I recently noticed that one area that has been underrepresented in my explorations of sacred practices has been creativity. And so, in the hopes of beginning to rectify this gap, this week I explored the making of and meditating on mandalas.
The word ‘mandala’ originates in Sanskrit and refers to a circle representing wholeness, that is, a circle not as a shape as much as an organizational principle. The general form consists of concentric circles decorated with symbols and details exhibiting some form of symmetry. As the origin of the name suggests, as a sacred practice, mandalas are most strongly associated with Indian religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. In these traditions, they originated as cosmic diagrams to remind meditators of their place in the world. These mandalas could be imaged as the universe radiating out from a centre point, or conversely, as a palace whose inner sanctum can only be reached by passing through different levels of devotion or awareness. The mandala tradition has been particularly keen in Tibet, where monks create and destroy intricate mandalas made of sand in order to remind themselves of the impermanence of life. Interestingly, in recent decades, the mandala has been used by historians of South Asia as an alternative way of understanding historical power dynamics in the region to the more western understanding of kingdoms and empires; the idea is that these polities were defined more by the centre point from which power and influence radiated than by their boundaries. This to me is a helpful metaphor for understanding the meaning of mandalas themselves, as they place the most important and vital elements of the meditation in the centre and see what arises as they move out from the middle.
While much more could be said about South Asian mandala traditions, the form appears in many other traditions as well. In Taoism it was adopted to demonstrate the intricate interrelationship and balance of opposites (yin and yang). In Islamic societies, stunning mandalas featuring elaborate geometric patterns were used as way of symbolizing the universe within a religious tradition that is deeply suspicious of figurative imagery. In Mesoamerican cultures, sacred calendars were depicted as mandalas. And, in Christianity, mandalas have been used both devotionally — as in the illuminations of Hildegard von Bingen — and decoratively — as in the rose windows of cathedrals. The two meet in something like labyrinths, which are both decorative architectural features, but are also tools for meditation and understanding.
As interesting and helpful as this background is, it seems we in the West owe the use of mandalas as a contemporary sacred practice to the psychologist Carl Jung. It is said that he started to think of the mandala after noticing that his doodles and sketches tended to take on a circular shape. In time, he found that the shapes and symbols in his mandalas reflected his mood and thought life. Reflecting on his creations, he saw in them the mind’s attempts at reconciling the conscious and subconscious self into wholeness. When he asked his clients to draw mandalas, he found strikingly similar patterns and symbols. The mandala, he wrote, “is the Self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious “(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections).
This synthesizing and balancing element of the mandala is for me what brings all the mandala traditions from around the world together: each expression of the mandala is a way of bringing together contrasting elements into a cohesive and well-balanced whole.
What is it?
Draw a mandala every day. (Two resources with helpful instructions and ideas are: The Mandala Guide by Kathryn Costa and Mandala for the Inspired Artist by Louise Gale. Instructions can also be found in various places online.) After you’ve drawn your mandala, explore it. Some helpful questions to meditate on are:
- What are the shapes and symbols you see?
- What colours did you use?
- What feelings arise when you look at it?
- Did you have a set story or plan when you were drawing it?
- What is the connection between your mandala and the world around it?
I have to admit this practice took me completely by surprise. I was deeply skeptical about its potential beyond being a tool for relaxation, like doodling or colouring. I actually took up the practice a few days ahead of schedule because I was feeling restless and anxious and wanted something to do with my hands. As it turns out, it was very helpful, not only when I was in that state, but throughout the twelve days I did it. To my surprise, even though this is one of the most time consuming of the sacred practices I’ve explored this year, I didn’t find it at all difficult to make the time to do it.
On the surface, the benefits of mandalas seem similar to those of any handicraft, like needlepoint, knitting, doodling, or even whittling: a kind of purely relaxational, meditative flow. And I certainly experienced this state of focused mental relaxation while working through this practice this week. To be frank, the sad state of the world and my relationship to it has been weighing heavily on me the past couple of weeks and it’s been a real struggle at times. So this relaxation was very welcome. Yet, while I’d never denigrate the importance and wonder of this kind of unselfconscious flow, I found that — much to my surprise — the mandalas worked on a far deeper level. Because there is room for pretty much infinite creativity within a mandala, the meditative flow took me to interesting places and opened me up to my subconscious in unexpected ways.
Jung’s comment about mandalas being a way of synthesizing subconscious and conscious thought really resonated with me this week. While some of the symbols and patterns were either obvious — the form lends itself naturally to stars, leaves, flowers, and compass roses — or intentional — such as imagery from my religious tradition or that was otherwise meaningful to me, how those symbols and patterns came together in a cohesive way was almost always a surprise. This was even true when I approached the practice with a certain motif in mind (e.g., a compass rose or a labyrinth). Each of the mandalas told a story. Each of these stories was obvious to me after the mandala was completed, at very first glance. Each of the stories was true, and a story I needed to hear. And with only one exception, none of those stories was one I was intending to tell.
While the unintentional but personally profound narratives that emerged from the practice were by far what stood out to me the most, many of the other themes that Jung mentioned are also clear when I look through the collection of mandalas from the past couple weeks. On days when I was focusing on my identity and values, the mandalas contained more explicitly meaningful symbols. On days when I longed for tranquility, the colours were lighter and the patterns simpler. On days when I was wrestling with my mood, there were greater contrasts between light and shadow in my mandalas. And so on.
I’m sure this is one of those practices where results will vary depending on the person. Perhaps the practice was so profound for me because I’m a person who enjoys art and design but who rarely takes the time to indulge in those interests. Or perhaps the practice just found me at the right time. But for me, right now, this practice truly took me by surprise with its deep insights into my heart and how it relates to the world and my faith. And so, I have to recommend this practice to anyone who might be interested in it. If the worst case scenario is a relaxed meditative flow and the best case scenario is profound insight, one could do far far worse than mandalas as either a point of entry for engaging in sacred practices or a way of shaking up one’s sacred routines. While I doubt I’ll continue the exercise of creating them daily, I’m very thankful to be adding mandalas to my toolkit of sacred practices.