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What is a mandala? It is a design which uses images and geometric designs to create a visually balanced pattern with a dominant theme in the center. Generally the term refers to any such design which is used in meditation and rituals (particularly in Hinduism, Buddhism, and yantra yoga); some of the images might depict religious icons, deities, and personal symbolism. Below are two examples of mandalas:


Mandalas are symbolic. Each part of the mandala represents one of the forces in our lives; the mandala's pattern depicts the interplay of these forces. These elements are arranged symmetrically, to express the ideally organized, balanced, and unified functioning of our mind, our affairs, and the universe. In this unity, some mandalas depict "opposites," such as Tantric Buddhism's "wrathful deities" and "peaceful deities" -- or a psychotherapy patient's "conscious mind" and "unconscious mind." When we create a mandala, the particular arrangement of elements characterizes our psychological and spiritual state at that moment; Jung discovered that when his schizophrenic patients were in their worst condition, their artwork often depicted mandalas, in an apparent attempt to bring order -- as portrayed by the mandalas -- into their psychological chaos.

A mandala is a geometric design. The word "mandala" means "circle"; most mandalas are circles. However, the inside of the circle often contains a "quaternity" (as Jung called it) -- a four-sided geometric form such as a square, which could symbolize the totality of the directions of east, north, west, and south. The center (i.e., the "bindu") portrays the Self, or the primary deity, or another symbol of wholeness or enlightenment. Jung wrote, "The mandala's basic motif is the premonition of a center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy. ... This center is not felt or thought of as the ego, but if one may so express it, as the self. Although the center is represented as the innermost point, it is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self -- the paired opposites that make up the total personality. This totality comprises consciousness first of all, then the personal unconscious, and finally an indefinitely large segment of the collective unconscious whose archetypes are common to all mankind." (From "Concerning Mandala Symbolism," Collected Works 11:23ff.)

The technique for creating a mandala. If we make a mandala, we gain some advantages: (1) the mandala can contain personal symbolism which might make the mandala more effective; (2) we can use the time during which we create the mandala as a meditation upon the creative process itself and upon the feelings which are being expressed.

  1. The medium. We can make the mandala on paper. Or we can use other types of media, e.g., embroidery or rug-weaving -- or arrangements of stones, tiles, beads, gems, or colored sand. We can even make a three-dimensional mandala, in a sculpture.
  2. The colors. We can draw the mandala in black ink on white paper. Or we can use colors, from crayons, felt-tip pens, water colors, or oil paints.
  3. The images. The mandala's images can be geometric designs (e.g., squares, triangles, hearts), internally generated images (from dreams, daydreams, fantasies, visualizations, guided meditations, memories, etc.), externally acquired images (from books, magazines, etc.), images from our daily life (e.g., people, possessions, places), religious symbols (e.g., a deity, a crucifix, images from religious art), or any other images which evoke feeling and meaning for us.
  4. The creative process. While creating the mandala, we allow a flow of creativity, feeling, intuition, and inspiration. If we are using this time for self-discovery (rather than the construction of a formal piece of artwork for public display), we allow ourselves to be spontaneous; we do not follow a preconceived concept regarding the finished product, nor are we concerned with the artistic quality of the mandala.

The technique for using a mandala in meditation.

  1. We gaze at the mandala. There are variations in this technique:
    • The center. With our peripheral vision, we also see the outer images of the design.
    • The totality. Starting at the center, we let our eyes wander throughout the mandala to its edges; then we gradually return our attention to the center.
    • An inner image. Instead of gazing at the mandala itself during our meditation session, we can look at it just long enough to become familiar with it; then we close our eyes and re-create the image in our imagination.
  2. In our meditative state, we sense a commonality between ourselves and the various aspects of the mandala -- the images, the opposites, the balance (in the visual symmetry), and the image in the middle. We "identify" ourselves with each of those aspects, and we align our own psychological dynamics with the dynamics of the aspects.
  3. With this alignment, the mandala's characteristics reinforce those of our psyche, e.g., the diversity, the order, the balance, and the distinct center.

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