The Ancient Future of Working Together
Mandalas aren’t just an ancient art, they are a means for deploying modern local and global collaborations.
Mandalas are fundamentally captivating. At first, one sees a pretty picture. But the more you stares, the more ones sees. The more one sees, the more one delves into a moving universe of unexpected geometry, symbols and meaning.
My journey with mandalas has taken me to ancient sites around the world to learn from our ancestors’ own dives. I have created my own mandalas, I have made them with others and presided over collaborations that have been guided by mandalic principles. Along the way, the magical creations that have resulted has shown me that this ancient art has great potential for those of us mobilizing modern digital and physical collaborations.
The way that both the structure and method of mandalas can disseminate experiential learning and relating have great import for our modern ecological and social challenges. Having experienced this in my own life, I am convinced that the deep solutions of our time can be greatly propelled by the conscious application of, what I call, mandalic collaboration.
What are mandalas?
Mandalas are an ancient and sacred art that can be found in every culture and religion of the world. A mandala can be as simple as a circle drawn in the sand, as beautiful as a cathedral rose window, or as sophisticated as a multi-terraced, pyramid temple like those of the Aztecs or Mayans. Like a flower, mandalas unfold outwards from the center, taking a pattern of their own. Symbols, patterns, colours, and numerology weave themselves into the radial geometry, imbuing mandalas in meaning and power.
My journey into the mandala has irrevocably altered my art, life and relationships. My transition began simply enough. At first I made my own tentative mandalas. As a professional artist, I would lead the occasional workshops and on a whim I had my participants make mandalas with me. I was awed that “non-artists” could create so easily, beautifully and glean the benefits of the artistic process so quickly (and so were they!). I was became intrigued by the framework mandalas provided for working together to make a collective art piece. After several wildly successful, immensely fun and communally rewarding group mandalas, I began to transition from my conventional, solitary artistic practice of paintings and installations to working with groups large and small.
I observed that there was something special about mandala making that empowered creativity and community. I could feel the potential.
In my pre-mandala artist days, I had lived in refugee camps in the West Bank and hiked deforested hills of Costa Rica. These raw experiences had given me a visceral early glimpse of looming social and ecological crises. It was clear to me that a co-creative awakening of co-creative genius were needed and that art had a crucial role to play.
Alas, the conventional commerical art world that I had immersed myself in as an artist, wasn’t helping this along. Inspired by what I had glimpsed in my mandala making, I abandoned the pursuit of exhibitions, grants, prizes, and sales. Soon I had left behind my old art practice, gallery connections and income. It was immensely challenging at first, but vastly rewarding.
Sure and steady I have transitioned to apply my artistic/creative energies mandalically; harnessing the vast potential in mobilizing resonant networks of co-creators. I soon discovered that the most powerful co-creators were those closest to me: partners with whom attraction and passion was shared. In channeling the energies of my partnerships with mandalic principles, it took my/our creative potential to a dizzying new levels. Early relationships naively applying mandalic principles led to massive early success, yet inevitable collapse, heartache and failure. Through trial and error however, the principles and foundation for building solid co-creative edifices using mandalic principles have become clearer and clearer to me. Through hard work, countless mandalas and many cocreative miscarriages, I’ve come to refine what I am call Collaborative Mandalic Manifestation.
The ecological and social challenges of our age present daunting timelines for transition. Having experienced the power of mandalic principles first hand in accelerating social dissemination of ideas and practices, I have come to be convinced that the solutions many of us are working on can benefit greatly the application of CMM. Together we can preside over massive-scale consciousness raising collaborations that achieve practical, real world results, with the levels of exponential expansion required to overtake the growth of the original problem.
Making a mandala is a simple process– and one that can have profound meaning. Mandalas can be made on one’s own, with a partner or in a group. Regardless of the amount of people involved, certain principles stay the same.
With personal mandalas, there is wonderful opportunity for self-discovery. Making a personal mandala can be a potent process to explore one’s subconscious, developing intuition and revealing personality. Whether it is my own mandala or that of a participant in a workshop, taking a good look at someone’s creation can provide insights on where they have come from and where they are going.
The 19th century psychologist, Carl Jung, was arguably the first to use mandala making as a means of psychotherapy and self-discovery with his patients. By reviewing a patient’s mandala, Jung realized that they were glimpses into the subconscious. He would give his patients a paper and coloured pencils and with a little guidance would encourage them to make their own spontaneous. Reviewing the drawing, insights could be gleaned from the pattern, colours, shapes and symbols, by both by the practitioner and the patient.
The true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.
-C.G.Jung – Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.
Jung was awed by the results. Not only was he able to diagnosis and treat his patients, he began to see a pattern in the patterns. His review of mandalic traditions in disparate cultures around the globe, inspired his breakthrough concept of the ‘collective unconsciousness‘. Jung described the unfolding mandala becomes as a window to the soul of an individual and a culture.
Guided by Intention
Mandala making is all about intention. A mandala is always made with an intention– whether it is conscious or not. To the degree that the intention is conscious, the mandala will magnify it.
The intention of the mandala is set before it is begun. An intention can be anything from ‘I want to know more about myself’ to ‘peace’ to ‘St. Paul’s Anglican Church’. The set intention is the unseen temporal center of the mandala that guides the entire unfolding.
A person can intend make a mandala for themselves– the mandala will then become a mirror of the maker. A mandala can be made for peace– it will soon come to contain peaceful symbols, colours and geometry. A mandala can be made for a Church window– soon it will use the numerology, the symbols and stories of the religious community.
When leading a mandala workshop with new participants, it is useful to play down this aspect of mandalas in order to maximize the subconscious access of the creative process. Jung and countless art therapists after him, purposely give as little guidance and direction as possible to their participants. In this way the subconcious dynamics of the maker have a chance to intend and direct the outcome.
With more advanced mandala making, maximizing conscious intentionality becomes key. Indeed, the ability of a mandala to hold and represent an intention is one of its most important properties. By deliberately weaving meaning through pattern, symbols, colour and numerology a mandala can hold intentions both simple and complex, all without using a single word.
However, not only will the mandala hold the original intention, the mandalic holding of meaning will amplify, refine, and sharpen it over time. This is one of the most fascinating and powerful aspects of the mandalic art.
Take for example a Cathedral Rose window– a Christian architectural and theological tradition that dates back to the first twelfth century, when circular stained glass windows, filled with symbols, would be incorporated into Church towers. In France, the making of a ‘rose window’ was done using intricate circular stone masonry, stain glass, and lead framing and could take decades to complete. The design would be done in consultation with the priest and bishop to ensure that it reflected the patron saint of the Church and their particular theology at the time. Once completed, the window, shining Sunday after Sunday, in some cases for centuries, would become the subtle, yet definitive, experience for the Church’s community.
In the same way, the sun calendar of the Aztecs, the grand Hindu temples of Borobudur, the standing stones of Stonehenge, became over time the structure for rituals and religion. Indeed, given enough time, the mandala not only becomes a reflection of a religion or ritual– it becomes it.
In the past, the manifestation and amplification of the seed intention were incidental– unconscious. The makers did not realize the full four dimensional, collective and consciousness concatenating process that the mandalic process evoked. However, today, learning from the powerful impact of applied mandalic intentions, we can put mandalas to use consciously as a means to amplify our intentions– from the present far into the future.
Since Jung’s pioneering work, psychologists and therapists have used simple mandala making as an introspective process. Through mandala making, we get a glimpse at where the maker has come from, and where they are going. Their state of being at the moment– their feelings and emotions, shine through along with the deeper dynamics of character and personality. As a mandala unfolds, invariably symbols, patterns, colors and numerology emerge are unique to the creator. Often, to the degree that mandala is unconscious, this emergence of meaning is not skewed by thought and can reflect with uncanny likeness the character of its maker.
Making a personal mandala is simple. Perhaps the best way to do so, is to set aside a focused, uninterrupted hour for yourself, and take a walk in the garden or on the beach. Gather leaves, flowers, seeds, small stones and shells that catch your eye. You’ll need a good assortment, so bring a basket. Bring them home and set a out a white sheet or large white paper on the floor or on the table. Try to gently mark a center point on your white space. When I do workshops in schools, I will hand out a sheets of paper with a lightly drawn circle and center point– I find this helps focus and enhance the process without undue interference.
When you’re all set up, take a few deep, relaxing breaths, clear your mind, and begin.
For your first mandala, focusing on intuitively putting down your pieces– no need to think about it. Let the mandala and the pattern unfold. Try not to do any correcting: A piece laid, is perfectly played. With mandala making mistakes simply don’t exists. Work with what unfolds. Stay present to the emotions and feelings that emerge as you work with apparent “mistakes” and the urge to correct.
Keep putting your pieces down until it feels like your mandala is complete. Take another breath or two before concluding. Often the most important insights come just when you think its all over. When no more pieces can be laid– you’re done.
Take a few moments to review your creation. Try to remember the feelings that came up as you made the mandala and what incited them. If you keep a journal, this can be a good moment for an entry!
Be sure to take a photo so that you can review the mandala, the next day, and of course, later in your life. Share your mandala with your friends and ask them in particular what they feel when they observe your creation. Often the reactions and emotions of our friends, partners and family to our mandalas hold valuable insights about ourselves and our relationships with them.
Creating a mandala with a partner, is a first step in experiencing the distinct creative power of mandalic collaboration. Partner mandalas, like personal mandalas can be used for introspection– however, this time instead of a glimpse of one person’s subconscious we glimpse the interpersonal dynamics between two people. These mandalas, are often a unique experience for those who make them for the first time. Unlike most board or card games, mandala making is not movitivated by comptetively besting one’s “oponent”. Instead, the mandala is only realized to the degree that the participants can synchronize harmoniously.
It is a phenomenon that is better experienced than described!
To make a partner mandala, you’ll need two or three bunches of many similar objects– for example a bowl of dried beans, a bowl of beach pebble and another of small shells. Unlike the personal mandala where you had a variety of similar objects (i.e. leaves and flowers) this time, it is more helpful to have a few groups of many identical objects– or even just one type object or material such a clay or play-dough. With personal mandalas we’re interested in the end expression. With partner mandalas we’re more focused on the collaborative process– and the similar materials will help bring this out.
Together set aside a quiet, uninterrupted moment in your day to make your mandala. Lay out a sheet or large sheet of paper on the floor or table. Indicate with a small pencil mark or fold the center of your mandala. Set the bowls with your objects evenly around the space (i.e. a bowl of pebbles in one corner, shells on another, etc) for use by both partners during the creation process.
When you’re ready, shift into silence for the duration of the mandala making. Let the youngest begin first. Take turns laying pieces. In subsequent mandalas you can do away with turns, but this is an important guideline to get started.
The partner mandala making process comes to its end when both parties concur that creation is complete.
The silence can then be broken and the process and the final product can be discussed. Shift in to speaking in turns. This time, the olderst begins first. It is important to give each the other an uninterrupted moment to express what they felt and thought during the process. If there is a third party holding the space, the facilator should encourage the makers to tap into the feelings that came up during the process.
Often the mandala is a microcosm of the feelings and dynamics in the two maker’s real-world relationship. The values and personalities of each person tend to emerge like the tips of ice-berg poking up above the sea. The mandala making process brings these to the surface and allows a rare opportunity to shine a light on them. If the partners’ mandala has been made in a group context, it is helpful to ask others around what they feel and think when they observe the final mandala.
Be mindful of the motivation that kept you and your partner going until the end of the mandala. Often the process that emerges is a little like chess– yet without the drive of winning or conquest! In this way partner mandalas are a profoundly enlightening experience of the spirit of pure human collaboration. The old paradigm that we need the ‘invisible hand’ of competition, personal gain, or self-interest to motivate society and economy, can quietly fall away.
My personal experience of mandala making is that our deep longings for beauty and harmony are far more powerful.
In group mandalas, where three or more participants gather to make a mandala, the collaborative spirit has even more of a chance to emerge. In a group mandala, as more people join, the less one personality can guide the process, and the more the groups energy and character can express itself.
In the group mandala making workshops that I have led, I have watched as collaborations turn magical: a group of people can come together, often strangers, and a mandala emerges that is much more than sum of its parts. The arrangements that emerge are invariable reflections of the deep values (often ancestral and religious) of the group making the mandala. Patterns, symbols, numerology and colors emerge that are unique to the cultural context.
When groups of people make mandalas, the dynamics of personality and interpersonal interaction are likewise laid bare. This powerful dynamic of focused collective attention raises both the consciousness of the participants and of the group.
When the group has a chance to process the experience afterwards, profound insights are inevitably mined. I find it helpful to form a circle around the completed group mandala with the co-creators. We then go around the circle and take turns sharing our thoughts and feelings of the process. It is helpful if the presidor of the mandala holds the circle and gently guides the circle sharing.
Try a group mandala with your friends or family
Choose your medium
To make a group mandala you’ll need a lot of one type of object. For the purpose of your first group mandala, something simple like seeds, small stones, buttons, or leaves is a good starting point. Note, that its best if what ever object you choose is relatively consistent among its units. In other words, if you choose to use stones, they should all be about the same size! Of course, variation can liven things up too. Using stones of the same size, but several different colors is a good start. Depending how many people are joining, you’ll also need two dozen or so pieces per person.
Set the Space
Choose your space together carefully. You’ll want an open area where you can all gather around in a circle. The dinner table is a good place to start. Lay a large piece of paper, a sheet of table cloth down. Indicate with a small dot or pencil mark the center of the space. Sometimes it can be helpful to indicate with a thin pencil line the perimeter of a circle around the center. Both your center and circle and not intended to be part of the mandala, but rather to help define the space for your creation.
Gather around the space. Make sure that your objects are easily accessible by everyone. It can help to lay out plates in each corner, or in front of every participant. Make sure everyone understand the parameters. A good set of guidelines is to work in silence is to start with the youngest, taking turns in a clockwise circle. All pieces that are layed are honored after the participants turn is over. Participants may nod to skip their turn. When no one feels like laying a piece down again, the mandala is complete.
When the mandala is done, have everyone stand up and take a look from above or a different angle. Sit back down around the mandala, and go around the circle again (starting from the eldest) and hear how experience was for everyone. As each person shares, the others listen with minimal interruption. Encourage participants to share the feelings that came up during the process. You may need to go around the circle several time to fully process the mandala, the collaboration and everyone’s experience.
Mandalas as Medium
Mandalas aren’t just a profound process, they are also a mesmerizing medium.
With our look at personal, partner and group mandalas, we’ve been focused on the process of making a mandala. In fact, the intention of these mandalas has been of exploring the process. But of course, mandalas are also their end result. As an art form, mandalas are a rich and powerful aesthetic medium. Once you’ve had a chance to understand the mandala making process, you can then start to create rich and meaningful mandalic creations that hold specific intentions.
Fundamental to mandala making, are the symbols that emerge– or that we consciously weave in. Symbols, include patterns, numbers, colors, or icons and are what give mandalas their meaning. The symbols that emerge subconsciously in process-mandalas, find their roots in the deep and often ancient flows of tradition that we find ourselves immersed in. When crafting an intentional mandala, it is important to be aware of the local faith, earth and indigenous context. In our exploratory mandalas we let the symbols emerge. Working in the medium of the mandala we choose the symbols to align with our intention.
We can learn much from the spiritual traditions around the world that have been working with mandalas for centuries. Perhaps the most notable is that of the Tibetans. The Tibetan tradition has used mandalas both as process and medium for almost thousand years. Tibetans monks used the mandala making process as a from of meditation to purify and heal the mind in the journey towards enlightenment.
Their mandalas were also an end-art. Groups of monks, would gather for days and weeks to make mandalas with colored sand. Their mandalas were made around a specific intentions: perhaps blessing a new temple, asking for peace in a conflict, harmony in a community, etc. The mandala that would emerge would contain the appropriate symbols, colors and patterns– chosen and planned ahead of time. Without speaking, the monks work together within the dynamic of the blossoming symmetry. In this way their collective intention and prayer for the space is made. The process affected not only the makers of the mandala, but those observing the process and the final creation. In so doing the collective consciousness of the surrounding community would be raised towards the focus of the intention.
The Tibetan mandala making traditional is circular in more ways than one. By using sand, the end of the mandala, is intended from the very beginning. In a symbol of the impermanence of all things and a representation of the cycle of creation and destruction, the Tibetan monks will, after the mandala has stood for a few days or weeks, destroy it. All the colored sand will be mixed up by hand, collected, and brought to rivers or streams, where it will be ceremoniously deposited as a blessing– to share the good energy of the mandala with the rest of the world. For the Tibetans, the mandala’s physicality is secondary to the moment of coming together, focused attention, and the ultimate intention of the process.
This vibrant tibetan mandala making tradition continues to this day.
Artistic Mandalic Collaborations
In the same way as the Tibetans make a sand mandala with conscious creative intention, a group can come together to make a collective mandala. To the degree that we are aware of the principles in play, the process can become a profound experience in collaboration and consciousness raising.
The principles of the mandala can dramatically empower collaborations. Let us review the making a sand mandala to draw out the core principles at play.
- The intention is clear to all participants and those observing (i.e. a peace blessing for a space)
- The space that is choosen reflects an aspect of the intention (the location to be blessed)
- The medium of the mandala is symbolic reflects an aspect of the intention (sand = impermanence)
- The medium of the mandala is accessible (the sand and tools are equally available to each cocreator)
- The end of the creation (the destruction of the mandala and dispersal of the sand to rivers and streams), is an intended and planned part of the creation.
By following these principles we can preside over beautiful processes that lead to beautiful and deeplyl meaningful mandalic creations. In the end both the process and the creation reflect our intention and bring together all the participants in experiencing and holding it.
I’ve had the pleasure of leading dozens of such artistic mandala creations around the world. In each case, I’ve carefully selected a the medium, researched the cultural context, and held the space for a community to come together and create. Let me tell you, its a magical process to behold!
Presidor, Participants & Commitment
The person, couple or group who begins a mandala has a unique role.
For a long time I have wrestled with naming the unique role of the one seeding and overseeing the unfolding of a mandala. Words such as ‘leader’ and ‘orchestrator’ fail to capture the unique position and dynamics of the person/couple/group who get things going. I’ve finally settled on the term ‘Presidor’, from the root verb ‘preside’. After all, those leading a mandalic collaboration aren’t ‘leaders’ in the classical alpha-bosses sense of the word. If anything they are Omega leaders, performing their role behind the stage, out of the lime-light.
Those presiding over the mandala not only seed the core intention, they also hold the space with their commitment to the unfolding.
The strength and consequence of an unfolding mandalic collaboration is contingent on the degree of commitment by the participants. The word commitment here, is used not in a legalistic sense of set obligations or temporal period. Rather, it refers to the existential choice, authenticity and passion with which the collaborator joins the process.
Thus, mandalic collaborations often begin with ritual– a prayer, a circle, a clear statement of intention. In this way, the collaborator can sense their resonance to the expressed intention and geometry. The collaborator can then gain inner clarity, and level up their commitment. Commitment in this sense is not constrained by time. There is no promise of participation for a month or a week or a day. Instead, the commitment is deeply grounded in the Now of the creative process and the physically felt resonance of the collaborator.
Those who are holding the space for the mandala, from the presidor to the participants, know this, and hold no temporal or logistical requirements to the participants. This phenomenon is witnessed easily in physical mandala making: a collaborator will see clearly how they can contribute, they will jump in, passionately and single-mindedly they will contribute, then, as the creative urge wanes, they will withdraw, often letting another take their place. The presidor often sets the bar of commitment by his or her presence at the outset of the collaboration.
The extent of the presidors authenticity and commitment enable those who join to participate likewise. In this way, the leading of a ritual, and clear expression of the intention and geometry by the presidor at the outset are essential to innate character of the mandalic unfolding.
Supra Sexual Co-creativity
In her book Conscious Evolution, Barbara Marx Hubbard argues that it is time to shift the application of sexual/creative energies from procreation to co-creation. She coins the term ‘supra sexual co-creativity’ to describe the energy that fuels this type of creativity.
The mix of energies that we all know as passion, love, and desire are the most powerful in our lives. These energies bring us together into romances, marriages, partnerships, creating homes and families. To the degree that there is sexual attraction between two people, the co-creative energies are more powerful. As countless poets have attested to, for love humans have moved mountains. This has particular relevance for mandala making. As we have seen in partner and group mandalas, mandalas enable us to conscious channel creative energy towards an intention.
According to Marx-Hubbard, creative artistic energy is inseparable from the sexual energy that powers the continued thriving and continuation of live. Artistic creativity is a manifestation of our life force / sexual energies. Creative/sexual energy that is consciously channeled between two attracted individuals, she calls ‘supra sexual’. In this way she argues that with the light of consciousness, we can shift our procreative drive to cocreating.
“Men and women join now, not only to have a child, but also to help give birth to each other, to support each other in full self-expression. As the old family structure breaks up, the new co-creative family emerges, based not only on the joining of our genes to have a child, but also on the joining of our genius, to give rise to our full, creative selves“
The genius that Hubbard refers to are the deep seeded desires that make use the unique humans that we are– the primal urges, the subtle dispositions, the fears, the loves, the shadows and the lights of our soul. As we go about our lives, these all manifest themselves in an unseen web of our choices and decisions and relationships, radiating outward from the individual as they manifest their reality, and create their world over time. For the most part, the creation and awareness of this web is unconscious. The making of a personal mandala, as we have seen, is a useful way to glimpse it.
As we have also seen, mandalas are fundamentally a means of channeling creative expression that can hold and amplify and intention.
When two or more individuals are involved in the inception of a mandala’s intention, there is the potential to harness these supra-sexual energies. This is particularly the case when two individuals sharing affection, attraction, and/or love, come together. To the extent that they can rise above the subconscious primal pull of their attraction, and guide it consciously, therein lies tremendous co-creative potential. The process of making a partner mandala is useful in gaining perspective over the subconscious the attraction and personality dynamics at play.
With an awareness of the potential of applied supra-sexual energy, we can consciously use the methods and principles of mandalic collaboration to guide our cocreations. The web that is woven between two individuals can massively magnify its potency and coherence. The steps are identical to that of seeding and presiding over a mandala. However, key is that each party shares an equal role presiding over the co-creation.
“Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”
– Pierre Teilhard de Chardin