One of the powerful tools available to us for our yoga and meditation practice is the mandala. It can be a subtle tool to help us on our journey of transformation, towards self-understanding and a purposeful life.
For centuries, mandalas have been used to create order and balance out of chaos and disruption, and as a way to connect with the sacred and higher purpose of life. And in our own times where the pandemic, social imbalance, economic disruption and climate chaos is leaving us all feeling stressed and uncertain, perhaps leaning in to the experience of mandalas can help us create a new source of balance, harmony and inner peace.
There is ancient symbolic power in mandalas, and they still have power to help us stay grounded and calm in the midst of our own chaos. And to connect with our inner wisdom.
What exactly is a mandala?
The word “mandala” -मण्डल - is a Sanskrit word for “circle”. From its roots “manda” and “la” it means “container of essence”, a sacred circle embodying some sacred essence within.
The mandala is generally known as a sacred symbolic and contemplative art form that is particularly important in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, an image made up of a set of nested squares and circles that take you on a journey towards to centre. It may be considered a symbolic map of the Universe.
Let’s take a brief journey through some powerful uses of the mandala, some ancient and some modern, to catch a glimpse of the purpose and power.
It seems that Mother Nature cherishes the power of mandala in her own creations. If you look closely, you will see mandalas everywhere in nature, in the naturally symmetrical, circular designs found in flowers and plants, tree trunks, shells, snowflakes, even tiny microscopic zooplankton. Perhaps for strength, order and balance. Once you start noticing, you will see these patterns everywhere.
Mandalas and sacred circles have been appearing in art and architecture throughout the world, and from the earliest know times. Mandalas have been part of human culture for thousands and thousands of years. We find them in prehistoric cave paintings and petroglyphs, stone circles, burial mounds, Celtic crosses, gothic cathedrals, labyrinths, dream catchers…to name but a few examples. There is no one meaning or definition for these sacred circles, the meaning is different from person to person, culture to culture. But they are ever-present. And can be powerfully moving.
Circles of song…
The earliest known use of the word mandala is not an image but a series of hymns. The Rig Veda is thought to be the first of the Vedas, the four sacred Hindu texts written in Sanskrit (1500-500 BCE). The Rig Veda is a series of 1,028 hymns grouped into ten books known as “mandalas”. These hymns or mantras were chanted in Vedic ceremonies. Sort of like “circles of song”. It was believed that the Universe originated in the sacred sounds contained in the hymns of these mandalas.
The Rig Veda provides guidance towards the liberation from the cycle of rebirth and death (samsara) that was believed to be the purpose of life. And in fact the Rig Veda leads one on a journey through the mandala towards the centre of meaning and understanding.
An art form to aid meditation….
The mandala is most well known as a contemplative art form that is particularly important in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Not only are they magnificent works of art, mandalas hold deeply symbolic meaning. A mandala is a circular configuration of geometric forms and images, organized in a symmetrical manner radiating out from a central focal point. It's a meditative environment and a visualization tool that can be used to direct the mind of the practitioner from the outside of the circle (outer experience) toward the centre (the self) on a deep reflection of the meaning of life. As such, it is a representation of the totality of existence, both the outer and inner worlds. And a representation of a pathway to enlightenment.
Many mandalas have 4 gates representing the 4 directions. And this journey into the mandala begins in the east, through the eastern gate.
The purpose of the journey is to encourage introspection and ultimately an understanding of our individual place in the world. So that we can find peace of mind and a state of calm.
Mandalas can be made of paper, fabric, stone, wood or even sand. Some magnificent examples of Tibetan Buddhist mandalas can be found at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.
The Tibetan sand mandala…
The Tibetan Buddhist monks have a tradition of creating mandalas with sand, to invoke the Buddha in one of his forms such as the Medicine Buddha or the Buddha of Compassion. Healing is an important part of the Buddhist path, so creating a medicine mandala is a way of healing the community and the environment. Using crushed marble transformed into coloured sand, the monks create intricate geometric designs by tapping the sand out of small copper funnels called a chakpu. The sand mandala is a two dimensional representation of a palace that houses the deity. As they create the mandala, the monks chant to invoke the presence of the Buddha and meditate on the meaning and thought behind the specific image they are creating. Every grain of sand is given a blessing.
It could take days or weeks to complete a sand mandala, and then shortly after it’s complete the mandala is destroyed by brushing away all the sand to symbolize the Buddhist belief that nothing is permanent, and that impermanence is the nature of life. The Buddhists believe that death is not the end, and that our essence carries on, returning to the elements. The sand mandala is destroyed to return it too to the elements, usually into a body of water.
A palace of the mind…
In 2007 to honour a visit from the Dalai Lama, a team at Cornell University used modern technology to create a 3D model of a kalachakra mandala. From a flat 2D image into a 5 story palace. Have a look at a palace of the mind:
Carl Jung used the mandala in a ground-breaking therapeutic manner, and largely introduced the concept of mandala to the western world. He considered them to be instruments of contemplation. Through his own drawing of mandalas (as early as 1916) and through his work with patients, he realized that the mandala could be a portal to healing. He found that the mandala was the key to self-understanding and self-acceptance, helping one to recognize unhealthy thoughts and behaviours.
“Mandalas ... have the purpose of reducing the confusion to order, though this is never the conscious intention of the patient. At all events they express order, balance, and wholeness. Patients themselves often emphasize the beneficial or soothing effect of such pictures. ... Most mandalas have an intuitive, irrational character and, through their symbolical content, exert a retroactive influence on the unconscious. They therefore possess a “magical” significance, like icons, whose possible efficacy was never consciously felt by the patient.” — Carl Jung
The Mandala Lab…
The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City recently announced their new project to build an interactive space on their third floor for social and emotional learning for all ages, scheduled to open in the fall of 2021. It’s called The Mandala Lab and it will draw on the symbolism of a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, which also serves as a conceptual inspiration for the floor. “By referencing Buddhist wisdoms embedded in the art in the Rubin’s collection along with psychological findings, the Mandala Lab aims to offer tools and new perspectives for coping with the day-to-day challenges, anxieties, and emotional burdens brought about by personal and societal complexities.” Like walking into a mandala, the experience of the Mandala Lab will be designed to create transformational moments through Himalayan art for visitors, offering pathways to develop calmness, resilience, emotional intelligence, and connection.
Mandalas in your personal home practice…
Mandalas were powerful in the ancient world and are still powerful for the modern world. We can use them in our own practice as a tool for meditation and contemplation, as a way to find peace and calm, to transform chaos and suffering into joy.
The HUM mandalas…
Everything HUM is designed with love, intention, and a careful attention to the tiniest detail. The beautiful and meaningful patterns you see on the fabrics of our meditation cushions and other offerings are the unique language of HUM. Now that you know the power of mandalas, you will understand why I’ve chosen to use then as the central motif for the custom designed HUM fabrics.
The beautiful HUM fabric designs have been specifically created to subtly support your practice with patterning on pattern, message inside message—sacred geometry and the resonant treatment of our mantra, our word - HUM - in vibrant mandalas.
So that you always have this meditative tool, this symbol of balance and harmony, close at hand to support you in your practice and to ground you as you move through you personal journey of transformation, from one state of being to another.
Wishing you well on that beautiful journey towards the centre of yourself.
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