Art Therapy:
Journal of the American Art Therapy Association

28(2) pp. 92-93.

Fincher, Susanne F.

The Mandala Workbook: A Creative Guide for Self-Exploration, Balance, and Well-Being.

Boston: Shambhala, 2009

Fincher, Susanne F.

Reviewed by Carol Thayer Cox

Susanne Fincher has dedicated her art therapy career to teaching about the therapeutic potential of mandalas. Her first book, Creating Mandalas for Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression (1991), has been widely read. Subsequently, she wrote three volumes on coloring mandalas, each exploring more in-depth aspects of using circles for self-understanding. Fincher’s most recent publication synthesizes her years of researching the universal significance of this archetype, her experience using mandalas with clients, and her insights from leading mandala workshops.

During the late 1970’s and early 1980s, Fincher was influenced by art therapist Joan Kellogg, who conceptualized a Jungian-based art therapy system for comprehending the meaning of mandalas. Fincher adopted Kellogg’s (1984) “Archetypal Stages of the Great Round of Mandala” as an organizational structure for her teaching. Whereas Kellogg was a theorist, I believe that Fincher has worked with Kellogg’s theory primarily as a therapist, adapting it to her clients’ heeds and using the mandala as a tool for healing.

Fincher’s latest book delineates ways to work with the mandala in depth. She references Kellogg throughout and makes it clear that she is using Kellogg’s 12 stages of the Great Round as the framework for her recommendations for working with the mandala. In the past I have criticized Fincher for ignoring Kellogg’s important 1984 discovery of Stage 0 (Cox, 1992). The author has since acknowledged its existence and described it briefly in relation to the 12 stages (Fincher, 2000), but has chosen not to include it in her teaching which she states in the preface to her new edition of Creating Mandalas (2010).

In The Mandala Workbook, I understand why Fincher prefers to focus on 12 stages, given that they fit nicely with 12 months of the year. She also recounts the historical and cultural significance of the number 12. However, I do think that Fincher missed an opportunity to discuss Kellogg’s Stage 0 in her chapter, “Completing the Circle: Stepping into the Center.” Stage 0 holds the transpersonal essence of Kellogg’s theory; therefore, I am disappointed that it is not mentioned, even in passing. Fincher recommends using black ink to paint enso (an empty circle that represents enlightenment), which is the epitome of Stage 0. Fincher connects it with Stage 1, however, which contradicts Kellogg’s (2002) evolved connection of this stage.

My primary criticism of Fincher’s work is that she purports to be teaching Kellogg’s stages but presents them with words that can be misleading to students of Kellogg’s theory, as in the case above. Descriptive words carry much weight. For instance, in Stage 5 one cannot yet “claim selfhood” (p. 95). Rather, it is a place of struggling over control, setting boundaries, and learning how to do things by repetition. I believe that the conflict and ambivalence that Fincher relates to Stage 5 really belong to Stage 6, where one appropriately tries to “take a stand on an issue” (p 104). The focus of Stage 8 is on individual functioning, not on relationships (p. 141), which occur in Stage 9. Fincher’s depiction of Stage 10 as letting go” and “becoming unraveled” (p. 177) sounds more like what is encountered in Stage 11 when release and disorientation happen. Stage 10 is mainly about transitioning into a different state of consciousness of grief and loss.

Nevertheless, I like Fincher’s approach in her workbook. Often using the personal pronoun you, she addresses the reader directly. She advocates taking a year to complete the book, devoting one month to become fully immersed in each of the 12 stages. With a poetic voice she casts each stage in a time of day, month, lunar phase, and season. Fincher guides readers to feel the energy of each stage by recommending breathing, stretching, and yoga exercises (illustrated) and even some songs (notes and words included). Journaling is also emphasized throughout. These alternative approaches are not new, as other teaches of Kellogg’s theory have used expressive modalities besides art to help people fully grasp the complexities of each stage (see, e.g., Cox, Wilder, Heller, Sonnen, & Bernier, 2004). Whereas others have provided intermodal experiences via performances and workshops, Fincher make these types of opportunities accessible to everyone. She also provides an array of two- and three-dimensional art projects and art media suggestions for each stage. Here is where Fincher’s decades of experience as a workshop instructor are evident. Anyone who wants to focus on a particular stage will benefit from following her creative advice.

Throughout her career, Fincher has expanded upon Kellogg’s theory. She also went on to pursue her own journey with the mandala without the benefit of Kellogg’s later wisdom, which has resulted in some confusion as to what is truly Kellogg’s theory and what are Fincher’s variations thereof. However, because of Fincher’s consistent devotion to her mission, it has been she, rather than any of the other teachers of Kellogg’s work, who has written the books that bring this amazing work into the mainstream. For that she deserves our praise!

coloring1_cover coloring2_cover

Art Therapy:
Journal of the American Art Therapy Association

23(1) pp. 39-40.

Fincher, Susanne F.

Coloring Mandalas 1: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression

Boston: Shambhala, 2000

Fincher, Susanne F.

Coloring Mandalas 2: For Balance, Harmony, and Spiritual Well-Being.

Boston: Shambhala, 2004.

Reviewed by Michele Rippey, Miami Beach, FL

Susanne Fincher has made a spiritual, scholarly, and artistic pursuit of the circle for nearly two decades. Her recent coloring books, published respectively in 2000 and 2004, provide a split-complement to the original volume, Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression (1991). The two volumes under review here each stand alone; however, the 1991 book reviewed by Ratcliff (1992) in this journal is a gratifying touchstone guiding an even fuller appreciation for Fincher’s vision. If, as Ratcliff suggests, the original work can be thought of as an instant classic, then these recent publications provide a triad of some significance. Fincher reports that the number 3 symbolizes any dynamic process (1991, p. 96). How do these three volumes as one process lend momentum to a reader’s understanding of and experience with the circle?

Before pondering further the momentum of a triad, consider these two volumes each as a work of art. Coloring Mandalas 1: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression contains 48 black and white circle designs and 13 full color plates illustrating the accompanying text. For ease of reference, I will refer to this book as Insight and Healing 2000. Coloring Mandalas 2: For Balance, Harmony, and Spiritual Well-Being contains 72 black and white circle designs and three black and white reproductions of mandalas related to spiritual traditions. I will refer to this book as Balance and Harmony 2004. In each book, the circles are about nine inches in diameter with well-defined lines and spaces. Sixteen glossy full color mandalas make up a border for each of the front covers. Fincher’s purpose is to invite hands-on experiences for people of all ages and to offer her art to become the reader’s art.

Insight and Healing 2000 contains 20 pages of text only, a synoptic version of the 1991 publication. Fincher review children’s developmental emerging mandalas, the circle as sacred art in Tibet, Native American and Christian traditions, and Jung’s concept of the mandala as a psychological tool. Her main emphasis, however, lies in an explanation of The Great Round, 12 stages of psychological life and physical existence that repeat throughout the life cycle. The circles portray each of the numbered stages with several circles devoted to each stage, adding depth to the concepts. Opposite each circle at the bottom of the page are a few sentences explaining something about the design in reference to the stage. One example is Mandala 21, acknowledged as based on an M.C. Escher design. Her words about Stage 6 begin “Dragon Fight brings about the polarization of the opposites in our lives: dark/light, male/female, angel/devil. The increased inner conflict creates energy that can be channeled into the expansion of consciousness” (unpaginated). Looking at the circle’s imagery for a while expands the meaning of the words and helps evoke the stage under consideration. As one progresses through the stages, the dynamics of The Great Round gain vitality. The author gives helpful suggestions to those who wish to explore and learn from the images. She encourages group or individual study, as well as taking up the coloring with any of a variety of media. She advises that when working with children no way is the right way. Children should feel free to color as they wish.

Balance and Harmony 2004 contains just eight pages of information making brief reference to circles in spiritual traditions and to The Great Round. Fincher attributes the concept of the 12 stages comprising The Great round to Joan Kellogg, an art therapist who teamed with psychiatrist Francisco DiLeo. Kellogg conceived of and explored the prototypical forms that mandalas would take inside the 12 stages. She added an initial stage, Stage 0, Clear Light. Fincher’s purpose in this volume is to focus the participant on Stage 9 (post Kellogg’s addition of Stage 0). Stage 9 is referred to as Crystallization. Fincher evokes this stage with the words “growing energy is perfectly fulfilled in a unique creation” (p. 7). She compares this stage to taking in the sight and fragrance of a fully opened rose. Closing these introductory pages, she states that she drew each of these plates after entering a contemplative frame of mind. She pairs each of the designs with a single sentence to focus the mind of the reader. The sentence for Mandala 20 reads, “Contemplative practices mobilize a connection with all those who follow a similar path—communion of saints, sangha, or kindred souls” (Unpaginated).

Based on a Jungian approach, her focus throughout both the books is on coloring the mandalas to gain personal knowledge and to explore thee dialogue that goes on between the self and the ego. Her intention, as she shares the many crystallized forms and thoughts, is to transmit the spiritual well-being that she obviously has acquired to whomever wishes to breath color into her balance, harmonious circles.

While Fincher has not intended these books to be scholarly, I appreciate the clarity she brings to how the development of The Great Round was a collaboration between Kellogg and DiLeo; this information was not included in Insight and Healing 2000. In the 2004 book, she acknowledges directly that she is the originator of the circle designs, a fact not made explicit in the earlier book but important for the reader to understand.

Personally, I question a coloring book format. I often experience coloring, in the context of making art or conducting art therapy, as tedious. How beneficial is coloring other people’s designs in the therapeutic or artistic sense? It is a question to which I have no pat answer. What I sense as genuine and worthwhile is that entering into the process that Fincher’s vision invites could engrave a deeper understanding of the cycles of psychological life. The benefit of acquiring words and images simultaneously, to promote insight and understanding in this regard, holds promise. How one approaches coloring must remain a personal and idiosyncratic pursuit.

The question posed at the beginning of this review is how Fincher’s three books as a single process provide momentum for our experiences with the circle. Indeed the three together provide a beginning, middle, and end to Fincher’s journey. Along the way she provides sound teaching, first with words (1991), then with 48 graphic examples that breath the words as she explores graphically the stages of the life cycle, and finally with 72 crystallized understanding evoking a balanced maturity of forms. She proposes a journey and encourages the reader/artist to follow in her footsteps.


Fincher, S.F. (1991). Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression. Boston: Shambhala.

Ratcliff, E. (1992). [Review of the book Creating Mandalas: For Insight, Healing, and Self-Expression]. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 9, 103-104.



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.