Saturday, May 5, 2012

Everyday Opinions: What is a Mandala? Eastern origins and other world cultures.

A brief explanation of my understanding of the origins and background of the mandala.

The question you might ask is “Where does the word Mandala come from and what does it mean?” We find mandalas in the east and the word ‘mandala’ is a Sanskrit word in origin, meaning circle. It is geometric in design and often intended to symbolize the universe, world or earth. The design can be a circle within a square or a square with in a circle. It is considered sacred and contains symbolism of deities, temples or palaces etc.

In the strict sense of the word ‘mandala’ originates from the east and is part of an eastern practice which aid meditation and enlightenment as well as a teaching to the viewers. The Tibetan Buddhists, Taoists and Hindus all have their own forms of mandalas.

How is a Buddhist mandala constructed?

In brief: The mandala, as a sacred space, is divided into four quadrants.  Four monks work on one mandala, one monk per quadrant. These monks, who make the outlines, have an assistant who applies the colour. Each quadrant faces away from the draftsman and towards the centre where the deity or god of the mandala (particular selection) is situated.  The details are drawn as if the deity is the viewer from all sides, inside towards the outside.  At the centre the god lives in a temple or palace with walls and gates facing each quadrant, looking out towards the outer skirts of the world: north, south, east and west. The centre is the focus. The god could be one of love or wrath or peace etc. There are many symbols, such as bells and scrolls, but these details are not the focus of this post. The god/ deity are always placed in the centre, symbolically representing his/her power emanating out into the universe.

You find the circle in nature and used in different cultures

One finds the circle: in nature, e.g.: flower, shells, and solar system: sun, moon, earth, stars. The eye is one of the most significant in cultures as it represents ‘the person’ or soul or God’s/Deity’s watchful presence. It is interesting to note that even a child, as early as 3 or 4 draws circles; after scribbling, which is a spontaneous hand movement; the circle is one of the first things children draw (Betty Edwards and ViKtor Lowenfeld).

In many cultures, right around the world, the circle is used as a symbol. Primitive cultures often use art (painting, drawing, sculpture, pottery and/or architecture) for sacred rituals. Here is a list of examples of how the circle is used in different cultures. I have repeated some as they fall into two categories:

Religious, sacred or spiritual rituals   

·         Rings (wedding bands, eternity rings etc.)
·         American Indian medicine wheel (or sacred hoops) – stones laid as a wheel on the ground e.g bighorn national Forest, Wyoming, dated back to monolithic and megalithic people. It has a centre stone with spokes built in stone radiating out to a circumference of stone. We don’t know what its original function or meaning was about.
·         Navajo and Tibetan monks use sand mandalas in very different ways. 
      Eastern Religions: The Hindu (Kolam), the Tibetan Buddhist (Mandala) as well as the Yoga (Yantra) are all types of mandalas used for sacred purposes such as, ‘control’ or meditation and enlightenment (teaching).
·         New age, Wicca, and the pagan has used elements of the mandala or other circles. They have incorporated them to make meaning in their belief systems.
·         Jungian Psychology (see next post for fuller explanation)

Daily rituals

·         Rings (wedding bands, eternity rings etc.) Not only are they used in milestone rituals but they become part of the daily use of symbolically marking who the person is or what they stand for.
·         Yoga: Yantra is a type of mandala used in yoga. It is a tool, using a deity, in gaining control over certain things.  
·         Sufi Circular Dancing: the Mevlana (Rumi) whirling dervishes in Turkey, used in meditation and many other culture’s folk dancing and Celtic dancing.
·         Astrological zodiac
·         Aztec circular calendars
·         Indian dream catchers: the legend of some American Indians, such as the Lakota, believe that it is a spider web that catches the good dreams and visions meant for the person and other American Indians, such as the Navajo, Ojibwe and Chippewa, believe that if hung up it catches the bad dreams so that they don’t affect a person.  
·         New age, Wicca, and the pagan has used elements of the mandala or other circles. They have incorporated them to make meaning in their belief systems.


·         American Indian medicine wheel (or sacred hoops) – stones laid as a wheel on the ground e.g bighorn national Forest, Wyoming, dated back to momolithic and megalithic people. It has a centre stone with spokes built in stone radiating out to a circumference of stone. We don’t know what its original function or meaning was about.
·         Labyrinths in Crete and Africa: some of the oldest labyrinths date back as early as 1500BC, such as the Cretan Labyrinth found on the coins of the Island of Crete. Others such as the early Christian labyrinth of the basilica of Algeria dates back to 300AD. Another labyrinth created in France, 1201AD, by medieval Christians is found stone floor of Chartres Cathedral.  
·         Pantheon – a sacred Roman building erected for all the many gods.
·         Christianity – Cathedrals: Durham, Chartres and Notre Dame Cathedrals rose stained glass windows and many other historical buildings and churches.                        
 Stone circles around the world – Newgrang (Ireland), Maeshowe (Scotland), Stonehendge (England). There are also circular constructions in Australia.
 Islamic geometry

Two examples of western people

Hildegard von Bingen – Christian nun 12th century - visions and beliefs
Jung – psychology: the most important archetype of self.

The circle may be symbolic for many concepts such as: ‘one entity’ such as the human or unique self; the merging and separation; body, mind and soul; womb; universe and eternity; and wholeness, unity, community, connection, and completion.

The uses

As one can see the circle has many uses, sacred and secular. The circle is in use worldwide, in some form, whether it is called a mandala or labyrinth a circle, wheel or ring. The mandala, coming from the eastern religions, has been one of the tools that Jung has assimilated into western psychology. Jung used the concepts of visualisation where images are internalized. So Jung encouraged the people to focus on the centre and allow the ordering/ organizing to work its way out to the circumference of the circle; symbolising  the centre of the self and the cohesion working its way out to the far reaching issues of ones’ life.

I like the comparison of the impermanence of life demonstrated in the sand mandalas of the Navajo and Tibetan monks as they slowly blow away in the wind or are cleaned away with the permanent nature of the Greek and African labyrinths. Impermanence speaks to me of letting go and being free while permanence speaks of the need of ritual, structure, constancy and security of things always being in place. 

There are those that say that the root ‘manda’ means essence and its suffix is ‘la’ meaning container. I like to think of the mandala as being symbolic of a container for our essence. When we express ourselves through our creativity it leads us into an awareness of ourselves. The mandala is a wonderful way to explore and express this inner energy of ourselves. We make manifest what was once hidden.

This is a vast topic and I have merely skimmed over the subject to give you a brief explanation of what Mandala means. The other two posts cover Jung’s mandalas and my personal take.  

What I have written is my impressions and understanding from all the information I have read.

References here at:
C. Malchiodi.  The art therapy sourcebook.  2nd edition New York: mc Graw Hill, 2007
B. Edwards. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. 1st edition London: Harper  Collins publishers, 1992 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Everyday Opinions: What is a Mandala? Dr C Jung's mandalas and integration

In my last post I mentioned that mandalas are said to help one become more integrated. If you are interested in what mandalas mean from a psychological point of view you would have to look at Jung (1875 - 1961) who was a psychiatrist.

I am not a specialist in Jungian psychology but I will tell you what I understand. He is considered to be one of the fathers of psychology and contributed many concepts to the western philosophy of psychology. Some of the well-known ones which many of us refer to, without consciously knowing that they are attributed to him, are ‘introvert vs. extrovert’, ‘collective consciousness’ and ‘archetypes’. (You can look at the list of glossaries below for an explanation.) The ones that relate to this topic are: persona, self-realization, individuation, and mandala.  It is largely accepted that we, in the West, are familiar with mandalas because of Jung. What we understand of mandalas and psychology can be attributed to his work. He travelled quite extensively after World War I to places such as Africa, Asia, South America and Mexico trying to understand other cultures and the connection between psychology and spirituality.

Jung spent a year, when he was not well, drawing every day. He drew mandalas. After that he used mandalas with his patients.  Jung concluded that drawing mandalas was helpful and felt that it was a way of expressing the self as he saw the circle representing one’s outer life and the mid-point being ones inner-self.

I want to explain it simply: ‘Persona’ is a term coined by Jung. It is the part we choose to show the world while hiding what we feel ‘is not good enough’ or what we are struggling with such as: desires (perceived as ‘good and bad’); fears of abandonment, rejection and annihilation; and hurts that arouse expressed or unexpressed angers. Sometimes we can’t or don’t want to admit these to ourselves or the ‘world’. They become hidden by the persona which we ‘wear’ like a mask.

Drawing, much like dreaming, helps us become aware of what is hidden or trapped in our unconscious by making the unconscious conscious through expressing it on paper. It can aid our dialoguing with ourselves. Our imagination is the tool for visualizing ourselves. This helps us express the unconscious or hidden parts of ourselves through visual images; much like a photograph shows us what we look like it is like making a portrait of our inner self.   

When drawing the mandala which is both circle and it’s center, we can focus inward on one thing (like the centre of the mandala) while all outer demands fall away (the outer circle of the mandala). This is almost like taking a moment in time and making an image of it, thereby making it ‘real’ for others and oneself to see. In this way we become aware of who we are; can reflect on it and make personal changes; order things in our lives and become more integrated. Therefore, as one draws the mandala, one is integrating the outer and inner ‘selves.’

 It can be seen as a metaphor for our lives; just as the mandala is organized, integrated and whole so it reflects our process. Just like we look at ourselves in a mirror everyday it is said that if we draw mandalas do this regularly we can become aware of and observe the trends we go through in our lives. This process of being aware and observing all our different parts of ourselves; and expressing, accepting and integrating the hidden or masked parts is what Jung called individuation.   

These are theories which can’t be proven but there is no harm in trying it out and seeing what happens. Through the results you will know whether or not it is beneficial to you. I believe it is up to the image maker to decide for themselves what the image means to them, whether it is round, rectangular or square.  When you join my workshops I encourage you to bring your understanding and all of you (hidden and seen) is welcome.

I mentioned that Jung was influenced by the east and in my next post I will tell you about the origins, the background of eastern religion and other cultures which most probably contributed to influencing and inspiring the psychological use of mandalas.

Links to Jungian glossaries:

What I have written is my impressions and understanding from all the information I have read.
References here at:
 Carl Jung links, mandala quotes and Jungian notes:
The Healing Properties of Luminous Mandalas
Wikipedia’s Carl Gustov Jung.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Artist's Way Workshops

An explanation of what the artist’s way workshops are all about…

You have the ability to be creative.
We all have the ability to be creative. Think about all the things we as people do: art, writing, poetry, drama, music, designing and making objects; they are all included in the spectrum of creativity. As children we are naturally creative. When we enter our adult years we use this creative ability within our working experience, in our homes and gardens, and the way we dress etc., as we make creative choices. By the time we are adults we have often lost the ‘child’s’ spontaneity and enjoyment of creating; or lost the conviction that we are creative. We experience criticisms of our creative endeavours and might feel discouraged by others or ourselves. Creativity, once being a joy and a celebration of life now lies quietly dormant.

The Book
The Artist’s Way is a book written by Julia Cameron for everyone wanting to re-discover their creativity. There are twelve chapters which look at twelve topics, helping you recover your creative inner person from the effects of either: neglect, discouragement, being buried or destruction through the years. Even past attitudes and events can stifle and destroy the belief in one’s own creativity. I believe the book can also be helpful for those who have suffered burnout or creative blocks.

Julia Cameron offers this recovery through exercises which she has used over the many years with her students. These exercises take the form of writing morning pages, reading the chapter before answering thought provoking questions, and taking yourself on one artist’s date per week. It is entirely up to you how much you want to do or give your time to do it; you are free to do as much or as little as you feel possible but the more you put into it the more you get out.

Workshop groups
It can be difficult to embark on working through the book on your own and even more difficult to finish it. This is why I offer the opportunity to explore this book within a group providing time for you to share your experiences and find support to continue working through it to the end. It is a joy to share these new experiences with others who are on the same journey, knowing that they understand and relate to you. 

We will look at the twelve topics over twelve weeks (a chapter a week).  At home, each week, you read the chapter and try out the exercises and then there will be time for each person to talk about the book and your thoughts. You are welcome to come share what you have experienced and noticed while reading and doing the exercises. It is your choice how much you share or what you share.  

We benefit by listening to other people's experiences and by offering others around us our support. It is a worthwhile experience sharing this journey in this way.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Everyday Opinions: What is a Mandala? My personal take......

You might be wondering, ‘What is a mandala?’ or you might already have your own views. For those who are not sure what it is or what I might be referring to I would like to briefly explain. I plan to post three short essays on mandalas. The first will be ‘my personal take on mandalas’, the second  ‘Dr C. Jung’s mandalas’ and lastly ‘background to mandalas.’

My personal take on mandalas
For me, a mandala is a picture expressed in a form of a circle or circle in a square. I express them either as in abstract, free flowing forms or geometrically balanced images or using more realistic images. I find nature an inspiration, such as flowers, ferns, cross-sections of shells and vegetables, sun, moon and stars, etc. And I also draw on a personally acquired inspirations of the happenings of my life, some emotional, some spiritual and some conceptual. My mandala images are neither necessarily expressing a religious or psychological concept, theme or ideas but are authentic expressions of the awareness of my inner and outer worlds.
My mandalas are made up of a variety of materials and I enjoy adding my poems or words to mixed media images.  I find art and creating mandalas relaxing and enjoy the challenge of planning the symmetry; often using compass and protractor. Other times I break the rules to use free flowing forms. Working slowly with the plan can be ‘meditative’ giving me time to think about concepts and at the same time getting insights. (This can be said about any form of art process.) There is orderliness in creating the mandala which is appealing to me. I sometimes use the mandala image to consolidate all of my ideas into one image when I have been absorbed in a process of visual journaling. You can see an example of this here at

It is said that mandalas help one become more integrated but I will tell you about that in the next post about Dr Jung's mandalas.