Practical Applications of Mandalas (Part 1: Basic Principles)

Adam Blatner, M.D.

(Summary of the first half of the presentation to the American Art Therapy Association annual meeting, Dallas, Texas, November 20, 2009) Click Here for Part 2, on Further Applications.)
November 9, 2009 draft 4website
Other links: Booklets of Adam's Marvelous Mandalas  ;  Explaining Mandalas. 

"Mandala" is a word that is derived from Sanskrit, the sacred language of ancient India. (This language is still used today in songs and prayers, like Hebrew is in Judiasm or Latin in the Roman Catholic liturgy). Mandala means circle, especially referring to pictures or diagrams drawn in that shape for purposes of contemplation. Usually, such drawings have a central figure and some degree of symmetry. There may be a square figure or other type of figure within or around it. Many people still are unfamiliar with the term, but in other circles it has become more widely known, especially in the last half-century. Many books have been published about this form, and it has become well-known in art therapy contexts. (Indeed, mandala typed into a search engine evokes over six million hits!) In some new age websites, journals, and other contexts, mandala has become a fashionable icon. Some websites even offer to help you construct an amulet in this format for good luck.

One of my favorite mandalas (to the right, dated around 1700) is atypical in its use of interpenetrating triangles.
This is the Sri Yantra (pronounced "shree  yahntra), and it has many features. Further discussion below.  (This design was even featured as a primordial form in a recent science-fiction movie, ... The Last Mimzy.) Other links::
Mandala is a term derived from Sanskrit, the ancient sacred language of Hinduism in India, and it refers to a circular drawing, usually with a central figure and some degree

of symmetry, that is drawn and used for purposes of contemplation. (“Yantra” is another term that has a similar meaning, deriving from the sub-field of Tantric Yoga that uses a wide range of methods to experience mystical connection. In a sense, it is the visual equivalent of the spoken or chanted “mantra.”)

Following the resurgence of interest in the analytical psychology of Carl Jung and other sub-cultural intellectual developments in the last half-century, there have been increasing numbers of books published about this form. A contemporary “google” (web-search-engine) for the word brought up over six million hits! I don’t know how well-known the term is now in art therapy contexts, but I am sure that it is at least moderately well-known, as a number of art therapists have done pioneering work with this form.

Mandala as Meme

“Meme” is another interesting and useful term, invented by Richard Dawkins in the mid-1970s. It is a take-off on the word “gene” and refers to an idea (or melody or image) that catches on and spreads for variable lengths of time in a population. A tune or bit of song in an advertisement might become a meme for a while, or a turn of phrase (Retro book.) I think mandalas have become memes—once you recognize what they are you begin to notice them everywhere.

A Symbol

Symbol is more than a sign; a sign has a single meaning, a definite interpretation—for example, the red octagon of a stop sign. In contrast, a symbol can evoke a variety of emotional as well as cognitive associations. The sun, the nation's flag, religious insignia, a graduation---these are symbols for some people, but they frequently suggest different sets of meanings, at least in their details.

The photo of the earth is a relatively new symbol for the Earth, mother Gaia, our home planet. Around 1969 one of the first rockets to the moon took a shot of the earth from about a hundred thousand miles away, and this picture, slightly enlarged, became a prevalent meme in our culture, a symbol of our fragile, beautiful planet hanging in a black, star-specked sky. It was a symbol that suggested the need to think globally rather than as competing nations or tribes, a symbol of how technology has made us far more inter-dependent than ever before. And this picture was a mandala of sorts.

We began to recognize the mysterious ways nature at all levels generated mandala-like figures. Drawings of atoms were vaguely mandala-shaped. If you look down the spiral of a DNA molecule you see a gorgeous mandala.

The way the tiny sub-cellular elements organize around the nucleus of a cell, some of the tiny micro-organisms were spherical—and drawn on paper were sort of mandalas. Flowers, patterns of ripples from a drop of water in a pond, planetary orbits, diagrams of the solar system, pictures of galaxies—all mandalas.

Carl Gustav Jung was a psychiatrist who first became fascinated with psychoanalysis—and for a while was one of Freud’s favorite students—but his independent mind led him to diverge early on and pursue his own thinking. Jung was more cross-cultural in his interests, and noticed among many other great insights two observations that are relevant for this presentation: He traveled internationally in his early mid-life, and noticed certain themes were represented in different ways, but those themes could be discerned—themes such as the mother figure, the prevalence of the phallus as a generative image, the hero’s journey in myth, and so forth. Jung discerned certain common denominators within the many different cultural forms for a certain theme and called these the archetypes. (An archetype, like a number, has no actual form—the archetypal image is the culture’s form that expresses the archetype. See my paper on this website, "The Relevance of Archetype.".)

The mandala form was created by children in their early drawings and found in innumerable cultural and religious

representations. Jung went a bit further, here: He saw this form as a projection of the mind’s tendency to impose order on the amorphous, formless, chaotic cosmos, and that this tendency also—and not coincidentally—expressed the way the psyche imposes a kind of coherence and continuity on its experience, thus generating a sense of self. (Now we make the bridge to art therapy.) In other words, the mandala is an expression of the sense of self.

The Self is really an experience rather than a "thing," and indeed, it is an aggregate experience. (Elsewhere on this website I note the nature of the aggregate experience.) These are not physical structures, they have no definite boundaries, but rather are an illusion generated by hundreds of different inputs from the body and social context and environment as well as within the mind. (I illustrate the components of the aggregate experience of self on another webpage-paper.) Self with a capital S is the workings of the part of the mind—some of which might be similar to Freud’s “ego”—which is Latin for his original “Das Ich, the “I”—and part of which transcends any conscious or pre-conscious functioning. The Self is in a sense also the archetype of meaning-making—that’s another way to think about it, and it performs this function instinctively. Sometimes the meanings are not well coordinated, sometimes frightening—hellish, paranoid—but as there is an instinct to gasp for air, so too there is a deep tendency to generate meaning out of chaos. (If you’ve ever half-awakened from the dreaming-type sleep, you may have noticed the unfolding flood of rich and intense imagery that, if you relax at all, tends to condense into meaningful story-elements that become dreams again.)

So Jung noted the prevalence of mandalas and wrote about this as also a projection of one’s perception of the state of one’s “self.”  This approach influenced many art therapists. (Psychoanalytic interpretations, deriving from Freud and his followers, also were prominent in the early writings of art therapists in the mid-20th century, because Freud (1) attended to the process of building international professional organizations—while Jung did little of this; and (2) as a result, following the outbreak of the Second World War and the immigration of psychoanalysts to the United States, Freudian and post-Freudian approaches achieved a hegemony in the mainstream intellectual culture in the mid-20th century. (As I said earlier, though, there has been a resurgence of Jung’s thought, because, I suspect, no other psychology addresses the contents of the imagery of both cross-cultural studies, comparative religion, and also the psychedelic experience.)


The term “individuation,” is another one used by or coined by Jung to describe the way people work out their own path, and implying a more healthy process of re-balancing and integration. It might be said that Jung’s approach is especially relevant for illuminating the life journeys of people at and beyond mid-life. This is a phase in which the role demands of mundane life—earning money, maintaining a household, parenting, being a member of the community—such roles become a bit less pressing and the question increasingly arises: Who am I, besides my mundane roles? (Or as one woman patient I had put it, “I’ve always been somebody’s something.”) I’ll use mysefl as a case study:

I always had a streak of never growing up, of enjoying play, cartooning, satirical songs, comedians, and I carried this forward and developed this throughout my life—mainly through cartooning, but also through singing silly songs to my kids and such. (Some of my cartoons may be found elsewhere on this website.) Another interest was in religion, which, though I fell away from ordinary religious observance and belief, nevertheless fascinated me: What were they talking about with such passion? There is much more to this story but I’m severely editing it to demonstrate how individuation involves a gradual process of integration of what might seem as quite divergent strands of life-story. A third interest from childhood was medicine, and a fourth interest was psychology, which came together during medical school to determine my specialty. In my residency I found psychoanalysis stifling, especially when I discovered that there were dynamic alternatives such as psychodrama.

It turned out that the drama part of psychodrama is only the tool—the core is creativity—the idea of promoting creativity, and of using improvisation, exploration, as the best way to discover how to be effectively creative. (There are many papers about psychodrama on this website!)  I still find this idea both exciting and hardly appreciated by most of my colleagues. Patients love to be treated as people who might benefit from learning to release their intrinsic creativity. It’s much better than imagining oneself as a loser who’s just trying to climb out of the hole one has dug for oneself.  (By the way, creativity as the core of Moreno’s work—J. L. Moreno was the guy who invented psychodrama— creativity as a theme then allows for more of a bridge to other therapies that emphasize creativity, such as the creative arts therapies in general and art therapy, here, in particular.)  (Photos of J. L. Moreno elsewhere on this website.)

Now the individuation process continues, because I came to realize that my interest in cartooning, doodling, and another interest in philosophy and religion and then esoteric philosophy, and other interests I had were all coming together in my midlife. It was fun for my observing self to watch this unfold even as I participated in the process.

Mandalas became part of the integration around 1969, and increasingly thereafter in a variety of formats, even as I continued drawing, cartooning and doodling other pictures. In my work and play, I found that these figures could be useful in diagraming relationships and feelings. In the 1980s my wife and I developed an application of psychodramatic techniques in the service of imagination development—not therapy—for helping adults just reclaim their own spontaneity. We called it The Art of Play and will be offering a workshop on this method here at the conference later this morning following this presentation. Part of that involved the realization that simple drawing—in the mandala format—could be a vehicle for personal and interpersonal play and discovery, re-empowerment and imaginativeness.

More recently, I’ve both continued and elaborated on my mandala making and realized—in part associated with preparations for this talke—some of the ways that mandalas can be applied, and that’s what I’ll talk about next.

Mandalas as Evocative Metaphors

The circular drawing operates in a number of ways as an evocative metaphor. Let’s unpack that phrase: A metaphor is a way of talking about something more complex and elusive by comparing it at least in a few respects to something more understandable. The sun is a big rubber ball. You make me feel so young I want to go and bounce the moon just like a toy balloon. Life is just a bowl of cherries. All the world’s a stage. These are metaphors. (I use the “all the world’s a stage” as a “dramaturgical metaphor” to explain both role theory and psychodrama.)

An evocative metaphor is a way of using a metaphor that evokes associations, ideas, related memories and feelings. Mandalas are good for this, because when you review a patient’s mandala, you may find yourself asking about certain features—the circumference as boundary: Is it broken, open, vague, or tight and thick. Is this what the patient has or wishes that she had? Similarly, you can explore the design of the center, or if there are layers, concentric circles within the mandala. Are the different parts balanced, and what do the various elements mean?

Of course one need not feel that all this needs to be explained. Sometimes just doing it and letting it be what it is is good enough. Some images one comes back to days or months later, reviews them in light of dreams, events, various growth developments—and then the symbols drawn months or years ago come alive in new ways, reinforcing the growth.

Let’s talk more about some of those elements or metaphors—they deserve a bit of contemplation.

The Circle's Circumference

Not only is this line the circumference, the boundary, the border, but it imposes a kind of balance, drawing in—the circle is the most efficient volume with the least exposure of surface to inner contents. Now if you add tiny extensions, make it a shoreline, the surface expands potentially infinitely, making it a fractal edge. But the real power of the circle is that just drawing it evokes associations to the womb, to being enfolded, contained, and its shape hints at balance. You might come up with other associations to what I am suggesting—I make no claim to being exhaustive in my associations. The point is that it’s a feature that is both explicit and yet ambiguous and invites, evokes, whatever interpretations and associations your clients may bring.

The Center

Circles often have no centers, but the eye is drawn to wondering what is at the center. It’s implied. Often in mandalas the center is specified—but what is there? Is the center itself off-center, and what does that mean to the client? A certain amount of therapy in my mind involves helping clients to more consciously and explicitly identify with the center as point of observation and self-management rather than with the various roles around the periphery.

In fact, children and people do identify with the focus of their attention—the football game on the television show, the characters in the drama—first this one, then that one. And one of my many theories of therapy is that people have only slightly developed their self-managements skills—sort of like a new storekeeper who inherited the business from her dad or her husband who’s just died. She muddles through while learning on the job, and there are a thousand lessons to be learned, sometimes the hard way. But most people don’t recognize the metaphor of managing many parts, so they just fall into whatever role they’re in and muddle through—thus living largely unconsciously. Part of therapy is developing psychological mindedness, the capacity to be more knowledgeably self-aware, more conscious, and then yet more conscious, in a thousand small steps. At least that’s my take on the process, which then may be recognized as being quite complex.

Anyway, how to be a center? First, recognize that a center is possible. Differentiate the center from all the other roles, the parts. Let there be a nucleus different from the stuff in the cytoplasm of the cell.


Within a circle with a center there is a field that invites an intuitve sense of symmetry, of balance. Eyes roughly equal to each side of the nose—this is one of the first mandalas perceived, mommy’s face--- and the mouth sort of triangulated with the eyes, not too far down or one side. This is part of an intrinsic archetype of what seems attractive, beautiful. The duality, and the triangulation.

Yin and yang, the sense of balance, is also very primal, and the whole theme is available as an external expression of the inner feelings of being vaguely out of balance—but how is that so? Doodling with mandalas can release associations that offer clues in ways that are more comfortable and effective than an interrogation by an outside force, the diagnostic psychologist grilling you across the table.  You can be looking at the picture together—the triangle of the two of you as eyes looking at the mandala, the mouth, and what it might be trying to say.

Many problems can be expressed as imbalances, and this itself is less of a pathological, shameful metaphor than having an external infection, a complex, a balled-up worm eating at your guts, retained feces, whatever. In other words, it’s a re-frame, one that neutralizes some of the shame of having problems, being so sick that one needs to pay a therapist. Hey, we all get out of balance now and again. It’s called living.

Distributing Qualities on an Orthogonal Axis

There’s a mouthful. An orthogonal axis is what you learned about in elementary algebra, a bit in geometry, a lot in calculus—it’s the recognition that two variables, more or less of this kind and then more or less of another kind, overlap. And when they do, you get four possibilities. Good at mechanics and math, good at mechanics, bad at math, bad at mechanics and good at math, bad at both mechanics and math. Each mixture suggests a different probable occupation.  To the right is a diagram illustrating some concepts of  creativity and play as one considers the variables of novelty and intensity:

(Elsewhere on this website I created a playful consideration of the many variables possible in the mind---an imaginary "control panel" )

The mind and life is full of spectrums, such as how good are you on a scale of one to a hundred at a given talent, skill, strength, etc. You’ve seen those carnival towers where you hit a lever with a hammer and the indicator rises from weakling to godzilla?  Scales of all sorts.

There’s a great group technique called the spectrogram where you suggest an imaginary line along the floor in a group room and invite the group members to place themselves somewhere along the line, depending on some question—liberal or conservative, feel close to or distant from your father, whatever. We could do a whole workshop just with this technique—it’s very rich.

But the problem is that we are full of mixed roles, so that we’re high on this variable, but medium or low on that variable. In fact it is all infinitely complex, but for working purposes, laying things out in a pattern of four helps people to find their place, and you can do this repeatedly with different things. You could use a box with four squares, but a circle suggests something more dynamically personal and positive.

To the left is a chart I created around 1968 plotting out where some different therapies might be placed according to whether the therapy was more or less active and the goals were

more or less specific. To the right is a similar diagram about the sub-types of drama therapy, created by Dr. Sally Bailey of Kansas State University, plotted out depending on whether an approach is more or less fictional, and more or less presentational--->.


Jung especially appreciated the frequency of the mandala with four elements, and so many things are thought of this way that he used the term "quaternity" to represent any theme that might be understood in

terms of four. For example, for over fifteen hundred years medicine was dominated by an elegant system of the humors, correlating essential qualities of heat versus cold on one axis and dry versus wet on another axis. This could explain every illness—or so it seemed to many physicians over many centuries. In time it became apparent that there were many, many more variables and types of conditions, so that scheme became far too simplistic.

Let’s go on with other things you can do with a mandala:

Concentric Circles as Layers

The archery target is an obvious example, and many mandala forms have several layers between the central figure and the outward rim. These elements mean something, as does the differentiations among the various levels. Is there anything happening between the outside and inside?  How many levels are there? To the right is a diagram of levels of consciousness and development that has been developed by Ken Wilber and Don Beck. (A full explanation of this diagram could fill several lectures and books.)

To the left is another device, the "communi-well," invented by my friend, Dr. John Casson in England. It's a plastic structure with five levels—a richly evocative metaphor that, like a sand-tray, invites the placement of small objects and free associations to center, periphery, and various layers in life or the mind or soul of the individual. I recommend you check it out and consider purchasing it for your office.

What might it be like to develop a middle level? It’s a useful metaphor I use for how to get to know people before allowing oneself to become too intimate—I use the metaphor of a garden, but this can be represented as a mandala with inner lines. The first meetings at the edge, the intermediate meetings, dates, connections—this is the area where some folks don’t know how to use this category—are the others sufficiently caring, compatible—before inviting them into bed, into deep commitments, and then finding they shouldn’t have been allowed in that deep. A common theme, yes?


Another extension of the mandala is to realize that in the mind, figures shift, the mind wanders around, circum-ambulates, as Jung called it. You go through cycles like the seasons. Many people don’t recognize this and so when winter comes, a major loss happens, there is in our culture very little to hint at the right way to cope. You’re a loser. Life is over. Depression-ville. But there are other perspectives hinted at: After winter comes the spring, the song “The Rose,” the art of surrender and patience, there aren’t many models for this, but the mandala offers one.

The cycle hints at increasing warm up and cool down, getting engaged, hyped up, mellowing out, sleeping, the circadian cycle as well as the seasons of the year, and one can even find that one’s own mind, role distribution, life plan, can be balanced also as a series of phases within a cycle of life. There are songs that speak to life being a circle, Will the Circle be Unbroken, etc.

Have the client explore the cycles of his or her own life, using four as a beginning. Others may add more.


This is an extension of the idea of the circumambulation of the self, the soul, the idea of walking not just back and forth, but around, and observing the different positions. I find the metaphor of the garden of your life useful. Which are the trees, which are the weeds, which are the shrubs— nd how can you tell which is which? Where do you need to water, mulch, prune, dig out, drain, plant anew? It never ends, either—you can be circumambulating your soul at 90 as well as at 50. You’re doing it at five, too, but don’t realize that the various play activities, games, fantasies, are attending to whatever needs attending: Are you feeling small? Play superman or Godzilla? Are you feeling big, try nurturing, or if tired of the responsibility of big, become a little baby? Circumambulate your roles, keep them in balance.


There can be movement directly in and out, more like arrows; and there can be psychic or relational movements that are more gradual, that circle through a layer at a time, savoring it. In a wonderful love affair, you might find yourself discovering yet another facet of your beloved; and you may discover another facet of yourself as it is discovered by your beloved. People grow and deepen gradually as they circumambulate their role repertoire.

Pathology can spiral downward as each loss evokes negative self-statements or compounding reactions from others or the environment. And people can be helped to spiral upward as healing impacts in a hundred ways. Most of the time in psychology it isn’t a single upward surge, the miracle drug, the cure. Even when such medicines make a big difference there are often layers of psychological co-morbidities, attitudes, habits, ways of carrying your body, that need to be reversed also. The mandala as spiral allows your clients to be patient with themselves, to recognize that restoring morale may require a hundred inputs of different kinds, from oneself, one’s therapist, one’s social network.

There are also relapses, realizing that, although one has made progress, there are still holes in the mind, the habit system, seductions, temptations, the strength of which hadn’t been fully appreciated or anticipated. The temptation is to give up: See, this proves I’m a total loser, top to bottom. The mandala of the spiral hints that there are “down” phases, that you need to go around again and as the song goes, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

Finally, about the spiral as symbol, there is the hint that the spiral can expand beyond the boundaries of the mandala, arise like a DNA or even an expanding and more inclusive upward-opening cone. There’s a hint of future possibilities, the whole suggestion of new roles, role expansion, spiritual expansion.


As you contemplate center and outside, different parts in balance, re-balancing, you’re also developing a sense of self as a dynamic whole. There are parts that are less central to your values. (Recognizing that they’re there is part of the re-balancing of the shadow complex, knowing that even if you don’t value it, there are parts that are selfish and impatient and envious and hating...). You can use the mandala for a skill development in the area of self-acceptance. You have weaknesses, sure, but there are also strengths. You have vulnerabilities, but also resilience. You have handicaps, traumas, wounds, but also you have roles where you flourish, or at least potential skills and talents that can be useful. You can creatively re-balance yourself, re-invent yourself. You may have to shift your location geographically as well as socially—as the ugly duckling who was really a baby swan had to do— but this mandala of wholeness suggests a deep respect for the individual and the process of individuation.

Summary of Mandala as Evocative Metaphor

In the next (related, part 2) webpage I'll describe some practical applications of these principles. The point is that the mandala has a number of features that suggest deep dynamics in the psyche and in life. I may expand this discourse further, and I’m open to your emailing me with your ideas. If I use them, I’ll mention your name on the revised webpage.   Email to

References: Mandalas

Argüelles, José & Miriam. (1972). Mandala. Berkeley, CA: Shambala. (This was a classic in the field and deeply influenced me; and has a fairly extensive further bibliography).

Bartfield, Martha & Hutchinson, Alberta. (2009). Mandala designs: infinite coloring. Mineola, NY: Dover.

Blatner, Adam (2008). Mandalas and Soul Lessons. Part of Lecture Series on "Deep Maturity" for Senior University Georgetown. On this website.

Cunningham, Bailey. (2002). Mandala: journey to the center. New York: DK Publishing. (See also the author’s website )

Dahlke, Rudiger. (1992). Mandalas of the world: a meditating and painting guide. New York: Sterling.

Fontana, David. (2005). Meditating with mandalas. London: Duncan Baird.

Khanna, Madhu. (1979). Yantra: the tantric symbol of cosmic unity. London: Thames & Hudson.