Mandalas – The Making Of

Four You Gallery
February 10, 2021| Christine

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary” – Pablo Picasso

If you’ve ever been to a yoga studio, you’ve probably seen it on the walls, as a painting or paper print. Or maybe you’ve seen it as a design on some cushions, tote bags, graffiti murals, tattoo designs etc.; you name it and it’s probably been designed onto it. In this day and age, it’s everywhere.

Mandala designs

More often than not, when asked what a mandala is, most people’s reply is generally a “isn’t it a yoga thing” mixed with a little bit of “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s pretty”. When I first started practicing yoga around 5 years ago, I never gave much thought to what mandalas were. I knew it was in some way related to practice and teachings of yoga because I kept seeing it at local yoga studios or as an intricate design on some yoga mats – that was the extent of my knowledge when it came to mandalas. Every once in a while, I’d see a mandala design on some cushions, a picnic blanket, t-shirts etc. I was once getting my nails done and saw a mandala tattoo on the person sitting next to me and out of sheer curiosity asked her what it meant; I was dumbfounded when she replied, “No idea I just thought it was pretty”. And you know what? They really are! They’re so beautifully and intricately designed and very soothing to look at. It wasn’t until I started to deepen my spiritual practice that I found myself genuinely intrigued by the history and meaning of mandalas, an Asian artwork rooted in symbolism and spirituality.

Pronounced mah-ndah-lah, mandala is Sanskrit for circle and is actually derived from the words “la” and “manda”, which mean container and essence respectively. Mandalas as sacred symbols and spiritual tools have appeared in various cultures around the world – in different forms, shapes, and sizes. Such as Mesoamerican and Native American cultures, the Celts, ancient Greek cultures, the Shinto religion in Japan, to name a few. In Hinduism and Buddhism, the mandala symbol is sacred and represents the universe; its circular designs symbolizing the never-ending circle of life and universal oneness and connectedness. Appearing in many different shapes and sizes, the circle is the most widespread form of a mandala; it could be a circle by itself, a square by itself, a square or rectangular design enclosing a circle of series of circles, and even a circle enclosing an image (star/flower/etc.). Whichever shape or size a mandala is drawn in, the symbolism in the details remain constant. At the center of the mandala is a dot, symbolizing a starting point or a point of conception – absolute without constraints of time and space. Think of it as a seed! Moving outwards from the center, you will find lines and different geometrical patterns which represent the different layers of the universe and the cosmos and the cyclical nature of life. According to East Asian Cultures, the construction of a mandala by Buddhist monks is a sacred ritual and requires around 3 years’ worth of preparation by undergoing extensive artistic and philosophical study (designs, colors, religious teachings etc. are all sacred in the process of constructing a mandala). Once equipped with the required skillset, it could take monks anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to construct a mandala. Once construction of a mandala is finished, one of two things comes next. The mandala is either painted, serving as a long-lasting object of contemplation, or it is destroyed, serving as a keepsake of the temporariness and impermanence of things in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. If choosing the latter option, its remnants are poured into a nearby water body such as a river to distribute the positive energy. Each geometric design, its placement, the colors that are chosen, the flowers or images that have been selected, all of these details are representative of an idea or a teaching and are carefully thought out prior to the construction of a mandala. That goes to show how sacred a mandala is.

Buddhist monks creating sand mandala

Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, believed that creating mandalas was the key to self-understanding and self-acceptance – extensively exploring the mandala in a number of his works. According to scholar and philosophy professor Joshua J. Mark, to Jung, “(by creating mandalas) one could come to know one’s self more completely, recognize unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, and move closer to the center of one’s actual being, leaving behind the various illusions of the self which clouded and confined one’s psychological and spiritual vision”. It was through his devotion to the subject that the mandala was introduced to Western cultures. In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he paints a picture of his early experience with the mandala (c. 1918-1919): “It was only toward the end of the First World War that I gradually began to emerge from the darkness…I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing, a mandala, which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time. With the help of these drawings, I could observe my psychic transformations from day to day…Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is: “Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation”. And that is the self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious, but which cannot tolerate self-deceptions. My mandalas were cryptograms concerning the state of the self which were presented to me anew each day…When I began drawing the mandalas, I saw that everything, all the paths I had been following, all the steps I had taken, were leading back to a single point, namely, to the mid-point. It became increasingly plain to me that the mandala is the center. It is the exponent of all paths. It is the path to the center, to individuation. (195-196)” Jung and Picasso, both prominent figures in their respective fields, both proponents of the relationship between art and understanding the (congested and clouded) mind.

Artist Amy Haderer-Swagman realized there were exactly forty compartments in shell, similar to how babies grow in utero, spin, change positions, and are born. The Mandala Journey started as a way to prepare for the birth of her third daughter Seren.

Simply put, the meaning of mandalas is threefold. Mandalas are sacred and symbolic of the universe, they are used as a tool to meditate upon, and the process of constructing them is meditative in its own right. And this easily applies to you and me as well! There are different resources online on how to create your own mandala, with guides on the significance of the different patterns and colors and their location, so that you are able to create a mandala that is subjective to your own spiritual journey and that resonates with your intention! Constructing your own mandala and even coloring in mandalas (think of adult coloring books!) is a meditative activity, allowing you to channel your focus and awareness into the task at hand. A research study was conducted in 2005 to test the implications of coloring a mandala on anxiety. The groundbreaking results confirmed that coloring a mandala does in fact lead to a significant reduction in anxiety and lower levels of depressive symptoms. According to Marygrace Berberian, a certified art therapist and the Clinical Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for the Graduate Art Therapy Program at NYU, “coloring definitely has therapeutic potential to reduce anxiety, create focus or bring [about] more mindfulness”. Art therapist Savita Jakhar Gandash “finds them [mandala art] to be the best expression of the inner self to lend insight into ourselves and promote healing”.

Carl J. Samson, Padme Resplendent with Naboo Mandala, Collection of George Lucas

So maybe the next time you see a mandala painted across the walls of a yoga studio, on a throw cushion at a friend’s house or even in a coloring book at the checkout aisle of the supermarket, you’ll have a better understanding of the nature and diversity of this form of symbolic Asian art.

Mandala mural in Delhi

“The flower’s perfume has no form, but it pervades space. Likewise, through a spiral of mandalas, formless reality is known.” – Saraha

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