Figure 1. Carl Jung
Carl Jung (Figure 1) viewed the appearance of a mandala—a circular or squared symbol of wholeness—as highly beneficial to one’s own personal development. Mandalas can appear in a person’s dreams, visions, or fantasies, and as numinous symbols they tend to chart the course of one’s own individuation process. Mandala is a Sanskrit word that means ‘circle’ and originated from early Indian religious and cultural traditions (Jung, 1955, CW9i, para. 629). Accordingly, mandalas are archetypal images in that they can be found everywhere and at every time. Jung observed that certain symbols constantly recurred among patients of widely differing backgrounds. He found that they had occurred historically as far back as prehistoric times.
A mandala, as such, could also be conceived as a “the psychological expression of the totality of the self” (Jung, 1950/1968a, CW9i, para. 542). The garden of Eden, the heavenly Jerusalem, and Taoism’s terrace of life, could all be viewed as different kinds of mandala representations. The mandala generally consists of geometrical form—a circle or square, fluid or fixed—and suggests a symbol of order and psychic orientation. Jung (1950/1968b) further observed that “the mandala, though only a symbol of the self as the psychic totality, is at the same time a God-image, for the central point, circle, and quaternity are well-known symbols for the deity” (CW9i, para. 572). Mandalas can also appear as circular fountains, parks, radial alleys, square market places, obelisks, buildings with a circular or square shape, lakes, and rivers.
Figure 2. Systema Munditotius
The image of a mandala demarcates the path of individuation and thus its appearance may indicate an important turning point in one’s psychological development. Jung recognized the therapeutic value of mandala images not long after his break from Sigmund Freud. He sketched his first mandala in January 1916 and named it Systema Munditotius, (System of the Whole World) (Figure 2). This mandala formed, as it were, presented a psychic blueprint for Jung’s emerging individual cosmology. In his autobiography, Jung (1961/1989) wrote:
More than twenty years earlier (in 1918), in the course of my investigations of the collective unconscious, I discovered the presence of an apparently universal symbol of a similar type—the mandala symbol. To make sure of my case, I spent more than a decade amassing additional data, before announcing my discovery for the first time. The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the self. This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man. (p. 335)
According to historian Sonu Shamdasani (2012) Systema Munditotius “has more in common with the traditional Tibetan form of the mandala than Jung’s later mandalas, which in 1917 he came to understand as depictions of the “self”” (p. 123). When Jung (1961/1989) read Richard Wilhelm’s The Secret of the Golden Flower, he opined that the text helped him to associate the appearance of the mandala with the emergence of the self (p. 197). He added that
The text gave me an undreamed—of confirmation of my ideas about the mandala and the circumambulation of the center. This was the first event which broke through my isolation. I became aware of an affinity; I could establish ties with someone and something. (p. 197)
Later in his career, Jung came to the realization that the mandala was the circumambulation of the center (i.e., the self). Every mandala points toward an unknown goal that is rendered in symbolic terms. Mandalas seek to show ways for the personality to unify its own inner opposites. Jung wrote:
Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is: ”Formation, Transformation, Eternal Mind’s eternal recreation.” And that is the self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious, but which cannot tolerate self-deceptions. (p. 196)
Thus, for Jung, the mandala symbol’s importance to the role of individuation, and coming to terms with the archetype of the self, could not be overemphasized.
Jung, C. G. (1955). Appendix A: Mandalas. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 9i, pp. 355-384). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. G. (1968a). A study in the process of individuation. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H.Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 9i, pp. 290-348). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1950)
Jung, C. G. (1968b). Concerning mandala symbolism. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 9i, pp. 355-384). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1950)
Jung, C. G. (1968). Archetypes of the collective unconscious. (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C.G. Jung (2nd ed., Vol. 9i, pp. 3-41). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1954)
Jung, C.G. (1989). Memories, dreams, reflections. Aniela Jaffe. (ed.) Richard and Clara Winston. (Trans.) New York: NY: Vintage Book. (Original work published 1961)
Shamdasani, S. (2012). C.G. Jung: A biography in books. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company.