Sacred Journey To The Centre

First Published in:
Namasté Magazine

A Personal Introduction
What is a Mandala?
Benefits of working with Mandalas
Some Types of Mandalas

Symbolism in Mandalas and Interpreting Mandalas
Common Problems Creating Your Own Mandala

A Personal Introduction:

In the depths of night, alone in my bedroom during a period of great personal challenge, I started to doodle on a diary page. As the clock ticked I became absorbed in the growing doodle, found myself enjoying it and wanting to colour it in.

This was a solitary and private activity, not for other people. My drawing started with a cross. I am from the Christian tradition and since God was one of the very few certainties in my life at that time, I wanted to represent my Original Source. With that the drawing became sacred, something to take care with and spend time on.

I let my mind wander where it would, mostly focussing on the strokes of my pen and the emerging shapes. I recognised the childlike naivety of my drawing but didn't criticise it. This was just for me. For once I didn't try to direct or analyse the process. As I finished colouring in my cross, I went on to draw petals around it, then a broken circle, then a square and yet another square behind it, finally capturing the whole thing in a circle. I drew and coloured in with metallic gel pens, which were at hand for diary entries and the shimmer of which I have always loved. As I ran out of pens I used old powdered food colouring and a little bit of watercolour.

When the process ended it was with regret. Yet I looked upon my little creation with great love. Something of myself had gone in there and it was precious. As I looked at it I realised that it could be a mandala of sorts having seen pictures of mandalas before.  Thus a growing interest and involvement was born.

Looking back, that first mandala indeed heralded a period of personal transformation and healing, which continues to this day.
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What is a Mandala?

Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle and symbolises wholeness.  It is normally two-dimensional. There is a central point of focus from which the design radiates, often in a symmetrical fashion. Mandalas are frequently rich in religious, traditional and personal symbolism.

Longchen-pa, the non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhist Teacher, defines it as: "An integrated structure organised around a unifying centre".  Khyil-Khor, the Tibetan word for mandala refers to the centre of the universe, that place where a fully awakened being resides.

To me mandalas are organic, starting from a central core and growing in an often unpredictable fashion, reflecting obstacles and victories on the Soul's journey. Mother Nature herself must like mandalas, as she has created many - from the beautiful simplicity of a daisy to the compelling intricacies of the eye's iris. Is it any wonder that we call the eyes the "windows to the soul", being as they are our own, unique, God-given mandalas? From our cellular structure, with protons and electrons revolving around a nucleus, to our very solar system, we are in many ways mandalas incarnate.

Being so archetypal an expression, mandalas span across human cultures. Although they are commonly associated with Eastern traditions, they have for centuries been used in healing by the Navajo people. St Hildebrand von Bingen, a 12th century Christian nun, also created many mandalas as an expression of her faith. Labyrinths (not to be confused with mazes) have mandala-like properties, as do formally laid out herb gardens.

In the sciences mandalas could be associated with fractals, which are images based on numerical sets and which consist of repetitive patterns in literally infinite detail.

Carl Jung became interested in the psychological application of mandalas. As well as making his own, he incorporated mandalas into his therapy. He believed that mandalas are an outward projection of the psyche, representing a safe refuge and movement towards psychological growth and healing.

Some projects involving group construction of mandalas indicate their suitability to bridge personal differences and encourage co-operation. As group projects they holistically encourage individual expression incorporated in a collective representation. Imagine what would happen if Arafat and Sharon made a mandala before sitting down to discuss politics...

Mandalas can be represented on paper, or as in Navajo and Tibetan tradition, sand. Sand mandalas are often group projects constructed in staggering detail and beauty, using dyed sand or crushed semi-precious stones. After completion Tibetan sand mandalas are ceremonially dismantled to demonstrate the impermanence of life.  The sand, which is blessed in the process of creating the mandala, is swept into a jar to the deep sounds of tonal chanting. The jar is then emptied in a nearby body of water to symbolise the cycle of life. The blessed sand is also seen to benefit the water and land it comes into contact with.  
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Benefits of working with Mandalas

As we become involved in the creative process our attention is diverted from the external to the internal. In a busy, often chaotic and over-stimulated world it is increasingly difficult for many people to find a place of silence and inner calm. Creating a mandala is an ideal opportunity to escape the rat race for a while and connect with the Self.

Creating mandalas is an essentially simple activity. We do not in fact need to be taught how to do it. We have access to the magical calm of the mandala process any time we want, no matter where we are.

Mandalas can be created in any medium. If one is uncomfortable around pencils and paintbrushes, and possibly without ready access to a convenient sandpit with quantities of crushed semi-precious stones, one could work in anything from needlepoint to soldered metal, plant a mandala garden, make a collage, the imagination is the only limit.

Mandalas inevitably capture part of the mandalist's essence. Over a period of time, working with our own mandalas can lead us to identify behavioural and emotional patterns in our lives which, once identified, can be cleared.
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Some Types of Mandalas

Although there are many types and styles of mandalas, two main categories are generally recognised. These are the teaching and the healing, or intuitive, mandalas.

Teaching Mandala

This is the most formal style of mandala and its construction flows from the analytical left brain. The composition of the mandala is prescribed and each colour, line and shape has specific meaning. It is used as a "summary" of a philosophy or doctrine, in which the student is already schooled to some extent. The student of such a philosophy creates his / her own mandala in accordance with specific prescriptions as a way of study. The mandala thus becomes a visual representation of the study material and can be used to refresh the memory. It can be seen as a beautiful and colourful, prescribed "mind-map" of the study material.

Healing Mandala

The healing mandala is less restrictive than the teaching mandala and often much simpler. The mandalist (one who constructs and studies mandalas) draws far more on intuition as the construction process flows from the right brain. This mandala is intended for meditative purposes and aims to provoke a sense of peace, calm, life and health. As opposed to the teaching mandala the construction of a healing mandala often precedes cognitive understanding - the emphasis is on the process rather than the product. While constructing a teaching mandala certainly requires concentration, healing mandalas ideally flow from the place of inner calm and wisdom within the mandalist. They are often used as a tool to focus back on the Source, where all is as it should be.  Healing mandalas are sometimes created by mandalists for clients.  
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Symbolism in Mandalas and Interpreting Mandalas

Ultimately the mandala is a very personal and intimate process. As such symbolism might very well be unique to the mandalist. Where the mandala is created for a client, more importance is placed on the client's interpretation of, and associations with symbols within the mandala than on anything the mandalist might have had in mind creating the mandala. Great caution should thus be exercised in offering and accepting interpretations. It is furthermore important to remember that a mandala represents a snapshot in time of the journey of Self, ever changing, ever growing.

While our physical body integrates through the physical act of drawing, causing us to experience our nervous system in ways that are often otherwise inaccessible to us, the actual shapes we draw could be said to reflect our mental aspect, and the colours we use could be representative of our emotional aspect.

Some of the traditional Eastern symbols include:

The Diamond: Traditionally associated with the mind as indestructible and clear, yet capable of reflecting different colours.

The Bell: Associated with feminine energy, with emptiness and openness, leaving room for wisdom to enter.

The Vajra: Associated with male energy and Buddha's compassion and active involvement with the meditator.

The Dharma Wheel: Eight hubs are associated with the eightfold path that leads to perfection. The hubs represent right belief, right resolution, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right thinking and peace of mind through meditation.

The Lotus Flower: Symbolic of the teachings of Buddha, the lotus flower stands with its roots in the mud but reaches ever to the light.  
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Common Problems Creating Your Own Mandala

Faced with a blank sheet of paper with the intention of creating a mandala we are brought face to face with some very powerful, learned, limiting beliefs about ourselves and our ability to create.

The first barrier to overcome is the belief that "I cannot draw". Fortunately, with mandalas this is an easy one to overcome. All of us drew pictures when we were little. Drawing the way we did as children is not only permissible in creating a mandala, it is desirable. Our Inner Child is still very much in contact with the God-force, still speaks and understands the language of the Soul which is based in symbols and emotions. Mandalas are in the first place private journeys. Knowing that our mandala never has to be exposed to criticism, analysis and evaluation, we can throw off the shackles of preconception and allow the process to unfold naturally and with innocence and simplicity.

The notion of "perfection" is another barrier to creating a mandala. We often get stuck looking for the "perfect" symbol, the "perfect" line or shape. If the mandala is to be a representation of who we are, it is again quite "permissible" for it to be imperfect. Remember also that it is a snapshot in time, what holds true right now might change tomorrow and that, again, is desirable as Soul continues the earth journey.

Because the mandala mostly makes use of repetitive patterns, we sometimes become impatient with the process. Mandalas, as any other creative process, are not instant. They do require time. Know that it is the Ego that becomes impatient and wants to hurry the process. Often all that is required is to acknowledge Ego's impatience for it to subside and inner calm to manifest in its place. In my opinion Ego serves us well in this world. It is only when we lose touch with Soul that Ego starts to play a more dangerous role. The creative process is Soul's time. Honour it. And if you can't, set the mandala aside and return to it another time.

Lastly, it is important to listen to the inner voice when it tells you (as it will) that this particular mandala is finished.  This often happens when even Ego has started to have fun with the project and would like nothing more than to carry on "fiddling". Be kind to Ego. Start another mandala.