circle AS SYMBOL ☉ ancient phenomenon ☉ sacred geometry ☉ CREATIVE PRACTICE
THE SACRED GEOMETRY OF mandala art + DESIGNS
Are you one of the many thousands of people attracted to mandala art and inexplicably drawn to mandala designs?
This page will help you discover more about this ancient and widespread phenomenon, from its etymology, through its sacred geometry and utility in modern psychology.
Here, you will be inspired to learn how you can practice the art of mandala drawing and reveal what personal meaning it holds for you in today’s time and place.
The most basic of mandalas is a circle
Most commonly recognised as a circular geometric design, the mandala is many things to many people – and in its most basic form is simply a circle.
But if you’re reading this, you’re probably feeling and sensing that there is more to mandalas than that – and I would agree!
A mandala is a map that describes a pathway between the material and the metaphysical, the conscious and the unconscious, or perhaps even your inner world and external environment. In my experience, a circle only becomes a mandala when it is consciously created – or experienced – as such.
Probably in recognition of this, one of the most common definitions of mandala is sacred circle or magic circle – meaning that the mandala is imbued with a power beyond the mundane.
Years ago, I came across an explanation by June-Elleni Laine that the Sanskrit word ‘mandala’ can be broken down to the following composites;
manda = ‘essence’ + la = ‘container’
Therefore, one definition of the word mandala could be said to be a container of essence.
The mandala is a living symbol
It offers to hold and explain the known and unknown aspects of existence.
It is from both a time past – an ancient symbol we see in diverse forms across the globe – and the present moment, where it is calling the attention of the many.
Common to all mandalas, whatever form they take, is their symbolic quality – a coming to consciousness of something profoundly enigmatic.
My research has shown the mandala to be a powerful symbol which occurs across many different cultures throughout history : part of the language of magic-makers, shamans, medicine-men, mystics, theologians, geometers and initiates the world-over.
It is also a symbol that can be used to guide our everyday.
When you work with the mandala over time, you will come to understand it as a living symbol : a map that charts the laws of existence + cosmic understanding – and also a gateway to personal healing.
Creating mandala art is an invitation to each of us to activate the artist archetype within and express our intimate truth – from the centre of our being, outwards to the very circumference of our existence.
Each person’s life is like a mandala – a vast, limitless circle. We stand in the centre of our own circle, and everything we see, hear or think forms the mandala of our life.
– Pema Chodron
An ancient and widespread phenomenon
All mandala designs have in common the circle – a powerful symbol since the earliest days of humanity. The earliest circles I have come into contact with are the megalithic monuments and rock art formations resident in the landscape here in my homeland, Scotland.
Rock art is a cryptic language that is mostly invisible to our contemporary culture, but these painstakingly-carved cups, concentric rings, grooves, tails and spirals hold an allure that fascinates artists, archaeologists and even psychologists into the present.
We can only speculate on the precise meaning behind these indigenous stone carvings, but it seems reasonable to hypothesise that our ancestors were naturally and continuously drawn to the circle as a symbol of their
own human experience and an expression of their belief system.
Certainly, the evidence left behind by these peoples – stone circles, henges, circular ditches and roundish burial cairns – show an obvious tendency towards circles as intrinsic elements of ritual activities.
Imbued with a mandalic quality, these sites reflect both the very material aspect of human existence and that which resides outwith the corporeal – combining a reverential appreciation of the life-death-life cycle together with a sophisticated knowledge of astronomical events that suggests they accepted a wider world-view than that experienced by many modern humans.
Mandala designs in nature
When they looked to the outside world each day, the prehistoric folk would have seen the rising of the sun, the monthly cycles of the moon and noticed the effect on their home place, the rhythms and cycles of Earth in the sky, land and sea.
As we do, they would have observed the concentric rings that tell the story of a tree, and those on the loch after a rock has been tossed in, or in a puddle when it’s raining.
These stories incorporated their experience of cosmic opposites – day and night, sound and silence, visible and unseen, cold and warmth, birth and death.
Mandala as sacred geometry
The Pythagoreans, who believed in the metaphysical significance of geometric patterns and numbers, saw the circle as particularly sacred – a representation of unmanifest unity, where all cosmic opposites reside.
Many folk with an aversion to mathematics might not realise that the root of the word ‘geometry’ is simply, ‘earth measure.’
In a way, geometry is simply a means by which to understand how the Earth works – through the relationships of form. Traditional tools of the discipline are a set of compasses and a straight edge – pretty similar to those of the mandala artist!
Pythagoras and his followers were central to the development of what we know as sacred geometry in the modern West – a school of thought that unifies mathematics, philosophy and the experiential to explain the workings of the universe, demonstrating the reflection of the macrocosm within the microcosm.
However, the concept that reality is deeply mathematical in nature, and can be geometrically demonstrated as such, is not unique to the Pythagoreans – with evidence that many ancient cultures, including the Egyptians, may have chosen to examine existential laws through this lens.
Indeed, contemporary science is able to relate ancient Tantric mandala designs, such as the Sri Yantra, with vibrational sound patterns – an expression of the constant flux of all matter, presenting in a harmonic, orderly fashion.
Furthermore, modern physics describes the very essence of reality as a flexible geometric energy grid – a matrix of Space-Time, sometimes called the Net.
However, sacred geometry is placed firmly in the centre of a meditation not upon the abstractions or intellectual theory of secular mathematics, but rather, upon the concept of a metaphysical unity – a wholeness and an orderliness which can be symbolised visually, and for which the circle is most a useful device.
Mandala as symbol of the Great Mysteries
Science, philosophy and theology have not always appeared to be as separate as our modern education system would have us believe : sacred geometry has always been linked to the Great Mysteries, and therefore associated with many of the world’s great religions, playing a very particular role in the Islamic faith, for instance.
Whilst many of us today are familiar with the geometric mandala as practiced throughout the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the circle as a mandala with meaning has, through time, also played a part in the Christian faith.
This is visible especially in the architectural features of churches, but also existed as a symbolic understanding, perfectly demonstrated in this excerpt from a poem called God is My Point and Circle, by 17th century mystic, Angelus Silesius;
God is my centre, when I enclose him in me,
And my circumference, when I melt away in it for love.
The mandala goes personal
The mandala has not remained solely in the field of metaphysics as a representation of unknown mysteries, or as an attempt to symbolise concepts of a creative intelligence : for many it has become a device for studying personal psychology.
Here, we can identify a parallel in western Europe’s art history, in which took place a growing movement away from the creation of religious studies towards the more secular human experience. A similar movement also occurred in the field of science applied to understanding the laws of nature, via an exploration of the human psyche.
These explorations eventually led to the pioneering work of Swiss psychiatrist Dr Carl G Jung in the early 1900s. Widely recognised in the modern era for developing the concepts of introversion and extraversion through personality typing, Jung’s most influential work focuses on understanding the nature of consciousness and the unconscious.
Over many years, Jung and his patients created thousands of mandala drawings, which he claimed were archetypal
images residing in the collective unconscious – a transpersonal layer of consciousness that contains all of the events of existence since the beginning of time.
Through time, Jung came to understand the mandala as a symbol for what he went on to call the Self- the wholeness of the personality. As Jung understood the psyche to be essentially religious by nature, we can see a perfect example of the macrocosm of the metaphysical reflected in the microcosm of the human : a new sacred geometry, in some sense.
In the Jungian psychological worldview, there is an archetypal pattern at play known as the individuation process – the individual’s blueprinted design to undergo a specific pattern of development throughout their lifetime.
In this context, the mandala as an archetype in its own standing is seen as representative of wholeness. What appears in the circle, and how the image as a whole is constructed is symbolic of the state of the psyche and the individual’s progress in their individuation process.
The mandala as human experience
Outside the realms of ancient Scotland, sacred geometry, religious art and Jungian psychology, we can understand that mandalas have existed throughout all of human existence, across many different cultures, geographies and time periods.
There appears to be an archetypal force at play that insists on the meaningful circle as an essential piece of our human experience.
I live my life in growing circles
which ring out over the things around me …
– Rainer Maria Rilke
Contemporary Mandala Practice
The mandala has carried a great deal of meaning throughout time and I believe that integrating this symbol into the creative practice of today can help us process and express much of our human experience in a complex world.
Using its inherent symbolism we can manifest a new way of seeing – one that is truly non-divisive, and yet which recognises the truth of the fragmentation that abounds in our contemporary environment.
It isn’t about to make our lives magically better, just by dint of its long-standing and pervasive history, though. And, not every mandala in existence today contains the spiritual vibration that Wassily Kandinsky spoke of when arguing against art for art’s sake.
Still, working with the mandala as part of a meaningful practice, we can stay very close to the questions asked of us as creative persons in this time and place.
In light of the archetypal nature of this magic circle, I propose that we pay close attention to our usage of it, our consumption of it, as well as our creation of it. The mandala is much more than a pretty picture in a colouring book, or a cool tattoo design!
If the mandala is a symbol that you’re attracted to, and you have a sense that it holds some nugget of truth for you, then I invite you to begin to interact with it more mindfully, whether you’re a beginner or an accomplished creative.
Doing so, you are invited to engage with a new/old way of creating culture as an accurate reflection of your environment.
Mandala art is available to everyone when they take the time to learn a few techniques. Delving in more deeply to discover the meaning behind the image properly honours the significance of its heritage.
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