Finding Zen in Mandala-Making
I’m not sure exactly why, but I have been fascinated with mandalas for quite some time now. Maybe it’s the symmetry and the beautiful balance between the simplicity and intricate detailing. After all, if you break it down into its basic parts it is nothing more than the simplest of shapes, repeated in a series of circular patterns. But as a whole it becomes something that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Kind of like the small moments that make up our lives.
The first mandala I made was in an attempt to find simple art-making activities that produce beautiful results without requiring expensive materials or hours of practice. I stumbled upon a YouTube channel filled with amazing, colorful dot mandalas and I was hooked. Armed with a small bucket of craft paint I found in my supply closet and a pencil, I had everything I needed to get started. I recorded the second dot mandala I made to use as an art activity for the cover one of the journals in my handmade journal course, and later I posted that video on my YouTube channel. I have since made many more mandalas, some that are all dots, some that I sketched in ink, and even a few Line & Dot Mandalas that offer the best of both worlds.
The mandala above was really fun to make and not nearly as complicated as it might seem. If you want to make one for yourself, check out my Dot Mandalas for Beginners video here.
Let me be clear: Making mandalas is not my passion. In fact, at first glance the process of mandala-making is the opposite of what I am typically drawn to. I’ve discovered that my "true art loves", watercolor and encaustic, are similar in the fact that natural forces play a big role in the outcome of each piece. The results for both can be fickle and unpredictable but I love that I often can (and must) let go of the control during the art making process to achieve the best results.
Mandalas on the other hand can seem a bit rigid. I mean, I start with a grid of lines and circles to help me keep everything neat and orderly. With dot mandalas the paint is contained within the shape of a dot, and even my mandala drawings are a bit locked down. I have a small amount of freedom with the first shape in each row, but once that first design is set, that same shape is normally repeated again and again to achieve the best results. But here’s the thing: It's the structure and rigidity that makes this process ideal, especially at times when I am feeling creatively blocked. I don’t need to think, or plan, I just follow the steps to lay down my background color, and sketch in my grid. Up front, my decisions are limited to my choice of colors and paper size. Those decisions I can always handle, no matter what my state of mind. Then, when I begin the more creative part of the activity, I have no fear of the blank page because the page isn’t blank anymore. Plus the next level of decision-making is limited to little choices at the start of each new row. As a result, during most of the time during the mandala-making process, my hands are active but my mind is clear because muscle memory guides the way. This allows me to enter a state of mindful observation- the state we hope to achieve during meditation practice.
Speaking of traditional meditation, I know it works well for a lot of people but I just can’t make it work for me. I am either too uncomfortable and end up focused on the stiffness in my hip or my leg that’s falling asleep. This ultimately fires up my analytical left-brain, reigniting all the distracting thoughts in my head that I had been attempting to clear in the first place. I have even tried to alter my position to try to make myself comfortable enough to prevent my body from drawing my attention (i.e. by propping myself up in bed or on a comfy chair) but I inevitably end up falling asleep. For me, art puts me into a state of relaxation, activates my creative and intuitive right brain and helps me to achieve a state of calm and zen like nothing else.
There are some aspects of art-making that can detract a bit from that state of calm serenity which come into play mainly whenever the outcome or “success” of a piece becomes important. Full disclosure: I would love to say that I can let that all go, that I am always completely into enjoying the process and don’t care about how it looks or what anybody thinks of my art, but that’s just not true. I feel stress when I feel like I need to plan everything out before starting, or when I fear making a mistake, or whenever I am not able to achieve the results I had pictured in my head. However, I have overcome this by allowing myself some creative playtime when I do activities that are simply for the pleasure I find in the process. It's a bit of a psychological play on myself, but it helps me to disconnect my ego from the outcome. I also find that if I am working on inexpensive drawing or watercolor paper with pens or paints I already have- especially when I am working on something for my art journal- I tell myself, "it's only paper."
With these techniques I have been able to let go of my perfectionism … or at least, I am getting there. If you’ve watched either of my last 2 mandala videos, you will have noticed that I fixed areas I was unhappy with after my final appraisal, but I can argue that that was in the interest of my viewers who are also struggling with similar perfectionist thoughts. Not buying it? Okay, me neither, but I am a self-professed work-in-progress after all!
Here's a photo of my latest Line & Dot Mandala.
If you want to make one for yourself, check out my step-by-step video here.