Many cultures around the world use mandalas in their spiritual and traditional practices, and it has become popular in recent time to reference these objects in a more contemporary way. Some people choose to look towards ancient practices when selecting a meaningful tattoo, while others simply strive to improve quality of life by implementing meditative practices into a daily routine.
The circular form holds rich traditional meanings in many cultures throughout the world, and some of the most recognizable symbols come from these traditions.
- In Hindi tradition, the symbol of the sun (Surya Yantra) promotes warmth, passion, creativity, and growth.
- The Native American labyrinth mandala represents the journey of life, without a clear beginning or end.
- The Celtic knot design is a symbolic representation of a connection between past and present, and a way to balance the self, the spiritual, and nature.
- Buddhist mandalas often incorporate a lotus flower with eight petals as a basis for more complex geometric patterns.
- Stained glass imagery in Christian churches often includes a central figure with geometric patterns surrounding it.
Many forms of art from ancient times – including some of the world’s most magnificent building structures – were based around the symbolism of the mandala.
Native American Mandala
The sacred circle shape of the mandala has been used in cultures around the world as a form of spiritual practice. While some of the most common examples come from Asia, there is a rich history of the use of mandalas in Native American culture.
The Aztec cultures of Central and South America used the shape of the mandala to create their grand calendars and to record religious principles. However, many tribes throughout the Northern American landscape also used mandalas as ways to connect with the gods. These were often circular forms made from the skins of animals that were hunted, and incorporated feathers and other found objects.
The meaning of the mandala is in many ways the same found in other cultures. Native Americans believed that the shape represents:
- The circle of life, and the path from birth to death
- The unification of man, nature, and the spiritual in a cyclical form
- A way to connect with the creators
While mandalas are used as physical forms of design in many Native tribes, the circular pattern is also essential to ceremonial practices and rituals. It is found in many dances, both in individual movements and as a greater movement around a central point, often a fire or important figure.
In the East, mandalas help people grasp the way things come to be and their rightful place in the order of things. Mandalas communicate complex philosophical ideas and convey the insights of mystics. Mandalas are used in special meditation practices for attaining and integrating non-ordinary states of consciousness. To learn more about Eastern mandalas, let us look at the practices of Tibetan Buddhism.
The Buddhist devotee wishing initiation to the way of the mandala must be well along on his inner work in order to be accepted for training. Work with the mandala is undertaken with the tutelage of a guru who judges the readiness of the devotee and instructs him in the techniques at a propitious time and place. The mandala tradition to which the aspirant is initiated depends upon the knowledge of the guru, his judgment of the needs of his pupil, and the signs or auguries of the occasion.
A space on the ground is cleared in a secluded place. A proper attitude is induced in the pupil through ritual cleansing, meditation, fasting, and chanting. The pupil is given colored threads and instructed in the procedures for laying out a circle divided in four equal sections. The mandala is created using paints, inks, or colored sand. Traditional designs and colors are used, yet there is opportunity for some individual variation within the standards. Materials, such as lapis lazuli ground for blue pigment, contribute their own symbolic meaning in the ritual.
Once the colorful stylized form of the Tibetan mandala is completed, the devotee is guided through steps of meditation. These are designed to move him through encounters with aspects of himself that hamper his full realization of pure consciousness. Part of the technique requires deepening his understanding of the traditional symbols in the mandala through personal experience. This inner work is facilitated by visualization based on the mandala. The devotee calls up a mental image of figures in the mandala. In his mind’s eye he concentrates on these images, moving them through prescribed changes in relationship to himself.
Through training and repeated practice the devotee learns to call to mind a vivid image of the mandala. The devotee uses this mental image as a means of bringing about his return from the world of separateness to the realm of unity where he is in communion with pure consciousness. Thus, the mandala serves Tibetan devotees as a pathway to and from desirable states of consciousness. The act of creating the mandala works upon the psychology of the devotee in ways that are beneficial. In the West the benefits of creating mandalas were first identified by Carl Jung.
Western psychological studies of mandala
Carl Jung explored the psychological meaning of mandalas. He saw mandalas as symbolic of the inner process by which individuals grow toward fulfilling their potential for wholeness. In the mandalas created by his patients, Jung saw a natural process of generating and resolving inner conflicts that brings about greater complexity, harmony, and stability in the personality. Mandalas are important indicators of the process of personal growth that moves you toward fulfilling your particular identity and purpose in life. The mandalas we create indicate our:
“premonition of a centre 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. The energy of the central point is manifested in the almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is, just as every organism is driven to assume the form that is characteristic of its nature, no matter what the circumstances” (1973: 73).
According to Jung. “In such cases it is easy to see how the severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder of the psychic state-namely through the construction of a central point to which everything is related, or by a concentric arrangement of the disordered multiplicity and of the contradictory and irreconcilable elements. This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of nature which does not spring from conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse.”
Picture above represents:Carl Jung's First Mandala
According to Jung, the powerful, generative center of our inner reality is the Self. This point of focus within us cannot be directly known. It remains outside of awareness, in the unconscious, and yet its pattern guides our psychological development throughout life. The Self is the true center of personality, but we are much more familiar with the ego, that which we know as “I.” The ego seems to us to be of central importance because we can know it directly with our conscious mind.
Whether or not you are aware of the Self, it exerts a powerful influence on your life. The quality of your conscious existence–your level of energy, your sense of harmony or confusion, and whether or not your life feels meaningful–all are largely determined by the connection between ego and Self. When ego and Self are in harmony, much energy is freed for thinking, caring, and creating. When ego and Self are not closely connected, life can seem flat and boring. There is little energy available for accomplishing things in the outer world.
The Self exists from the beginning of life and guides the development of your ego. Your ego develops within the matrix of the Self and even after it separates from the Self–when, as a child, you begin to speak of yourself as “I”– your ego remains connected to the Self (Edinger, 1987). Throughout life the Self acts as a guarantor for your ego. When stress, inner conflicts, or expanding consciousness challenge your ego, the natural order of the Self comes forward and restores harmony.
More modern mandalas have taken a variety of surprising and exciting forms. Oftentimes today, due to rapid technological advancement, we feel distanced from nature, or our ability to act in behave in a way that seems natural. Yet as we find uses for the ancient symbol of the mandala in today’s world, we are reminded of our interconnected ness- not only to each other in a transnational climate, but to our ancestors, and perhaps more importantly, to our offspring. When we use modern “things” or aspects in crafting the mandala, we affair the value of our systems that are perhaps all too often criticized. The mandala remains a tool of affirmation, and strikes positive chords that can cancel out a monotonous and negative melody.