Circular symbols exist around the world as part of different cosmologies and religions. They’re often used to represent the universe, the infinite, wholeness. They’re used in serious ways and lighthearted ways, and not exclusively in religious ways.
A couple of months ago I was going through some boxes of my old things at my parents’ house while they were packing to move, and I found a notebook that I’d filled with circles. Some of them were perfect circles (thanks to a compass which I definitely never used for anything other than filling notebooks with hundreds of circles) and most of them were imperfect, but when I flicked through them I remembered the feeling of drawing them. I was focused and utterly absorbed and unreasonably happy every time I completed a circle, or a circle within a circle, or circle on top of a circle. I was just entertaining myself, but looking at them now – having spent some years studying yoga, and reading a lot about making mandalas – I wonder what it is about circles that make them so bizarrely captivating. I never felt the same focus when I drew squares or rectangles or hexagons (maybe you did, though?).
Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle, and it commonly known to refer to very beautifully detailed circles that form part of meditative traditions. It’s also become a term used to diagrams or patterns that aren’t strictly circular, if they’re made to be representations of the universe.
In Tibetan Buddhism, mandala holds and transmits positive energy, and is used to develop compassion and wisdom, and to help people on the journey towards enlightenment. Monks create intricate mandalas with coloured sand – it takes days of work to make one, and incredible patience, and when the mandala is finished they sweep up the sand and wash it away in water. It’s a practice that reminds the practitioners of the impermanence of their lives and everything around them. In Hindu religion, a yantra is a mandala that symbolically houses a deity; each one is unique to its particular god or goddess, and creating the design calls that deity into the presence of the practitioner. Temples are often built to the design of yantra. In Islam, and in Native American culture, and in Christianity, and in many many other cultures and religions and philosophies of life across the world, the circle appears at the centre of symbolic depictions of eternity and lifecycle, unity and oneness.
Hanging around in places where people do yoga, I often meet people who draw mandalas. The thing they usually have in common is that the product – the final image on the paper – is less important than the process. The mandala at the top of this post is by Natalie Young, a yoga teacher in Leeds; she says “when I draw, I am totally absorbed in the picture. I can’t even listen to music. In yoga we’re always trying to meditate and now I realise I have been meditating all along – even when I was young and would sit and draw for hours.” The making of the image is the practice: the absorption in the pattern as it evolves brings about a state of calm. I also spoke to Yogacharini Kalavathi Devi, who makes a kind of rice mandala called kolam, traditional to southern India; she told me that “they are good at teaching you not to hold onto anything, as you create something beautiful which doesn’t last.”
Melody Treasure runs mindfulness courses in which she guides people to draw mandalas and to doodle; she comes from a background in social work and says that making a mandala “allows one to be mindful for the duration of its creation.” When I heard from Melody I was reminded of a free lecture I went to at the Wellcome Collection, which was all about doodling: speakers included the psychologist Sandi Mann; artist and writer Tamarin Norwood; and composer Antonia Barnett-Mcintosh. They talked about how instead of being frowned upon in formal settings, doodling should be encouraged – it helps you concentrate and makes you calm, and you find ideas in the scrawly depths of your doodles that wouldn’t have become clear to you if you hadn’t been drawing nothing-in-particular. (You can listen to the whole discussion here).
A few years ago you’d maybe find a book of mandalas in Watkins Books, London’s famous esoteric bookshop; but now you’ll find mandala colouring books in Waterstones and Foyles and small non-specialist bookshops, and even in WH Smiths. They’re full of patterns, drawn by artists, for you to colour in, and they’re sold as a way to reduce stress and find balance. As tools for meditation. I think it’s really great that meditation practices are now taken seriously enough in the UK as valuable for improving mental health that you can buy a colouring book designed to help you meditate in a mainstream bookshop – although I don’t think you need to spend to spend £18.99 on a book of patterns if you want to start your own mandala-drawing practice. Neither do you need to be good at drawing: the outcome of your efforts, in terms of what ends up on the page, doesn’t matter. What matters is that you dedicate a little bit of your time to concentrating on your mandala-making, or non-mandala doodling, and allow yourself to become absorbed.
I’ve never specifically set out to draw a mandala, but I’m a frequent absent-minded doodler. I’m setting an intention for the next seven days to spend 30 minutes a day doing some mindful doodling, to explore how it feels as a form of meditation. It’s unlikely to be 30 solid minutes (because, life), but some scattered time throughout the day – as long as they’re minutes in which I can concentrate on what I’m doing and not have my mind pulled in a load of different directions. I’ll share my reflections (and some doodles!) here soon; if you feel like joining me on seven days of mindful doodling or mandala-making, drop me a message so we can compare notes!
- by Natalie Young, Yoga Leeds Wakefield.
- by Jordan Paul of Satori Mandalas.
- mandala by Claire Horton to welcome a friend’s baby to the world! Claire is part of a team running a programme in London called Creative Birth.
Melody Treasure: Doodle Well
Yogacharini Kalavathi Devi, Om Studio Cardiff.
Fincher, Susan F. 2010. Creating Mandalas: for insight, healing, self expression. Shambala.