Diana M. Martin has been an adjunct professor in The Writing and Reading Center at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, for over 15 years. She has a MFA in Creative Nonfiction and has published articles in the areas of parenting, health and cultural arts. When her husband lost his battle with cancer of unknown primary, later identified as bile duct cancer, she became the sole caregiver for their adult son, Alex, who is autistic.
Mandalas can help people with cancer and their caregivers find purpose.
Someone gave me a mandala kit. What does this have to do with cancer or being a recovering and/or compulsive caregiver? I had no idea.
I wondered how my husband, who didn't see himself as an artist, would have reacted to me offering him up a rock, a pattern and some paint to use in between nauseous trips to the bathroom. How could he have possibly done this art project? Then I remember how he liked to chip away at the grout that was on the mosaic tables my son and I made. His goal was to uncover each tiny piece of glass or stone hidden by the black or white grout that held them all together. Doing this seemed oddly satisfying to him.
Since what we do determines so much of who we are, it can be depressing not to have a purpose. This led me to the question: How does someone with cancer define his or her purpose in the last days of life? When I was with Dan during his final weeks three years ago, my purpose was to care for him. I suppose his purpose was to figure out how leave this earth gracefully.
Today my purpose has shifted. I look at the mandala kit. It seems complicated. The dots within circles and dots within dots start to give me a headache. Perhaps it is a subtle hint for me to slow down. I don't want to appear unthankful, so I watch a YouTube video on how to turn this very plain, earthy stone into a work of art worthy of being a gift. It's so simple, I think. Yet the final product looks so complex.
Upon doing some more Google searches for tutorials, I discovered that “mandala” is Sanskrit for "circle" and has a long history of being used for visual meditation in Eastern cultures around the world. According to an article in The Johns Hopkins Health Review entitled "The Magic of Mandalas" by Belinda Lanks, "...Carl Jung introduced mandalas to Westerners, encouraging patients to draw circular patterns as a means of unlocking their unconscious thoughts, dreams and desires. He believed the symbols represented the totality of the self."
I learned that painting or coloring mandalas can be a therapeutic way to reflect and create something beautiful that can be enjoyed forever. For current cancer patients and their caregivers, it can also be a soothing way to contemplate the end of life when talking about it is just too hard. This process activates the senses of sight and touch and encourages an inner conversation that may or may not be shared.
So, I decided to try it out. I found the center of the rock and made my first silver dot. I followed the tutorial until I made a mistake by spacing the dots too close. Then I went rogue and the result was a "mandala-like" stone which looked like it had a bad case of the chicken pox. I knew that my husband would laugh at this.
Self-realization or finding one's purpose doesn't have to come from doing some great deed that leaves a legacy. For former caregivers like myself, painting mandalas can be a mindful way to slow down and listen to that inner voice that was put on the back burner.
My attempt at painting a mandala reminded me of the first art project our son did that Dan and I so proudly hung on the refrigerator. If the purpose of painting this imperfect mandala was to evoke that sweet memory, then maybe it could help people with cancer and their caregivers do the same.