Reviews – The Mandala Workbook


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!