Psychologists are looking at the power of mandalas to combat stress.
The top 50 bestselling books for 2016 on Amazon included a few unlikely contenders. Adult Coloring Book Designs: Stress Relief Coloring Book, Calm the F*ck Down: The Irreverent Adult Coloring Book and Release Your Anger: An Adult Coloring Book featured on the list, suggesting that coloring as an activity for adults may be on its way to become the spiritual gateway to a calmer mind. As psychological studies confirm that coloring, doodling or drawing intricate patterns may send soothing signals to the mind, there has been a resurgence of books depicting intricate patterns from various philosophies. The most prominent of them are mandalas, which are finding an increasing popularity in the United States. Everywhere from Barnes & Noble to Walmart, chances are that among the self-help books for adults you will find a book on mandalas firmly perched atop.
Mandala, a Sanskrit term used to describe aspiritual symbols in Hinduism, also appears prominently in other religions and philosophies, especially Buddhism. Though a symbol that goes back centuries, today mandala has become a popular term for a diagram depicting concentric circular patterns with intricate diagrams. Psychoanalysts have been researching, how these repetitive, but often powerful designs, can be used as tools to meditate, relax and even induce a trance like state. So, could mandala be the new Yoga for the West?
In the early 1900s, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung described mandalas as an expression of one’s own inner self. Jung found the link while looking at the circular patterns he drew in his notebook daily, which he thought corresponded with the state of his inner self. He describes his mandalas as cryptograms that portray his whole being. Jung became the first psychiatrist to use mandalas in therapy as he noticed that they brought calming effects on his patients.
A 2005 study by Nancy Curry and Tim Kasser aimed at examining whether mandalas really heal the mind. The study involved asking adults to fill out anxiety questionnaires in which they were asked to think about a time they felt the most fearful or vulnerable in life. The participants were then randomly assigned to color one of three patterns — a blank page, a geometric design or a mandala for 20 minutes. Post the coloring, the participants were asked to complete a final anxiety questionnaire. Interestingly, participants who colored a mandala were found to have lower anxiety levels than the time when they entered the lab compared to those who colored a blank page. Researchers believe that drawing or painting linear, balanced or concentric designs may actually send relaxing signals to the mind.
Hence it comes as a little surprise that to combat the stress of modern lives marked by fear, isolation and work pressures, psychologists are looking at the power of mandalas and other art forms.
Amy Haderer, an artist and a doula, who lives in Denver, Colo., runs a website titled themandalajourney.com and specializes in birth art mandalas. Haderer who discovered the healing behind mandalas, through her own emotional experiences, says: “In 2010 when I was pregnant with my third daughter, I was going through a rough time. My husband and I were separated and I felt so stressed and lost. I’ve always been drawn to circles, even as a child. For some reason I started seeing compositions and images within the bounds of a circle. To me it represents wholeness, endlessness, and I needed a way to ground myself during my pregnancy to prepare for the birth of my child. I started doing a mandala a day to help quiet my mind and sink into my body.”
Haderer soon discovered the drawings were having a positive impact on her: “It was very meditative. When you create something you are in the same state of mind as when you are in labor: intuitive, holistic, non-linear, non-sequential, time is fluid, etc. I wanted to practice dropping into that space easily to prepare for my birth.”
Today, she wants to share her own experiences and draws beautiful birth art mandalas as an artist. As most artists describe the process of drawing mandalas a liberating experience, the emotion reflects in the images too. From the most contemporary to the most ancient, mandala drawings are intuitive, strong and often build a counter-narrative of their own.
Artist Shilpa Rao, who is based in St Louis, Mo., and has held mandala exhibits during live shows in Chesterfield, says that the drawings have a significant calming effect. Rao also says that she was impressed that Americans interested in art were able to tell a mandala immediately when they saw one: “It was never that I had to educate them on what a mandala is or what are the origins behind it. This may be also because almost every culture have their own patterns resembling a mandala, though they may not be called the same. Whether it’s the Native American culture, Buddhism, Hinduism or even the Mayan culture, concentric designs are something that unites the art around the world.”
Just as the free-flowing designs held together by a focused starting point in mandala, the thoughts, narratives and the philosophies from where the artists derive their mandala inspiration varies too. For Rao the earliest introduction to a mandala structure came from seeing rangolis during religious and auspicious occasions growing up in India. She says, “Mandalas have roots in many religions, but I connect to it spiritually as I am not a very religious person myself. It is for me a source of great liberation and letting go of inner thoughts. But I do use a lot of bright colors, reflecting my Indian heritage.”
For Haderer, it was the Tibetan thankas that always fascinated her. She says: “I practiced with the Rigpa Sangha in Boulder, Colo., for several years and was always drawn to the lush colors and symbolism of thankas. I believe that symbolism and imagery has a powerful ability to penetrate and permeate through all cultures. Before written language, we communicated through signs and symbols, so the feelings and responses to them can be translated even now. As an artist, I believe in the power of images to create meaning and reflect on both the physical and spiritual world.”
Almost reflecting a sign communication of sorts, circular patterns emerge with amazing regularity in history. In Buddhism, one sees stupas that are balanced dome like forms, in Tibetan philosophy one finds sand paintings depicting the form and Christianity has forms resembling mandalas, such as the Celtic cross, halo and rosary beads.
Now a form that harks back to the earliest civilizations seems to be making a comeback in urban bookstores and hipster art galleries. Haderer says: “I definitely see more awareness around mandalas here in the U.S., especially now that coloring books are all the rage. For people who don’t feel like they are artistic (which I don’t believe, but I think it takes confidence to start making art again after childhood!), coloring inside a form can help you get into that same meditative, creative space in your mind.”
Rao sees it as a realization of the power of a meditative form, similar to Yoga, “In the U.S. any art form and the practice to preserve it is given a lot of encouragement.” Local government and city officials in Chesterfield have been supportive of her craft.
She says: “There’s a healing art in everything you see from Mayan calendars to Egyptian pyramids. If you look, all the important structures follow a concentric pattern and thus have a way of soothing frayed nerves. All you have to do is to believe and mandalas lets you do just that.”