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.

Moreno's Contributions

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

and Nebraska.

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 the following:
    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.