Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. — Carl Jung
Carl Jung’s first mandala, 1917
I’ve worked with mandalas off and on for a long time, and I’ve been something of a Jungian for as long, though I’ve never consciously linked the two. Until recently.
As I wrote in “Creative Confluences,” I’ve returned to making mandalas and working with art journals, creating a dialogue between hands-on works, self, life, and writing. Mixing, coloring, painting, they inspire. I lose myself, and, in the process, I see connections that my writing self fails to make. According to Jung, mandalas are especially powerful, an unconscious and universal symbol of wholeness, a snapshot of the psyche artistically captured. So evocative is mandala practice, that in Buddhist ritual, monks create an intricate, large scale sand mandala, have a community ceremony when its completed, and then ritually destroy it, in a striking meditation on life’s impermanence.
My mandalas are private expressions and suffer no such fate. I quickly finish them, a few hours or so for each. Regardless of the quality, I sign, date, apply a clear acrylic protectant, and place the piece in the growing pile of finished works. They are self revelations and respectfully handled, even if they lack artistry. Modest creatures, they are at home in seclusion — and the better for it. My simple works are offerings made to myself, by myself. Playing both child and parent, I am proud giver and doting recipient.
Freedom. It’s there, in these circular meditations.
Or, as Jung describes them, “psychological expression[s] of the totality of self.”
These expressions have become a primary spiritual practice, as I wrestle my self from myself in the middle of nowhere, while I write a book without a whit about book writing.
Everything’s connected. The book. The mandalas. The spiritual journey that I set my mind to when moving here. The dreams that appear, disappear, reappear. The imaginative roads whose distances shimmer while I put words on the page. Everything’s connected, but if I try to delineate the contours, what I’m doing vanishes in its own mystery. I don’t know what any of it means, or what I’m doing while I’m doing it.
During a conversation last week, I told a friend that I’ve stopped building the social media platform, it’s “a diversion at this juncture. It makes me crazy. There’s so much information, that we’re all getting stupider. Noise, it’s noise. Writing’s the thing, now.”
My ever patient business savvy friend said to me, “I know what you’re doing, and . . .”.
I nearly jumped through the phone in a breathless, ecstatic excitement. Someone who knows what I am doing. I thought my friend literally had an insight that I could wrap around my existence. Apparently, it was merely a convenient turn of phrase. But all I could think of during the comments that I have replaced with ellipses, because I quit listening after, “I know what you’re doing,” was, “Really? You know what I am doing? It’s obvious to you? Tell me, what am I doing, because I haven’t a clue.”
I am writing. I am making mandalas. But I don’t know “what I am doing.” And I’m not certain that I want to, which is frightening and beautiful.
A couple of weeks ago, I started a mandala. Nothing was coming together, the design was strange, the color choices were off, and I was fumbling around, vainly trying to make it better. I put it aside for several days, if not a week. I returned to it. It was as strained and uninspired as I remembered. “Toss it,” I thought, “not salvageable.” Then I begrudgingly remembered the contract that I’ve made with myself, to respect my work, no matter my feelings. Especially the mandalas, given their now privileged status.
“Don’t throw it away,” I told myself, “think outside the mandala.”
I did. I literally thought outside the mandala, started laying down layers around the edges, filled the space beyond its borders, created a deep teal background, and resisted the constraints imposed by the paper’s edges, filling the entire page. I then worked on bands within the circle. Normally, I begin from the center and work out, it avoids smearing, and allows the work to naturally unfold, as is common in mandala meditation practice. I was working from beyond the edges and moving in towards the center. The periphery informed the development: instead of unfolding the work from the core, I folded layers in while reaching for the center. I incorporated the smooth and vibrant ink of gel pens, which I’d never used on a mandala, a few metallic gelatos for sheen, watercolor pencils for rich color washes, and then highlighted areas with oil pastels for added texture.
I ended up with one of the most detailed and multilayered works that I’ve yet made.
Is it one of my favorites? No. Aesthetically, it’s an odd thing. Cohesive, vibrant, multilayered, yet odd. But emotionally and creatively, it’s one of the most satisfying pieces in recent memory. Although I’ve worked outside the mandala in the page’s empty space before, not with this degree of invention. I’ve usually seen the empty space as part of the mandala, coming to the page with an idea of the whole, superimposing my will on the sphere and its surrounding space: I envision what I will do, and if I decide to work beyond the edges, the work is still essentially defined by the mandala’s sphere and it’s center. I’ve rarely if ever truly thought outside the mandala, I simply enlarged its borders, while flattering myself for my cleverness.
In this work, the space outside the sphere existed on its own terms, for itself. I was struggling with the circle’s interior, hadn’t given a thought to exploiting its periphery. The emptiness surrounding a sphere in the middle of a 12 inch by 12 inch piece of paper was a complete unknown that I falteringly entered in order to make sense of the predetermined space that wasn’t coming together. I had to think outside the mandala, because I hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing, and I had committed to completing a ragtag work, no matter what.
“God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.”
Nowhere. Emptiness. The unknown. Outside the imposed limitations that we bring to experience, the “I live in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know what I am doing,” that’s where life begins, because we put ourselves beyond our cherished and limited ways of looking at the world. This mandala’s most important narrative doesn’t exist on the page that I have signed, dated, sealed, and saved, but in the story born by stepping into a page’s nowhere, its now here, beyond the confines of an inked circumference, and my understanding of that boundary.
Mystery existed in a space that I hadn’t any presumptions about, an experience of not knowing, but that I was willing to enter. When I saved a little faltering mandala and thought differently about its space, I mirrored a deeper reality, one rippling through my psyche and life. I didn’t just enter an unknown space on a piece of paper, this is the life path I’ve chosen. I’ve freed my self to live in the middle of nowhere, to write a book whose destiny is uncertain, to live at peace in this creative uncertainty, and to embrace its mystery. In this acceptance, I’ve touched something that historically we’ve labeled as God, an unfortunately small if not unkind word.
After a lifetime of pursuing knowledge, thinking that “knowing” had something to do with enlightenment, I think I’ve come to understand that it’s not “knowing” that gets us where we desire to be.
Rather, it’s “not knowing” that deeply, radically, and beautifully transforms us, rends the veil between the ego’s illusions and our freest, most creative, loving selves.
To enter the kingdom of God, one must approach as a child, Jesus famously taught. Perhaps he meant that one must not know.
If Buddhist monks destroy a mandala, possibly it’s not just a meditation on impermanence, but a profound archetypal leap into the great unknown, beyond understanding’s circumference, and into life’s mystery.
A leap that’s the greatest gift that we can give to ourselves, when we’re ready.
(YouTube video: Tibetan Sand Mandala, Creation And Destruction)