What is a Mandala?

One of the first things I need to do when telling people about my book or teaching a mandala class is explain what a mandala is.

I learned most of what I know from my brilliant mandala muse, Merry Norris, of MerryNovaStudio.com and Paul Heussenstamm of Mandalas.com. While writing Activate Divine Creativity: The Life-Changing Magic of the Mandala, I did a lot of research on this topic.

The most basic definition of a mandala is “circle.” Mandala is a Sanskrit word that literally translates to “circle”.

Ok, then why don’t I just teach people how to draw circles? LOL!

Upon further research I found that in Sanskrit, manda = “essence” and la = “container.”

Essence container. Now we’re talking.

A mandala is a circular, essence container.

Many people have heard of the sand mandalas created by Buddhist monks. These beautiful mandalas are meticulously created with grains of colored sand. Once complete, they are deconstructed and transported and released into a close body of water.

Sand Mandala

Chenrezig Sand Mandala created and exhibited at the House of Commons of the United Kingdom on the occasion of the visit of the 14th Dalai Lama on 21 May 2008.

Research will often tell you that a mandala is Hindu or Buddhist form of art. This is most likely because the word mandala originates from Sanskrit which is the liturgical language of Hinduism and Buddhism.

How can a “circle with symbols in it” belong to any religion, faith or culture?

Think for example of all the gorgeous stained glass windows in Christian churches. Many of them are mandalas.

Christian Stained Glass Mandala

Hmmm.

I once had mandala workshop canceled at a major bank in Columbus, Ohio because someone on a committee thought I was promoting Hinduism. I laugh every time I think of that!

I was brought up Catholic. I went to Catholic school my entire childhood. I remember when I declared I wanted to learn how to paint a mandala, I had the thought that it might not be right – I felt a touch of fear that I was venturing into territory I didn’t understand. This lasted a couple of seconds before I said “I’m in!”

The mandala (a circle with symbols in it) may be one of the most ubiquitous symbols in religions from all over the world.

Mandalas are central in Buddhism and Hinduism and found in Native American, Christian, Jewish and Islamic art.

What’s the big deal if a mandala is just a circle containing symbols?

As it turns out, we humans love circles.

We resonate with and trust circles. A newborn begins to see in a circle. The sun is a circle. Consider these familiar circles: the earth, the moon, flowers, eyes, faces, stars, snowflakes, halos, wreaths, cookies, wheels, gears, icons, buttons, the Olympics symbol which has five interlocking rings of different colors, representing the five major continents of the world united together in a spirit of healthy competition.

Once a circle is drawn on a paper or canvas, it’s easier for the mind to be OK with filling it up!

According to Carl Jung, ”a mandala is the psychological expression of the totality of the self” (1973: 20). Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist, discovered the significance of mandalas through his own inner work.

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…My mandalas were cryptograms…in which I saw the self—that is, my whole being—actively at work.” (1965: 195-196).

Carl Jung used mandalas with his patients. He claimed that creating mandalas helped people work out issues in their psyche that they didn’t even know existed.

What the what? Working out issues in your psyche by drawing stuff in a circle? How can this be?

Consider that a mandala is a “circle containing symbols.” If you ask someone to draw a circle and draw symbols in the middle, what appears is something from their own personal database of symbols. Their essence!

The circle holds their essence. It becomes their personal “essence container.”

I’ve seen hundreds of different symbols appear on the page or canvas, often much to the surprise of the student or artist.

Students will always draw something specific to them, their culture, their upbringing, their current affairs. “I have no idea why I drew this ‘symbol’, and I haven’t thought about that in years,” is something I’ve heard many times.

I’ve had people say, “I haven’t thought about her/him in so long,” as they look at an innocuous symbol like a butterfly, rainbow or tree.

I’ve had people finish their mandala and proclaim they are going to start “that project” that’s been on their mind for years.

I’ve had students cry, grieve, laugh with delight, feel empowered, more in love, and on and on!

From my own experience of teaching hundreds of people to draw or paint a mandala, I can attest that once the circle is in place, people begin to let go. They relax.

Invariably, at the end of the class or workshop, I hear, “Times up?? I want to keep going!” Even from people who said they had NO artistic experience and were nervous to begin.

Below are many more mandalas from the mandala doodle class I teach.

Every student gets the same paper, pencil, compass, ruler and markers. They all get the same instructions.

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Just like snowflakes – no two are alike! I LOVE teaching this class.

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I look forward to seeing you soon!

Kathy Rausch

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