The creation and use of mandalas is an ancient practice that crosses a number of religious traditions. The word mandala is a Sanskrit term meaning circle, although in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions it can be defined as a geometric shape that represents the Universe. It is reflective of our outer world as well as our inner world that draws us toward our center, and they have been used for enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition since the sixth century. Circles have deep associations throughout our natural surroundings in the sun, moon, planets, and all over the earth. In some ways, the labyrinth is a mandala representing our journey to the center. Carl Jung pioneered the use of mandalas for self-exploration, and while doing his own inner work created a psychological understanding of mandalas as a symbol of wholeness. Lily Mazurek of www.themandalamessage.com, interprets the Sanskrit meaning of these sacred circles to be “a container of sacred essence.”
So who wouldn’t want to explore something that so many have found purposeful?
Rose Petronella of Middletown, Connecticut has had her own experience of mandalas as a container of the sacred, and works with them every day. She explains mandalas as a circular design that has been used through the centuries and across cultures. As a tool for self- exploration drawing a mandala taps into the unconscious mind and can reveal to us things we may not be aware of, according to Rose. It is a symbol of prayer and can be used as a meditative practice.
In 2001 Rose was at a low point in her professional life. She went to see her spiritual director during the holy season of Lent, feeling like she needed some creative practice in her life. Her director suggested she might try drawing a mandala every day, as she’d heard about some nuns doing that during a retreat. Rose didn’t know what a mandala was at that point and the only instruction she was given was for her to draw her feelings. The first day she took an 8 1/2”x11” sheet of paper, got a plate out of her cabinet and drew a circle. She had some three inch colored pencils that an 11 year old friend had given her. She did have a pretty regular journaling practice since the 1970’s, so she journaled about her feelings, identified the feeling as anger and then started drawing.
“What came out was a black center with red around it,” says Rose. “I started looking at it and thinking about it. After a few days reflecting on the drawing, I could see that the mandala was a reflection of what was going on in my inner life. They reflected what was going on inside of me. Over the course of Lent they told me a lot about myself.”
She noticed that the red rim of that first mandala looked like a wall and realized she had built a wall around herself in real life. She didn’t realize that until she saw it on paper after reflecting on the mandala. Another example was when a black outer rim appeared on another, and the inside reflected an eye. She realized she was inside that eye and she was hiding. It was a revelation. She kept drawing them over time and continued identifying her feelings and became aware that she wanted to change some of the patterns that were showing up, so she decided to pray about them.
“I wanted to change the feelings and work through them. I wrote my prayer around the outside of the mandala as a way of affirming my intention. My practice continues, not every day but often. If I have questions in life and I draw a mandala and sometimes I get clarity.”
She has very little formal art training and has had no courses in mandalas. She recommends a book called Mandala by Judith Cornell who suggests blessing the materials in advance and uses black paper and chalk because it lets the light through. Another excellent resource is Mandala: Journey to the Center by Lori Bailey Cunningham.
Mandala as prayer has just flowed into her life and she offers workshops periodically to help people understand the prayer-filled power of the mandala. Her process is to journal first. She writes what she is grateful for, what she is struggling with, and then, what she needs help with. “Sometimes I know what I need help with, and sometimes I ask God to tell me. There is a lot of surrender,” says Rose.
“The upshot is, in the process of writing what I need, and identifying what I need to cooperate with the divine energy within me, often there is an ah-ha moment. So I’ll take that conclusion or inspiration and that’s what appears in the mandala. So after I draw the mandala and write my ah-ha moment around the outside of it, I contemplate it. Looking at it, appreciating it, honoring it and letting it teach me something. What does it have to say? What additional information, do the colors, placement, images, shapes, have to say to me about my life? Sometimes it’s clear and sometimes it’s not. But often I have a sense of movement inside me as I’m drawing.”
The whole process takes place in silence.
As part of one’s grieving process Rose suggests the possibility of creating a series of mandalas (with whatever medium) focused on a loved one. They might be mandalas of gratitude, sadness, forgiveness, love, etc.. These sacred circles can be created with chalk, sand, watercolor paints, markers, colored pencils and the process of creating them can be as prayerful and creative as you can imagine.
“My experience has been a gradual transformation. In the beginning I’d start drawing and say, ‘I hate it, it’s ugly,’ but I’d stay with it, to see how it feels when it’s done. What I learned from that is that I get impatient with myself. I realize this is just one experience. So I say, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ It has taught me life skills. It’s also heightened my appreciation of what goes on outside of me and inside of me. Through choices, I have control of what goes on inside of me but not what goes on outside of me. It’s given me hope and comfort to see how my inner life changes from one day to the next, to accept my transformation and to see how, over time, I can learn to let go. Over time I’ve seen a lot of change in my ability to let go and the mandala has been a big part of that. I’ve developed the ability to be open to receive, to surrender, to forgive, to let go of control…”
Rose grew up Catholic and “got disillusioned” along the way and ended up in the United Church of Christ. In 1991 she was ordained after attending Andover Newton Theological Seminary and served in parish ministry for 17 years. She is now semi-retired and has a spiritual direction practice. She is nearing the final stages of publishing a small book of 25 mandalas with reflections called Mandalas as Prayer. It will be published by Greyden Press later this year.
“I felt called to do a book but it never came together until now. My hope is that it will provide some inspiration, encouragement and support for people who are on their journey, just like me, in asking for help from the divine.”