life proliferates at every point it’s touched, including our mind. Perception is the beginning of the mandala, and the mandala proliferates anywhere life is touched, springing into existence like mycelium.

Mycelium – Living tissue of unity
As I’ve written this narrative, I’ve felt a thread that I can now describe as a thin, white mycelial tendril pull through me, my community, and the world, as a shared story that does not originate with me, but like an infinitely branched root system is connected through me. We are all interconnected. My experiences with suffering are my experiences, my own perspective, entwined with the experiences of my community – the inner mandala, and the world – the outer mandala. I think of Derrick Jensen’s call to destroy civilization and recognize his desperate, impassioned call, as misplaced. The behemoth of our culture rears on the verge of collapse, as the thought structures and institutional structures of our past metastasize into present forms of extraction, deforestation, destruction and war – all products of a world hinged on the price of oil. Within this century, it will become apparent that we have hit peak oil and when oil becomes more than we can afford, we can expect certain collapse. Yet, we live inside the belly of this beast, positioned to do the work of mycelium, organically breaking down and reinventing the old, dead structures to create new thriving communities. I fear the changes coming this century, the masses of people who will die because of climate change, civil unrest, disease, starvation, and war. I look into the future and think of my community and how utterly vulnerable and unprepared we will be, but how also, our greatest resource and greatest strength is in each other. As this structure collapses, we need sustainable, self-sufficient communities to rise to meet the challenges of this coming century. Our frontline is the home front that needs to return to the land and to interconnected, holistic ways of living. We need to return to the role of the mother, watching over and nurturing this life, tending to our deepest needs by tending to the needs of each other. We must transform the world into the living Mandala.

Robin a community activist that is featured in the forthcoming film Time is Art. Share & contribute to their finishing funds campaign on Indiegogo and help bring the film to the world on 11/11/15 in three languages.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the profound inspiration live more boldly and broadly into the fullest mandala of being!

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