In an art school in the Khumbu region of Nepal, where the clouds hovered at eye level outside the open second-floor window, and the only sounds were distant yak bells and prayer flags fluttering in the wind, I found myself mesmerized by the artist in the corner. He was crouching with his legs folded in an unnatural position, moving his minuscule paintbrush almost imperceptibly, and staring straight ahead as if he were in a hypnotic trance.
Actually, he was in a sort of trance. His eyes were half open and he was completely immobile, other than the infinitesimal movement of his right hand. He hunched over the canvas, deep in a meditative state, as he put the finishing touches on a large mandala. I brought one home, thinking that it would serve as a striking souvenir. I appreciated its beauty as it hung in my study, but didn’t think much more of it. Until the pandemic hit. Like everyone else over the past year, I have found myself craving serenity in a world filled with turmoil. I wasn’t sure how to find refuge from the multiple global crises and yet was aware of the benefits of meditation. My thoughts frequently turned to those exhilarating days trekking in the Himalayas, immersed in Buddhist culture with its warm, inviting people, rhododendron forests, and clouds so close you could actually touch them. And that little mandala beckoned me to unearth its layers.
A mandala is a vibrantly colored, geometric Asian art form usually painted on paper or cloth and imbued with layers of symbolic and meditative meaning in both Buddhist and Hindu cultures. The origins of the mandala are thought to coincide with the beginnings of Buddhism, around the time the founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama (born in Nepal circa 563 B.C.E.), preached his ideas to monks throughout India. His followers then spread Buddhism and the practice of painting mandalas along the Silk Road, a trade route throughout Asia. The earliest evidence of Buddhist art was from India in the first century B.C.E. By the fourth century, Buddhist mandalas had appeared in several Asian regions including Tibet, China, Japan, Bhutan, Indonesia, and Nepal. The painters of these intricate, beautiful works of art were usually devout laymen, often from families of painters, though some were monks. They were usually commissioned by a patron. Just as I had observed centuries later in my travels through Nepal, they originally painted these works sitting cross-legged on the floor.
As I tried to unravel the meaning of the mandala, I found it filled with as many strata of meaning as tantalizing geometric layers. The term mandala is Sanskrit for circle. It is made up of two words: “manda,” which means essence, and “la,” which means container. Thus, it’s a “sphere of essence.” As described by Stella Kramrisch in The Art of Nepal and Tibet, “The Buddhist art of Nepal and Tibet is a visual system of presenting symbols of enlightenment and also the way of inducing the experience of enlightenment.” It’s dual-purpose art: the mandala represents the universe (a sphere of essence) and at the same time offers a guide for traditional practices such as meditation. In some Buddhist cultures, complex sand mandalas are painstakingly created and then destroyed in an effort to represent the impermanence of life and liberation from attachments. The mandala is studded with symbols and rich with underlying meaning, as every miniscule shape and shade of color has special significance. For example, circular designs symbolize the idea that everything is connected and the wheel with eight spokes, a repeated image, is an artistic representation of the perfect universe or the eightfold path of Buddhism.
My own mandala is exceedingly intricate, with its nesting geometric forms and repeated figures. The artist signed the mandala “B.K. Lama,” a seemingly anonymous signature, as the word lama commonly denotes a Buddhist spiritual leader. Yet it provided a further clue that the mandala is not merely an impressive work of art, but a complex visual representation of spiritual beliefs. It has a large square in the center, surrounded by several layers of circles, each with different colors and repeating designs. From the largest square, four rectangular areas that ultimately form the shape of a T open up in four different directions. The nesting geometric figures with a white flower in the center seem to convey a tunnel or elaborate hallway, as if it recedes toward the center, and then emerges back outward toward the viewer. In some ways it’s like an Escher painting, depicting uncanny illusions of three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional surface. It seems to take the viewer on a mysterious journey filled with vibrant color and quiet energy. This remarkable little painting is like a map filled with hidden treasures, as well as a device for transforming an ordinary mind into an enlightened one. That’s quite a tall order for art, isn’t it?
And yet, how can a painting, no matter how elaborate, serve as a portal to an awakened mind? In order to tackle that question, a brief description of the difference between thinking and meditating is in order. Thinking has to do with the everyday running commentaries that we experience all of the time. We aren’t always consciously aware of the thoughts we are having; they follow their own logic and rhythm and become a part of who we think we are. (In between those thoughts, in that space, there is an ‘I’ that transcends the everyday.) The thoughts can be pleasant, helpful, or negative and disruptive. They can add to suffering by making needless assumptions. Those thoughts can remain stuck on anxiety about the future or regret about the past, and obscure what’s happening in the present moment. As Michael A. Singer astutely calls it in my favorite little meditation book, The Untethered Soul, it’s like having a roommate who talks nonstop and follows you wherever you go. It’s a real pain. In contrast, meditating is about being aware of those thoughts as they arise and noticing the space between thoughts as you are focusing on your breath or a mandala or sounds around you. That’s the space of the here and now. It’s like a superhero meta-perception, though without the need for superhero qualities. It’s just about paying attention. (And learning to gently close the door on that loquacious roommate.) That intense focus brings you to the larger awareness that has the potential to calm body and mind, produce a feeling of ease, and potentially initiate transformation.
In creating a mandala, the artist designs a kind of visual lesson plan in achieving spiritual awareness. As noted, it’s a meditative tool. Utilizing this unique art object for meditation is a thought journey of sorts, from disruptive, ordinary thoughts to a world of freedom and imagination. It can serve as a springboard to a thought-free perception that is unconstrained by everyday reality. The technique is simply to focus purely on looking, but it’s easier said than done, given the incessant background chattering of the mind. The more meditation is practiced, the easier it gets. Like intently watching a flame, or focusing on the breath in mindfulness meditation, the objective is simply to give it full attention. It’s a matter of paying attention to the colors, geometric shapes, and beauty of the mandala to the point in which one gets lost in it. That chattering roommate falls away. The experience begins to transcend ordinary thinking and becomes the freedom of pure awareness. If those extraneous thoughts intrude (as they always will), the task is to refocus on the mandala. It’s quite an ingenious, scenic pathway to potential enlightenment.
And yet, the beauty and value of the mandala isn’t limited to those who practice Buddhism. It doesn’t have to be a religious experience. I am not Buddhist yet find contemplating this artwork to be calming and potentially transformative. And the experience of a larger awareness isn’t limited to the mandala. Other forms of meditation emphasize paying attention to the breath or sounds or bodily movements. Other forms of art could also serve as meditative tools and conduits to transcendence. All of the arts have the potential to soothe and heal and transport to another world. Art can open doors to novel perception and new ways of being. It doesn’t have to be part of the intention of the work, as in the mandala. It just has to be a work of art that speaks to your soul, whether it’s a beautiful scene or the dance of color and form and pattern on a canvas. And all it takes is fully paying attention and redirecting thoughts to the object of your attention over and over again.
Now that I’ve taken this thought-provoking journey through the layers of the mandala, some tenets of Buddhism, and meditation, I feel empowered to approach mandala meditation as a way of alleviating my own suffering. Looking at this complicated piece of art almost feels like looking into a mirror as it recedes deeper into the self, toward that elusive center. Then it seems to move outward into the here and now, and back in again. It’s as if I’m floating on a bed of soothing clouds that gently rock back and forth, experiencing an awareness that’s free of everyday worries. And yet, in these strange and stressful times, whether those clouds are in Nepal or in my imagination, that’s exactly where I want to be.
Art and Mind is a series of essays about the intersection of art and psychiatry.