Going Around in Circles
“What goes up must come down. Spinning wheel got to go round. Talking ‘bout your troubles and they never end….” The popular song from the 1970’s made a household name, at least to teenagers, of the group “Blood, Sweat and Tears”. Their parents were telling them to study hard and play wisely because it took blood, sweat and tears to make a good living. In their typical teenage rebellion to be unique and shake off their parents’ traditional lifestyles, they found themselves right back where they had started with the same philosophies. The process of living was a big circle and they were going along for the ride.
The cycles of life have long held meaning for the cultures of the world. One thought to be flat, the orb-like structure of the planet became the symbol for life itself. In understanding the world, mankind utilized what we call the arts to explore, to illustrate, and from which to learn. Over time these artistic endeavors and art forms became sacred, held great meaning. Sacred art is said to change the viewer.
One such art form is the mandala. From an Indian word Sanskrit word that can translate as “circle”, a mandala is much more than just a pretty drawing with the outline of a circle. A mandala is a complex thing of beauty that is said to offer solace, comfort, and hope to its viewer. It draws the attention inward and offers a reason to move forward, to walk the path of life. It is that intention, that purpose that defines its sacredness.
Mandalas offer a sense of wholeness and relationship. Life itself is a series of complex circles and the diagrams found within a mandala remind us of the interrelated circles of family, friends, and community. Used by the Aztecs to keep time, mandalas are found in many cultures and religions. Saint Hildegard von Bingen was a Christian nun who used mandalas to illustrate her visions. Other American Indian tribes used mandalas as healing circles. The Tao symbol of yin-yang represents both the interdependence we have in life as well as the opposition found in living. Monks in Tibet believed the mandala illustrated the impermanence of life and used them for meditation. Like the American Indians, they made their mandalas from sand. Today these Tibetan monks travel around the world making their mandalas.
The Tibetan mandala is made from sand, colored sand derived from crushing natural stones, some of which are semi-precious gem stones. While the outside shape of a mandala is circular, inside there are many other complex shapes. All of geometry can be found within a mandala and it often requires days to complete the intricate designs. While they represent the impermanence of life, the mandala itself is temporary. Upon completion, Tibetan monks hold a joyous and colorful ceremony with chanting and an even larger circle of spectators and creators. The mandala is then swept up and the sand gathered into jars which are then carried to a nearby body of water and emptied. Thus the circle is truly complete – from the water which gave it life and the sand, the parts of the mandala return.
Man has been building structures based around a core or center for centuries. It is one of the basic principles of architecture. The Christian cathedral, the Muslim mosque, the Jewish temple, or the Buddhist stupa all represent the symbolism of the center which then moves outward. Even the American Indian teepee is built around a center pole, the axis, also symbolic of the world axis. Architect Buckminster Fuller utilized this concept with geodesic designs. His dome structure portrays a high ration of enclosed area to external surface area with all the structural parts equal to the whole. What a great metaphor for us to try to emulate in life!
Carl Jung once said that a mandala illustrated “a safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness.” He went further in saying that a mandala was “a synthesis of distinctive elements in a unified scheme representing the basic nature of existence.” Tibetan Buddhists believe the mandala represents what they call the “five excellencies”: the teacher, the message, the audience, the site, the time. The historical Buddha often discussed the impermanence of existence. Tibetan Buddhism drew from the Indian Buddhist beliefs of individual enlightenment, the liberation of all beings, and the development of compassion while exploring the nature of reality.
A mandala is much more than a pretty geometric picture, however. The visual appeal is simply a door to help one focus on the task at hand. The mandala is said to be so intricate that it calms the brain and allows it to focus on the task at hand, whether that is healing, enlightenment, or simply relaxation. Mandalas are not just to be viewed; they can be physically explored.
A labyrinth is a mandala one walks. Unlike a maze, whose purpose is to confuse and challenge, The mandala, a word which can also be translated as “completeness”, is a guided walk towards the center. There is a single path in a labyrinth so the mind can relax and the feet simply walk the only path possible. Australian aborigines, Hopi Indians, Tibetan monks, Buddhist believers, and Christian builders all have utilized labyrinths. These archetypal symbols seem grounded in the very essence of life and living and are walked by people of all socioeconomic levels, ages, and cultures.
George Eliot wrote in the book “Middlemarch”: “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending.” The making of a labyrinth begins with a line, a simple straight line. Another line is drawn to intersect and then those two lines are outlined with other lines. Soon, though, an arc is drawn to connect one line to one of the outlined lines. The circle forms by the addition of more arcs and the path becomes clear.
We tend to walk through life, seeing intersections that stop as dead ends. Perhaps the seemingly dead-ends are really offering us a chance to simply draw an arc and then provide a connection. Mary Frances Winters described life this way: “Life is like a series of concentric circles. You start in the middle and keep moving out, interconnecting circle after interconnecting circle, expanding your world, your views, and your joy.” Our walk of life will not be smooth. Nothing about life is ever perfect. In the midst of its imperfections, though, is the meaning, the sacred walk that gives us much to consider and much to learn.