The Writer’s Mandala | 3

I’ve been sharing notes from a writer’s workshop I watched a few weeks ago, presented by Richard Tarnas at Pacifica Graduate Institute. During the afternoon of the first day of the workshop, Tarnas presented what he calls The Writer’s Mandala, a symbol of the complete writer.

the writer's mandala by you.

The first two positions on the mandala, the nine o’clock and the six o’clock places of Self and Ancestors, I covered in yesterday’s post. Today, I’ll cover what Tarnas had to say about the other aspects of the whole writer’s cosmos.

Three o’clock: the thou or other

cybriwsky05 by you.

The three o’clock position of the mandala is the Thou or Other. Tarnas said that as a writer, you, “must develop the capacity to read your own work as if you are someone else; develop the capacity of the reader over your shoulder.” Envison your audience; maybe it’s a complex group of many readers of widely varying knowledge, temperament, and convictions. If you’d really like to reach most of them, your work will require a certain amount of emotional intelligence, some intellectual flexibility, and an escape from your ego-bound myopia.  Broad writing requires an ability to engage in an I-Thou dialogue all the time with this invisible reader or set of readers. Each sentence is forged out of this crucible of the tension between Self and Other. You are moving from your “ascendant” position of “I” to the opposite side of the mandala, to the Other.

Editing is a relationship you are having with the other person. It is not just a solitary task, it is a relational task.

cybriwsky04 by you.

Carry the pole of doubt in your own writing, so the reader doesn’t have to.  An effective writer carries the pole of doubt in their own writing, so that the reader will trust you to be fair; they will trust you not to be brow-beating them or deceiving them, exaggerating or trying to put something over on them. If they see you articulating your perspective in a way that is faithful to the opposing side’s argument, it is so important to set forth the other perspective in a way that the holder of the other perspective would say, “Yes, that is just how I would state it.” Otherwise, you’re just trying to get away with something by setting up a straw man.

It is quite Jungian to set forth both sides so that you will not draw toward you by fate what you are not conscious of in yourself. If you are totally identified with only one part of the whole, then what is denied or unconscious will come at you from “out there.” If you only set forth your opinion as a one-sided juggernaut, then the reader will have to complement the whole. They will doubt what you say, because you are not showing any awareness that there’s another side to what you are saying, another way of looking at it. This requires a capacity for self-overcoming, a capacity for dialogical mode not monological. As Nietzsche said, “He who will not obey himself will be commanded.”

cybriwsky07 by you.

Serve the reader. In Robert Altman’s movie Gosford Park, Helen Mirren described the perfect servant as one who anticipates what the master’s family wants. She knows what they want even before they do. The good or perfect writer has to anticipate what the reader wants or needs, too, and give it to them. Within each sentence and looking ahead, you have to anticipate the order in which the reader is reading your sentences. You know where you are going, but the reader does not. Readers are generally in a confused state, and you need to give them direction as you write. Lead them gently; your knowing where you are going can fool you into thinking you are being more clear than you are! You may need to re-phrase so they can follow, or else you may write a howler, a sentence that says exactly the opposite of what you intend to say.

Read and re-read and read from the point of view of not being yourself. Be a reader who is seeing this for the first time. Do your editing when you’re not as engaged or a little tired, when you are in a state similar to that of your readers when they read it. Hemingway said never edit when you are really tired, because you’ll make mistakes.  Be conscious of how “on” you are when editing, and edit when your efforts will best serve the reader.

cybriwsky02 by you.

If you write selfishly, you will lose your reader.  You can always tell a monological writer because he or she writes with an overbearing confidence that presumes that the writer knows more than the reader. It’s a real turnoff for the intelligent reader. Therefore, it is especially important that you do the readers the honor of assuming that their generosity and intelligence equals your own.

Another summary of the relationship between the self and the critics or readers is this, “write like an exhibitionist and edit like a censor.” This is often said in writing workshops; it allows the flow to happen without the fear of living up to a certain standard. Let it come out of you and flow out. But before it goes out to the public, it needs to go through the editorial threshold of highly refined judgment and discernment on your part. At that point you want to weigh every word and sentence carefully. It is at that point a balancing of two polarities, and the creative synthesis comes from the two together. If you just write from the spirit of the censor, nothing truly valuable will ever come through. If you just write from the spirit of Oh Wonderful Me, then that is also unlikely to bear fruit over the long run. It may make a flash in the pan for a day, but it will wither on the vine in the long run.

Your community. The other aspect of the Thou is the community of readers, friends, dialogue partners, and fellow writers who give you intellectual, spiritual, and emotional support, feedback, critique and exchange. If you have too much community, you will lose the silent depth of connection to your own sources of inspiration within and all the reading and thinking you have to do on your own, along with the interior struggle that ultimately you have to do on your own. If you are too much enmeshed in the community and don’t have enough of the silent, sustained solitude, then you lose the essential aspect of being a writer.

If you have too much solitude, on the other hand, you will have a danger of a manic inflation of your individual creativity, uncontained by the discipline of relating to others. Balance is needed.


The final position of the writer’s mandala that completes the whole writer is the Divine, the God dimension. Tarnas said that the writer must learn to trust something larger and deeper than himself.

holy personal 3 by you.

Joseph Campbell once gave a lecture about initiation, and talked about Rasmussen, an explorer going across the North American continent. As he went, he met with many old shaman, and one of them told him about being taken by the village shaman and put into a tent on ice. He was put in there alone for 30 days and given only occasionally a little meat or water. He said he died many times in that 30 days and heard many things. “Sometimes I would hear the voice of the universe,” he recalled, “and it said, ‘trust the universe.’” When he came back out of that threshold, he came back with a spiritual security and a depth that he brought back to his tribe.

The vertical dimension is the dimension that reflects that we’re vessels of a higher purpose than we are aware of.  Without this dimension that comes from God–the Muses, angels, the spirit–we are missing something. This brings us back to the ritual we use when we first begin writing in the morning or during our writing day. We must open ourselves, feeling a certain opening in the top of the head (the crown chakra).

holy personal 1 by you.

You will need a source of inspiration and faith when you’re working on a big project such as a book or dissertation. There will be times when you feel you won’t make it, when you just want to put your head down on your arms on the desk and just weep, when you say, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” Every mother knows that point you come to during labor when you feel a truly inexpressible level of painful heart labor in the service of something that doesn’t seem to have any possibility of success. When the writer has a similar experience, he or she needs a source of trust that will keep them able to stick with it and push through. This is where the vertical relationship to God comes in. You have to trust something larger than yourself to help you, to carry you through. You pray to open yourself to larger resources.

One prayer some writers use is from the Lakota, from elder Fool’s Crow who said,

We are called hollow bones for our people and for anyone else we can help, and we are not supposed to seek power for our personal use and honor. We must prepare ourselves to become a channel, and our channel must be clean before we can use our power well. We must be free of resentments, guilt, shame, anger, self-pity and fear. If these things are in us, we cannot be hollow bones. These things block us from our power. The cleaner we are, the more power we move. We must become hollow bones so the creator can use us to do what Spirit wants us to do.

And so we pray:

My creator, remove from me all resentments, anger, fear, guilt, and selfishness. Do not let my weakness stand in the way of my usefulness to you; make me a hollow bone so your power can flow through me.

Another wonderful prayer is by François Fénelon:

Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee,
Thou only knowest what I need;
Thou lovest me better than I know how to love myself.Father! Give to Thy child that which he himself knows not how to ask.
I dare not ask either for crosses or consolations;
I simply present myself before Thee.
I open my heart to Thee.Behold my need, which I know not myself;
see and do according to Thy tender mercy.
Smile or heal, depress me, or raise me up;
I adore all Thy purposes without knowing them:
I am silent;
I offer myself in sacrifice;
I yield myself to Thee,
I would have no other desire than to accomplish Thy will.
Teach me to pray. Pray thyself in me.

The prayer Richard Tarnas uses, from Saint Thomas Aquinas is:

O ineffable Creator,
Who, out of the treasure of Thy wisdom,
hast ordained three hierarchies of Angels,
and placed them in wonderful order above the heavens,
and hast most wisely distributed the parts of the world;
Thou, Who are called the true fountain of light and wisdom,
and the highest beginning,
vouchsafe to pour upon the darkness of my understanding,
in which I was born,
the double beam of Thy brightness,
removing from me all darkness of sin and ignorance.
Thou, Who makest eloquent the tongue of the dumb,
instruct my tongue,
and pour on my lips the grace of Thy blessing.
Give me quickness of understanding,
capacity of retaining,
subtlety of interpreting,
facility in learning,
and copious grace of speaking.
Guide my going in,
direct my going forward,
accomplish my going forth;
through Christ our Lord, Amen.

And, last but not least, a simple writer’s prayer:

O angels and muses, spirits and ancestors, gods and goddesses, earth and sky, thou who watch over and form all things; please grant me the grace to write well today.

holy personal 4 by you.



The Art of Writing
Richard Tarnas
Workshop Presented 17 November 2007
Pacifica Graduate Institute
Depth Video DVD

6 responses to “The Writer’s Mandala | 3”

  1. davidrochester Avatar

    I really love the editing/revising advice, and the reminder that the writer’s job is to learn how to step away from his own work, to raise the other side of the question, to anticipate the reader’s needs. This is, I think, one of the hardest things to learn, and it’s something that is not sufficiently emphasized by most writing instruction.

  2. Eve Avatar

    Heni, doesn’t it seem that the more truth one acquires, the more one sees it everywhere, in every age? It’s almost as if wisdom really is shouting out from the street corner!

    Caroline, what you write is true. “One-sided advocacy is the norm” is particularly noticeable, probably because that’s how people achieve and maintain television ratings. With so many other options competing for air time, it almost seems as if the media personality’s survival depends on taking a one-sided stance.

    Yogamum, I liked the last one too, and was glad he offered it, because some days I know that the only thing I can do is to pray some sort of prayer like that. Maybe I could write one called “The Prayer of the Desperate Writer.” Ha ha!

    Alida, I hadn’t thought of chakras when looking at this mandala, so thanks for that comment, because I’ve often found it useful to look at things from that perspective. And then I forget.

    I agree that this mandala is actually a good perspective for approaching the whole life, rather than merely the writing life. For instance, as I encounter new people I might consider running around the mandala in order to have a whole perspective. I generally will consider the “I” and the “Thou,” but forget that both of these involve the ancestors/history and also something Divine. Considering only polarities has caused me to make some mistakes.

  3. Alida Avatar

    I like the mandala itself. The colors remind me of chakras. The I, thou, history and divine seem like wonderful things to keep in mind as you approach anything in life.

  4. yogamum Avatar

    This has been a beautiful and thought-provoking series of posts! Love the prayers at the end — I think I like the last one best for its simplicity.

  5. Caroline Avatar

    A wonderful posting, this.

    You quote Tarnus as saying “… must develop the capacity to read your own work as if you are someone else; develop the capacity of the reader over your shoulder…….”

    This applies, I think, no more so than to the length of paragraphs, which all too many writers make far too long.

    It used to be that paragraphs were much, much longer than today. This may have been perfectly OK then, when readers’ attention-spans were longer, but it’s not OK now.

    You say “…….Carry the pole of doubt in your own writing……..”, so that we should present all sides when writing about contentious things, enabling the reader to make up his or her own mind.

    How nice this would be, were it de rigueur in most of what we read in the popular media. But it is salesmen, lawyers, politicians, and preachers, all with their own little axes to grind, who have so influenced our popular culture, that one-sided advocacy is the norm.

    Thus, whenever we read anything, or listen to a public official, we are obliged to ask ourselves: “What are they leaving out?”

    But, to admit doubt, is to be credible, for there is no thing, or no so-called self-evident truth, which is absolutely certain.

    To be dogmatic is to show that we are, at most, half-educated, and at least, fools.

  6. henitsirk Avatar

    Wow, that quote from Fool’s Crow is amazing. Amazing in that it is the same thing that Buddha said, that Rudolf Steiner said, that so many wise people and esotericists have said. Not to diminish Fool’s Crow’s personal wisdom, but to acknowledge the universal truth of it.

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