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Cool Art Therapy Intervention #6: Mandala Drawing

It's the circle game that soothes and illuminates the self.

We humans have always had a fascination with the circle. We experience it throughout nature—in the spiral of the Milky Way, the orbiting planets, and the cycles of life itself. As children, we also discover that we can use a crayon to make circular forms on paper; it's a universal stage of artistic development that every normal child throughout the world experiences. In fact, it is the first major milestone in image-making and for that reason, a child's circle drawing may be one of the earliest representations of the self.

Circular forms in art are often referred to as mandalas, the Sanskrit word for "sacred circle." For thousands of years, the creation of circular, often geometric designs has been part of spiritual practices around the world and almost every culture has revered the power of the circle. Eastern cultures have used specific mandalas for visual meditation for many centuries; the Tibetan Buddhist Kalachakra, also known as the Wheel of Time, is probably one of the most famous mandalas and symbolically illustrates the entire structure of the universe. Circular forms are found at the prehistoric Stonehenge monument in England and the 13th-century labyrinth at the base of Chartres Cathedral in France. Spiritual seekers have consistently created mandalas to bring forth the sacred through images and have evoked the circle in ritual and art-making for the purpose of transcendence, mindfulness, and wellness.

Carl Gustav Jung is credited with introducing the Eastern concept of the mandala to Western thought and believed this symbol represented the total personality—aka the self. Jung noted that when a mandala image suddenly turned up in dreams or art, it was usually an indication of movement toward a new self-knowledge. He observed that his patients often spontaneously created circle drawings and had his own profound personal experience with mandala images. From 1916 through 1920, Jung created mandala paintings and sketches that he felt corresponded to his inner situation at the time [more about this and Jung's Red Book in a future post]. He believed that mandalas denoted a unification of opposites, served as expressions of the self, and represented the sum of who we are.

Art therapist Joan Kellogg spent much of her life developing a system of understanding the wisdom of the mandala, which she called the "Great Round." In her theory about patterns, forms, and colors in mandalas, Kellogg integrates parts of Jung's discoveries and her own research that spanned several decades. In particular, she posited that our attraction to certain shapes and configurations found in mandalas conveys our current physical, emotional, and spiritual condition in the moment. Kellogg also developed a series of cards, each with a different mandala design representing character traits, interpersonal relationships, aspirations, and the unconscious, ever-changing within the life cycle of the Great Round of the Mandala.

An entire system for analyzing mandala art evolved from Kellogg's concepts, assessing everything from an individual's personality to physical health. As a research psychologist, I can't say that there's enough research to substantiate interpretation through using such a formula. The idea of interpreting symbols found in mandalas intrigues many art therapists and Jungian analysts who seek meaning in images. But to me, the evocative and health-giving power of the mandala is much more than just symbol-finding. It is really the creative process of making mandalas that helps us revisit the universal experience of the circle and, as Jung found, helps us to experience and reflect on the essence of who we are in the here and now.

While this "top 10" series is not about self-help, making a mandala drawing or two can't hurt you and you may even find it somewhat self-soothing and relaxing. If you want to try your hand at creating your own mandala drawings, all you need are a set of good colored pencils or oil pastels, graphite pencil and eraser, ruler, paper, and a round plate or compass to make a circle. Try a circle about 10 inches in diameter, but you can use any size paper to make your drawing. White paper is fine, but also try a sheet of black paper, too. It will make the colors "pop" because of the darker background. Because mandala drawing can be a very relaxing and meditative experience, you might want to play some soft instrumental music to set the mood. If you commit to making mandala drawings over a period of weeks or months, you'll also find that the content and style will change along with your personality, emotions, and experiences.

According to Jung, mandalas symbolize "a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness." They have the potential to call forth something universal within, perhaps even the proverbial archetypal Self. And at the same time, they give us an experience of wholeness amid the chaos of everyday life, making the "sacred circle" one of the very coolest art therapy interventions for both soothing the soul and meeting oneself.

Note: If you missed the introduction to this series, I recommend that you read it to get the background for this post and learn more about the criteria for why this intervention is "cool."

@ 2010 Cathy Malchiodi.

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