Mandala (meaning “circle” in Sanskrit) is an ancient tradition that uses a symbolic circular painting as a reflection of important inner states. You can find circle mandalas in many ancient spiritual traditions – Shamanic, Hindi, Tibetan, and western alchemy practitioners used mandalas to reflect their spiritual journeys. Mandalas came into modern psychology through the works of Carl Jung. He drew his first mandala during the tough times of the First World War, when he was drafted as an army doctor. At this time Jung drew a mandala every day to reflect on and analyze his state. You can see some of the amazing Jung Mandalas in his Red Book here.
I use mandalas for my own development and in my private practice for my clients. To begin we take a big sheet of paper, paint or charcoal, and put on some kind of meditative music. To go into a trance state we can concentrate on visualization, dreams or body sensations. After that we start spontaneous drawing, creating a combination of colors and movements without any templates or ideas. This gives a person the possibility to reflect their inner state on paper.
There are several ways we use mandalas in TERRApia:
1. To reflect the current state.
If you are working with mandalas for a while you can see how the mandala someone created reflects their current state, mood, physical and emotional condition. Joan Kellogg developed a sophisticated method to do client assessment with mandalas. But also if you work with your own and other people's mandalas for a while you can understand a lot about your and others emotional state while looking at the colors, lines and shapes. The questions I ask myself while looking at the mandalas are:
- What colors did the person use and how do the colors represent their balance of elements?
- Does the picture reflect movement, or is it a static image?
- Is it centered?
- What is the atmosphere of this mandala?
- What emotions does it evoke in you?
- Did the author stay inside the circle or draw outside?
As a good example of mandalas reflecting the client's dynamic, you can look at my “Four Mandalas Gallery”. These mandalas has been drawn by my clients in Costa Rica holistic addiction rehab.
People usually came for a month and we had art therapy once a week, so everyone had a chance to draw three or four mandalas. You can look at the gallery - it is amazing to see how mandalas change every week, becoming more centered, more balanced, more bright and clear in color, more rich in design. The personal healing and growth which has been happening during the program is clearly reflected in clients' mandalas.
Four Mandalas Gallery
Some examples from the full gallery. Each series of four were created by the same person. See the full gallery here.
2. Creating mandalas to release a blockage of creativity.
Another use for mandalas is to open the flow of creative energy when it has been blocked. This is good for people who don't have any ambition in the area of visual arts and are looking to increase creativity in some other areas of life. When they are children, most people are amazingly creative, free and spontaneous in their activities. At some age the art kids create starts to be judged by adults and the standards of society. This the moment when a lot of creative energy gets blocked by inner and outer criticism. Some of us manage to keep more of their creativity alive and some loose a lot of it – depends on the level of family criticism and the personal situation. Drawing mandalas as an activity free of criticism can connect people to their earlier creative flow, to the child which hasn't developed an internal critic yet and can create freely. Drawn mandalas in this context can release fears connected with other forms of creativity – writing, dance, etc.
Below are examples of how drawing mandalas can release creativity – these are three mandalas drawn by a 28 year old man. This man had a big inner critic. We see how the creative process started at the moment where it was stopped in childhood – the first mandala looks like a drawing of a young child. After several sessions his creative expression grew and with it this man expanded his ability to express in other channels - words, movements, relationship.
3. Integration of personal work and holding on to a resource found during a session.
Change takes some time, it can't happen overnight. Both modalities - Process Work and Family Constellation can bring the client powerful realizations, insights and resources during one single session. But the change doesn't take one day, it takes some time – months or years to change how the brain is wired, to bring a new way of thinking and new behavioral patterns into someone's lifestyle and relationships. In my work, mandalas are powerful methods helping to integrate resources found in a session and to hold on to them. When clients draw a mandala after a session, they are usually able to put the energy and atmosphere of a session into the mandala. In this case the mandala is an intermediate step between the new energy, and the manifestation of this energy in material life.
The mandala on the right is called “Shadows of Ancestors”, it is an example of integration after a powerful and sad session about family trauma. Expressing traumatic energy in an art form allowed me to channel painful emotions in a positive and creative activity and step out on more positive ground.
I created the drawing on the left “Woman running on the water” after a session with my beloved teacher Amy Mindell. At the session I complained of a stressful life in Manhattan. We finished the session with me imagining myself free and swimming in the ocean water. Two months after this session I received an offer to work in Costa Rica, and started every day there for a year with a long swim.
There are other areas in which I use mandalas, as an example: setting up intentions, or working with couples on a relationship conflict. I will try to describe them in a future article.