An excerpt from The Mindful Word’s first volume in its Art Therapy Coloring Book Series, Sacred Circles Mandala Coloring Book.
“Each person’s life is like a mandala—a vast, limitless circle. We stand in the centre of our own circle, and everything we see, hear and think forms the mandala of our life.” – Pema Chodron
Circles are omnipresent. They’re found throughout the built environment (the dome of cathedrals and the stained glass windows inside those cathedrals), throughout nature (from the circular pattern of a snail’s shell to the rings of a tree). Space has them (stars and planets) as does the microscopic world (atoms and subatomic particles).
Spiritual traditions throughout the ages have taken cues from nature and adopted the circle as one of its most powerful symbols. India gave birth to the word “mandala,” which is a Sanskrit term meaning sacred circle, though they are not always circular and have adopted many different forms. Mandalas are used in various spiritual traditions as an aid in spiritual practice, as offerings to teachers and as designs to adorn sacred spaces. Though the word “mandala” originates in ancient India, the concept of a sacred circle is universal. We’ve been drawing circles since we were living in caves and we’ve been scribbling circles from the time we could put pencil to paper.
We’re attracted to the circle for a reason. It’s a shape that has no beginning and no end, making it symbolic of several spiritual qualities: wholeness, unity, infinity, eternity, boundlessness, completeness and the soul. In this way they’re a great representation of our Oneness with the universe. Circles also organize space, separating things from the inside and outside—serving as protection for those standing inside the circle from what lies outside. They are also representative of community and the sharing circles that communities adopt.
Similar to the circle, the mandala has different interpretations and different shades of meaning. It symbolically and metaphysically represents the universe. On the outer (macrocosmic) level it symbolizes the world in its divine form. On the inner (microcosmic) level it symbolizes the enlightened mind. Mandalas serve as a reminder to us of our connection to the whole, beyond our small self to the larger Self.
Mandalas are used in a myriad of ways. Since they’re often designed with intricate patterns they’re intended to draw the viewer’s gaze into the middle to focus concentration. They can be used in rituals to invoke deities or to induce trance. They can also be used as an object of contemplation to reveal cosmic truths.
The Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas serve as a good example of mandalas in practice. According to the Tibetan monks of Drepung Gomang Monastery, a mandala is an imaginary palace to contemplate during meditation and every room in the palace represents some spiritual quality or principle, such as compassion or equanimity. So when Tibetan monks painstakingly pour millions of grains of coloured sand into place to create their sand mandalas they’re deeply concentrated and in contemplation. The creation of the sand mandala is part of a long ritual, culminating in its destruction—after days or weeks of intense effort the mandala is swept up and tossed in a river to symbolize the impermanence of life.
Mandalas offer a number of practical benefits aside from being a tool for spiritual practice. The use of mandalas in a therapeutic setting has a significant history. Carl Jung used them in his practice, finding that they had a calming effect on patients and that they helped facilitate psychic integration. Jung felt that by drawing a mandala on a daily basis the unconscious could be revealed. Building on Jung’s pioneering work, art therapist Joan Kellogg created the Mandala Assessment Research Institute. The institute has developed a psychological assessment tool based on mandalas that aids in one’s self-discovery. Many other art therapists continue to use mandalas in their practice and to study their efficacy.
In addition to bolstering one’s spiritual growth, a growing body of scientific research points to a number of health and well-being benefits from using mandalas as a form of art therapy. The list includes:
» Reduce anxiety, tension and stress
» Increase focus
» Stimulate creativity
» Release emotional blockages
» Decrease impulsive behaviour and increase attention span for children with ADD/ADHD
» Decrease the symptoms of trauma for those suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder
» Enhance individuation and promote self-discovery
Mandalas are intricate, complex works of art that are beautiful to look at. But they’re far more than just their good looks. They possess a depth to them that, like walking through the maze of a labyrinth, focus the mind and invite contemplation, making them a wonderful tool to use for spiritual practice and to gain a greater sense of well-being and improved health.
“My mandalas were cryptograms concerning the state of the self which was presented to me anew each day…I guarded them like precious pearls….It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the centre. It is the exponent of all paths. It is the path to the centre, to individuation.” – Carl Jung