Review – Creating Mandalas



Art Therapy. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association

9(2) pp. 103 – 104.

Fincher, Susanne F.

Creating Mandalas for Insight, Healing and Self-Expression

Shambhala Publications, Boston, Mass. 1991.

Reviews by Elizabeth (Liz) Ratcliffe, M.S., F.F.C.C., A.T.R., Book Editor

Every once in a while a book appears which, right away, becomes a “classic” in its field. Until it gets into print, we don’t realize how much it has been needed, because there has been nothing available to remind us that there is a gap in the existing literature. Such a book is Susanne F. Fincher’s Creating Mandalas, published in paperback by Shambhala, 1991. The subtitle: For Insight, Healing and Self-Expression, suggests that personal benefit can be derived from this easily read volume. And Ms. Fincher, who discovered the healing power of creating mandalas, following the death of a child and a painful divorce, tells us that her personal recovery and subsequent fifteen-year study of the history and traditions of the mandala in many cultures, have been the impetus for this book. My reading of the work has persuaded me that besides being invaluable as a personal inspiration and resource, it may well become the single most useful professional reference for creating mandalas with clients, students or laypeople interested in knowing more about this ancient and mysterious circle form.

The word “mandala” comes from ancient Sanskrit, and was introduced to Western psychology by psychiatrist Carl Jung in the first part of this century. In Jung’s medical internship at the Burgholzli Psychiatric Hospital in Zurich, he had been intrigued by his observation that frenzied schizophrenic patients would often create self-soothing by drawing circle forms. Later after his traumatic break with Freud and his own midlife breakdown, he himself found the power of self-healing by repeatedly drawing mandalas. He writes, “I sketched every morning in a notebook a small circular drawing…which seemed to correspond to my inner situation at the time…Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is:….the Self, the wholeness of personality, which if all goes well is harmonious.” (p. 18).

Very early in history human beings discovered what seems to have served as the spiritual focusing power of circle forms. In prehistoric rock carvings from every continent we see the designs. Wherever they occur in art, architectural monuments, rituals and symbolic references the circle seems to represent universal human consciousness. Sacred creation myths based on the idea of the circle occur in traditions of ancient Europe, Africa, the South Pacific and the American Indians.

Fincher says, “Ancient mandalas carved in many places around the world suggest an awe of the sun and moon. These circular heavenly bodies could have served our ancestors as natural symbols, shaping consciousness and assisting human beings to develop their thinking beyond purely instinctual levels.” (p. 3). Descriptions of much prehistoric lore supply a rich and scholarly background for the author’s presentation of the usefulness of making mandalas in today’s world. Robert A. Johnson, Jungian analyst and author, states in his Foreword to her book, “Never before has mankind ben in such need of the healing power of the mandala as at present. Our fractured disintegrating world cries for the cohesive force which is the great power of mandala.” Ancient Tibetan mandalas, whether in sand painting or “thangka” form, still serve Buddhist religious practice as a visual aid to meditation, and entrance into deep spiritual trance.

Fincher’s section on creating and interpreting mandalas draws on the psychological theories of Jung, Neumann, Von Franz, Edinger, Rhoda Kellogg and Joan Kellogg. She credits Joan Kellogg with the precise instructions for beginning mandala work:–kinds of art materials, setting, relaxation techniques for preparation, dating each work and ordering techniques for preparation, dating each work and ordering sequence, and finally—affixing a spontaneous title. Interpretation includes careful recording of colors (and associations), listing shapes and numbers of repeated forms (and associations), and cross-referencing personal associations of color, shape and number with the spontaneous title. From this process there begins to emerge a pattern of meaning. Keeping a journal of the process becomes an invaluable part of the healing journey, which as in sandplay or dream work, takes its meaning from the sequential process rather than from any single mandala.

Chapters on color, color systems, and forms and numbers, give precise attention to these elements. In clear and direct format Fincher shares her widely researched information so that the reader has easy access to the author’s rich encyclopedia of ancient and modern sources. Yet, as a contemporary scholar and experienced art therapist, she also carefully instructs the reader always to value personal preferred associations above general or historic facts. I especially appreciated this honoring of the individual, for I have come to be suspicious of theories that claim absolute answers in the increasingly complex field of human psychology. I applaud such statements as, “The color associations in this chapter are given only to stimulate your thinking about the colors in your mandala. These are not the ‘right’ meanings.” (p. 34) And, “This chapter has been an attempt to show that colors in mandalas have another layer of meaning determined by their relationships to one another…(and) are not intended as hard and fast rules.” (p. 90) The author has included sixteen beautiful color prints illustrating patient and other mandalas.

The chapter on numbers and forms, liberally sprinkled with sketches and drawings, provided for me one of my favorite reads, for its content provides a detailed compendium of archetypal lore. Of this vast wealth of collected source material Ms. Fincher says, “I have woven together traditional symbolism from religious liturgy, psychology and mythology…This information can help you amplify the meaning of your own symbols” (p. 93). Numbers and forms are assigned several possible meanings, often contradictory in nature. For instance, ONE can stand for the single individual, or it can stand just as well for all that is potential; EIGHT represents stability and harmony as well as the divine instigator of endless change. The BULL symbolizes both the feminine (with its two crescent moon horns), and the powerful masculine god (whose bellow thunders across the angry sky). The DOG can represent the faithful friend, and in another context bestiality.

Two final chapters are given over to the Great Round of mandala forms (the twelve stages of ego-self development, or individuation) drawing on Joan Kellogg’s work of the archetypal mandala series, and telling some personal stories of people whose lives have been profoundly affected by working with mandalas.

In Susanne Fincher’s book Creating Mandalas we, as art therapists, find few final absolute answers about how to live our inner and outer lives, but many suggested possibilities about how to understand and guide our complex human selves through troubles waters. As ancient Chinese scholars (and contemporary students) of the I Ching, use their intuition for matching the pattern of the thrown yarrow stalks with the wisdom of the hexagrams, so can readers and practitioners of this richly rewarding book seek relief, understanding and healing for the world-weary soul of their clients and themselves.