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What Is a Mandala? (No, Not Nelson. That's Mandela)

Mandala
A colorful sand mandala being created by Tibetan monks Jamyang Zangpo/Getty Images

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Upon arriving in Ubud, Bali, last spring, one of the first things that struck me about my surroundings, besides the city's bumper-to-scooter traffic jams and awe-inspiring views was the abundance of mandalas at every turn. I recognized the intricate, circular designs from texts I'd read during my yoga teacher training program, but truthfully hadn't learned much about the significance of their design and presence. Thankfully, a couple of talented artists helped answer all my mandala questions.

What Is a Mandala?

A spiritual and ritual symbol seen throughout Asian cultures, the mandala is a geometric design produced in many forms: on paper, cloth, with threads, wood, metal, stone or in a variety of other artistic modalities. Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as other religions and cultures use the mandala to signify different aspects of the universe, and the most basic form of the symbol consists of concentric circles arranged around a single point.

"The word mandala comes to us from the Sanskrit language and loosely translates as 'circle," says Jamie Locke, mandala hand carver, resident artist and founding member of the Red Barn Arts Collective in Indianapolis, Indiana. "Mandalas are central in Hinduism and Buddhism but can also be found in many cultures and religions around the world such as Native American, Jewish, Christian and Islamic art for example. Typically containing symbolic geometric designs, which can be simple, intricate or complex, the mandala is often used to teach about spirituality and one's place in the universe. Mandalas are believed to represent different aspects of the universe such as unity, wholeness, harmony and our relation to infinity."

According to experts like Stephen Meakin, owner and principal of United Kingdom-based The Mandala Company & The Academy of Geometric Arts, the symbols have deep roots dating back to ancient Nepal. "They are patterns originally created by Tibetan monks as ritualistic symbols made with colored rice powder, often depicting gateways and temples surrounding a principal deity," Meakin says. "It should be understood that these monks were keen to point out that they were expressing an inner reality and noble path and as such, the artist expression was of little importance beyond the symbolic."

While the mandala may have appeared as early as the first century B.C.E., it took hundreds of years for it to gain popularity in the West. "In 1938, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung visited an ornately decorated monastery near Darjeeling," Meakin says. "It was here that Lama Rimpoche Gomchen introduced him to the painted artwork as the 'khilkor' or 'mandala.' Jung was amazed by the artwork and recognized images and patterns that were repeated in not only the artwork of his patients, but also in the arts and architecture of the ancient world. Jung was well known for taking notes and now the word mandala has a much broader metaphysical meaning which he brought back to the West."

And while traditional mandalas consist of those signature concentric circles, modern mandalas often integrate a variety of geographic elements. "These days, the word 'mandala' is used to describe any 2D circular pattern or 3D form," Meakin says. "Everything from a gothic cathedral rose window to a child's painted flower pattern could be called a 'mandala' or perhaps 'mandala'-esque?"

Mandalas and Meditation

Creating and reflecting on the mandala's signature design elements are both considered meditative practices, but many also view mandalas as tools for relaxation and creativity. For Locke, a self-taught artist who began creating mandalas in 2007, the creative process is as centering and rewarding as the final outcome.

"As far back as I can remember, I've always been drawn to designs concentric in nature, as evidenced by most of my childhood doodles!" she says. "It wasn't until I discovered the Hindu art form of mehndi that I really started exploring the mandala. As I began to create mandalas, it didn't take long to notice the benefits widely known to those who engage in this practice such as increased focus, mental clarity, creativity and overall happiness. It's an active meditation that has become my centering practice. It reminds me of my essence and propels me to dig deeper into my own healing and growth. I always say that, for me, the process of creating a mandala is always one of inspired revelation, elemental surprise and pure bliss."

"It seems beyond doubt that there is something visually nourishing about the mandala no matter how simple or infinity complex they may be," Meakin says. "Could it be that reassuring sense of resolve or wholeness that we can experience on looking for a fleeting moment or longer?"

Creating Modern Mandalas

Today's mandalas can be found everywhere from yoga studios to dream catchers to art exhibits, and the artists who create them say they continue to draw inspiration from their own spiritual connections to the process and when it comes to the creative process itself, Locke says the possibilities are limitless. "There are countless ways to create and display a mandala," she says. "I have personally seen mandalas created using sand, stones, leaves, food, flower petals, tattooed, stain glass, ink and paper and paint on canvas or walls. Personally, for me, carving mandalas on wood is my one of my favorites. I typically start in the middle of the wood canvas, creating a circle and then working concentrically, build on each layer by carving intricate, geometric and floral designs. However, it is my personal belief that almost every surface can be used as a canvas for mandalas."

If observing the unique appearance of mandalas inspires you to create your own, Locke says there's no need to be intimidated by the symbol's rich history and complexity. "You don't have to be an artist to create a mandala!" she says. "While I have put in a lot of effort and practice creating my own style of mandala making, I have no formal training whatsoever. I simply had a deep desire to learn and practice! Should you find yourself drawn to mandalas and have the desire to create your own, I encourage to just begin! There are numerous tutorials online that can get you started. It's a personal journey, so letting go of judgment and comparison will greatly benefit your mandala practice."

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