Mandalas are a staple of art therapy—the tradition rooted in practices of Tibetan monks has transformed into the intricate patterns we draw today. But the art form goes beyond simply creating an aesthetically pleasing design. The process is highly meditative, expressive, or even spiritual, and these images can teach us more about ourselves and the people around us.
It’s not accidental that mandalas are so widely used as a tool to look deeper into mental processes. The actual form of a mandala is fairly open-ended, but it usually consists of a circular pattern separated into quadrants and filled with any sort of line, shape, color, or symbol. In art therapy, circles represent balance, continuity, stability, and even divinity. This act of drawing circularly is empirically proven to reduce stress and increase mindfulness (be sure to check out this research study conducted by Dr. Campenni in the psychology department and the art department’s own Dr. Hartman).
Although they largely provide the same psychological benefits across the board, there are lots of ways that mandalas manifest, and so there are lots of ways to interpret them:
A smaller, more structured circle with clearly defined pattern indicates that a client may need control. This is especially helpful in clients with anxiety or ADHD, as it can give them a focused goal that they are in control of. Rigid media like marker or colored pencil also generally suits this population better because of its manageable nature.
A client who may need to express themselves may create a much looser mandala—they may be more inclined to mark outside the lines, ignore perfect symmetry, or include symbolism. Clients struggling with identity issues may benefit from this practice. Looser media, like paint, watercolor, or even 3D objects, allow certain clients to break free from the boundaries of uniformity.
It’s important to note that none of these points are strict rules whatsoever, and that the examples above are only two examples of an unlimited number of experiences a client may have.
In our Approaches in Art Therapy class at Marywood, we created our own mandalas to use as an opportunity to talk about interpreting client work. Hanging them up on the wall when we were finished, we noted the similarities and differences our designs had in terms of form, media, size, etc. Then, we were asked why all this matters. What does our artwork say about our group as a whole?
First, even though there might be two completely unique responses to a prompt, there are connections to be made between the two. We can always find a common thread between ourselves and the person next to us; it’s not only important to understand this in interpersonal relationships between clients, but also in the relationship between client and therapist.
Second, expressive arts therapies create an openness in client’s responses that are difficult to simulate in other therapies (see the story “Inner Circle” in the link). Verbal questions in speech therapy can be very effective, for example, but for some clients they can be stifling. There may exist a pressure to provide a “correct” answer, especially in group formats. However, in artmaking, there is no such thing as a correct answer. The benefits of inherent “no such thing as a wrong answer” prompts are self-explanatory.
We lastly pointed out that everyone had specific and individualized needs that were met through self-direction. One student may have needed to meticulously draw out a purely geometric mandala in sharpie as a soothing mechanism, while another may have needed to just scribble freely with pastel after a stressful day of classes. Recognizing one’s own needs and how they might differ from someone else’s encourages a culture of empathy within clients (or aspiring therapists).
Below are some select images from our in-class experiential of mandalas. I’d highly suggest you appreciate each one for its unique artistic qualities, but I’d also encourage you to look at them as a whole and see what they might convey about group dynamic.
Now take a break from today’s work, gather some supplies, and create your own mandala to share with others!
Names of artists are kept private for confidentiality. All images belong to their respective artist.