In my last article, I brought up the example of the mandala as a strictly pictorial symbol, the kind the archetypal powers use to initiate one into imaginal thinking, and to train the imaginal ego. I said this was a first step into the imaginal world, but that one should eventually move on to deeper archetypal experiences.
There is no doubt that the mandala is a ubiquitous symbol. It appears in dreams and is quite prevalent in Nature. It can be found in all cultures, both ancient and modern. At least from the viewpoint of archetypal psychology, the attempt to integrate the soul’s many powers into one central Self profanes the soul’s multiplicity. If not wholeness, then what meaning does the mandala hold for us?
First, let us hear what Carl Jung has to say:
As I have said, mandala means ‘circle.’ There are innumerable variants of the motif shown here, but they are all based on the squaring of a circle. Their basic motif is the premonition of a centre of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy. The energy of the central point is manifested in the almost irresistible compulsion and urge to become what one is, just as every organism is driven to assume the form that is characteristic of its nature, no matter what the circumstances. This centre is not felt or thought of as the ego but, if one may so express it, as the self. Although the centre is represented by an innermost point. it is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self-the paired opposites that make up the total personality. This totality comprises consciousness first of all, then the personal unconscious, and finally an indefinitely large segment of the collective unconscious whose archetypes are common to all mankind. A certain number of these, however, are permanently or temporarily included within the scope of the personality and, through this contact, acquire an individual stamp as the shadow, anima, and animus, to mention only the best-known figures. The self, though on the one hand simple, is on the other hand an extremely composite thing, a “conglomerate soul,” to use the Indian expression (Jung 357).
Within Jung’s writings on the Self, there is the implication that something is wrong with the soul being multiplicitous, and that this must be corrected. This is brought about by bringing the various complexes into a state of wholeness. The mandala supposedly symbolizes this. Of course, individuating toward wholeness requires a strong ego.
This model seems to be based on the theology of Judeo-Christianity, the idea of having a single, central, supreme god. In this paradigm of analytical psychology, ego, or Self, is supreme. Hillman calls this “monotheistic psychology,” saying we must shift away from the “ego as sole center of consciousness” (Hillman 264-265). He further says that it is this kind of psychology that “presents the ego in a direct line of confrontation and covenant with a single self, represented by images of unity (mandalas, crystals, balls, wise men, and other patterns of order)” (Hillman 265).
So, we know Jung’s opinion as to what the mandala represents. If the integration to wholeness is a faulty model, what else could the mandala symbolize? I like what Jung says about “the urge to become what one is.” In my thinking, everything has a purpose in our universe. I think my purpose is to write these words you are reading. I have always felt that my research and writing is my purpose, my acorn that can grow into an oak. Perhaps the mandala represents a journey of the soul, not necessarily toward a monotheistic idea of wholeness, or center of consciousness, but simply a circumambulatory experience of the various personalities within us. At times, we may experience what seems like a central power, but this is just another archetype operating in its own non-hierarchical mode of consciousness. We spin, as in a vortex. We experience many different powers within ourselves. This churning of the soul is its wheel of life.
Let us not limit the power of the imagination by claiming a symbol only represents one particular interpretation. Like the soul, all images are unfathomable.
Hillman, James. The Myth of Analysis. New York: Harper, 1972.
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