Wasting Beauty

by Nate Nicholls · 2 comments

Completed Sand Mandala.

A couple of years ago, some Buddhist monks came to the Anchorage and created a beautiful sand mandala.  Unfortunately, I was not able to see it in person, but I read in wonder about the painstaking process of creating the mandala.  A few monks sit for hours (sometimes days – even weeks!) creating this ornate piece of art.  The monks “paint” the mandala by pouring out colored sand from a tube.  This is no color-by-numbers activity!  The mandala is intricately detailed.

I was wrapped up in the details of how the mandala would be created, but I was suddenly horrified when I read that the mandala would be destroyed!  Yes, apparently, after creating this incredibly ornate piece of art, the monks then begin a ritual destruction of it.  They sweep the sand into urns, then pour the sand out in a river (or some other nearby body of running water).

It took me a while to get over this.  What a waste!  One of the things that has always attracted me to Buddhism is the simplicity of life they advocate – the enjoyment of life’s smallest pleasures.  It seemed an odd paradox that they would destroy something of such beauty.

So, I began to read more about it.  Why would they do that?

I discovered that the ritual of destroying the mandala is what the whole process is all about.  They create the mandala to destroy it, not to appreciate the beauty of it.

The ritualistic purpose of the creation and destruction of the mandala is to remind the monks (and, perhaps, those who observe the process) of the transitory nature of the material world.  By creating something beautiful (something that any person in their right mind would want to keep around) and then destroying it, they are practicing the fine art of letting things go.

Even years after learning about this, I still struggle with the process.  It’s hard for me to imagine creating something that is the pinnacle of greatness and then to destroy it.  What point is there in destruction?  Couldn’t they find a better way to remind themselves of the transitory nature of things?  But the other day it hit me: I’m missing the point!

Building something beautiful must make those monks feel good about themselves.  They must feel a great sense of accomplishment when they see their project completed.  But, then I asked myself, who are these monks?  What are they trying to do with their lives?  They’re trying to transcend the material world.  Creating beautiful things isn’t their primary goal!  Neither is destroying things.  But, patience and transcendence are their goals!  Learning to let go of the stuff of this world for the sake of reaching a higher plain – that’s their goal!

Excellence In the Ordinary

“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” -(attributed to) Aristotle

“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.”  -Charles Swindoll

The creation of the mandala is only a small detail of a much larger picture.  Sure, they spend weeks creating a thing of beauty only to “waste” it.  But, they are creating a much more beautiful work of art with their lives!  The creation and destruction of the mandala is merely an exercise.  They know that they are more than artisans – they are Seekers of Enlightenment whose sights are set on more beautiful things than colored sand on a table top.

A couple of weeks ago, Gabrielle and I had a talk about spontaneity and creative thought.  The next week she came home with an empty Moleskine journal.  She bought it specifically to practice her creativity and writing.

That same week I, inspired by a talk/friendly ass-kicking from my best friend Marshall, had decided to start this blog and commit to at least one weekly entry.

I’m excited because Gabrielle and I committed to creating beautiful lives.  I like that our respective decisions to do so were made separately from each other, because I believe long-term change can only come from within.  We are both committing to long-term beauty.

I will probably never see the inside of Gabrielle’s new journal.  She plans to fill it up with drawings and various writings, but she probably isn’t going to show them to anyone.  (Although, I am pressing her to show me the series of hideously ugly mermaids she plans to draw in the near future.)  And this blog probably won’t be read by too many people.  (As I write this, my website has only been seen by 13 people.  That’s it.)  That’s okay.  That’s not the point of this blog.

What Gabrielle and I are doing is important and way more beautiful than anyone picture, story, or blog post could ever be.  See, we are creating beauty on a higher plain.  No, I’m not getting carried away with myself, here.  I’m being transparent about our motivation.  Gabrielle and I want to create beautiful lives, not beautiful things.  We want our lives to be filled with creativity and beauty.  We want our lives to influence and inspire others.

Whereas we used to be saving up our creativity for that one moment when we could really use it, now we are learning that we spend our creative moments as they come, knowing that they’ll lead to more and more beauty.  Gabrielle is not out to be the next Monet.  I am not out to be the next Seth Godin.  But, we are looking to be our best selves.  My legacy won’t be boiled down to one blog post.  I am practicing perfection!

It’s Now or Never

We all want to make a difference.  I believe that.  Even the most reclusive person, in my opinion, wants to be heard at some point.  I have always wanted to make a difference, to inspire people, to be somebody.  The thing that has always kept me down is that….I’m nobody!  I mean, I have always felt that I have the capacity to do great things, but I never knew how to go about doing them.  So, I kept waiting for that day when I would be ready, the day I would be somebody.

That day never came.  I’m still not “ready”.

The other week when Marshall chided me for not doing more with my life, I realized that I need to just get up and start working on something – anything!  I will never be great at anything until I’ve done it repeatedly.  Excellence is a habit, not an act or event.

My purpose in writing this blog is not to writing a good post – it’s to become great, to practice excellence.  Instead of writing my bursts of insight into my journal so that one day I could pull them out and hit a home run, I’m spending them now.  I no longer feel like that will waste my creativity or insight.  Instead, I feel that I will become more creative and more insightful.

The monks who create those beautiful mandalas aren’t creating things of beauty only to destroy them – they’re creating beautiful lives, reaching for their destiny.  They aren’t wasting beauty, they’re perfecting excellence.

The lesson I am learning – the one I want to share with you – is this: Quit hoarding the temporary flashes of brilliance that you have.  Spend them as you get them.  Empty yourself of them.  As you do, you’ll find more brilliance, more creativity.  I’ve already noticed it in my life and I’ve only just begun!

What’s your goal?  Do you want to make one or two beautiful things in life or do you want to establish a legacy?  How you spend your creative moments will answer that for you.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mom February 4, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I can hardly believe nobody commented on this blog! I found it intriguing and motivational! I must say, though I get the point of the exercise of destroying the mandala, I couldn’t do it! It’s too wasteful on the one hand! Creating a beautiful and meaningful life is a great thing of beauty and I am proud that you want to do that!


Nate February 5, 2011 at 9:01 pm

I admit that I would have an extremely hard time doing something like that, too. I think I may try it, though. I think it’s a good creative exercise. It reminds me of something I once heard Mel Brooks say about writing jokes for movies. He said that he sometimes cuts the best jokes because they don’t really work with the overall story. I think it shows a tremendous amount of self confidence to cut something you consider to be your best. It shows that you have more good material. Your best is not a one-time thing; there’s more there.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: