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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Honoring Our Pain
  • Facilitators

Truth Mandala

from chapter 7 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Time: 90 minutes


This ritual provides a simple, respectful, whole group structure for owning and honoring our pain for the world. The practice emerged in 1990 amid a large, tension-filled workshop near Frankfurt, on the day of the reunification of East and West Germany. Since then it has become a trusted and featured part of countless workshops the world over.


Honoring Our Pain for the World from



People sit in a circle. They sit as closely-packed as possible, for they are creating a containment vessel for holding the truth. The circle they enclose has four quadrants (visible demarcations are not needed), and in each quadrant is placed a symbolic object: a stone, dead leaves, a thick stick, and an empty bowl. In the center is placed a cushion or small cloth. After placing the objects, the guide picks up each one in turn and explains its meaning. 


Here are some words we use:

This stone is for fear. It’s how our heart feels when we’re afraid: tight, contracted, hard. With this stone, we can let our fear speak. 

These dry leaves represent our sorrow. There is great sadness within us for what we see happening to our world. Here the sadness can speak.

This stick is for our anger, for our outrage. Anger needs to be spoken for clarity of mind and purpose. As you let it speak, grasp this stick hard with both hands. It’s not for pounding or waving around.

And here in the fourth quadrant, this empty bowl stands for our sense of deprivation and need, our hunger for what’s missing—our emptiness.

Maybe there’s something you’ll want to say that doesn’t fit one of these quadrants, so this cushion in the center of the mandala is a place you can stand or sit to give voice to it – be it a song or prayer or lines of verse.

You may wonder where is hope? The very ground of this mandala is hope. If we didn’t have hope, we wouldn’t be here. 

After introducing the objects, present the guidelines for the Truth Mandala and make clear that the inner circle is sacred space—made sacred by our truth telling.

  • People at the inner edge of the circle should keep their feet out of the central space, also other objects like water bottles and tissues.
  • Once the ritual starts, one person at a time, randomly and spontaneously, steps into the circle and takes an object in their hands and speaks. A person can speak from just one quadrant and leave, or move from one quadrant to another. It’s okay to just hold an object and not speak. People may come in more than once or not at all; there is no pressure on anyone to enter. 
  • Encourage brevity in what is spoken, pointing out the relationship between the brevity and the power of a statement. The Truth Mandala is not for lectures or reports, but for direct and simple expression of our pain for the world. Let the ritual object itself help focus the mind.
  • To support the truth telling, suggest a refrain – “I hear you” or “I’m with you” – that people in the group will say (not in unison), during or after each speaking in the Mandala.
  • Confidentiality is essential; what’s said here stays here. A person’s words in the Mandala are not to be referred to afterwards, including to the one who said them.
  • No personal references to those present will be made, and no “cross-talk” or responses to what others have said.
  • Concerns about our personal lives are as welcome as concerns about the world: it’s all one.
  • Feel free to speak in your mother tongue.
  • Feel free to speak as another being, and let it be clear to us when you are doing that. 
  • Refrain from excessive comforting. When people are expressing heavy emotion, gestures of comfort may be taken as a signal to shut down.
  • Tell people how long you expect the ritual to last (we usually keep it to about an hour and a half). Let people know they can go to the bathroom as needed.


After explaining the guidelines, describe the deeper import of each quadrant in the mandala, its source or “tantric side”. Indicating one object after another, say in effect:

Our sorrow is in equal measure love. We only mourn what we deeply care for. “Blessed are they that mourn.”

In speaking fear, you also show the trust and courage it takes to speak it, in a fear-phobic society.

And here we realize that the anger we express has its source in our passion for justice.

And as to this bowl, its emptiness is to be honored, too. To be empty allows space for the new to arise.

The ritual itself begins with a formal dedication of the Truth Mandala to the welfare of all beings and the healing of our world. This is followed by a simple chant or sounding. The seed syllable AH stands in Sanskrit for what has not yet been spoken – and all the voices not yet heard. 

Trust yourself to sense the moment to draw the ritual to a close. As you prepare to close, give people a warning, so that those who have been holding back can seize the chance to speak. 


We often say:

The truth telling will continue in our lives, but this chapter of it will soon draw to a close. Let any who have not yet entered the Mandala, and wish to, do so now.

The formal closing of the Truth Mandala is a key moment. First you honor the truth that each has spoken and the respectful support that each has given. Truth-telling is like oxygen: it enlivens us. Without it we grow confused and numb. With it, we experience our own authority.

Next, the naming of the “tantric side” is repeated briefly. Indicating one object after another, say in effect:

The sorrow spoken over the dead leaves was in equal measure love.

In hearing fear, we also heard the trust and courage it takes to speak it.

And when we heard anger, we heard passion for justice.

And we saw how the empty bowl makes space for the new.

Then lead the group in sounding “AH” again to close. As the sounding ends, invite all to make three bows: first to the Earth to return the energy, putting head and hands on the floor. Then, to oneself by putting hands on heart, in thanks for being fully present throughout. The third bow is to the others, with hands palm to palm, for their brave presence and support. 

Now let mingling, conversation and silent communion, and sometimes singing, arise naturally.


Numbers, timing and other considerations

  • We seldom conduct the Truth Mandala with less than twelve people or more than a hundred. We feel most comfortable leading groups of 20 to 40, and we have heard of wonderful Truth Mandalas with as few as four.  
  • Allow 20 to 30 minutes for the set-up before the dedication and formal beginning. We draw the ritual itself to a close after an hour and a half, even with large numbers. The process is intense, and though people are riveted, they grow more tired than they realize.
  • Be sure people have already had a chance to acknowledge their pain for the world, as in Open Sentences, before the Truth Mandala. Place the ritual near the middle of the day, with a break following. Some time for rest or journaling helps people absorb the experience. Let there be another activity before people separate for the day.
  • Review the section in Chapter 5 of Coming Back to Life on dealing with strong emotions.
  • Participate. Don’t hold aloof, but enter the ritual as honestly and openly as you can, while monitoring the process of the whole group. 
  • Feel free to adapt the arrangements to people’s needs. In workshops with the elderly, the mandala is set up on a table rather than the floor. People can then approach it with a cane or walker, or from a wheelchair. In a psychiatric ward, the stone and stick are replaced with other objects, like a vine and a picture. 
Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown