by Belinda Nolan January, 2022
For millennia humans have looked to giant, luminous circles in an ebony sky and have been so moved as to bow down and worship these celestial bodies as gods. We are drawn in, compelled by an unspoken belief that our connection to these circular forms will either uplift or inform us somehow. For indeed, our human psyches are wired to respond to patterns within the neo-cortex, our most evolved brain centre. And so we seek them out and nature supplies them in full measure.
Nature is part of the universal principles that Mandalas symbolically represent. The word Mandala is Sanskrit for ‘the circle’ and for eons they have been used within Hinduism and Buddhism to deepen awareness and cultivate spiritual connection through their integration with prayer and meditation practices.
At the very centre of a Mandala is the still point, our connection to the divine within, from which all else comes into being. To know this is to access a pathway forward towards deep healing and to harness our creative powers. Here the inner and the outer worlds coexist.
The psycho-analyst, Carl Jung was drawn to Mandalas for this very reason, for he knew that they had the power to illuminate what was hidden in the recesses of our minds, and once made visible, could prevent the havoc wreaked from living unconsciously.
Mandalas are thus instruments for transmuting what is hidden, so it can be refashioned as gold.
The expression ‘staring at a blank page’ is one that can incite dread for the writer who can no longer conjure words. So too for the artist who ‘stares at a blank canvas’ wondering where to find the impetus to make that first mark. This mental affliction can have us believe that the muse has disappeared never to return. A death of sorts, where many may retreat from ever creating anything powerful again, believing the well is dry. This may erupt with the exhaustion felt after delivering a solo exhibition, a musical tour, a live performance, a novel, a play … and the fear that it may be impossible to muster the energy required to bring this forth again.
Yet for many more who are not professional artists their fear may not be about producing anything of value publicly but producing anything of worth at all. The harping voice of their inner critic can echo parental and former teacher’s discouraging words. ‘You’ll never be an artist,’ which stopped them in their tracks. Judgement kills inspiration and prevents the realisation of artforms.
Right now, across the planet with the global pandemic, people generally are being emotionally and mentally triggered. Artists specifically are being prevented from showcasing their work through shutdowns and border restrictions and the consequent poverty is significantly impacting many. There is the belief amongst some that with all these limitations the creative juices necessary to produce something of worth may well recede.
However, what if we were to step back and see this pandemic as a 'dark night of the soul' of our planet and rather than recoiling understand how the darkness works. Nature our constant teacher reminds us that day follows night, and within the night sky are celestial lights. Our star gazing is our yearning to connect with that light within the darkness. Nature too reminds us that within the dark womb lies the potential to birth anew.
The catch cry of many presently is ‘if only we can return to how it was before the pandemic’. This assumes that returning to what we knew is to return to what is right. How could this be when climate change is threatening the very fabric of life on our planet since human existence.
Perhaps this pandemic, this 'dark night', is a way to reconsider our most pressing global concerns. Could Mother Nature through this pandemic be forcing us to pause, to give space in order for us to hear the ‘voices in the wilderness’, her custodians, and heed their demands? Is there a potential for birthing a new, creative response to help ensure the survival of our planet?
How can our personal engagement with the Mandala be the container to explore this planetary darkness, both individually and collectively, in order to expand consciousness so we can generate change at the level that restores authenticity, creativity and a reconnection to Mother Nature?
To achieve this we must become aware of the existing blocks within us and be willing to explore them. For the person who has lost contact with their ability to create may see this as an emptiness in their well. However, perhaps this could be better perceived as an unconscious resistance to dredge the hidden waters of the well that at first appeared dry. For in truth, within these depths of the shadow lie jewels that can only be accessed by those with a brave heart. There may still be fear as to what lurks below but nonetheless, the warrior courageously steps forward to face this. Inner work always takes courage but we need to be tender in our explorations of our shadow. And we need to know that there are benevolent forces that can befriend us on our journey inwards.
Mandalas, viewd by Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhists (below) are seen as microcosms of the universe and can be that hand reaching out to guide us on our journey into the shadow, to untap the unknown, and have it transform us through its sacred medicine, delivering us from the darkness through the wisdom gained. Now in this remarkable time in history what was once isolated wisdom belonging to a people cut off from the world in the far regions of the Himalayas, is accessible globally. We too can secure the deep wisdom gained through Mandala practice and realize with hindsight that without having traveled into the dark and rediscovering our benevolent helpers, which some may call ‘their muse’, the birthing of the new would not have been possible.
The darkness traveled reminds us that without going into the shadow, we would have remained stagnant. We cannot remain as we were, we cannot continually rehash what once seemed to work, for as humans we are works in progress and our little deaths, which is every entry into the dark, is the way to have us transform into our ever evolving states of being – for we, like our creations, are also works of art.
The process needed to engage with a Mandala to explore the shadow and bring forth transformation is quite simple. It requires a quiet, comfortable, serene space where you won't be interrupted. To begin we need nothing more than paper/cardboard with a drawn circle the size of a bread or dinner plate with some crayons, pastels or paint to fill it.
To help us get in touch with the emotions we may be blocking or want to gain understanding from, for some, especially those more body centred, physicalizing how we feel before we create our mandalas can be beneficial. For instance you may be feeling emotionally constricted, so you would hunch yourself over so you get to experience this more directly. Or confusion may be your dominant thought pattern, so you may wish to walk in various directions with no sense of where you are going.
A more visual person may just need to close their eyes and see what it is that is upsetting them presently and give this a name. Once you realise you have located the feeling - be it doubt, anger, frustration, overwhelm, fear, grief, physical pain or anything that disturbs, find a comfortable sitting position and place your dominant hand in the centre of the circle with the drawing instrument you have chosen and call on benevolent helpers to join you to assist with this process, (do this even if you don't believe there is anything beyond what your human eyes can see). Then fill the circle with whatever colours come to mind. If you want to create patterns or shapes this is all possible but make sure it's a natural outcome from translating your emotions and thoughts onto the page.
When you have filled the circle, pause. Rest easy in your sitting position and breathe naturally through your nose. You may like to then observe your Mandala with eyes half closed to see if there is any other further understanding to be gained.
Once you feel ready, journal what you have discovered from this exercise. At the end observe how you feel in comparison to how you felt before you created your Mandala. This part of the process is very powerful as you get a visceral sense of the transformative power of making Mandalas.
At this point, it would be good to hang your Mandala in a place where it could be seen regularly over a period of time - a week, a month or until that time you feel the understandings gained have been integrated. By continually visualizing your Mandala you are working on the subconscious mind to free it. You will know this freedom when you are no longer triggered by the specific emotion or thought that you had before starting this practice.
Sometimes the healing happens in layers so we revisit this exercise again and possibly several times more, especially if it's been a core issue throughout our lives. There is no rush. We do our Mandala work with great respect for our unconscious, recognizing that it understands when to deliver what is needed to generate healing . Over the years teaching this form of Mandala work, I have seen significant benefits for those students who made this an ongoing practice. If you feel safe it can also help to share what you have discovered with a trusted listener.
For anyone struggling to find their inner artist, this is an invaluable process. In my experience, students have been amazed at what art they have created through Mandala work, thinking they didn't have 'an artistic bone in their body'.
As well, artists who feel stuck in their creative output have discovered how liberating this process can be. They give witness to the benefits of doing this regularly to help maintain their psychological and spiritual well being. They attest to having discovered greater depth in their art making, accompanied by a fearlessness that has broken barriers and opened them up to a new way of realizing their creativity. They further discover too the the beauty and bounty of Mandalas occurring in nature that become reservoirs to tap into for creative expression. I invite you to take this journey and see what gifts are in stall.