Designing a Radiant Ritual That Honors Our Life Cycle.
The golden fire dances along the edges of the petals of a red rose.
The pine cones crackle, transforming into fragrant smoke that curls in intricate designs to embrace the stars. The ocean’s edge is punctuated by a litter of brightly colored flowers, red, pink, chartreuse dotting the undulating surf.
A few years ago, I had an idea to begin a tradition of creating meaningful birthday rites to celebrate each year of our life cycle amongst myself and those close to me. I was inspired by the Tibetan Buddhist ritual of creating sand mandalas and then destroying them, representing creation, destruction, and above all, impermanence.
This has become a very special and important part of birthday celebrations for myself and those around me.
The idea of ritual in our society today, held for generations, seems to be dissolving. These ceremonies in the past tied together very important ideas, regardless of whether they pertained to grief or joy, and gave profound meaning to the event being recognized. We can join with our ancestors by deliberately creating rituals that construct space for honoring events.
This, among other things, allows us to be present and choose to process where we are emotionally, physically and spiritually in our lives. When we perform rituals, we consciously step out of daily existence for a moment and just be.
The mandala itself is a dynamic symbol. Carl Jung sketched one every morning later in his life in order to tune in with his subconscious each day. He wrote, “The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the Self.”
We can take this, in our birthday celebrations, a step further by choosing the place, time, the objects and how those will be released upon completion, finding deeper connection with the world around us as well as our inner Self.
Creating mandalas punctuates birthdays, and honors the life of the person in a profound fashion. The materials for the mandala are gathered by friends, family, or even by of the one whose birthday is being celebrated. This in itself becomes special because the gathered flowers, sticks, shells, pine cones, leaves, crystals, fruits or vegetables, etc. are already given meaning by being chosen.
We can find deep significance and connection to the elements. Earth, water and fire are woven together in an intricate manner of gathering, creating and destroying the yearly mandala.
This also serves as a beautiful and potent technique to symbolically create intention. I think about what I would like to build in the coming months as I embark on a new year of my life. I feel incredibly supported as those I love surround me and watch as I gently and deliberately place the gathered materials together in its emerging pattern.
After the mandala is created, it is time to release it to destruction. This denotes the fact that nothing is permanent, and that there is sorrow in joy and death in life. We make a point to remember the profound cycle of life of which we are all a part. We can also choose here to let the previous year go, shedding those things that no longer serve us.
The destruction of the mandala can be anything of the honored one’s choosing. Often we have thrown our creations into the fire, or flung them into the ocean. There is another kind of beauty in watching the dissolution of what we have so lovingly created. All gathered usually join in in gathering and releasing the mandala to its destruction, symbolizing connection in community.
From year to year, every mandala looks very different, and the ritual becomes very memorable and takes on special and different characteristics with each creation. I didn’t often remember what I did on my birthday year to year, but this ritual has created sparkling memories each year as the characteristics alter.
Some years, it has been a big party with the mandala as the centerpiece, with food, drinks and community. Other years, it was very quiet and intimate. Even the mandala changes shape organically from year to year, and the colors, materials and palette, type of destruction, and even the weather, are all a part of the beauty.
Creating this special birthday can be a beautiful gift to yourself and to those you love. It is easy, inexpensive and memorable, allowing for a special time of acknowledgment of letting go of last year and welcoming the next. Very simply, here’s how:
Step 1: Allow the birthday individual to choose the time of day, where he or she would like to create the mandala, and how it will be destroyed. We’ve made them on grass, sand, in forests, and even inside on wood floors and white sheets. The mandala’s materials can be thrown into a fire or into the ocean or a river (as long as there are no synthetic materials that will not break down).
You can even get creative and choose something else like burying them or throwing them into a busy street. At this time, also determine whether this will be in a community celebration or whether its setting will be more intimate. This all changes from year to year, and is part of the beauty.
Step 2: Gather the materials to create the mandala. This can include anything. We have used flowers, stems, sticks, pine cones, feathers, rocks and crystals, birds’ nests, and other special items. If using flowers on sand, we have found that bright yellows, chartreuses and bright reds work best. If using flowers on grass, white, bright yellows and bright pinks seem to show up well.
Step 3: Help prepare the materials. We like to group the materials together by type and the flowers by color, cutting them off at the heads of the stems as the birthday individual begins to make the pattern. He or she can choose a pattern beforehand, but often it emerges organically as the different materials come together.
Step 4: As the one who is creating the mandala works, he or she can build the new year. Setting intention, as the materials are mindfully and deliberately laid out, is a profound and memorable act. After it is finished, you may want to enjoy it for a bit. Of course you will want to take photos of the creation.
I had someone ask at my last birthday if capturing it in a photo somehow took away from the idea of destroying it. I have found, however, that seeing the pictures year after year helps me to remember the uniqueness of each celebration and how, as mandalas are meant to do, each one represented my microcosm of the universe.
Step 5: Take a moment here, in between creation and destruction, to remember how precious the life of the one who’s being celebrated is, even — and especially if — it’s yourself. Then begin to gather up the beautiful creation for destruction. At this stage, we try to remember the impermanence of all things.
When it is my birthday, I love to have those gathered help me throw my creation into the fire or water. It is here that I can let go of the previous year and shed what no longer serves me, watching a different kind of beauty of fresh flowers burning or being enfolded by the waves.
April Mitchell is a certified Yoga therapist (C-IAYT) and an E-RYT 200/RYT-500. She has a private practice, teaching individuals and groups, and she also instructs in a beloved Yoga studio. She is trained in Yin and Restorative Yoga, Ayurveda, fascial anatomy, and postural biomechanics. April believes it is profound work to discover our own habits and patterns in a compassionate way in order to unravel them, moving toward wholeness. Her greatest passion and purpose is to teach and share methods which promote good health, empowerment, connection, awareness, and deep calm. Catch up with April on Facebook.