Mandalas

Introduction

The purpose of this article is to help you make a visual focus for meditation. The article starts out with giving a rough sketch of how mandalas can be defined, then suggest some patterns, talks about how mandalas can be used, and then goes into some detail about how to actually make mandalas. A bibliography appears at the end of this article.

This article assumes that you already know the basics of meditation. If you don't, it's easy to learn. Contrary to popular knowledge, you don't need a teacher to get started. Just get a good book, and do it.

Definition

Depending on whom you ask for a definition of mandalas, you get different answers. Some definitions are wide, others broad, and sometimes the intersection between these definitions is empty. For some people mandalas, and the making of them, is a highly formalized art, for others they are a means of self-expression. In eastern traditions mandalas are round or sometimes square and two-dimensional. Jungians usually see mandalas as round and two-dimensional. Visual objects to look at while meditating or praying have been used in other traditions too.

In this article I will use a functional definition of mandalas. In my opinion there are two basic uses for mandalas: they can be used as a focus for meditation or they can be used as a way of getting to know yourself better. In the first case the stress is on the use of the finished mandala, in the second the making of the mandala is the most important. Of course there's nothing to say against using a mandala made for self-exploration as an object for meditation, and vice versa, a mandala meditation can be a kind of self-exploration. This definition is a very broad one, it even includes some things which are generally not considered to be mandalas, which in this article doesn't really make any difference.

How to Meditate with a Mandala

There are two basic approaches to meditating with a visual object. One is to try and recreate the image in your "inner sight". This means that you look at the picture for a few moments, then you close your eyes and try to visualize it. When you loose the visualization, you open your eyes again, and look at the picture, and so on. The other is to simply stare at the picture, without really noticing it. Some Zen students use one of the ten Ox Herding pictures in this way.

A third way to use a mandala is to look at it and let your thoughts wander around the subject of the mandala. This is a method popular in Western tradition. The Iron pentagram exercise in Starhawk's Spiral Dance is one example of this.

Mandala Magick

If you stare at a picture for, say 15 minutes a day, the picture is obviously going to affect you in some way. You can consciously use that effect through carefully choosing your mandala. If you are involved in some project that you want to make absolutely sure that you "win" or you have a hard task ahead of you (final exams for instance) or simply a personal problem you want to alleviate, you can paint a mandala that will help you with that. To take some examples: A person involved in martial arts can use the symbol of her style as a mandala a few weeks before gradation. A person with a personal problem can paint a mandala that abstractly portrays herself without this problem or a mandala that represents the problem to allow her to focus on it.

Be sure not to choose a mandala that makes you feel guilty when looking at it, because it is likely to be counter-productive. If you feel guilty when looking at a mandala, switch to another, preferably one that has nothing at all to do with what you want to accomplish.

The mandala you use usually has a special significance for you. This makes it a potent tool. In times of stress, you can use your mandala as a "reality anchor". Whenever you feel that you are loosing grip, you simply visualize your mandala and concentrate on it. Choose a soothing but well-defined mandala for this purpose.

How to Choose a Pattern

Whichever definition of mandalas you subscribe to, they're supposed to be good for you. Many people say that they feel better whether they use it for self-exploration or as an object for meditation. Many of these people imply that a circular design is particularly beneficial.

There is great variety of patterns to explore. For someone new to mandalas, it is probably best to choose something simple, and increase the complexity later on. Start out with a pattern that appeals to you. If you are new to mandala meditation, pick one picture, and stick with it for at least a week, or preferably a month before giving up. It may take some time before you find a mandala that gives the effect you desire, but constantly switching won't speed up the process.

Of course, there are probably people for whom mandala meditation just isn't the right thing.

Suggestions for Newbies:

  • Three concentric circles
  • A symmetric cross in a circle
  • A square or a triangle in a circle

Suggestions for Intermediate Students:

  • A more complex geometric figure, maybe inside a circle or a square
  • A simple symbol of particular importance to your path (star of David, the monad, or a pentagram)
  • A single letter from a special alphabet (ogham, runes, Hebrew etc)
  • The mandalas on the Major Arcana cards in the Jungian Tarot deck

Suggestions for Advanced Students:

  • A complex design of organic and/or geometric figures
  • A complex picture of particular importance to your path (crucifixion scene, a tarot card, a Goddess)
  • A word or sentence of particular importance to your path, maybe in a particularly meaningful alphabet
  • Three-dimensional objects. If you like to keep the circular nature of the mandala, a Japanese tea bowl may be appropriate, or a terrestrial globe. If not, candle flames and burning joss sticks are a fine tradition

Suggestions for Experimental Students:

  • A picture that moves, for instance a fractal computer program
  • Three-dimensional objects that move. A model of how the earth and the moon revolve around themselves, each other and the sun, a lava lamp or one of those battery driven "perpetual mobile" toys that were so popular in the seventies

Colors

The colors you use in your mandala will affect you in different ways. The only way to find out exactly how, is to experiment. If you follow a specific tradition, there is often a color system within it that you can experiment with. You can also try making monochrome mandalas, or maybe black and white mandalas. There's no rule that says that you have to use only primal and secondary colors (red, blue, yellow and green, orange, purple) straight out of the tube. You can use pastel colors if you prefer, or maybe use a very dark color scheme.

Another question is the background color. Some say that the background should be white, but I find that a sensibly chosen background color will often enhance the effect of the mandala. Try using a dark, dull tone of the complimentary color to the main field. The complimentary colors are green-red, blue-orange and purple-yellow.

Frame

You will probably need a frame to keep your mandala in. A frame protects the picture, and lets it stand up against something or hang on a wall. There are some things to think of when buying a frame.

  • It shouldn't be too small. About 1 foot by 1 foot is adequate.
  • If you want to hang it on the wall, remember that you will take it down every time you change the mandala, so make sure the loop can take it. Don't buy a frame with a simple cut-out cardboard loop.
  • You will want to change the picture in the frame from time to time, so pick one that opens and closes easily.
  • The frame shouldn't be too elaborate, as it shouldn't detract your attention. Something gilt with little putty in the corners is out, sorry.

One kind of frame that is recommendable from several aspects are the modern "clip" frames. These consist of one masonite board, one piece of glass and an appropriate (4-6 for this size) number of oddly shaped metal clips which keep the frame together and act as loops at the same time. This kind of frame shouldn't cost more than five USD for a 1 foot by 1 foot frame.

An alternative is to laminate your pictures. The handy person can buy transparent self-adhesive plastic film at the stationer's. Take care when applying it to your pictures. Make sure the work surface is free from hair and dirt particles, as the static electricity build-up in the plastic film will draw these to it. Start removing some of the protecting paper from one end, and gently firm the film to the mandala. Work from side to side, taking care not to create any air bubbles. An alternative is to get a printer to laminate the mandala for you in a lamination machine. This isn't very expensive, the crux is to find someone who does it on a professional basis.

Some Techniques

Water-Colors: Water colors are a medium that many have tried in school. You can get very many different tones, and they are generally light resistant enough, even if you buy a cheap box for children. If you have a Chinese shop in your neighborhood, often they have cheap water-colors in tubes (Flying Eagle brand or Mary for instance) which are easy to blend on a water-color palette or a white plate. Art masking fluid can be very helpful, too.

If you are using translucent water-colors (which I recommend) the depth of color you can achieve depends to a large extent on the quality of the paper. The less glue there is on the surface, the more paint it can take up. Unfortunately, this quality doesn't come cheap. A good quality water-color paper sheet costs two USD or more. Buying them in blocks is usually even more expensive. Some brands to look out for are Hahnemuehle, Schoellershammer and Lessebo.

Many people have a problem with waiting long enough to let the paint dry. I find that if I walk out of the room and do something else a short while (play Tetris, put out food for the birds, cuddle with my SO etc) the paint has often dried when I come back, and it didn't take half as long, subjectively, as if I had stared at it while it was drying.

Some people also find it hard to paint even fields of color with water-colors, particularly so with transparent paint. This is how to do it: Hold the paper at a slight angle towards you. Fifteen degrees or so is appropriate. Blend all the paint you will need for the area to be painted. Start at the uppermost edge and make one horizontal stroke across the entire field. Of course the paint flows towards the downside of the stroke, forming a "long drop". The next stroke you make with the upper half of the brush covering the "long drop", and the other half on uncovered paper. Proceed like this all the time making even horizontal strokes along the "long drop" line and starting alternately from the left and the right. After the last stroke, hold the brush to a piece of paper tissue to suck up any excess paint, then lightly make one last stroke along the "long drop" preferably without touching the surface of the paper. This way the brush will suck up the last "long drop". Let the paper dry in the same position.

Never, ever go back with the brush on the wet or damp paint. If you think this sounds complicated, practice a few times on some scrap paper. If you want to make a graded field, you follow the same procedure but dilute the paint with more and more water all the time.

This is How I Make My Mandalas: I draw the basic design on good quality water-color paper. For this I use a cardboard circle and a ruler. The reason I use a cardboard circle instead of a pair of compasses is that the compasses make a small hole in the paper. That hole would later be very visible, because the paint is sucked into it.

Then I mask the lines with art masking fluid, and let that dry. Next I paint the background, and let it dry. Then I go on painting each field in turn, all the while making sure that the adjacent fields are thoroughly dry before I start. When I've painted all fields once, I decide if any field needs more color, and add that. After that I blend a slightly darker hue, that I paint along the edges of each field. I grade it down towards the middle of the field. When every last stroke is dry, I remove the masking fluid with an eraser. Then I paint the lines with a dark-gray color. This will produce a stained glass effect that I am very fond of. Being very short-sighted, and always meditating without glasses, it's also an advantage that the design stands out so clearly.

Paper: Paper can be had in many colors from the stationer's. There are glossy and unglossy kinds, and many kinds of textures. It's quite easy to make simple geometric shapes. Just draw the design on the back of one paper, clip out, glue onto a sheet of another color, and voila'. There's generally no problem with light-resistance, unless you buy very cheap paper and keep it in a sunlit window.

Ink: Ink is available in many colors nowadays, but most of them are quite fugitive. India ink (black) is always light-resistant, but fluid ink in fancy colors isn't recommendable. If in doubt, make a simple light-resistance test: Paint the ink on a scrap paper. Cover one half of it tightly, and put it in a sunlit window for a couple of weeks. Then check if there is any difference between the half that was covered and the uncovered half. India ink can be used together with common water-colors and even art masking fluid.

The colored Chinese ink sticks are quite appealing, but I've found it to be a chore to grind enough to cover an area of more than a few square inches.

Felt pen: Simple felt pens in bright colors can be had for very little money in any supermarket. The light-resistance for these is often surprisingly good, but the colors tend to be less than tasteful. There are also more expensive felt pens of the kind of advertising firms use. These tend to be very fugitive, particularly the lighter colors. Highlight pens are even worse. Felt pens give a striped effect to pictures that I don't care very much for. Some people learn to control the stripiness, and use it to an advantage, others simply don't mind it. Just as with cut-out paper, there's no way of mixing colors with felt pens.

Crayons: These can also be bought very cheaply in supermarkets. Both their permanence and their better color range set them apart from felt pens. They don't give the stripy effect that is so typical for felt pens, either. Another advantage is that they can be blended.

Pastels: There are two kinds of pastels, dry pastels and oil pastels. Neither of them are easy to handle, but they have a flexibility and a luminous quality that sets them apart from wax crayons.

Dry pastels feel almost like chalk when you touch them, and they give off paint very easily. You need to use some kind of fixative to fix the paint to the paper, but even then the surface will still give off paint when you touch it. Buy fixative in a spray can unless you are used to a fixative mouth sprayer, because they're very hard to handle the first few times.

Paper for dry pastels should have a texture that resembles velvet to collect as much paint as possible. A dry brush can be used to blend strokes of different colors and give a smoother appearance.

Oil pastels are somewhat easier to handle, but they also stain very easily.

Ready Mades: There is a host of ready made mandalas to be had from books, tarot decks and computer programs. They're often too complex to be used by complete newbies, but once you've used mandalas in your meditation for, say 6 months, you should be able to find appealing pictures in many places. Many pictures practically beg to be Xeroxed (or color copied and enlarged!).

Some more or less obvious suggestions: totem animal pictures in popular scientific books, a picture of a page in the Book of Kells from a history book, Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper from any art history book, calendar pictures, the output from Fractint, pictures taken by the Hubble telescope, illustrations or covers from books, for instance the illustrations in Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger etc. And, of course, your favorite bonsai tree.

Bibliography

Susanne F. Fincher: Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing and Self-expression. Shambahla 1991. ISBN 0-87773-646-4.

Roshi Philip Kapleau: The Three Pillars of Zen: 25th Anniversary Edition. Anchor Books, Doubleday 1989. ISBN 0-385-26093-8. (A practical book about Zen meditation. It includes the ten Ox-Herding pictures in black-and-white.)

Starhawk: Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. Harper San Francisco 1989 (10th anniversary edition). ISBN 0-06-250814-8. (Introduction to NeoPaganism including exercises, politics, theology and much more.)

Robert Wang: The Jungian Tarot. Urania Verlags AG 1988. ISBN 3-921960-76-2. (This is a boxed set of deck plus paperback book. I find the pictures ugly to indifferent, but there are mandalas on each of the Major Arcanan cards.)

Robert Anton Wilson: Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati. New Falcon Publishing 1977. ISBN 0-941404-46-3. (The Book for anyone interested in psychology, sex, occultism, drugs, the Illuminati and everything.)

There are scores of books about meditation techniques, so I'm not naming any. Try to pick one whose author doesn't claim to have the One True Path To Wisdom(tm). If you can find one that describes many different methods, you can try them all before deciding which feels right for you at this stage.

Fractint is a computer program for the I*M PC that paints incredibly beautiful fractals on your screen. It's available from major ftp-sites.

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