Parts of a Whole: Building a Nature Mandala

Last year, Suwon Media Center in Korea approached us with an opportunity to co-program a month of film screenings for their “Cinema Story” series. The series took place this March, and Suhee and I selected films from different countries that have personally inspired us, including Princess Mononoke (Japan), Le Quattro Volte (Italy), and La Belle Verte (France). The closing film for the month festival, as suggested by the center, was our own Final Straw: Food, Earth, Happiness.

Last week, after the final screening, we visited Suwon to lead the audience in a “Nature Mandala” workshop.

People gather for building a nature mandala at Suwon Media Center in South Korea (photo: Suwon Media Center)
People gather for building a nature mandala at Suwon Media Center in South Korea (photo: Suwon Media Center)

Why build a giant mandala after watching the film?

It’s often difficult to connect the ideas from the film into our personal actions, especially if we’re not farmers. The nature mandala exercise does this job, mainly because it provides a way to experience using the natural farming mindset in action, right before our eyes.

Wait a second! How can making a nature mandala teach us about natural farming?

Simply put, because both activities – natural farming and art making in this case – tend to work from the same root mindset. Of course, it’s obvious that artists make art and natural farmers grow food, those are different outputs. Yet both approach their craft similarly, by engaging what the western world often calls ‘intuition’. Another way to describe ‘intuition’ is simply to say that we’re letting our work be guided by nature rather than by the logical mind alone.

This process is in part, one of seeing ourselves not as isolated individuals, but as individual parts making up a larger whole.

Ironically, we often think that seeing ourselves as part of a whole means we have to give up our individuality and fall in line with the ‘machine’. The truth however, is completely the opposite! Realizing ourselves as part of a whole simply means that we see our individual abilities, and recognize that in cultivating these abilities, we can fulfill a unique and individual role that contributes to the functioning of the larger nature we are a part of. The act of making art, and the act of natural farming, both require us to trust in nature, and in ourselves.

‘Osakako Mandala’ installation by Patrick Lydon at Contemporary Art Space Osaka, Japan
‘Osakako Nature Mandala’ installation by Patrick Lydon at Contemporary Art Space Osaka, Japan

One way to visualize this is by thinking of nature as analogous to the human body. The human body is a whole, yet this whole is made of many individual parts that must work in harmony in order for the body to function. If for instance, our fingers decide they no longer want to move, then our body can no longer perform tasks by hand. Conversely, if every part of our body decides that it wants to play the role of the fingers, then our heart, feet, and spleen all try to do work they are not made for, and the entire body ceases to function!

Though this is easy to conceptualize, it’s difficult to see in practice, how each of us has an individual role. It’s even more difficult to see how, when followed truthfully without worrying too much about social constructs — eg: not worrying about what society expects of us — our true individual talent and voice makes up one part of a beautiful whole.

The nature mandala workshop plays this role, giving us a tactile experience to see the idea in practice. In it, a large group of individuals – thirty or more seems a good number – work in the same space in a largely uncoordinated way, following their own intuition, yet in the end they discover that they’ve all created a single beautiful artwork together with everyone else.

Want to try it yourself? The ‘rules’ for making the nature mandala are simple:

  • Work slowly and mindfully, cultivating an empathic relationship with the natural materials, and with the people around you
  • Practice the non-judging of your own actions, and that of the actions of those around you
  • Remember that every individual has the ability to be an artist in their own unique way

That is quite literally, all we tell the participants of these workshops, and yet they always come up with beautiful and different works that describe their relationships to nature.

A reflection from one of the participants in Suwon sums it up better than we could:

“Before the workshop, I thought to myself ‘wow, there are not many materials to use here and many people, I had better take as much as I can!’ But with the instruction to move slowly and considerately with the materials, looking at them one by one, I could see that yes, wow, it’s enough! The team didn’t coordinate, but somehow we worked together like water flowing, and the result is really fine. Now, seeing the mandala, I thought that maybe it’s true, I don’t need to take as much as I can possibly take, or to compete with everyone else.’ In a way, the workshop answered many questions I had about natural farming.”

Some images from the Suwon Nature Mandala workshop…