What is a Sand Painting and How Can it Help You Develop Your Inner Leader?

Tell me… when was the last time you tried something fully outside your circle of familiarity?

You are constantly creating your world through every choice, action, word and so on. When you step outside your typical way of being, you infuse your world with the richness of new experiences and perspectives.

This doesn’t just impact your experience of life. It also shifts the way you show up for others by enhancing your creativity, compassion and openness.

In this article, we’ll explore:

What Does Leadership Have to Do With a Sand Painting Ceremony?

There are two ways that sand painting can help develop your inner leader. The first is that for many of you, it will be something different, and something with deep cultural roots to broaden your understanding of the human experience and develop your compassion, which is a key element of leadership.

The second way sand painting can help is the way in which I’m going to guide you to use it, which is to intentionally create empowering shifts in your life.

My Journey

For a long time, I thought that I had to keep my professional coaching practice separate from the part of my life some might call “woo woo”. I thought that to guide people in corporate settings, I had to avoid anything… un-corporate.

After all, what would CEOs, VPs, directors and other serious professionals think if I started talking about things like smudging, fire ceremonies, or sand painting, alongside employee engagement, productivity, and retention rates? Surely they wouldn’t take me seriously as a leadership coach.

And yet, a part of me felt that coaching at just the head level wasn’t enough. I knew that people were struggling in multiple areas of their lives, and that those struggles impacted every other area. I was fighting these duelling beliefs. One saying I had to keep things “professional”, the other saying people need a holistic approach to coaching that honors their full experience as human beings.

I began gradually trying things out. There was the time I got “caught” smudging an office space, the time I let my heart guide fully guide me with my leadership tribe, and so many more moments and experiences that kept showing me the way. Covid has been an especially eye-opening experience, as so many of my coachees have struggled in ways none of us have experienced before. By using my energy medicine techniques in partnership with coaching, I was able to bring a whole new dimension to coaching sessions that helped so many people, myself included.

These experiences showed me that I didn’t have to keep any part of myself hidden away. In fact, I was a much better leader when I led from my whole self.

In this way, I’ve come to embrace radical self-acceptance, which has taken me, my business, and the people around me to heights I never could have imagined. I vowed to myself that I would no longer split myself into different personas. One way of honouring that vow would be to bring more of my “woo woo” – including practices like sand painting – into my professional coaching practice.

That vow has led to some amazing experiences and growth for the people I coach, which has been especially apparent in guiding clients through the chaos, uncertainty and disconnection of the past few years.

So, here I am, sharing a practice that some might consider a bit “out there”, but that I know in my heart can help you initiate powerful shifts to propel you forward on your journey.

With that, let’s “dig in” to sand painting.

What is a Sand Painting and How is it Used?

Here in North America, the practice of sand painting is most closely associated with the ceremonial practice of the Navajo people, but sand art – sometimes also known as earth art or land art – has roots in several cultures including Tibetan, Japanese, Georgian and more.

There are also different forms of sand painting techniques. In some practices, “paintings” are created using different colored sands, with natural materials used to create colors such as gypsum, charcoal, or sandstone. There are some beautiful examples of sand painting images here. Another form is to create a “painting” using items – usually taken from nature – placed on a sand “canvas”. It’s that second form we’ll explore here.

What is the purpose of sand painting? How a Native American sand painting is used in ceremonies varies. In indigenous cultures like the Navajo, they are part of sacred healing ceremonies. Who is responsible for sand painting rituals in Navajo culture? As it’s a healing practice, it’s the responsibility of the medicine man who creates a painting, or several paintings, as part of a healing journey. The paintings are seen as living spiritual entities, rather than static pieces of art, and are meant to be temporary. After the ceremony, paintings are typically completely erased – with deep respect and reverence – as though they never existed.

Respect for Sand Painting Origins

Before we get into the details, I’d like to emphasize the importance of respect for sand painting and its origins. In my energy medicine training, a great deal of time and care is taken to teach the sacred origins of practices like sand painting, as well as the impact that colonialism has had on indigenous people and their culture.

As humans, there is so much to learn from each other, especially in terms of how we approach emotional struggles, inner discovery, spiritual healing, compassion, community, and so on. Traditional western-eurocentric practices aren’t all bad, but they do tend to massively miss the mark in terms of respect for humanity, which robs all of us of our divine rights as human beings.

If you choose to incorporate sand painting into your mindfulness journey, please do so with respect for the origins of the practice, and with the understanding that when we use sand painting in our personal mindfulness practices, it is not a traditional Navajo (or other) ceremony. Those ceremonies are sacred, and not for those outside the community to co-opt. What you are practicing is a mindfulness technique inspired by the awesomeness of human history.

How to Practice Sand Painting

Sand painting is traditionally a healing practice, but for our purposes, I encourage you to also consider it as a practice to create shifts in your life.

Before you begin:

  • Think of an area (or areas) in your life that you want to heal or shift in some way. Consider where you are at in life right now, and your intentions for what you want to create. Close your eyes and take a few breaths to really feel the energy of what you want to impact.

What you will need:

  • A “canvas”.
    Sand is the traditional choice, but you can also use salt, or even snow.Your sand painting should be inside a circle. Use your finger to simply draw a circle in the sand, create a border with natural items like sticks or leaves, or use a circular plate, dish or other container to fill with your sand, salt or snow.Don’t actually create your canvas yet. Just have the materials or space ready.
  • Sacred items.
    The items you choose are a key element of this practice.Go for a walk while holding in your heart the energy of what you want to create. Collect items that resonate with what you want to heal and/or shift, or that represent your intentions in some way.For example, a budding leaf may represent something new. A smooth stone may represent a struggle that you want to smooth out. A forked twig may represent a choice you need to make. Or maybe there isn’t an obvious connection, but your heart is telling you that this is meaningful.If an item calls out to you, but you aren’t sure what it represents, select it anyway. You may discover its meaning as you’re creating.If you take anything literally connected to nature (such as a leaf connected to a tree), first ask permission from nature.You can also walk around your home and select items that jump out at you. Keep in mind that this is a practice rooted in connection to nature, so natural items are best. This could include things like a small stone or wood carving, a natural gemstone bracelet, dry beans or lentils, even a toothpick!

Where to “paint”:

  • I strongly encourage you to create your painting in an outdoor space, if possible. Even if it’s on a balcony with your sand or salt in a dish, outside is preferred to strengthen your connection to nature.That said, if you don’t have access to an adequate outdoor space, creating your painting indoors is perfectly acceptable. If you can, open a window to let the fresh air in, download an app to play nature sounds, or burn incense, a nature-scented candle, or essential oils.

What to do:

  1. Open sacred space for yourself.In my energy medicine training, we learned the traditional process for opening sacred space. Without that training, you can still symbolically open a space for yourself. First, ensure the space you’ve chosen is a peaceful environment where you feel at ease. If you’re inside, make sure the space is tidy and comfortable.Start by taking some deep, cleansing breaths. Close your eyes and visualize the areas of your life you want to work on through your sand painting. Let yourself feel the energy of it spread from your heart to fill your body.Call in the Universe or whatever greater force resonates with you. Ask it to guide your hands as you build your painting.
  2. Create your circular canvas. Every step in this practice is sacred, so create with intention, letting your heart and the Universe guide you.
  3. Select your first item to place in your sand painting. Hold it in your hand and feel what it represents for you. Draw in a deep breath, then breath out your intentions onto the item.
  4. Place your item inside your circle, letting your heart guide its position. You can place it atop the sand, or nestle it in a bit. Whatever feels right to you.
  5. Select your next item and repeat steps 3 and 4.
  6. As you go about placing items, you can reposition any other item. Your sand painting is a living, dynamic creation that you are free to alter as you choose.
  7. In placing or repositioning items, always take a moment to consider why you’re choosing to place an item where you’ve placed it. Think about how it relates to the other items in the painting, as well as how it is positioned in relation to you.
  8. Feel free to move around your painting to experience it from all sides.
  9. When you feel your painting is complete, sit with it for a moment before closing sacred space. To close the space, thank the Universe or whatever guide you called in. Thank it for being with you on this journey and for guiding your creativity.
  10. Keep your sand (or snow or salt) painting in place for a few days. Usually three days is a good amount of time, but let your heart guide you. It will know when the painting and its purpose are complete.

How to Use Your Sand Painting

Revisit your painting daily. Take cleansing breaths, connect within and call up what you want to shift.

If you feel compelled to reposition anything in your painting, you can do so. Consider why you’re moving things, what it means to you, and what may have shifted in your life that prompted the desire to reposition an item.

If you notice any movement in your painting from day to day (this is more likely to happen if your painting is outdoors, but can also happen inside), this signifies change in your life. Look at what has shifted and how it relates to the other items. What does this shift mean to you?

You can create from anything that comes up. If your dog knocks into your painting and things get moved around, what could that movement mean for you and what you want to shift?

When You Are Done With Your Sand Painting

Think about this: What does sand painting symbolize? It symbolizes, among other things, change. It is a visual representation of your inner experience, and that is always shifting and evolving.

A sand painting is meant to be temporary. It’s meant to be with you through change or healing, and then to return to the earth.

When you feel that you are done with your sand painting – your heart will know – open sacred space once again and begin respectfully disassembling your painting. Take a moment with each item and thank it for its role in your journey.

You may choose to return your items to nature, bringing them outside and placing them where your heart feels they belong, or you may even choose to burn any burnable items. Connect within and let your heart guide you.

Once you’ve removed your items, wipe away your circular canvas. If you’re using sand or salt in a circular dish, you may want to smooth out your canvas and store it somewhere for your next sand painting, or you can return it to the earth.

Finally, when there is no longer any trace of your sand painting having existed, close sacred space once again.

Do Sand Paintings Actually Create Change?

Ultimately, you are the author of your story. Every move you make in this life is an act of creation. A sand painting alone will not change anything. This is why I believe it’s so important to understand the origins, purpose and sacred practices of sand art. At its heart, it is an act of co-creation with nature. You must be an active participant in any shift, healing or change.

Can’t you just create change without these “woo woo” practices? You could, but let me ask you this… Are you? How long have you wanted something to shift and yet, nothing’s happening? What areas of your life consistently feel stuck, unfulfilling or lacking meaning? Are you struggling with anything and unsure what to do next?

If you aren’t experiencing any of this, that’s great! If you are, you are not alone, and you have the power to create something different for yourself by doing something different.

Let me share one of my sand painting experiences with you: There is an element of my coaching business and personal growth journey that I have been working on for some time. There was just one final – crucial – piece that I needed in order to bring this element forward. This winter, I created this sand painting in the snow:

One of the items in my painting represented this element I’d been working on. I created the painting outside with the intention of leaving it for a few days. And then we had wind. So much wind. Strong, howling, icy wind. I was sure my painting would be in shambles. And yet, it was practically unaffected! The only noticeable shift was in that one particular item, which had moved up ever so slightly. What could it mean?

Well, that very same week, I received not one, but two inquiries about this final, crucial piece! After that, all the pieces began tumbling into place and now everything is moving forward smoothly (exciting details to come soon!).

Did my sand/snow painting play a role? I absolutely believe it did, in partnership with my hard work, deep intention, and conscious self-leadership.

I believe that the Universe helped move things forward for me. Not everyone shares that belief, and that’s ok. Even if you don’t believe in a higher force or power, or anything like that, embracing practices outside your circle of familiarity has so much power to shift things in your life by altering your perspective and widening your experience of the world around you.

Are you curious about sand painting or other energy medicine practices? Are you ready to try something different to create something different for you, your team or your organization? I invite you to connect with me.