Practical Applications of Mandalas (Part 2: Further Applications)
Adam Blatner, M.D.
(Summary of the second half of the presentation to the American Art Therapy Association
annual meeting, Dallas, Texas, November 20, 2009) Click Here for Part 1, on Basic Principles)
November 9, 2009 draft 5website
In the last webpage I presented
some of the major underlying dynamics of the mandala, and suggested
some of the wayst those could be applied---especially when talking with
clients about boundaries, centering, cycles in their lives, and the
like. On this webpage I'll talk more about the way these techniques may be applied.
Jacob L. Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974) is best known for his invention
of the method called psychodrama. However, this was just one of
his seminal ideas---that of fusing therapy or personal development with
drama---; but few appreciate that he was equally committed to the
development of group therapy of all types (or, again, for personal
growth, what became encounter groups); a more natural bridging of
individual and social psychology; role theory; improvisational
theatre; sociodrama for addressing intergroup conflicts; role
playing in education and business; a philosophy and even theology of
creativity and spontaneity; methods for evaluating group dynamics
(e.g., "sociometry"), and so forth. (I discuss these other aspects
elsewhere on this website.).
Psychodrama was but one approach to Moreno's wider goal: How can we
promote creativity in individuals and in the culture itself? This goal
then embraces or informs what later evolved in the related fields of
the creative arts therapies.
A related idea is that of the use of action and experience---not just
talking about problems---, and one simple type of multi-modal
experience is that of
externalizing ideas as pictures or sculptures or sand-tray constructions or simple diagrams. The activity of diagraming
can begin to bring order to what is often experienced by clients as
mere chaos. In turn, mandala or circular forms, the positive or
negative feedback cycles that people generate in their bodies or in
relationships, all become important potential sources of insight when
they are drawn on paper as diagrams---or enacted as family sculptures.
Moreno created his own mandala of sorts, "the canon of creativity." It shows how people can build
on what has been created---he called it the "cultural conserve." One
warms up (W) to the situation as it stands (CC) and from that, with the
attitudes and activities of spontaneity, such as improvised art or
drama or other approaches, create something novel and more effective!
It's a cycle because whatever is created becomes the basis for further
creative endeavors, revisions, improvements!
The Social Atom
Another major contribution of Moreno's was his sharp recognition in the
1930s, during the hegemony of the individual-centered psychoanalytic
approach, that humans were deeply embedded in social relationships. He
viewed the splits among sociologists, developmental psychologists,
psychiatrists, and others as deeply misleading. In a sense, Moreno saw
psychology as what we might today call ecological, with the various
levels of culture, group, relationship, body-mind, all overlapping with
intrapsychic dynamics. For example, since people play roles that
operate at multiple levels---social as well as personal, we should
recognize that humans are embedded in social matrices. He suggested,
for example, that we should try to view people not as individuals
alone, but as the centers of social atoms! (The concept of atom was
fashionable then; I think personal social network is more descriptive.)
Here are some pictures of social atoms: They can be drawn also as
mandalas, with those who are experienced by the client as being
emotionally "further away" drawn showing that distance. In the far
right drawing, dotted lines suggest negative feelings, discomfort or
dislike. those lines that show arrows going both ways reflect not only
how the client feels, but what the client thinks or intuits that the
other people feel back.
Here is a playful cartoon by Roz Chast of the social network of a piece
of bread. It seems like a fun game to play! For the box of cereal, the
spoon and bowl is closest, sliced fruit, milk and sugar next layer out,
then the boy Steven (who seems to be the main consumer) and the cereal
shelf; and beyond that Steven's parents, and beyond that the factory
Another approach is that of enacting the social network diagram, for
example, as a family sculpture. An example of one of these is elsewhere
on this website.
Part of the process of using the social network diagram is that it lays
out perceived feelings of positive and negative and mixed rapport
(Moreno called this qualitative relational connection "tele.")
Assessing this situation systematically is called "sociometry," and
below left are some pictures of sociometric analyses.
A mandala shape can be an aid to this process, and I want
to note that drawing a social network diagram with clients as a
diagnostic process. Having your clients draw their social atoms is
powerful in many ways. For one, it’s probably the most natural way to
get a history. You’re not sitting across the room asking odd questions,
probing question. You’re sitting next to the client and with a piece of
paper and pencil as the third element you’re looking at the client in
his or her own social matrix. People get this and like it—it’s a way of
saying, in effect, “I’m not sitting over here judging you; I want to
look at the world through your eyes, find out what it’s like for you,
share with you your experience. Clients approached this way tend to
generate more of a treatment alliance.
There are ways to vary this drawing: Using the concentric circle as a
matrix, clients can be invited, when it seems right, to explore some of
You now and your major friends and relations.
Your feelings about these people and your take on how they feel about you.
You and your social network as you desire it 1 year,
5 years, 20 years in the future (including ideal people, imagined,
children not yet conceived, perfect lovers, etc.)
You in the past, at different points in your childhood
Your governing self in relation to the various parts of yourself
You now and most of your acquaintances that you know
by name—or they know you this way. What
groups you affiliate with
What causes or minority liberation efforts or
other political / social movements do you advocate (closer in diagram
or larger correlates with degrees of concern)
... and so forth.
These can be elaborated dramatically, or if that’s too threatening, to
draw them and put the words the various figures say, their key
messages, overt or imagined. Variations: what you’re afraid they’ll
say; what you would like them to say, however unrealistic it might be
of you, etc. As you can see, this device has a wide range of applications.
Shields, Coats-of Arms, Flags, Buttons
Another art therapy technique is that of making a coat-of-arms or
shield that expresses the client's sense of key elements of the self.
It can be presented in a variety of shapes---shield, flag, and
such---but the circle is especially useful because it supports the
sense of wholeness. The mandala can be divided into
four, six, or more compartments, and having it be thought of as a
symbol of the self. There are a number of websites that suggest how to
do this for children, and of course it can be done for adults.
Another significant use of this method is that it offers a way to
contain and pretty-up what would ordinarily be doodling. Within a drawn
circle and some effort exerted to generate some geometric symmetry,
this context then becomes a framework for doodling. I didn't realize
it, but that's what I've been doing for many years, and a few of the
thousands of mandalas I've created may be found by clicking on the
cartoon section of my website. My own doodles are in a sense a bit more
systematic than an ordinary doodle, but within each sector the pencil
or pen is allowed to
play freely. It ends up looking pretty good. One might even argue that
the figures reflect unconscious themes that could be interpreted or
associated to by me—or not.
The key point, really, is to generate a context in which mediocre
talent and mediocre commitment are marshaled in the service of
community and expression, and this applies to folk dancing, the singing
of folk or popular songs at song fests, simple theatre games for
dramatic expression—or the Art of Play as a closely related activity.
Make-a-mandala, one of these activities Allee invented, allows people
to explore and play lightly with their artistic inclinations. In other
words, another benefit of the mandala is that it is a more inclusive
form, encouraging people with middling or little actual talent or
practice to experience some sense of mastery and accomplishment in the
activity of art.
Enough for now, let’s do some exercises and take questions.