Psychotherapy has long held the view that the mind is the source of emotions and feelings, and thus the only proper focus of treatment (Young, 2008). Yet, severe mental illnesses such as chronic anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Major Depression, are characterized by physical symptoms (DSM V). Ever hear the expression, “He died of a broken heart”? Brain research would indicate the amygdala—the part of the brain involved in sensory reception and instinctual drives—is the store house for the lasting effects of extreme emotions inaccessible to the conscious mind, such as trauma (Lanius & Van der Kolk, 2006). SPECT scan technology has revealed when one experiences the loss of a loved one, the limbic part of the brain (housing the amygdala) becomes irritated and enflamed (Amen, 2007). This stimulates chemicals that affect your appetite (feeling unable to eat or desiring comfort food), sleep patterns (too depressed to get out of bed, or can’t sleep because you can’t stop thinking about it), and libido (lack of sex drive, or using sex as a salve). “Talking” therapies (or for the purposes of this article, an overemphasis on words) often miss out on a rich realm of possibilities by ignoring, or not considering, the potential of tactile stimulation, and bodily activation.
Creative Arts Therapies (encompassing dance, drama, art, music, and play therapies) are physically and tactilely activating, while conjuring and containing unconscious material through mental imagery and symbolism. Art therapist Natalie Rogers creates a lens through which the above stated process of transformation and integration of the different aspects of the self might be achieved, in her article, “Person Centered Expressive Arts Therapy: A Path to Wholeness” (Rubin, 2001). Rogers describes how art making and authentic movement combined, encourage integration and personal expression. She states, “Using the arts in sequence evokes inner truths which are often revealed with new depth and meaning… Movement unlocked our creative energy which, gets expressed in visual art” (p.165). This experience, according to Natalie Rogers, would reveal ‘inner truths.’
In my own practice, I use mandala making as a way to shift creative gears and loosen those muscles. A mandala is any image emphasizing a circle with a center, often including some representation of quaternity, such as a cross or square. It is a symbolic expression of one’s “Higher Self,” what spiritual writer Sonia Choquette describes as “your most authentic you,”—the part directly connected to God. Tibetan monks design mandalas from colored sand in their meditation practices, to put the body, mind, and spirit into balance.
A Visual Language
There are many structured and unstructured ways to make a mandala. In general, Mandalas are created using a balance of line, shape, and color to create personal symbols that represent different aspects of the individual self.
For example, what feeling does this line represent for you?
Does it change if we add red?
What if we add blue?
What if there is a circle behind it?
Or a triangle?
Briefly sketch a few lines, colors, and shapes to describe at least three of your current feeling states. They can be as simple or as complicated as you want. They might also overlap.
Remember, Mandalas are created to promote balance. In order to achieve this, traditionally the Mandala is divided into quadrants (particularly in Tibetan and Hindu Buddhism). Whatever design you create in one quadrant, must be mirrored in each of the remaining four quadrants.
Creating a mandala is about navigating a path from the external to the internal. Finding your center is an essential part of remaining grounded during this process. Consider the center of your mandala. What feeling do you want to put there? Is there a unique symbol that seems appropriate? A color? A shape? Perhaps none at all? There is no right or wrong answer. But whatever is in the center of your piece, is significant.
But don’t worry about the rules. This is your mandala. You can be as strict, or as lenient as you like. Play with your shapes and symbols. Maybe as you work, a spontaneous new line or color appears. Let it happen. Note how it feels.
Reflecting on the following questions will help you to achieve additional insights and self awareness.
- What would you title your mandala?
- How did you feel during the process of creating your mandala? Was any aspect more or less difficult?
- What was your approach? Did you follow the rules, break them, bend them? Did you remain inside the lines? Did you want to breach the perimeter?
- If your mandala had a message for you, what would it be?
- How did you address the center of your mandala? How does every aspect of your design relate to the center of your piece?
- Where does your eye go when you look at the mandala? In what direction does your eye follow the “flow” of your design?
- How are your colors represented? Are they saturated, or transparent? Are your lines and shapes bold, or are they timid? Is your mandala full or are there empty spaces?
- What will you do now with your mandala?
- If you were to put your mandala in your body, how would it feel? How would your body move? Move that way now.
- Where is the safest place in your mandala and why? Where is it unsafe? What could you add to make it safe?
- If your mandala needed something what would it be? If it wanted something, what would it be?
(Found this article helpful? Please share your comments and /or mandalas!).