A mandala (Sanskrit for “circle” or “completion”) is an art therapy technique that can be a powerful tool for gaining insight and self-awareness. It is a circle composed of lines, shapes, and symbols that has been used for centuries to represent wholeness and unity, or as an object of meditation. When I created my first mandala, looking at a blank circle I wondered what I was “supposed” to draw. Then I compared my basic image of a sunset to my classmates’ mandalas and wondered what the point of this was. My negative judgments and expectations set me up for frustration and feelings of failure.
Do you remember being a child playing with art materials? Before your ego was developed, you were able to make art without a care in the world. In life, when we make judgments about what things “should” be like, we can end up feeling frustrated and disappointed when reality doesn’t meet our expectations. It is natural to make judgments, but we see things through the lens of our own experiences, rather than how they are in reality. For example, you might think your art looks “bad,” but in reality, it is nothing more than lines, colors, and shapes on a piece of paper. You are the one who creates meaning out of it. I never attempt to interpret my clients’ artwork, but instead ask questions to help the person find meaning in their own creation. And if they don’t know what it represents, that is okay too.
Many times, our struggles in life are not the situations we find ourselves in but the meaning we make of them. When we allow ourselves to approach life with an attitude of curiosity and acceptance, we can start living with our eyes wide open. We can use our imagination to be flexible in our thinking and identify options. Imagination houses our deepest fears and inadequacies, but also allows us to look at things outside of the box.
I often integrate mindfulness practice into my work with clients using mandalas as a tool for reflection and gaining insight into one's inner world. When we can create with an open mind, we can find deep meaning and significance in our work. By identifying and talking about these images that emerge, we can work on resolving many of the underlying issues that are causing discomfort in life. The images act as a stimulus that allows us to examine parts that have not been serving us well.
Now that I create mandalas with an attitude of playfulness and with no expectations, I can actually enjoy the process of being free to use whatever materials, colors, lines, and shapes that feel right to me in the moment. This freedom allows me to put my inner world out into a tangible form. Sometimes I do not see anything profoundly meaningful in the resulting artwork, but it is still a relaxing mindful process. Other times, it can be a powerful experience to recognize symbolism and meaning that was not planned or intentional.
This is an image one of my clients drew to demonstrate how she felt when she first started therapy. She described herself as being on the edge of a black hole, about to fall in, and seeing me as her only lifeline.
This was a mandala the same client created several months into our work together. It reflected things that gave her life meaning as well as issues she was still struggling with.