May 2020
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Finding the Path Forward

Stronger Together by CJ Shelton

Stronger Together - Mandala by CJ Shelton

“Do not go where the path may lead,
go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Magnolia bloomAt this beautiful time of year when everything is fresh and bursting with new life, we are reminded of how Nature is always changing while at the same time her cycle of life, death and rebirth is the eternal constant we can count on year after year.
Like Nature, we too are forever changing yet our essential self remains the same. This conundrum, the ability to hold the tension of the opposites, is the challenge facing us all now; we find ourselves hesitant and in a place we have never been before, striving to hold on to all that is authentic, fundamental and true.
Buddhist Bardo State MandalaIn last month’s newsletter I wrote how we must see the coronavirus not as the punishment of a wrathful God but as the Divine seeking to re-establish balance in a world that is sorely in need of it. As we emerge from a period of “death” – which is how our forced isolation of the last few months can be viewed – we face a unique opportunity. We have been given time to reflect, to reassess and to reimagine.

In Tibetan Buddhist tradition this could be equated with the bardo state or the “life between lives”, where we review our previous incarnation before taking on a new one.
The bardo state refers not just to the afterlife but to any intermediate state or time where the continuity and sense of control we project onto our lives is interrupted; those moments when we have lost our old reality and it is no longer available to us. In Western culture, we often refer to this as having the rug pulled out from under us, feeling disconnected or ungrounded. This is what we are facing now, with the loss of so many familiar parts of our lives.
As we begin to tentatively re-emerge though, we must not forget the fear, the anger or the grief of the dying time, because these were the gifts (yes, the gifts) of the interruption, of our collective bardo state. Our task now is to take those gifts, gather their wisdom and begin weaving the experience of them into something new that will ultimately heal and transform, not only our own lives, but the life of our planet.
My latest mandala, Stronger Together, featured at the beginning of this newsletter, was created with this “weaving” idea in mind. Inspired by the way the branches and roots of trees in a dense forest interlace and seem to hold each other up, it poses the question:  how does a forest go through change? And how does it cope with challenging times until it can see a new light on the horizon?
Science is proving that a forest’s survival depends on it functioning as a community of individual members willing to help each other. Stronger, healthier trees share their nutrients with those that are ailing or undernourished. And each tree lets go of its dead branches to better enable not only its own healthy branches to reach towards the light, but allow light in to reach trees lower down.
The ancient Celts understood this idea of a linked and eternal, never-ending cycle of the life force and the interwoven nature of spirit and matter. They honoured it with their beautiful and intricate “over-under” knot patterns, like that of the branches in my mandala.

Celtic knot
We would be wise to take a page from both the Celts spiritual understanding and the natural world’s cooperation and ask ourselves, how can we, at this pivotal moment in time, create and evolve new ways of living with each other through sharing and honouring – not competing and pillaging – during our collective rebirthing?
As Pema Khandro Rinpoche says, “We are always experiencing successive births and deaths. There is something radical about the change in our reality that any loss brings about. We are not given options, there is no room for negotiation, and the situation cannot be rationalized away or covered up by pretense. There is a total rupture in our who-I-am-ness, and we are forced to undergo a great and difficult transformation”.
Rinpoche goes on to say, “it’s when we lose the illusion of control—when we’re most vulnerable and exposed—that we can discover the creative potential of our lives”. And that is where we are right now … vulnerable and exposed, having to sacrifice our individual who-I-am-ness to assist the greater good.

While we may despair that there are many who seem hell-bent on returning the world back to “normal”, that path is no longer available to us. Something has fundamentally shifted and we must honour that shift until it becomes a wave and a movement, a force to be reckoned with, making its way across the fields towards a beckoning new reality.

Tree Roots in Elora Gorge Park

Writer David Farrier suggests that having been “restricted in where we can go offers new opportunities for noticing where we are”. The forest understands this.

The “Standing Ones” as many First Nations respectfully refer to the trees, are experts at “sheltering in place”. Although each tree stands alone in its who-I-am-ness, it is interconnected through its roots, able to communicate across vast amounts of territory and send resources to others in need.
Unlike trees, we humans have the ability to move around … but perhaps this has been our downfall. The ease and accessibility of travel has promoted the spread of the coronavirus, choked our airways with pollution and allowed an invasive species (humans) to violate and destroy the earth’s wild places. We cross land, water and sky at will, creating well-worn routes that are traversed unthinkingly and routinely, with little regard for the damage it causes or the indifference or numbness this kind of familiarity breeds within us.
In his article for Emergence magazine, David Farrier writes about what he calls “desire paths”, those faint traces one comes across in the fields and forests that the wild things have created in their search for a new water source or feeding ground.
Farrier says, “Desire paths speak of possibility. All animal paths are desire paths; so were the first roads, shaped by nothing more than a common urge to join one place to another … desire paths ‘begin over time, imperceptibly, gathering definition as people slowly recognize and legitimize the footfall of their peers.’ It’s been suggested that fifteen journeys are all that’s required to begin a fresh way …. where the designed way is often straight and rectilinear, the desire path bends and flows. It offers grace rather than instruction.”
Desire PathThis is what we are in need of right now. Grace rather than instruction. And a little more bending and flowing.

“Paved roads show us where we ought to go, but desire paths are made when we step off the road and let our hearts decide the way. They seek out the most direct connection between where we are and where we wish to be. Worn by the pressure of passing feet, they’re declarations of a kind:  there is another way.”
And indeed, there is another way. If it only takes fifteen journeys to forge a fresh path, then there is hope for us because, very slowly, over the past few months, our bardo state has been preparing the ground for us to make desire paths of our own.
We are more than ready now for this new beginning and all the possibilities it holds. I was delighted at how obvious this was when I posted Stronger Together on Facebook and saw the hope-filled comments made in response to the image:

“Strong roots bring forward new horizons.”
“Feel the warmth and hope through your troubles. A new day approaches and it’s the first day of the rest of your life. See the flowers in the distance, they’re for you. Walk through your trees and appreciate what’s coming.”
“We’re all in this together and if we work together to support each other the world will be a better place. A new beginning.”
“I see the binding of our existence. Bound as one we grow strong. One with a healthy earth. The earth, sun nurturing our growth. Without we are lost.”
“A new day is dawning.”

How can we, following our hearts as we embark on the first of “fifteen new journeys”, create different and innovative modes for living in harmony with each other and our beautiful planet?
In taking on such a journey, we must accept that the adaptation process will be slow and often painful. We will continue to be challenged by those things that made our bardo state almost unbearable at times:  loneliness, relationships stretched thin, lack of work or finding different ways to work, having to reimagine communal events and postpone or reinvent traditional rites of passage.

But, as we meet these ongoing challenges, we can take comfort knowing we are joined together, by millions of people across the world, also alternating between their own grief and gratitude.
Painted StonesAnd always, there will be hope as our companion and the certainty of a rising sun across a field of flowers.

Because while we are being challenged, we are getting in touch again not only with ourselves, but also with nature, in ways we have either forgotten or perhaps never even experienced before. We are hearing birds singing, we are playing with our pets, waving at children putting up drawings of rainbows in their windows and delighting in leaving brightly painted stones on a stranger’s doorstep.
This is grace in action, without instruction or a guide book to follow. This is letting our hearts lead the way through simply appreciating being alive and feeling the shared vulnerability with our fellow humans. Like the first animals that venture to make a desire path to a new source of nourishment, we too are now in search of a new way forward. And like the trees, when we unite in our efforts to do so, we will be stronger together.
A Note About Workshops ...

It looks like things will be running a little differently this summer at the studio. While we are hoping the Alton Mill can open to the public again mid to late June, classes and workshops are, by necessity, going to be a little more challenging to offer. As soon as more restrictions are lifted, I will announce a new but somewhat limited schedule for July and August, including some en plien air (outdoor) workshops.
In the meantime, I've been developing my first fully ONLINE program "FInding Your Nature" which will be officially launched in the next few weeks.

Finding Your Nature Logo 4-6 Week Program during July & August

As we remerge and awaken to our new reality, it will be especially important to stay centred and grounded. Invoking the healing and transformative power of Mother Earth can help us to do that.
“Finding Your Nature” will show you how to bring a little magic into your everyday life through nourishing nature-based activities, meditation, reflection, simple and soulful art-making and other mindfulness practices for promoting awareness, relaxation and improving your observation skills. If you enjoy this newsletter and my weekly Soul Snippets, you will love this program!

The “retreat” like approach will provide creative ways for connecting, strengthening and maintaining your relationship to nature while joining with others in an online nature-loving community (don’t worry, it will be low tech and no social media!).
Whether you are a city dweller or frequent the wild places, you will benefit from this opportunity to explore, share and create with fellow nature lovers.

If you would like to be added to the wait list and be one of the first to be notified when registration opens, please email me at

The Studio is Still Online Temporarily

I am blessed to have moved some of my regular weekly classes online including drawing classes and The Mystic's Circle. Please email me at if you are interested in joining them.

For those on Facebook I have two private groups, one called "Drawing Together with CJ" for art students/art lovers to share their work and the work of artists they admire, and one for "The Mystic’s Circle" where I am sharing links to articles, videos and other resources of a spiritual nature, many of which we have been discussing in our online gatherings.

To take part in either group just click on the active links in this paragraph or the images below to be taken to Facebook where you can request to join.

The Mystic's Circle
Drawing Together

I hope you are doing well, feeling healthy and staying creative as we look forward to when we can gather again and be stronger together.
With gratitude and many blessings to you all for your continued support.

CJ Shelton
Artist, Instructor & Facilitator

Dancing Moon Designs
Illuminating the Creative and Spiritual Life
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Copyright © 2020 Dancing Moon Designs, All rights reserved.

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