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  • Writer's pictureTiffane Friesen

Embracing Spirit: Healing in Circles

Life is change. It molds who we were, who we are, and who we will yet become. Change is all about relationships: our relationship with other people, with our inner selves, with time, with our bodies, with our environments, with our life circumstances. With change comes grief– we mourn the ways things were to make space for the way things are. We hurt, we grieve, we seek support, we begin to heal, we eventually grow, and hopefully we keep the ripple going for those around us. It’s no wonder that change is the path that brings so many people to seek out healing spaces like the therapy couch. It’s also no wonder that it is the same path that leads so many of us to take on the role of supporting others through change. While we know that healing happens in relationship, we don’t often talk about the process of reciprocity and mutuality in the therapy world. Even less often, do we acknowledge the inherent spiritual aspect of the work we do and of the tools we use to do it. I’m going to use this blog as an opportunity to attempt to minimize the hierarchal gap between therapist and client by sharing my personal journey as an example of a transpersonal approach to healing. It is an invitation to you, the reader, to take a deep breath, self-reflect, and to allow space for what was, what is, and what has yet to become.

My world changed with the unexpected death of my mother, she was my best friend and the foundation of my support system. I found myself grappling with overwhelming grief, desperately seeking a sense of order in the chaotic aftermath. In my quest for order, a simple yet profound intuitive practice emerged. Every day, for a year following my mother’s death, I would wander through the pastures near the barn where I lived. Collecting rocks, flowers, feathers—anything beautiful I could carry—I would arrange them on my kitchen table in concentric circles. This ritual became my anchor, a practice that grounded me and provided a reason to step out of my pit of “grief doom.”

The term mandala found its way into my life a few months later, introducing me to the realms of mindfulness and meditation. What started as a personal practice soon transitioned into the therapeutic art studio where I worked. Astonishingly, the impact of mandala-making on my clients mirrored its profound effects on me. Together, we ventured on walks, crafted nature mandalas, drew intention mandalas, and painted mandala murals in the community. Despite the collaborative nature of our creations, we each helped create reciprocity by bringing our unique insights and perspectives to the process. At that time, it felt like a secular mindful art activity, but even then, the underlying theme of interconnection was unmistakable. This marked the moment when transpersonal spirituality found its way into my life.

As my personal spiritual practice grew, so too did my community and

professional practices. My desire for understanding as well as personal and collective healing eventually led me to attend graduate school and become a social worker. I wanted to know why spiritually inclusive therapeutic interventions, like mandala making, connection to nature, and meditation made such a difference for me and those I worked with. Curiosity led me to explore countless workshops, spiritual texts, and seek out mentors that expanded my personal and professional journey. From there I dived into the research at the intersection of psychology, neuroscience and spirituality.

Years and thousands of pages of research articles later, it’s clear to me that there are very tangible and evidence-supported correlations between regular spiritual practice and mental well-being. Studies support that spirituality increases brain activation in regions linked to positive emotions and distress tolerance. Spirituality correlates with lower stress hormone levels, enhanced emotional regulation, stronger sense of belonging, and increased gray matter density in the prefrontal cortex. Spirituality proves instrumental in supporting individuals who are experiencing grief and loss by offering comfort, fostering meaning-making, and promoting a greater sense of purpose. Transpersonal approaches provide a catalyst for coping with transitions and loss and are positively linked to increased post-traumatic growth in various populations and in diverse environments.

While transpersonal psychology and spirituality are positively correlated with a long list of beneficial mental health benefits, sugar-coated messaging found in pop psychology and woo-centered therapy circles tend to sweep the messy but integral parts of spirituality under the rug. Spirituality and healing is not, “Positive vibes only.” When we look at the roots of spiritually inclusive interventions, we see that Eastern and Indigenous spiritual practices have functioned for millennia, not as tools for self-improvement, but for the evolutionary purpose of survival, community care, and environmental stewardship. Spiritually centered approaches to personal and collective healing embrace the full spectrum of the human experience. Spirituality teaches us that suffering is an unavoidable part of existence. Our relationship to change is the root cause of our suffering and when we accept the inherent discomfort that accompanies change we can find a sense of equanimity.

It is undeniable that spiritually aligned interventions like mindfulness and meditation have been known to help people for thousands of years. Ethically bringing these practices into clinical and therapeutic spaces means we, as therapists, must acknowledge that these practices weren’t widely accepted as viable treatment approaches until brought to the west and then removed from their cultural and spiritual roots. Healing is inherently spiritual and it’s time we begin recognizing and openly acknowledging that many of the evidence-backed tools we use come from and remain tied to spiritual ways of knowing and being. We choose to call it for what it is or not, regardless the process is the same.

“A mountain is a mountain. A mountain is not a mountain. A mountain is…a mountain,” This quote illustrates one example of understanding spiritual approaches to ways of knowing and being that exist in many cultures. What we call a mountain is a commonly understood object. If you ask a child to draw a mountain, they’ll likely draw a triangle shape with an open bottom and snowy peak at the top. We all know what a mountain is. But many mountains were oceans millennia ago. They are made of tiny flecks of dirt, and giant boulders, caves, trees, melting snow, moving rivers, plants and animals. Mountains can have buildings on them: people, homes, entire ecosystems. They are constantly shifting from moment to moment, and they are made of infinite parts and pieces that are also constantly changing. In this way a mountain is not (just) a mountain, it’s so much more. And in another few millennia, the mountain might once again be an ocean or a valley--still made of mountain parts but definitely no longer “a mountain.” But. For the sake of this moment and because we are currently in these bodies on this planet together trying to share a common experience, a mountain is a mountain. And. We can also accept it’s not just a mountain. In many ways, spiritual knowing is about holding multiple realities at once. Spirituality asks us to recognize the past, present, and future simultaneously. When we do this, we can more easily see the interconnectedness between all things.

As I write this, the water in my body was once in the ocean and in the sky. It may eventually come to be the water in your body or in a river across the world. We are living people in this moment, but someday we’ll be tree fertilizer and the impacts of our lives will be both insignificant and monumental. Power is always in the present moment. We amplify this power by being fully in THIS moment while also holding the realities that a lot of things had to happen for us to be here in this moment and a lot of things will happen in the future because we are here now in whatever state we are currently in. When we remember our interconnectedness, we are most capable and empowered to equitably care for ourselves, each other, and our planet.

Mandalas exist everywhere within nature and science: atoms, the multiverse, snowflakes, planets, eyes, tree rings, spider webs, and seashells. Once you start looking you will see them everywhere. When you drop a rock into a pond, it creates a mandala of ripples. Each ripple furthering the expanse of the one before it. On an individual level, we are that rock and everything we do and say and think ripples out and intersects to co-create our shared existence. On a collective level, every living being is like the individual cells that make up the mandala of our planet Earth. Like the 37.2 trillion cells that make up the average human body, every person, plant, and animal brings something unique and needed to the whole of our mandala planet. In a healthy human body, when one part of the body’s cells are hurting or dying off, the rest of cells work together to heal the wound while also sustaining the whole.

When you break one side of a spider web, the other side has to work harder to compensate. Likewise, when we remember and honor our interconnectedness and the inherent worthiness of all beings, our awareness expands, and we become committed to achieving mutual accountability. As more people come into alignment with one another and the planet, those individually dropped rocks of intention become collective ripples that eventually can become a tsunami of transformation. When we heal ourselves, we heal the world around us. When we heal the world around us, we heal ourselves.

By: Tiffane Friesen, LMSW

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