The winter holidays are over and a new year has just begun. The start of a new cycle, whether a year, season, or more personal phase, is always a good time to pause and center with yourself. Within many spiritual traditions, “centering” is an important part of meditation, contemplative prayer, and sacred ceremony. Different faiths have created a variety of ritual tools that help facilitate centering, such as mantras, prayers, ritualized gestures, and mandalas.
Mandalas are ancient and nearly universal forms of sacred geometric art, usually comprised of concentric shapes and symbolic images. They are used for many different types of spiritual practices, such as meditation, healing, initiation, teaching, and prayer. Mandalas appear in the complex patterns of Islamic art, in the knot work of the ancient Celts, in the sand paintings of the Tibetan and Navajo (Diné) peoples, and in the sacred art of Christian mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Jacob Boehme.
The word, “mandala” is the Sanskrit word for circle—or center and circumference—and the essential meaning of the mandala derives from the symbolism of these two aspects of the circle. The circumference—what we usually call a circle—is a form without a beginning or an end. It is one of the most important and universal symbols in human history, representing wholeness, completeness, and the cyclical nature of life. In Black Elk Speaks, the Native-American Black Elk honored the circular essence of existence, which he recognized in many aspects of life, great and small:
Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same, and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves. —Black Elk
In addition to the circumference, the circle includes the center—a powerful and sacred symbol that represents endless potential and the movement outward of the one toward the many. The center represents the seed from which the tree grows, the cell that divides to make the seed, the atoms that make up the cells, the nucleus that lies at the heart of the atom, and so on, ad infinitum. The two aspects of the circle—the potential of its center and the totality of its circumference—are embodied in the mandala’s strong central focal point and surrounding concentric forms.
In Tibetan Buddhism, mandalas are the symbolic terrain of the soul’s journey to enlightenment. The design of the mandala guides the meditator toward its center. Radiating out from the center, in concentric layers, are geometric shapes and ancient spiritual icons that symbolize different phases of initiation or levels of consciousness related to the deity. Every element of the mandala—shape, color, pattern, and imagery—represents a guiding principle or aspect of wisdom related to the lesson it teaches.
Within the Hindu tradition, the mandala takes the form of the yantra, a sacred diagram intended to guide the meditator to experience unity with the center, known as the bindu, or absolute. The center of a yantra is the undifferentiated infinite, from which all matter and spirit emanate. It is the originating point of divine consciousness, and the cosmic unity that underlies the multiplicity of the world. Everything issues from and returns to this point, expanding in concentric forms. One of the Hindu sacred texts, the Upanishads, uses the metaphor of a spider at the center of its simultaneously expanding and contracting web to illustrate the concept of the center and its relationship to the forms it manifests. Just as all of existence originates from a central point, every individual has his or her own inner center.
The widespread cross-cultural use of the mandala inspired psychoanalyst Carl Jung to recognize it as an archetype—a psychological pattern that shapes the human psyche. Jung’s research demonstrated that the mandala isn’t a form we create so much as an energy we express. The urge to create and gaze upon a mandala is a universal tendency of human consciousness just as nest-building is inherent in the consciousness of most birds. Jung saw the mandala as an expression of the human longing to be psychologically and spiritually integrated. He believed the mandala could help people connect with their deeper selves and achieve spiritual wholeness, so he used the mandala as a therapeutic tool, encouraging his patients to create mandalas in their quest to achieve their full potential.
Just as the power of the world often manifests in circles, our own power, or potential, can also be discovered in a circle. The mandala can take us to the still point in ourselves, where we can reconnect with the sacred by encountering the endless possibilities that emanate from the center.
Nature is filled with mandalas. On the microcosmic level, flowers, eggs, seeds, spider webs, cross-sections of plant stems and tree trunks, snowflakes, mineral crystals, cells, molecules, and atoms are mandalas; on the macrocosmic level, planets and their orbits, solar systems and galaxies are mandalas. The human eye also has a mandalic form: The pupil sits in the center of the iris, collecting light from the outer world and projecting it inward. Even the paracrystalline form of the DNA molecule is a mandala, and when photographed from a particular angle, it’s even a square within a circle, like many Tibetan mandalas!
Create a Meditation Mandala
The mandala is a visual journey through layers of consciousness to the center, where we can experience our own potential, as well as the sacred. You can take this journey by creating a mandala as well as by using one as a meditation tool.
Before you begin, remember that anybody can make a mandala, regardless of artistic ability. Making a mandala is an expression of the patterns and flow of energy emanating from you at the time you create it. This energy manifests in color, form, and number, as well as personal and archetypal imagery.
Don’t judge your mandala the way you might critique an exercise in a drawing class! If you are creating individual mandalas in a group setting, arrange the space so that everyone has a private work area and separate materials. After you’ve created your mandala, you can share it with others, but while you are making it, it’s best to resist looking at the mandalas others are making.
What You Need
You’ll need paper and paint, colored pencils, markers, or pastels, depending upon which medium you choose. You can also use drawing tools, such as a protractor or French curve, but try not to let these tools limit the form of your mandala. If you want to create an assemblage, or collage mandala from three-dimensional objects, such as stones, shells, beads, or other items that you can collect in substantial quantities, adapt these instructions as necessary.
Center and Visualize
Close your eyes and try to enter a peaceful, meditative state. Take deep breaths and with each exhalation release any expectations of what you think your mandala should look like. Now, allow a circle to emerge from your imagination. Without judgement, allow feelings, shapes, colors, and patterns to come to you. Sit with these images for a few minutes and allow, but don’t force, them to change. Let them fill the circle in whatever way they want to, forming the mandala. When the mandala image feels complete, you are ready to begin drawing.
Create the Mandala
Open your eyes, select a color, and draw a circle by using a compass or by tracing a circular object, such as a plate. Starting at the center, fill the circle with colors, forms, and images, allowing the mandala to continue to change while you are drawing it (you do not need to be faithful to the mandala that you visualized when your eyes were closed). Try not to think too much about what you’re doing, for you are really allowing the mandala to create itself.
Explore the Mandala’s Symbolism
When the mandala is complete, use the Mandala Symbolism Chart to learn the basic meaning of colors, shapes, and numbers. Note that “number” is reflected in your mandala as the frequency with which a particular form occurs. For example, if you have eight points radiating from a shape, you would look at the symbolism for the number eight. Keep in mind that all three of the mandala components listed on the chart should be considered together, not in isolation. For example, if you have eight green triangular points, you would look at the symbolism of the number eight, the color green, and the triangle. Consider the symbolism holistically, within both the larger context of the entire mandala and of your past and present life. Also consider your personal associations with colors, shapes, numbers, and other imagery.
Meditate with Your Mandala
Once you’ve created your mandala, you can use it as a meditation tool to center and strengthen awareness. Begin by looking at the mandala from different orientations (turning it clockwise) in order to find out which one feels right. Then position the mandala at eye level by tacking it on a wall or resting it on a piece of furniture. Sit in a comfortable position, quiet yourself, and focus on the mandala. Try to keep your gaze soft, but steady. Only the mandala should occupy your mind; try not to let your concentration drift. Once you’ve acquired a strong image of the mandala, close your eyes, letting the image fill your consciousness. If the image fades, open your eyes and concentrate on the mandala again. Continue in this way until you feel your mind is still. If you practice this meditation over time, you may find that it centers you and strengthens your awareness.
Mandala Symbolism Chart
Creating a mandala can reveal the invisible forms of the unconscious by presenting them in symbolic images that we can comprehend. These symbols can connect us to hidden parts of ourselves, thereby making us more complete. Use this chart to explore some of the symbolism that might be embodied in your mandala.
Red – life, energy, impulse, aggression, joy
Blue – divinity, truth, faith, loyalty, peace
Yellow – warmth, clarity, consciousness, comprehension
Green – fertility, spring, youth, renewal, paradise, envy
Orange – willfulness, drive, happiness, warmth
Purple – magic, royalty, dignity, spirituality, imagination, vanity
White – light, creation, spirit, purity, truth, initiation, peace
Black – mystery, darkness, despair, evil, gestation, germination
Circle – completion, wholeness, cycles, protection, cosmos, sacred space
Cross – conjunction, intersection, energy, fire
Spiral – evolution, involution, order, change, flow
Square – permanence, proportion, equity, balance, materiality, earth
Star – guidance, aspiration, destiny, hope, constancy
Triangle – light, fire, harmony, ascension
One – creation, origin, totality, center, God, individual
Two – multiplicity, separation, symmetry, equilibrium
Three – creativity, synthesis, reunion, unity, harmony, luck, magic
Four – solidity, stability, justice, power, balance, materiality, earth
Five – totality, meditation, analysis, integration, love
Six – union, equilibrium, completion, chance
Seven – magic, mysticism, orientation, spiritual order, protection, perfection
Eight – cosmic equilibrium, renewal, stability, totality
Nine – truth, order, endurance, synthesis
Ten – totality, perfection, reality, action
Eleven – transition, conflict, excess, danger, discord, rebirth
Twelve – cosmic order, celestial influence, cycles, salvation, union of spiritual and material