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Beginner’s Mandala Manual

By Sarah Murrin, MusicWorx Intern

The mandala is an intricate tool that has rich meaning and history. One of the most cherished visual objects in Tibetan Buddhism, the mandala’s purpose is to assist the transformation from ordinary minds into enlightened ones and to support the healing process.

I’ll be sharing a description of mandalas, the potential benefits in their use with clients, and how they have been tremendously beneficial in my personal journey through internship. I hope you can use these basic tools to begin your personal journey with mandala work, and eventually, your clients.

*I do not have formal training on mandalas, MARI, or Circles of the Self. I still feel compelled to share what I do know with you because of how crucial mandalas have been in my personal and professional development throughout internship.  Here are resources for more information:

Mandalas
Association for Music and Imagery
MARI® – Mandala Assessment Research Instrument
Circles of the Self

What are these things?

  • The word ‘mandala’ is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle” or “center”.
  • The most important aspect of the mandala is the gestalt of it. How does the mandala make you feel? Consider how the many characteristics add up to generate an overall feeling or vibe.
  • A single mandala can represent many meanings. Your interpretations can change hourly, weekly, and monthly even when, at first, a mandala represented such a concrete reaction and meaning for you.
  • The mandalas are a holistic centering tool. They serve as a container that holds everything. This work is honors the whole person as it highlights an individual’s strengths and struggles.
  • Mandalas can bring out the vocabulary necessary to begin or continue processing.
  • Similar to the use of music in music therapy, creating mandalas is all about the process. Do not focus on the outcome.
  • If you bring mandalas into music therapy sessions, be sure to take note of the client’s physical appearance before, during, and after the creating process. Are their muscles tense? How do their facial expressions change, if at all? Observe their breathing. Observe how the expression of internal feelings can alter the external state as well.
  • When people come into therapy, they are in an extremely vulnerable headspace. Working with musical and visual tools can easier than words for some.
  • Allow the client to explain their mandala before you offer input. If this is difficult for the client, you can prompt with questions about their selection of colors, shapes, patterns, etc.
  • Counseling skills are crucial to mandala debriefing. The questions you ask a client are important and your phrasing can make or break the experience. In a group setting, be sure to offer instructions that are both general enough and specific enough.
  • The mandala is a representation. Refrain from asking questions with a cognitive or intellectual focus. These can move clients out of their experience.
  • Mandalas can help us therapists remember to listen and assess with more than our ears. Bring awareness to your sense, what you feel and see.
  • Mandalas are a map of consciousness. They help us understand where we are in the moment. Whatever the client says about their work and experience is the truth.

Mandalas in Music Therapy

Individual music therapy

Imagine if you encountered a patient in the medical setting that needed some time and space before they could participate in music therapy. They are extremely overwhelmed and frustrated, and you don’t feel comfortable encouraging music therapy or leaving them without any coping tools. This is a great opportunity to leave them with a blank mandala, simple instructions, and art supplies. The client now has the chance to self-regulate using the mandala or gain autonomy in making the decision to not use the tool.

In a follow-up session with this client, you could begin interpreting the client’s work or you could play live/recorded music while they draw another one. Use the your therapeutic presence to create a safe space for interpretations. The music can serve as extension of their interpretations that can supplement the experience.

Group Music Therapy

Using mandalas in the group setting can be powerful. They can foster a sense of community and connectedness. As a facilitator, you can use clinical judgement to determine the level of structure that would be best for the group.

One option is having members add to collective mandala. Depending on logistics, setup, and group dynamics, members can draw wherever they so choose over the mandala, or you can add more structure to the experience by having each member work on a distinct portion of the mandala. You have the choice of encouraging group members to rotate the mandala so others can add elements to their peer’s section.  

Another option is to have each group member create their own mandala. You can then facilitate group members passing their mandalas around the circle so they can simply add one aspect or several, depending on need and time constraints.

Personal Example

During an intervention techniques class, Lindsay Zehren, MT-BC, asked all four interns to draw whatever it is that we need during times of stress. I wrote the word ‘space’ and drew the light blue spiral and purple pastel background within the circle. All the other additions were made by my co-interns. Lindsay facilitated this intervention by playing music as we drew, asking us to pass our papers to the right, and to add a supportive component to the mandala. We discussed our feelings about the process afterward and how we felt about each of the mandalas. I love mine and the fact that I can trust the intern team to know exactly what I need during times of stress.  

Mandalas in Personal Development

For someone who has difficulty identifying emotions and feelings, mandalas are an invaluable tool. Not only do they function as a door into my subconscious mind, but they collectively serve as a concrete timeline of my personal journey through internship.

I was skeptical of the initial assignment at MusicWorx to complete six mandalas in the first month, but now I complete four or six a week as self-care. The first six had general instructions:

  1. Free
  2. Use only two favored colors
  3. Use two least favored colors
  4. Colors chosen and drawn with non-dominant hand only
  5. On black paper
  6. Drawn to MusicWorx/Resounding Joy

I’ve included half of those initial six mandalas and then prominent ones I’ve made since then:

Mandala with specific instructions:

“Supported” – Use only two favored colors

“Unhappy” – Use two least favored colors

“Nonbinary” – Use black paper

Mandalas with Captions:

This is the first mandala I made during internship. After much reflection, I realized that the spirals and shapes represent everything I had yet to learn. The sprouting seed was a representation of my knowledge, skills, and confidence. You can clearly see several types of barriers separating the seed from growth.

Four months later, you can see that some of those same shapes return, but they are included within the circle this time. I subconsciously brought those shapes back after an day of incredible sessions. This mandala marks an exciting milestone in my internship journey because it demonstrates my confidence in those skills that were once seemingly far away.

I didn’t even know I was feeling strong emotions until I selected a green crayon and began creating small Xs around the mandala’s border. My emotions began coming through as I made larger, more intense Xs through the center of the page.

A three-hour conversation with one of my supervisors absolutely blew my mind. Although the mandala doesn’t demonstrate exactly how I was feeling, it allowed me to release pent up energy and excitement.

More Mandala Examples:

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