Paths to Wholeness: Selections

Praise for

Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas

[_ _]

David Bookbinder is one of those awakened souls whose near-death experience gave him fresh and timeless eyes. He has taken that gift and poured it into Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas, using innovative photography and heartfelt reflection to surface and praise the mysteries of the inner world.

Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening and The Endless Practice


David Bookbinder’s Flower Mandalas contain both the shock of recognition and the delight and surprise of originality. They are flowers and jewels at the same time. They will enrich anyone’s feelings about what a flower is.

Harold Feinstein, One Hundred Flowers and The Infinite Rose


[_More than just an arresting coffee table book, Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas also serves as a guide for successfully traversing the hills and valleys of our existence. The photography is stunning and the short essays that accompany each image are drawn from David’s considerable life experience, spiritual and therapeutic training, and innate and accumulated wisdom. _]

Lama Marut, A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life and Be Nobody


A fascinating body of work. Absolutely mesmerizing.

Brooks Jensen, LensWork magazine and Looking at Images


Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas is itself a mandala – a symbol of wholeness. I experience David’s nurturing each time I read it, feeling his presence as a fellow traveler and seasoned counselor. He encourages our growth as we move forward in our own journeys, healing our wounds and loving more deeply.

Lori Bailey Cunningham, The Mandala Book: Patterns of the Universe


David Bookbinder’s Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas is an invitation to join him on a journey of exploration into the deepest levels of being.

Barry M. Panter, MD, Creativity & Madness Conferences


[_The words compelling, engaging, moving, and powerful only hint at the profound gifts contained in this beautifully written, authentic and unusual memoir / photography / mandala book. It is almost too rich to take it all in, in one or two sittings. Savor each essay and take time to absorb the richness of this collection. _]

Joan Klagsbrun, The Focusing Institute




David J. Bookbinder

[* *]



Paths to Wholeness: Selections


Copyright © 2016, David J. Bookbinder


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used or reproduced in any manner now known or hereafter invented without prior written permission of the author.


ISBN: 978-0-9846994-3-8



David J. Bookbinder

Transformations Press

85 Constitution Lane

Danvers, MA 01923


[email protected]







Social media






“Forgiveness Meditation” written by Jack Kornfield. Used by permission.

Chöd practice adapted from Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict, by Tsultrim Allione.

“Personal Craziness Index” adapted from A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Steps, by Patrick J. Carnes.

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.

– Jack Kornfield

[_ _]

What does seeing clearly mean? It doesn’t mean that you look at something and analyze it, noting all its composite parts; no. When you see clearly, when you look at a flower and really see it, the flower sees you. It’s not that the flower has eyes, of course. It’s that the flower is no longer just a flower, and you are no longer just you.

– Maurine Stuart

[_ _]

_A flower blossoms for its own joy. _

– Oscar Wilde


Front Matter

A Note on This Edition

1. Acceptance

6. Balance

8. Change

15. Dreams

18. Fear

21. Grace

22. Gratitude

32. Love

36. Path

47. Stillness

A Note on This Edition



This book contains a selection of Flower Mandalas and accompanying essays from the book Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.

It includes the central essay, “Grace,” which depicts a near-death experience that altered, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, who I am, and led me to becoming a psychotherapist and artist. In this book, I worked hard to distill the best of what I’ve learned on the two-decade quest since then, from my career as a therapist, and in the 60+ years I have been on the planet.

Many of the people who have most influenced me I encountered in the pages of their books or in exhibitions of their work, but as I took in their thoughts, ideas, experiences, and imaginings, my interactions with them felt like a personal relationship. Here you will find the outline of my own path to wholeness, some of the teachings that have guided me, and insights I have gained along the way. I offer them to you in the same spirit that authors and artists from the past have shared their teachings and experiences with me.

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It’s all part of it, man.

- Jerry Garcia



My path to acceptance has been mainly through loss: lost career opportunities, relationships, health and, nearly, the loss of my life. Acceptance has come with the recognition that each loss has also been an opening.

A major turning point occurred several years ago. At that time I was bleeding internally and before I noticed any symptoms, I had already lost about 25% of my blood supply. Though less drastic than a brush with death a few years before, this situation recalled the terror of that time. I grew steadily weaker and underwent a series of increasingly invasive tests, but no diagnosis or treatment emerged. I consulted alternative healers and frantically scanned the Internet. I imagined fatal outcomes. And then one day I stopped fretting.

A Buddhist friend had given me this prayer, with instructions to recite it often, without judgment:


Please grant me enough wisdom and courage to be free from delusion. If I am supposed to get sick, let me get sick, and I’ll be happy. May this sickness purify my negative karma and the sickness of all sentient beings. If I am supposed to be healed, let all my sickness and confusion be healed, and I’ll be happy. May all sentient beings be healed and filled with happiness. If I am supposed to die, let me die, and I’ll be happy. May all the delusion and the causes of suffering of sentient beings die. If I am supposed to live a long life, let me live a long life, and I’ll be happy. May my life be meaningful in service to sentient beings. If my life is to be cut short, let it be cut short, and I’ll be happy. May I and all others be free from attachment and aversion.


At first, welcoming disease or death scared me even more, but with each recitation, I grew calmer. While I waited for test results, I began to have a different relationship with time. Whether I would live or die, whether I would heal by myself, with interventions, or not at all, was already out there in my future, waiting for me to arrive. I didn’t have to plan. I didn’t have to do anything differently. I just had to move through time, making the best choices I could, until my fate became clear. I stopped looking things up on the Internet and returned to my work as a therapist.

That moment of acceptance was liberating. Since then, I have been increasingly able to generalize the process. It’s all, already, there. I don’t need to fret. I don’t need to push. I just need to live my life to the best of my ability and, of the infinite possible futures, I will inevitably arrive at the one that is mine.

If there is one main factor that divides those of us who do not change from those who do, I think it is acceptance: of who we are, how we got to where we are, and that we – and only we – have the power to free ourselves.

Acceptance is being who we are, in each succession of present moments, swayed neither by avoiding what we fear nor by clinging to what we think we can’t live without. In the absence of acceptance, there can be no forward movement. The hidden patterns that create clinging attachment and fearful aversion take over, repeating themselves in our minds, feelings, behaviors, and relationships. We grow older, and the external circumstances of our lives change, but inside it’s, as the Talking Heads put it, “the same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was.”

Acceptance is the door that closes one life chapter and allows another to open. Acceptance is the last of Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five stages of loss and a necessary precursor to moving on from mourning. Acceptance is the first of the 12 steps in addiction recovery programs and essential to beginning a sober life. Acceptance of self, and of responsibility for change, is the start of true recovery from the many unhappinesses that may come our way. Acceptance can be painful, but it is a pain that unburdens. In difficult circumstances, acceptance is the thing most of us try hardest to sidestep – and then try even harder to achieve. In its simplest form, acceptance is saying to ourselves, “Although I may be suffering, I can be content now. Yes, there are things I would like to change, and when I change them my life may have more ease, but I can already be content with my current circumstances.”

Accepting our real state, no matter what it is, begins the shift from victim – of external circumstances, of thoughts and feelings, of physical challenges, of past injuries – to victor.



You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.

- Arlo Guthrie



My first counseling psychology supervisor once remarked that every psychologist begins as a child psychologist – as a boy or girl who, to survive childhood, develops the basic skills for psychotherapy.

I’ve been interested in becoming a therapist since my first year in college, but until my 50s, I didn’t know how I could handle the emotions of 20 or 30 people a week. Carrying people’s feelings has always been an issue for me. Only after enduring sufficient difficulties in my own life did I feel that I could handle whatever might show up in my office. Then I returned to school to train as a therapist. Now, years later, achieving balance and centeredness in the midst of what can be the stormy nature of psychotherapy practice is still a work in progress. But I have progressed.

For several years, I tried to use the image of rocks by the seashore as a metaphor for how I wanted to be in therapy sessions – feeling the waves wash over me, yet undisturbed by their ebb and flow. But rocks, as far as we know, are inert, and I didn’t want to be inert. So I looked for a better metaphor.

I wound up thinking about gyroscopes. As a kid scientist, gyroscopes fascinated me. Keep one spinning, and you can push a gyroscope in any direction and it will always right itself. As an adult struggling to stay balanced in the midst of turmoil, I imagined a gyroscope made of light, a tiny spiral galaxy spinning inside my own belly, supplying a steadying energy. The image of something inside me that can respond to – but not be uprooted by – external forces seemed to exactly fit how I wanted to be with my clients. When I have remembered this spiral galaxy gyroscope spinning inside me, I am energized by the end of the day. I think we can all use a spiral galaxy gyroscope, or something very much like it, to stabilize us, moment to moment, as we navigate life’s ups and downs. We need to move where events take us, but we also need to find our way back to center.

But sometimes, an image – even a powerful one – isn’t enough. To keep on keeping on through difficult times, many of us need a more powerful, more action-oriented, metaphor. We need a personal flywheel.

A flywheel is a heavy disk that rotates evenly in response to repeated applications of kinetic energy. In an automobile, the flywheel translates the jerky explosions of an internal combustion engine into vibration-free motion. A spinning disk that maintains an even flow of energy shows up in many places in the physical world. Another example is the potter’s wheel, whose mass enables it to translate the craftsman’s periodic kicks into the steady rotation needed to create symmetrical bowls, platters, and similar wares.

As a therapist, I often help people find their personal flywheels. By that I mean an interest or passion that is not part of a job, a chore, or something to do for friends or family, but an activity we do just for ourselves, independent of time, season, or circumstance. Even when only intermittent energy is applied, a personal flywheel keeps us going in the midst of difficulties, smoothing out the vibrations. No matter what’s going on, somewhere inside us the wheel keeps spinning, spinning, and all we have to do is give it a little kick to keep it going. Then the flywheel’s momentum keeps us going until we have a chance to catch our breath.

For the last several years, my work in photography, especially the Flower Mandalas, has been my personal flywheel. But a personal flywheel can be anything you feel passionate about. For some it is a spiritual connection and the activities associated with it, whether they are participating in a religious community or observing their own private rituals. For others, it’s a physical activity – working out, doing yoga, playing a sport for the sheer joy of it. Outdoor activities such as gardening, hiking, boating, or fishing may also fill that role, as can a vast range of hobbies and avocations.

What is important is that the activity be meaningful to you and that you do it, rain or shine, whether you are tired or full of energy, giving the wheel a little kick whenever you can to keep it spinning smoothly and your balance intact.


A man cannot step into the same river twice.

- Heraclitis of Ephesus



I came of age in the late ’60s, the era of the first man on the moon, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, free love, civil rights marches, and the assassinations of iconic figures including Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. It was a time of reinventing the mores, values, and attitudes of the Depression-era parents who raised us. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” was our anthem – and our hope. We believed we could “change the world”: end war and poverty, achieve racial equality, bring literacy to the illiterate, and recreate the Paradise from which we felt we had fallen long ago. We could do it. [_My _]generation. Us, not them.

I finished high school in 1969 and that year discovered the poetry of William Blake, Allen Ginsberg, and Robert Bly. These poet radicals became my role models. Much of my first year in college I spent attending concerts by topical protest singers, encircling draft boards, demonstrating on college campuses and in Washington, D.C. But by the time the war ended, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the life of a political radical, not even a poet radical. I was still motivated to “change the world” – but how?

I became a seeker and a drifter. I briefly lived on a farm owned by an environmental design professor from the University at Buffalo who wanted to build affordable houses from indigenous materials, a project that ended when he died suddenly from a brain hemorrhage. I took a two-month motorcycle trip around the northeast and landed, eventually, in Manhattan. Still hunting for a way to “change the world,” I found work there as a reporter for weekly newspapers and as a part-time art teacher at the Brooklyn Museum. For five years, I wandered New York’s streets and subways, my camera, tape recorder, and notepad at the ready. I developed a writing / photography style I thought of as “slow journalism,” modeled on the work of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Studs Terkel’s Working.

I moved from documentary to fiction writing and returned to grad school, first in creative writing and later in English. During a lengthy recovery from a brush with death, my search for a way to “change the world” shifted again, toward more intimate and individual connection, and I eventually found psychotherapy. A close friend ends every email to me saying he hopes I’m still “saving the world one client at a time.”

I have felt purposeful in all these things. Yet I have also mourned the loss of the vision my generation had of a different world – until, that is, a recent vacation in Germany, where I spent a few days in the former East Berlin. In my last hour there, as I looked for somewhere to have lunch, a young man with a goatee and long blonde hair grabbed my shoulder and said, “Did you go to Woodstock?”


“Yeah, you.”

“Well, as a matter of fact I did.”

Triumphantly turning to companions seated nearby, he exclaimed, “See! I told you!”

Another young man, darker complexioned, hair in a topknot and holding a beer in one hand, said, “Can I give you a hug?”

I paused, suspicious of pickpockets, then nodded. “Sure, why not?”

They were a foursome: The one who had asked me about Woodstock was Swedish, the hugger was Italian, and a young couple was from L.A. Like the majority of the people I had seen in East Berlin, they were all in their mid-20s. The young woman asked me what my most lasting impression was from Woodstock. “When I arrived at the festival and saw half a million people like me, I felt that we could change everything,” I said. “But things didn’t really go that way, in the end. After a generational blip, they’ve more or less gone back to how they were.”

She shook her head. “But you did make a difference!” she said. She gestured around the table. “We’re all continuing what you started. You’re like our Founding Fathers!”

For half an hour, we talked about how my generation had influenced theirs. For the Italian, inherited change was simply to be able to drink beer on the street and dress however he wanted; for the Swede, to make and listen to whatever music he liked; for the two Americans, to do creative design and to congregate in East Berlin where, with others like themselves, they might forge their own Woodstock Nation.

That brief encounter has stayed with me. Maybe our attempt to “change the world” didn’t die with the ’60s after all. Maybe it is alive, in its own form, in the generation that succeeded us. Maybe what we planted still grows and we shall all, one day, reap its harvest.


Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.

- Herman Melville



Clients often come for therapy with the uneasy sense that something is stuck. They have stumbled into marriages, occupations, places, ways of life that are off, and the architecture of their lives feels misshapen. Because I have also had the experience of a misshapen life, I pay attention.

Many of us enter adulthood not as single, unified wholes, but as tripartite beings. One part is nurtured by the environment and sprouts and grows, like a seed that gets the right amount of water, nutrients, and light. Another, rejected by the environment, goes dormant. A third, better able to withstand this unwelcoming environment, displaces the dormant part, like a weed taking over a patch of garden. It becomes a false self that helps us cope with the sometimes difficult conditions we find ourselves in as children.

A personal example: As a boy, my scientific / mathematical part was encouraged by my environment. It earned me good grades and occasional praise from my parents. The emotionally sensitive and artistically gifted part was largely ignored. It went underground, and depression and isolation rose to take its place. I carried this false self with me to college, where, in the tumult at the end of the ’60s, the dormant part began to stir.

I first encountered the phrase “Keep true to the dreams of thy youth” in a college literature class, where I learned that Herman Melville had taped it to his desk. The next summer, I hitchhiked across the United States to find out what my dreams were. I returned to Buffalo four months later with a list of missing pieces. On it were writing, photography, woodworking, meditation, and, to carry on the traveler’s sense of adventure, motorcycling. The list became the curriculum of a program to complete myself, and self-actualization became my dream. I pursued it for about 10 years, until I severely injured my back just before starting a master’s program in creative writing.

Melville’s professional writing career came to a halt following scathing criticism of [Moby Dick. _]He entered a personal Dark Age, working as a customs inspector for 19 years, during which he was virtually silent as a novelist. He was 66 when he finally retired from the customs house and wrote _Billy Budd, arguably the best short novel ever written in English.

On a smaller scale, my back injury, combined with relentless criticism from the director of my writing program and continuing rejection by my father for leaving engineering school, halted what appeared to be a promising writing career. I limped through the writing program, took a crash course in computer science, and found work as a software technical writer, a position that satisfied neither my father’s wish for me to be an engineer nor my own to succeed as a creative writer. In this, my Dark Age, writing, photography, serious reading, motorcycling, meditation, and working with my hands all stopped. A familiar false self arose to fill the vacancies and disconnected me from my dreams. But throughout this dark period, I had Melville’s phrase taped to my computer monitor, and its subtle insistence helped keep my dreams alive.

Remembering the dreams of our youth can loosen the grip of the false self. Reactivating them can reshape a misshapen life, permitting the suppressed part to resurface and take its rightful place within our being. Remembering my dreams about writing helped lever me out of corporations and into graduate school, an environment more friendly to my creative self. Then other things started coming back: reading, photography, meditation, and even motorcycling. Each rekindled dream has restored me, like a wilted garden springing up after a summer rain, enabling me to enact a previously unrealized dream of becoming a psychotherapist.

Reactivating dreams can happen at any age. In my therapy practice, I come upon many people in their 20s and 30s who already think it’s too late for them. We work together to remember their dreams. Sometimes, I can save them 10 or 20 years of slumber.

Many of us have rekindled dreams, and we can serve as models. Some examples: A client who wanted to be an attorney before she knew the word “attorney” finished law school. A few years ago, a friend retired from medicine and has since become an award-winning photographer. Another friend found her way back to music and languages after 30 years in the finance industry. One of my brothers, a highly successful business man, completed his college education at 58.

None of us has the nine lives of the proverbial cat, but we can fully exploit this one’s possibilities by remembering the dreams of our youth and using them as a beacon to show us who we really are and what we can look forward to becoming.

18. FEAR

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

- Franklin D. Roosevelt



Most of us learned to be afraid before we could tell real from imagined danger. Consequently, sometimes, like a faulty check-engine light, our fight / flight / freeze mechanism is triggered in situations it wasn’t designed for. Then, we may react to imagined peril and fail to respond to real threats. To recalibrate our fear monitors, we need to update our programming.

A couple summers ago, I had an opportunity to re-tune my own monitors and, in the process, discovered a new way not only to understand fear, but also to transform it.

Motorcycling was an important part of my identity throughout my 20s, but after a serious back injury in 1979, I gave it up. The injury eventually healed, and each spring I’d long to join other motorcyclists as they gracefully negotiated the back roads, but I continued to stay away. At a family event, I mentioned my longing to ride again. “Well, Dave,” my brother Paul said, “I’ve got a motorcycle you can have, if you come and get it.”

The following spring, I read two books on motorcycle safety and bought a helmet and a bus ticket to Syracuse, NY. I gave myself two days to re-learn motorcycling and another two for the trip home. I figured I’d either pick up riding right away, or I’d give up the idea for good. Either way, I’d be freed from longing.

At 6 a.m. on my first riding day, Paul and I headed to a nearby parking lot. Fear hit me like a rogue wave as soon as I got on the bike, and I was drenched in sweat before we reached our destination five long minutes later. Once there, I screeched tires on downshifts, stalled on braking, took turns too wide, overshot stop lines – errors that would get me killed in highway traffic. An inner voice kept shouting, “Don’t be stupid. Give up. You’ll never make it home.”

After 20 minutes, I parked the bike, pulled off my helmet, and told Paul, “I don’t think I can do this.”

“Looked like you were doing okay to me,” he said.

We talked and soon realized that both of us often felt like quitting just at the verge of success. “Mom’s like that,” I said. “And Dad never liked taking chances,” Paul added. We hadn’t grown up with a model for moving through fear; instead, we’d been taught to avoid it. But what I had learned I could unlearn. I still had two days and nothing to lose by trying. So I got back on the bike.

As I rode, the fear was undiminished, but the nagging voice quieted. Soon I was whipping around the parking lot at a bone-jarring 25mph. Apprehensively, I turned onto the highway and inched the speedometer up to 40. “I’m right with you,” Paul shouted. A couple of miles later, he veered off to work. I spent the next few hours riding up and down a seldom-used roadway, stalling out at stop signs, struggling through U-turns, briefly panicking when I thought I’d run out of gas. But by the time Paul came home that evening, I was comfortable doing 50.

From that parking lot crisis forward, I noticed that although each new challenge was as scary as the last, what had previously been terrifying wasn’t scary, anymore. The fear seemed the same, but I was actually making progress, and I realized I would continue to do so, as long as I kept on riding. By the end of the second day, I was as ready as I’d ever be for the 350 mile trip home.

That ride was white-knuckle all the way. I hit wet roads, grooved pavement, railroad tracks that forced me into oncoming traffic, drivers who seemed intent on killing me. I had many mini-therapy sessions at 60mph between my adult self and the panic-stricken child within. “We can do this,” I would say. Rain and wind came and went, at its worst just as I reached the trickiest stretch of highway. “We’re almost there,” I told my child self, “we can’t die now!”

In the ’70s, my brothers and I used to talk about riding together, but we never pulled it off. That September, I returned to Syracuse, where, at last, we went on a group ride together. And it was great.

This battle with fear yielded several boons. Expected was regaining the thrill and sense of gracefulness I’d always gotten from motorcycling. Unexpected was a deeper connection with my brothers; we ride together as often as we can. Most surprising were the lessons I learned about overcoming fear, which I have since been able to model.

“That’s badass,” one of my clients remarked, after I told her I’d returned to motorcycling.

“Yeah,” I said with a wink and a smile, “I guess I’ve still got a little badass left in me…. And so do you!”


Grace is given not because we have done good works, but in order that we may be able to do them.

- Saint Augustine of Hippo



On February 21, 1993, at about 7:45pm, I was granted a form of grace that has shaped the rest of my life. On that evening I came within minutes of bleeding to death. Grace is tough, sometimes.

The initial warning sign was moderate gastrointestinal bleeding which, on the second day, brought me into the emergency room of St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, NY. The tentative diagnosis was lower bowel ulcers induced by a month on Motrin I’d taken for a shoulder injury. I allowed them to admit me only because the ER doctor warned that, although they couldn’t run any tests till the following Monday, “Sometimes these things really let loose. You may not be able to get back here in time.”

At first I was merely irritated by the inconvenience. It was a crisp Saturday afternoon, I had things to do, and I’d expected to have a few tests and go home. I became concerned only when the gastroenterologist they assigned to me said she didn’t think they’d have to transfuse, but she was ordering blood of my type “just in case.” She also said she didn’t think they’d have to operate. Until that moment it hadn’t occurred to me that they might transfuse, or operate, or that there was anything seriously wrong. Except for a little weakness, I felt fine.

I remained at St. Peter’s all of Saturday and Sunday, drinking clear liquids and receiving IV fluids. By Sunday night, the bleeding stopped. The doctor ordered a colonoscopy prep. Her hope, and by then mine, was that they would find superficial ulcers, inject them with something to prevent further bleeding, and send me home in a couple of days with medications and a bland diet. I told her that I wanted to wait, that it seemed like a bad idea to stir up tissues that had only just stopped bleeding. But she insisted that short of exploratory surgery, this was the only way to find out what was wrong. Reluctantly, I consented.

An hour later, on my way back from my fourth trip to the bathroom, I blacked out before I could reach the nurse’s call button. I remember weakly crying out “Help” and collapsing to my knees, fearing that my call would go unheard.

This fear was not groundless. A hospital is never quiet. Around the corner were two geriatric patients who moaned all day and late into the night. A nearby monitor’s periodic beeps seemed to trigger their moans and cries, much as a siren might excite the neighborhood dogs. Even with ear plugs, I had been unable to screen them out.

“I’d rather be dead than end up like that,” I said to my girlfriend earlier that day.

“You shouldn’t say that!” she scolded. “God will hear!”

As I lost consciousness, I realized that my own call for help would sound no different from theirs, and I feared that, like the boy who cried wolf, nobody would distinguish the real emergency from the false alarm, perhaps not even God.

The next thing I remember is two nurses crouching beside me as I lay on my back in a pool of blood. I later learned they had found me only because my 83-year-old roommate, a stroke victim, had heard me fall and stumbled into the hallway for help. “David’s on the floor!” he tried to say, but the nurses couldn’t understand him. Luckily, his bed was by the window and when they guided him back there, they had to pass me on the way.

When they roused me, my blood pressure was 70/30, and I felt very cold. The nurses put a sheet under me, got a couple of nurse’s aides from the hallway, and with their help hoisted me onto the bed, where they inserted a second IV. At first they thought they could stabilize me with fluids, and I did feel a little stronger, but as my blood pressure began to rise, more blood poured out, bathing me in its sudden warmth.

The gastroenterologist arrived and started a transfusion, and that, too, seemed to help at first, but again, as my blood pressure rose, the rate of bleeding increased, this time pumping blood out faster than they could push it back in. They kept saying, “You’re not going to die, don’t worry, you’re not going to die.” “I’m cold,” I kept telling them, reminding myself of the Snowden character in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22.

They attempted to start another unit of blood, but they couldn’t find an entry point – my pressure was so low that the veins in my arms had collapsed. Then they stopped telling me I was going to be all right and started calling for things stat.

Until that moment, I had been curiously detached from my situation, as if I were at home watching TV and all this fuss was happening to someone else. But when I saw that the doctor and nurses no longer seemed to be in control, it became clear to me that I might have only a couple of minutes to live.

I was completely unafraid. As the room began to fade out, I stopped paying attention to the frantic medical staff surrounding me. Instead, my focus shifted onto an interior landscape. In my mind’s eye, I saw a series of line graphs, one laid on top of another like the maps of the human body’s systems in anatomy textbooks. Each graph represented how close I had come to following my path. The top one tracked my vocation; it dipped down in the bad times – the longest being my recent decade as a technical writer – and up again after I quit the corporate world and returned to graduate school. Lower charts showed similar patterns in other aspects of my life: family, romantic relationships, spirituality, creativity, others I no longer recall. There was a break in each of the charts at what I took to be the present moment, and then suddenly all the lines extended sharply upward, into my uncertain future.

As I lost all bodily sensation, I felt a surge of regret not so much for the things I had done as for what I might never get the chance to do. The graphs vanished. In their place, hanging in the darkness, the Scales of Justice appeared, on which were equally balanced the pluses and minuses of my life. This image also passed, and with it my regret. I felt ready to face, with equanimity, whatever was to come.

Yet I didn’t want to die. So with my last conscious thought, I made a request: “If there is a God, and you’re listening, I think I know what to do with my life now, and I’d like a chance to complete it.” Then the room and my body faded out and “I” went into another space entirely.

I was in a black, amorphous cave whose surfaces glinted like moonlight on choppy seas. In the distance was a vague, greenish pool of light. I had no sense of a body or of ever having had one, or of my own identity, or even of being a human being. I was simply awareness. I felt no anxiety, heard no sounds, had no memories, thought no thoughts. I was more alone than I’d ever been, but it didn’t bother me at all. I was unaware of the passage of time and felt a calmness more pervasive than any I have experienced, before or since.

Then my consciousness leaped forward and I saw that the illumination came from a figure seated at a small, square table made of fuzzy tubes of yellow-green light. From my vantage point, this figure, also made of the same tubes of fuzzy light, looked like a child’s sketch of a man, with a circle for a head, an oval for a body, and stick-like arms and legs. He seemed to be leaning on the table with his left elbow, chin in his left hand, while his right hand rested on the tabletop, holding what may have been a pen, as if he were poised in thought.

My sense was that this creature was me, the me I was born with, the me I would die with, my essential Self; that it was waiting; and that it could wait indefinitely. I did not wonder what would happen next. I, too, was content to wait, being him and watching him at the same time.

My consciousness zoomed forward again, and as it did, the figure at the table turned his head toward me. I could see the outline of his face, the sharp angle of his chin. His nose seemed pointed and elongated and his mouth was frozen in a half smile that felt oddly chilling.

A moment later I was back in my hospital bed, someone else’s blood flowing into both arms from three IV needles. A nurse was reading off my blood pressure: “70/30. 80/50. 90/60….” The doctor’s narrow face loomed over me, a nervous smile. “There, that’s better,” she said, flushed and sweaty. “Isn’t that better?”


The last 20-plus years of recovery, reintegration, and reorientation have been a good news, bad news affair. The bad news is that coming back was far more difficult than I could have imagined that cold night in 1993. The good news is that it has also been a gift, a form of grace that has extended far beyond getting what I think of as “extra time.”

First the bad news.

There were many physical changes. Early that Monday morning, I bled again, briefly, and surgery was performed that my medical malpractice attorneys would later prove was drastic and unnecessary. After surgery, I experienced pain I didn’t know a person could feel without losing consciousness. Subsequently, I have required many medical treatments and two additional surgeries to partially correct the damages done. From the bleeding incident itself, my vision and my hearing were damaged, and the way my mind works has been subtly altered. Left-brain functions such as math, logic, and spelling became more difficult, though right-brain functions seem to have compensated, over time.

Then there were the life changes. The St. Peter’s Hospital incident devastated my finances, destroyed a relationship that likely would have led to marriage and a family, and derailed my English PhD. Initially uplifting, the near-death experience itself produced a sense of profound disorientation. For a decade, I felt as if I were floating between two worlds, not quite who I had been, not yet who I was becoming. I had returned to a child-like innocence that allowed dangerous people to enter my life. The experience also fostered the naïve belief that, because I had beaten death, none of the rules I’d lived by necessarily applied, and I made decisions that, in retrospect, were incredibly reckless and had substantial negative impact, though they made complete sense to me at the time.

The good news is a shorter but more potent list.

This second time around, I have been able, finally, to forgive my parents and to overcome the limitations my childhood defenses and resentments had propagated. Creativity and intuition blossomed, and I became an artist and then a therapist, activities that have given me a purposeful way to live. Though I am in no hurry to get there, I am no longer afraid of death.

And then there is the question, Why am I still here? Given the amount of blood I lost and the rapidity with which I lost it, I should have died. The bleeding stopped only because my blood pressure was so low – 50/0, “the blood pressure of a corpse,” as the chief resident involved in my case later put it – that clotting finally occurred. Answering this question has been the impetus for most of the positive changes I have made. I’ve often returned to the vision I had just before entering the near-death space and have tried to keep the lines of the graphs moving in an upward direction. It has been crucially important to complete the life I then imagined.

Now, I am startled, daily, by grace: by the miraculousness of everything that is, all of which seems as improbable as my own second coming. I no longer take anything for granted. I seem, still, to be evolving, refining, and recombining. I don’t know what the future will bring.

But then, nobody else does, either.



Gratitude is the fairest blossom which springs from the soul.

- Henry Ward Beecher



During my recuperation from a brush with death, a high school friend sent me a letter. In it, he hypothesized that as a survivor of near-death, every moment for me must be exquisitely sweet, a precious gift, in ways he could not imagine. At first, he was mostly right. Despite the pain, my initial response was celebratory. But the celebration was relatively short-lived and bittersweet. As weeks became months and months became years, the glow gradually diminished. Yielding to the numerous problems the experience of almost dying had also initiated, gratitude faded and a more troubled self re-emerged. Returning to that place of celebration has been a process.

Grateful people are generally more satisfied with their lives and relationships, cope better with difficulties, and are more generous, empathetic, and self-accepting. But despite these many benefits, many of us have a hard time feeling gratitude.

Often, early deprivation gets in the way. When there isn’t enough of what we need – money, warmth, praise, joy, many other things – we intuitively respond by feeling deprived. We may carry this deprivation forward into adulthood and see life mainly as a struggle to get what we need. We often became good at making do, learning to be independent, acting assertively. But we don’t learn to fully experience what is already there for us, if only we were open to taking it in. And so we grow cynical and jaded, mistaking an internal barrier for an external lack.

Or, deprivation may leave us hungry for more. If we’re grateful for what we have, we may ask ourselves, what will motivate us to get more? But always wanting more does not make us happy. It just makes us always wanting.

An alternative approach is to start from a place of gratitude. Then we say, “I am happy with what I have now. If I get more, I will be happy then, too.”

The difference between these two approaches came to me most clearly at a Buddhist retreat held at a local college. I requested a half-hour meeting with one of the monks there. We sat together on a hillside overlooking the dining hall and ate our lunches while I talked with him about feelings of hurt, betrayal, and despair that followed the difficult ending of a long relationship.

“I understand your feelings,” he said, “but this way of looking at love is too limited. You think it comes only from these people, and now it is gone. But love comes from many places.” He held out his sandwich. “The baker who made this bread shows us love. Yes, it is his business, but the bread is very good and there is love in it. And there are the trees and the grass. They give us oxygen – without them we could not live.” He looked up at the sky. “And the sun gives us warmth.”

As he continued to point out human and non-human sources of love, I felt a shift inside. Until that moment, the idea that “the universe loves us” had seemed so abstract it was meaningless. But now, listening to this young monk as he took in the love of the cosmos, I vicariously experienced his gratitude, and I carry these feelings with me to this day.

A simple but effective tool for counteracting our in-built tendency to focus on shortages is the gratitude list. It is a way to reinforce the feeling that regardless of what we lack, we also have many things for which to be grateful. We may not have all the wealth we want, the health we want, the relationships we want, the things we want, but when we list what we [_do _]have, we have a lot.

Most of my own gratitude lists I keep in my head, but from time to time I write them down. I started one for this essay. I soon realized I could spend hours naming things for which I feel grateful, and that the list of what I’m unhappy about, even in the worst of times, is always much shorter. Here, in the order in which they occurred to me, are the first 50:


Being alive. Being human. Coming of age in 1969. All five of my senses. Intuition. My friends and family. Women I’ve loved. Beauty. Sadness. Joy. Wonder. Curiosity. Imagination. All the arts. All the sciences. Other animals. Plants. Rocks. Clouds. The blue sky. The ocean. Mountains. Children. Gadgets. Cars and motorcycles. Things to figure out. People who figure things out. Intelligence. Hope. Coffee. Chocolate-covered almonds. Memories. Greek yogurt. Strawberries. Apples. Books. Meditation. Movies. Music. Air. Water. Land. Humor. Babies. Flowers. Silence. Wind. Lightning. Compassion. Popsicles.

[_ _]

What’s on your gratitude list today?

32. LOVE

The gaze of love is not deluded. Love sees what is best in the beloved, even when what is best in the beloved finds it hard to emerge into the light.

- J. M. Coetzee



When I was 25, living in Manhattan, and trying to jumpstart a career in writing and photography, I visited my parents and brothers in Buffalo two or three times a year. On those trips, I also saw my maternal grandmother.

It was painful to witness Bubby’s decline. Though only in her mid 70s, by then she was legally blind, mostly deaf, unable to manage on her own. She had a room at a Jewish nursing home downtown, an institutional environment where I always felt uneasy.

On one visit, as I was leaving I noticed two of Bubby’s former neighbors sitting in folding chairs on the lawn. I went over to them. Mr. Klein’s recent stroke had paralyzed one side of his body and frozen half his face; his attempts to talk were unintelligible. Mrs. Klein, however, seemed virtually unchanged since I’d last seen her, more than ten years before. She asked how I was and what I was doing. I described my hoped-for journalism career and told her about my girlfriend, with whom I had briefly lived after college, and whom I had followed to New York. Our relationship was difficult, I told Mrs. Klein, “but I love her.”

“Love?” Mrs. Klein said, gesturing toward her crippled husband. She looked me in the eyes. “Love is 50 years.”

In that moment my concept of love changed permanently.

There Mrs. Klein was, content to be living in a place I found disturbing even to visit, because that’s where her husband needed to be. I understood that for her, love wasn’t about sex or passion, or getting what she needed, or even conversation. Nor was it about soul mates, shared interests, “chemistry,” or any of the other things I sought in a relationship. Instead, it was about setting aside her needs for the sake of another and feeling no resentment.

Unless I somehow beat even the most wildly optimistic predictions for life expectancy, I will never approach Mrs. Klein’s 50 years with one person. But I have long reflected on that conversation, and in the decades since then I’ve been learning to embrace what she was trying to teach me. Through a much different path, I have come to a similar place: to see that love is about recognizing the essential humanity of the other person in toto and responding to it with an open heart.

In his poem “New Heaven and Earth,” D. H. Lawrence wrote about crossing over from a world “tainted with myself” into “a new world.” Before his crossing, “I was a lover. I kissed the woman I loved, and God of horror, I was kissing also myself. I was a father and begetter of children, and oh, oh horror, I was begetting and conceiving in my own body.” Afterward, when he reaches out in the night and touches his wife’s side, he experiences her not as an extension of himself, but as “she who is the other.” When we experience others as truly other, with their own needs, wants, and desires, we can begin the process of fully loving them.

Love need not even be requited. In the surrealistic movie Adaptation, based on the novel The Orchid Thief, Nicholas Cage portrays twin brothers, Charles and Donald Kaufman. Toward the end of the film, both brothers are pinned down in a swamp at gunpoint by the author of the novel (played by Meryl Streep) and her lover. Facing death, Charles tells Donald a secret he has been keeping since high school: He’d often seen his brother flirting with a girl who seemed kind and sweet when she was with Donald, but made fun of him with her friends as soon as he was out of earshot. To spare Donald’s feelings, Charles had kept this to himself all those years.

“I heard them,” Donald says.

“How come you looked so happy?” Charles asks.

“I loved Sarah, Charles,” Donald says. “It was mine, that love. I owned it. Even Sarah didn’t have the right to take it away.”

“She thought you were pathetic.”

“That was her business, not mine. You are what you love, not what loves you,” Donald says.

Being a therapist has helped me to practice loving selflessly. Therapeutic love is about seeing and accepting the essential nature of someone, what pioneer psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard,” and then reflecting it back, if necessary holding it for safekeeping when the object of that love can’t yet take it in. It is the foundation of the best therapeutic relationships, a love seldom directly stated and also, I believe, one that’s necessary for any truly healing relationship.

Like Donald’s love in Adaptation, selfless love asks for nothing in return, and it does not end when the beloved is gone. The love itself lives on.

36. PATH

_If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. _

- Henry David Thoreau



Many years ago, I visited my brother Mark and his family near the capital of the tiny country of Luxembourg. One evening, I borrowed Mark’s car and went into the town square to meet an American friend of his for dinner. She and I spent several hours together, exploring the sights and sampling the night life. It was after midnight when we parted. As I turned to head home, I realized I had no idea how to find the car.

I’d parked during the day and entered what I had assumed was the main gate into the square, but now I saw that there were a dozen entrances, and in the dark I couldn’t tell which one I’d taken. I didn’t speak any of the languages native to Luxembourg, and anyway, there were very few people around who could have helped me. For several minutes, I froze in the middle of the square, unable to choose a direction. All I remembered was that I’d parked near water.

If you don’t know where a path goes, it’s hard to take the first step.

After the 2008 financial crash, many of the people I saw in therapy were confused. They’d lost jobs, moved out of apartments or houses that were now beyond their means, and been forced to examine where they’d been, what had changed, and where they might go from there.

I still encounter clients in this state, and I often ask them to do what a former therapist asked me to do when I was similarly adrift. I’d returned to Boston after four years in a PhD program in English and realized I no longer wanted to be an English professor. He suggested I make a list of everything I ever liked to do, still liked doing, or would like to do in the future, and bring it to our next session. The following week, we sorted the list. Many of my “likes” fit into just five categories: seeing (literally and metaphorically), figuring things out, helping people, fixing things, and teaching. We looked for occupations that combined at least two. It wasn’t a stretch to see that working as a psychotherapist encompassed most of them.

When I do this exercise with clients, the result is often a return to a nearly forgotten dream. Something buried under depression, anxiety, hardship, or family expectations breaks through, and interests from long ago get re-activated. Then, clients start to forge a new path that’s a better fit for their talents and joys. But the road to self-actualization is not always clear, and taking a few steps down several paths may be the only way to find out which one is right for you; which, as Carlos Casteneda put it in The Teachings of Don Juan, is “a path with heart.”

On that evening in Luxembourg, I learned that going down the “wrong” path is sometimes the only way to get anywhere at all. After my brief panic, I remembered that it was about a 10-minute walk from the car to where I’d previously entered the square. If I took any exit and walked [_11 _]minutes without seeing the car, I reasoned, I would know I’d taken the wrong one. If so, I could double back to the square and try again. In the worst case, I might make all the wrong choices before selecting the correct exit, but I’d still find the car in a little over four hours.

I found it on the third try.

Many of us are poised on the brink of a new direction but remain frozen at a crossroads of possibilities and risks, afraid to venture down any path because we might make the wrong choice. Instead, we ponder and research and fret, but we can’t decide: there are too many unknowns. To get anywhere, we need to start down [_some _]path, if only to rule it out. And once we are in motion, we need to discern whether the path we are on is one with heart.

The closing statement of the Buddhist sangha I belong to goes like this:


This day is ended. Our lives are shorter. Now we look carefully at what we have done. Let us live deeply, free from affliction, aware of impermanence, so that life does not drift by, squandered.


When we are on a path with heart, the going may be no easier than when we are on another path. But we don’t mind. We sense that we are not just passing time because we can feel the path taking us where we need to go. And when we come to the end of our days, we know that our time on the planet has not been squandered.

I don’t think it gets any better than that.


_In the midst of movement and chaos, keep stillness inside of you. _

- Deepak Chopra



At a retreat I attended years ago, I was introduced to the concept of the Mindfulness Bell. At random times throughout each day, someone sounded a bell, and we all had to stop what we were doing and take three slow, abdominal breaths. We halted in mid-sentence, mid-stride, mid-chew, as if we were in a big game of freeze tag. At first this practice annoyed me. I was in the midst of spiritual evolution, damn it. Stop interrupting! But before the retreat ended, I embraced these “interruptions.”

In my first counseling internship a few months later, I worked with a young woman whose list of mental health and life problems was long and troubling. She heavily abused alcohol, moved from one destructive relationship to another, was grieving her parents’ ugly divorce and her own traumatized childhood, and was finally seeing her father’s drinking for what it was, alcoholism. Because she had no financial support, she also worked long hours at a restaurant where drinking and drugging on the job was the norm. She was angry, depressed, anxious, and lonely.

In therapy, she brought up as many as 10 problems in a session. She spoke derisively of her four previous therapists and rejected nearly every therapeutic intervention I tried. I realized I was on the road to becoming idiot therapist number five if I didn’t think of something different. At the start of our next session, unsure what else to do, I handed her my watch and asked her to be still for one full minute. Only after the second hand completed its appointed rounds could she begin.

What ensued was unlike our earlier sessions. She spoke more slowly and she tended more often to stick with one topic. Consequently, she also dug deeper. We were, we both realized, finally doing therapy! After that, we began each session with my handing her my watch. A few weeks later, she brought her own watch. A few weeks after that, she didn’t need it.

To emulate the “watch effect” in her outside life, I taught her the three-breath meditation I’d learned at the retreat, instructing her to treat any bell, beep, or other sharp sound she heard as if it were the Mindfulness Bell.

Over the next few months, we worked through many of her issues. By year’s end, she’d quit her waitress job, stopped using drugs and alcohol, was setting better boundaries with both parents, and had found other adults to mentor her. In our parting session, I asked her what, of all we had done together, had been helpful. I was expecting, I suppose, to be thanked for my brilliant insights and clever use of the Gestalt and Solution-Focused therapeutic techniques I had been trying out, and I’d prepared myself to deliver a falsely modest, “Oh, I just helped a little. You did the work.” So I was surprised when she replied, “That thing with the watch. And the breathing thing. They really helped me.”

Learning to be still in the midst of the chaos of her life, even briefly, had permitted her to reevaluate her choices. Each time she paused for three slow breaths, she had a chance to feel her feelings, check in with her intuition, and rethink what she was about to do. At a street corner on the way to work, hearing the Mindfulness Bell of a car horn, she could think, “I don’t really want to waste my time partying tonight.” About to leave for a bar, pausing on the first ring of her cell phone, she could see how the evening would play out and decide, “Not this time.” Hearing a siren blare in the midst of pangs of guilt or shame, she could choose to forgive herself.

Today, I still suggest practices to clients that create stillness, even if only for a minute, so they, too, can interrupt their habitual thoughts, feelings, and actions and discover they have other options. I also continue to use these practices myself. When I step into my office, I stop for a moment and imagine putting on an invisible jacket worn only by my best self. Brief meditations throughout the day help me shift gears between clients, return to center when I’m knocked around emotionally, and reinhabit that best self again.

In some ways, the small stillnesses that happen throughout the day, in media res, seem more powerful than daily sitting meditation. They are meditations with eyes open, fully in the world, and each can provide a touchstone wherever we are, whatever we are doing.


This book contains a selection of Flower Mandalas and accompanying essays from the book Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas.

It includes the central essay, “Grace,” which depicts a near-death experience that altered, physically, emotionally, and intellectually, who I am, and led me to becoming a psychotherapist and artist. In this book, I worked hard to distill the best of what I’ve learned on the two-decade quest since then, from my career as a therapist, and in the 60+ years I have been on the planet.

Many of the people who have most influenced me I encountered in the pages of their books or in exhibitions of their work, but as I took in their thoughts, ideas, experiences, and imaginings, my interactions with them felt like a personal relationship. Here you will find the outline of my own path to wholeness, some of the teachings that have guided me, and insights I have gained along the way. I offer them to you in the same spirit that authors and artists from the past have shared their teachings and experiences with me.

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Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas, from which this book has been excerpted, would not have happened without assistance from many people. I am grateful to them all.

A Massachusetts Cultural Council grant in Photography encouraged me to take myself more seriously as an artist and helped to fund the creation of many of these images.

The helpful folks at the UBC Botanical Gardens site identified some of the flowers the images are based on.

My mailing list subscribers, Facebook fans, and blog subscribers provided an encouraging and receptive audience for the Flower Mandala images and for early drafts of the essays that accompany them.

Several friends consistently read and commented on the essays, notably Barbara Drake, Larry ‘Doc’ Pruyne, Pat Sylvia, Barrie Levine, Elizabeth Enfield, and especially Davida Rosenblum, who not only read my first drafts but also edited the second drafts.

Finally, special thanks are due to these generous supporters whose faith in this book led them to back The Flower Mandalas Project on Kickstarter.com:



Barbara Drake, Kathleen Murphy


Special Supporters:

Paul Bookbinder, Pearl Bookbinder, Trish Randall



James Harrington, Monica Andrews, Sarah Bookbinder



Beth A. Fischer, Beverly Butterfield, Charles N. Gordon, Deborah D’Amico, Deborah S. Strycula, Florence Sterman Schott, Grady McGonagill, Jennifer Badot, John D. Lennhoff, Josephine Lo, Kai Vlahos, Karie Kaufman, Mark Bookbinder, Mary Gail Ranaldi, Michel Coste, Rick Alpern, Sandra K. Atkins, Shelley McGarry, Susan Hand



Analesa BatShema, Anita Shorthill, Beilah Ross, Briana Duffy, Jane Pasquill, Jennifer Flynn Bernard, Jim and Iris Grant, Michael O’Leary, Michele Anello, Paul Lessard, Perry McIntosh, Redmund Godfrey, Sadhbh O’Neill, Susan Lennox, William Sheehan, William Z. Zwemke

Paths to Wholeness: Selections

"David Bookbinder is one of those awakened souls whose near-death experience gave him fresh and timeless eyes. He has taken that gift and poured it into 'Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas,' using innovative photography and heartfelt reflection to surface and praise the mysteries of the inner world." - Mark Nepo, 'The Book of Awakening' Many of us long to be fully present to this amazing existence we were born into, and often we can. But sometimes, we look for help. In 'Paths to Wholeness: Fifty-Two Flower Mandalas,' psychotherapist, writer, and photographer David J. Bookbinder brings his capacity for inspiring personal transformation to his readers. Combining insightful, pragmatic essays in the lineage of Carl Jung and Mark Nepo with 52 award-winning Flower Mandala images inspired by Georgia O'Keeffe and Harold Feinstein, David both shows and tells the tale of a spiritual seeker who, having traversed his own winding path toward awakening, now guides others to find balance, build resilience, overcome fear, and to expand their hearts by listening deeply, inspiring hope, and more fully loving. Carry it with you throughout the day, or page through it as you drift off to sleep, knowing you are not alone on your journey to self-actualization.

  • Author: David J. Bookbinder
  • Published: 2016-12-02 05:50:24
  • Words: 10883
Paths to Wholeness: Selections Paths to Wholeness: Selections