The Five-Wings-of-the-Heart is a mandala teaching, a vision of spiritual life expressed through vivid visual forms. This vision is about saying YES to life in five widening circles, and about nurturing that life under very difficult circumstances.
The Five Wings path mirrors the deep journey of human spiritual development from asking for blessings, to opening to blessings, to becoming a living blessing.
I share it with you as one possible path toward living mindfully, compassionately and creatively in a world facing a set of enormous and overlapping challenges. These include the climate crisis, perpetual war, relentless inequalities, runaway industrial poisoning of the Earth, and global species extinction.
The Five Wings mandala series, influenced by both systems theory and ancient wisdom, is an open-ended invitation to, and exploration of, living an eco-spirituality of kindness and clarity, no matter how violent and confused the world around us has become, or may yet become.
In the course of my life I have become convinced that to live for peace, reconciliation with nature, and creative love, in a world as profoundly addicted to war and greed as our is, is the true “Great Work”, as Father Thomas Berry named it, the noblest calling of every person born in our time. The Five Wings practices express the desire to “live the answer” and “be the world you want to see.”
In my view, two elements make our era different from all previous eras in American and European history and call for the emergence of new, life-affirming, spiritual practices.
First, through electronic communication, we know much, much more about the damage being done, and the pain being inflicted, and thus we have, many of us, a more keenly felt pain for the world, and an unavoidable sense of responsibility to transform the world in which we live.
And second, there is a growing mountain of evidence, from all the Earth sciences and from the study of complex systems, that everything here on Earth, including us, is deeply interwoven with everything else.
(Careful study suggests that native peoples have always known this. Ecology and systems theory are modern rediscoveries of it.)
This theme of deep connectedness is also at the heart, both uplifting and challenging, of most spiritual traditions across the world. But in our individualistic, short-sighted, take-all-you-can-get culture so many people do not want to recognize that interwovenness, no matter how many regretful and traumatized soldiers kill themselves, or how many species of plants and animals disappear from view as we humans push them over the brink of extinction.
It is not at all clear how we humans will survive if we do not develop a more interwoven and cooperative vision of the world and ourselves. The late ecologist and systems theorist Donella Meadows counsels us, however, that the unfolding of such a vision will probably meet with great resistance precisely because it is such a deeply personal, life-changing, process.
More than half a century ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., contemplating U.S. preparations for a nuclear war that (we now know) would have killed all of us, warned us in the strongest possible language, that if we did not learn to live together as brothers [and sisters]we would surely perish together as fools.
Today, it is clear that learning to live together as sisters and brothers desperately needs to be reaffirmed in relation to all people on Earth and extended to reach the entire web of life, on which our lives depend.
find your way to live and to help that deep green awakening of
connectedness and compassion.
And may the Five-Wings-of-the-Heart mandalas help you on your way.
The general intention of mandala-making around the world is to explain and express the interwoven life of the universe. all creatures, and the human self. Mandalas are not about any one thing, but rather about the pattern that connects everything to everything in a totally interwoven cosmos.
The image below is the first in the Five-Wings-of-the-Heart Mandala Series (featured in the chapters following this Introduction).
People as gardeners of the Tree of Life and one another
The Five Wings vision takes the ancient idea that we are here to bring out the best in ourselves and in one another, and applies it in a systematic, visual, five-fold way. The mandalas envision people as living and growing through bringing a constellation of related virtues (attention, gratitude, compassion, courage, and several more) into the following five fundamental human relationships:
1. my relationship to my own deepest strengths and inner resources
2. my relationship to you, and your unfolding as a person
3. my/our relationship to the life energy that unfolds between us in all our shared activities
4. my/our relationship to the web of life-and-people that surrounds and sustains us, and needs our love and care
5. my/our relationship to the mysterious life of the cosmos, including all our ancestors from the beginning of time, and all our descendants, all the future generations we influence, plant, animal and human.
These five relationships can be visualized with a wide variety of metaphors: Five Branches on the Tree of Life, Five Fingers on the Hand of Being Human, Five Folds in a Ribbon of Blessing (shown at right), and many more. In addition to the Five Wings mandala diagrams, I include some examples of alternate geometries in this book, and you are welcome to develop your own way of visualizing the five interwoven and mutually enhancing processes in human experience and development explored here.
By naming, embracing, cultivating and celebrating these five interwoven relationships, we open ourselves to participate in the mending / blossoming of the world, in widening circles, and in the unfolding of our own personhood. As a contemporary ecological spiritual path, the Five Wings can be as deeply religious, spiritual, non-theistically reverential, or nature-celebration-oriented as one’s heart directs.
Morning Prayer Mandala
Expressed in Alternate Five-fold Ribbon Geometry
Meditation, prayer and affirmation are some of the central ways in which we mobilize our inner resources in the face of life’s great challenges. I began to work on the Five-Wings-of-the-Heart vision around the year 2000, after approximately thirty-five years of study, prayer, anti-nuclear protests, and nonviolence trainings. During that time, unfortunately, the threat of nuclear war did not diminish at all, and the global loss of species known as the Sixth Great Extinction accelerated. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, nothing concentrates the mind like the thought of being blown to smithereens in the morning.
Thinking about two famous sayings attributed to Gandhi: My life is my message, and Be the change you want to see, inspired me to start thinking about several related, creative questions: “What sort of a person would I need to become, in order to create more of the world I myself want to live in? And how would I get there?”
How then shall we live ~~ For many years I had been working to make the world a much better, fairer, kinder, wiser place, while sort of imagining that I myself would not necessarily have to become a better, fairer, kinder, wiser person. The recent research on mirror neurons in the human brain suggests that I was mistaken in my absent-mindedly self-serving assumption; the research strongly suggests that, in order to really move other people, we need to embody the behaviors and feelings we want to encourage and evoke in others.
That “What sort of person” question can be restated in the plural, which suddenly gives it a very transformational feeling: “What sort of people would WE need to become, in order to create more of the world WE ourselves want to live in? And how would WE get there?” This is a heart-centered, community-oriented, reworking of the longstanding political question, “How then shall we live?” explored by many writers over the centuries, including very recently, Dahr Jamail and Barbara Cecil.
The Five-Wings-of-the-Heart meditation and prayer mandalas, and their related documents, are my responses, a few of the infinitely many possible compassionate responses, to these deeply personal questions. Not the only way, but perhaps one possible path for people inclined to think with diagrams. Taking a cue from how nature does things suggests that there should be many paths toward compassionate resilience, for the many different kinds of people here on Planet Earth. If we use the wheel and spokes as a model, one might say that there are many (even infinite) angles from which one can approach the hub of the wheel (compassion for all life). There are also many angles from which one could move away from the hub into confusion and numbness. My hope is that each person will find a way, their own authentic way, to deepen their reverence for life and allow it to guide them.
Mandala drawing and text by Dennis Rivers – Creative Commons
An alternative rendering of the Morning prayer Mandala
An inward circle of saints. ~~ In searching to deepen my own reverence for life, I have found that having an inward circle of “Earth Saints” helps me more than any set of abstract ideas I have been able to find. The biographies and/or writings of Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, Joanna Macy, Thomas Berry, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Ramon Panikkar, Hildegarde of Bingen, Gandhi, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, loom large in my mind and heart. (On the Deep Green Awakening website, I call them “Honorary Mentors.” Click here to see my evolving list.) The more I study their lives, the deeper my inward sense of direction becomes. In my view, none of these people were perfect, and all were headed toward the light in powerful ways, and all inspire me to take my next unique, creative step toward the light. Your inward circle of Earth Saints will almost certainly be different than mine, as it must be to meet your needs. Whose lives inspire you with the strength to continue?
Free of charge. ~~ In keeping with several spiritual traditions that have influenced my life and this work, from Jesus and Buddha to Maharaj Charan Singh and Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, I have made the Five-Wings-of-the-Heart mandalas, and all the other graphic works and articles in the portfolio below, available and copyable free of charge, by placing them in the Creative Commons and distributing them as PDF files and MP3 files. (I realize this favors people who own or have access to cell phones or computers, and I am working to overcome that limitation. I wish I had the funds to give away printed copies of everything, but that is not yet possible.)
Anyone can learn it, do it, teach it, and adapt it. ~~ The current circle of Five-Wings-of-the-Heart participants is a network of overlapping supportive friendships, and we are inspired by the possibility of extending that network to include anyone interested in exploring the Five Wings practice and life of compassion and gratitude, through peer-to-peer relationships. In this we are following some of the peer-to-peer aspects of Revaluation Counseling and the Goenka tradition of Buddhist Vipassana meditation. But this is not the only way the Five Wings practice could unfold. However, by virtue of placing the Five-Wings-of-the-Heart mandalas and their sister documents into the Creative Commons, we have relinquished most controls over how they are used. Everyone drawn to this approach is welcome and authorized and blessed to learn, practice, teach and evolve it, and to use the materials in their schools, organizations, institutions, churches, synagogues, mosques, and so on. For the sake of the planet, we hope people will invent more and more inclusive (and less monetary) ways of sharing the materials.
Personal variations welcome and essential. ~~ In many spiritual traditions there is a strong emphasis on repeating ancient words exactly as they were first written. The Five-Wings-of-the-Heart approach explores a different part of the spiritual spectrum, inspired by the variety found everywhere in living nature, and the central role that variation plays in the evolution of life. The structure of the Five Wings practice is like the theme and variation structure of a symphony, in which the variations celebrate and bring forth the theme. Once you understand the similar five fundamental dimensions of human relatedness explored by each of the mandala drawings, we hope you will feel free to vary the language in ways that more closely express your own experience and culture. And these expressions will probably change from month to month and year to year, just as much in nature changes with the cycles of the seasons. I myself rarely ever say any of the Five Wings prayers in exactly the same way, nor meditate on the mandalas in exactly the same way. There are many examples of positive variation in life. Very few human babies have exactly the same DNA. No two leaves on a tree have exactly the same shape; they are always variations on a theme. And in the course of a good friendship, no two people ever have exactly the same conversation twice (which raises the possibility that our conversations with our Higher/Deeper Power might improve if they were more varied and spontaneous, no matter how beautiful the ancient words may be).
Person-to-person Teams-of-Two ~~ Becoming a new (or significantly improved) person through meditation, prayer and adopting new organizing themes for your life is, well, a very personal process. Therefore, we advocate exploring eco-spirituality in general, and studying / practicing the Five Wings in particular, with a trusted friend. Our vision document on this topic imagines Teams-of-Two mending the world by being three-part learning companions. We encourage every Team-of-Two to nurture other Teams-of-Two. And we encourage everyone to start their own Five Wings practice circles, create their own Five Wings blogs and books, and share their Five Wings thoughts, feelings, experiences and life-nurturing creative projects with their own circles of friends, family, colleagues and co-workers. Our model for spreading this work (of loving and caring for the Web-of-Life-and- People) is a decentralized “NOOF” – Network Of Overlapping Friend-ships (and projects) – requiring time, attention and love, but not money.
Although I spent years writing them down, the ideas in the Five Wings mandalas came from many people around the world, and therefore, I believe, belong to everyone, as much to you as to me. So you are welcome to use them in any way that nurtures the Web-of-Life-and-People. I am deeply convinced that we are here on this Earth to bring out the best in ourselves and in one another, and to help build a compassionate world that works for everyone, all creatures great and small. I hope the Five-Wings-of-the-Heart vision and practice will help you deepen your walk as a nurturer and protector of life, and also, that if it does not particularly meet your needs, you will still receive it as a blessing to continue your journey toward the life of creative compassion. Please let us know of your efforts by using our Contact Page.
Dennis Rivers, MA, Editor & Librarian
Portfolio of Mandalas and Articles
related to Five Wings of the Heart path of
meditation / prayer / affirmation / celebration
Five Wings of the Heart Mandala Series outline a set of spiritual practices intended to help a person bring together elements of blessing, prayer, meditation, self-help affirmation, and daily vows. We offer these practices as one possible way of developing the inner strength and calm that will allow us to participate in the mending of the world. We invite everyone to join hands in working strongly and lovingly for a more compassionate and life-friendly world. The practice of meditation / prayer / affirmation varies enormously with respect to time: from prayers with every breath, to prayers that accompany the changing to the seasons, to prayers that mark the milestone events of life. We invite you to follow your heart in finding the rhythm of practice that helps you expand the circle of your lovingkindness.
“My religion is kindness.”
The XIV Dalai Lama
The five fundamental dimensions of human life can be portrayed in an infinite variety of ways. Here is the first mandala in the series drawn with a different geometry. (Click image for larger PDF.) You are most welcome to envision new ways in which these these five dimensions can be understood as being woven together.
The five dimensions of human relatedness portrayed in a folded-ribbon geometry. (Click image to enlarge.)
Teams-of-Two: A Model for Personal Unfolding, Citizen Activism and Social Transformation, explains one possible vision of participants organizing themselves into independent supportive pairs. Teams-of-Two is an ancient pattern of organization-for-survival in both nature and human history.
Companions in the Storm, Companions-in-Blessing explores twelve of the deeper dimensions of spiritual friendship, in the context of our need to work together to protect the web of life from runaway industrialization. Ecology and biology show us how all life is woven together. But many of us work on the great ecology, peace and justice issues of our time as isolated individuals. The Five Wings of the Heart practice community is a decentralized network that seeks to encourage the deepening of active, friend-to-friend (mutual support) relationships, rather than the development of passive, follower-to-authority-figure relationships.
Twelve Vows in the Eternal Now:
Twelve Eco-Spiritual Openings/Vows/Intentions/Commitments
2019 Revision The eco-spiritual life, looked at through the lens of enduring commitments.