Mandalas are intricate designs and symbols that are drawn in geometric forms (mandala is Sanskrit for “circle”). They originated in India, and are pervasive in Buddhist culture – particularly Tibetan Buddhism – as a way to represent the universe, deities, or certain realms. They are a form of spiritual artwork used across the world as a way to aid meditation and trance induction. Tibetan Buddhist monks also create highly intricate mandalas out of coloured sand and then destroy them once complete, symbolising the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of all things.
Creating mandalas has now left the purview of Eastern religions and into the therapeutic space. Research now indicates that mandala drawing can lead to improvements in mental health, and art therapy incorporates this practice for precisely this reason. Moreover, the psychologist Carl Jung also took an interest in them (especially their creation) as he believed they were an indication of psychological growth.
You will often see mandalas in the form of circles that overlap and combine to create intricate designs and artwork. The repetitive motion of creating them is soothing for many people, as it keeps them focused on the present moment – the task at hand – and free from rumination. One study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found that both cooperative mandala drawing (CMD) – which is done with others – and individual mandala drawing (IMD) significantly enhanced participants’ spirituality, while CMD led to greater improvements in subjective well-being than IMD. The latter, it should be stressed, was still effective at reducing negative emotions like anxiety and depression while also increasing positive affect. (Side note: rhythm-based therapy that incorporates drumming, which is intended to increase mindfulness, also seems to have unique benefits when done in a group, as social connectedness can be highly therapeutic.)
Other researchers have found that mandala drawing can significantly decrease depression and anxiety in patients with cancer and even relieve symptoms of chronic pain. Mandala drawing is widely thought to be effective in alleviating states of depression, anxiety, and stress due to its enhancement of mindfulness, with some studies assuming that mandala colouring reduces anxiety for exactly this reason. (You can read more about the benefits of mindfulness here.) However, mandala drawing and mandala colouring may not actually be a form of mindfulness but mindlessness. In contrast to mindfulness, flow is a state of mind in which a person is completely focused on a task or activity; it involves being absorbed in the task and losing your self-awareness, whereas mindfulness is all about maintaining this awareness throughout the activity.
In a paper published in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Jakobsson Støre and Niklas Jakobsson argue:
The mechanism behind the effect of coloring mandalas on anxiety (i.e., if there is such an effect) might therefore be that of avoidance (e.g., avoiding certain thoughts), which limits interaction with reality. Avoidance has a negative connotation in North America, Europe, and Australia. In these regions avoidance strategies have been found to be among the most critical maintaining factors in models of anxiety disorders (Borkovec et al., 2004), whereas several Asian cultures have been said to highlight the usefulness of avoidance (Liu et al., 2020).
Nonetheless, with respect to mandala colouring specifically, a 2021 study utilising brain scans notes that this is a focused attention mindfulness (FAM) practice, one that involves intention and non-judgemental acceptance. The brain scans were used to gauge the participants’ levels of mindfulness. The authors use the definition of mindfulness from the meditation teacher and creator of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, who said it is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
One of the objectives of the Frontiers in Psychology study referenced earlier was to ascertain whether mandala drawing can increase mindfulness, which the authors define as “the purposeful and conscious awareness of what is happening at the present without any judgment, analysis, or reaction,” which we know can lead to improvements in subjective well-being, reducing negative emotional states like depression and anxiety. However (and in keeping with Støre and Jakobsson’s point), the authors state:
Both types of Mandala drawing [CMD and IMD] do not increase the participants’ mindfulness significantly. Mindfulness is an active concentration of attention that requires clear internal and external awareness. The mechanism behind this is that the individual’s attention control intensity far exceeds the controlled event, whereas in the mandala drawing process, the participant is fully immersed in the activity itself. In this state of immersion, external awareness is considerably reduced and a person’s perception of their inner self or the environment is also affected. Previous research has shown that immersion is inversely correlated with mindfulness (Sheldon et al., 2015), which may explain why mandala drawing cannot increase mindfulness significantly.
The distinction between mindfulness and immersion is important to make. The two shouldn’t be confused. It seems, then, that mandala drawing can indeed be a useful tool for improving mental health but perhaps not because – as some proponents might claim – it enhances mindfulness. Furthermore, even if the mental health benefits of mandala drawing relate to a kind of avoidance, we should keep in mind that this does not have to be considered an unhealthy coping mechanism. Some forms of temporary avoidance can offer much-needed respite (what matters is not relying on these techniques as a cure or solution).
At the same time, it does not appear that mandala drawing is only therapeutic because it involves putting distressing thoughts and emotions to one side. As the research in Frontiers in Psychology suggests, enhancing spirituality seems to matter, too, and being in a flow state can, in and of itself, be an enjoyable and fulfilling experience that can improve your overall subjective well-being. A consistent practice of mandala drawing, therefore, could lead to noticeable changes in your overall mood.
Mandala drawing may also present an opportunity for individuals to externalise negative emotions, establishing a psychological distance from them and expressing them in a healthy way. Claudia Dauden Roquet, PhD, one researcher involved in the study carrying out brain scans while people coloured in mandalas, said she “found fascinating how using metaphorical representations of internal processes, such as colors to represent emotional states, was really helpful to externalize them, become more aware and work with them in a fairly effortless way.” She herself found this practice helpful as a way to get in touch with her thoughts and emotions.
Jung believed that mandalas (which both he and his patients drew) had the function of integrating psychological division, enhancing personal harmony, and preserving personal integrity. In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung wrote:
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 the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious.
He claimed that the urge to create mandalas emerges during moments of intense personal growth, with their appearance indicating a “profound re-balancing process” underway in the psyche. The result of this process of drawing mandalas would be a more complex and integrated personality. Marie-Louise von Franz, a Jungian analyst, remarked:
The mandala serves a conservative purpose – namely, to restore a previously existing order. But it also serves the creative purpose of giving expression and form to something that does not yet exist, something new and unique. […] The process is that of the ascending spiral, which grows upward while simultaneously returning again and again to the same point.
According to transpersonal psychologist David Fontana, the symbolic nature of the mandala may help one “to access progressively deeper levels of the unconscious, ultimately assisting the meditator to experience a mystical sense of oneness with the ultimate unity from which the cosmos in all its manifold forms arises.”
In addition, Eric Patterson, a counsellor who specialises in art therapy, underscores that “Expressive arts can play an invaluable role for someone’s mental health and well-being because they can help the person communicate without words and express the unmentionable. The arts can make someone feel strong and capable of creating beauty after ugly experiences.” Mandala drawing is an attractive option in this respect since it is accessible and affordable, while still offering people a strong sense of accomplishment. Finding the time to sit down and engage in the practice may be a challenge, but if made a habit, the results could be unexpectedly significant.
Mandala drawing and mandala colouring are often described as mindfulness activities, but this may not be quite accurate (as we have seen, researchers disagree on this point). Yet even if this is the case, this does not mean creating mandalas isn’t a useful tool for improving mental health. There is a growing body of scientific literature indicating that it is. And if you feel an urge to draw them, or to keep drawing them after creating one, you may find it helpful to heed that call – from a Jungian perspective, doing so could facilitate psychological integration and wholeness.
This article was developed in partnership with BetterHelp. All views expressed are my own.