The Art of Mandalas: Mindfulness in the Classroom

Boulder Journey School collaborates regularly with Hawkins Centers of Learning to hold evening workshops, open to the community. To learn about and register for upcoming workshops, click here.

The topic of each workshop varies; however each experience offers time and space to engage in the three phases of Messing About, as proposed by David Hawkins.


In October, 2017, we focused our workshop on mandalas and how the creation of mandalas is tied to the practice of mindfulness. We viewed the construction and deconstruction of a sand mandala from Werner Herzog’s documentary on Buddhism, Wheel of Time.

Participants reflected on the tension they felt as they watched the monks destroy the intricate design. As a group, we reflected on the relationship with work when we intentionally create temporary work. How does temporary work offer us the mindset to focus on the process rather than the product? What are the experiences of temporary artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and Christo?

Together we dove into the traditional definition of a mandala. We took meaning from an interview with the Venerable Khenpo Rinpoche, who explained that ‘mandala’ is made of two words: man, which means mind, and da, which means maintaining. A mandala is a tool for maintaining the mind.

Additionally, the word mandala is sanskrit for circle, which signifies completion.

The Venerable Khenpo Rinpoche explained that everything is circular and completed within the mind – the mind is the source of everything, which when expanded, offers itself as the house of the deity. For this reason, the mandala should be luxurious, “the house of the deity is not a poor house” (The Meaning of Mandala, 2013).

Mandala created by a participant in the workshop.

Although we do not typically associate Buddhist monks with luxuries, this interpretation of mandala offers a space to recognize the luxuries within our own thoughts and creations.

Turning to Western interpretation of mandalas, we explored Carl Jung’s use and subsequent popularization of the mandala in psychology. Jung spent time drawing mandalas every day. He reflected,

“Only gradually did I discover what the mandala really is:

And that is the self, the wholeness of the personality, which if all goes well is harmonious, but which cannot tolerate self-deceptions.

My mandalas were cryptograms concerning the state of the self which were presented to me anew each day” (Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1957, p. 239).

Mandalas created by a participant in the workshop

 

What is mindfulness? And how are mandalas related?

So why are we, educators, studying mandalas? What role do they play in our lives with children?

Susan Buchalter suggests that the practice of meditation and mindfulness can be aided through the creation of mandalas. She suggests that mandalas offer a tangible focus point for the mind, and as such can be a tool for quieting thoughts during meditation (Mandala Symbolism and Techniques: Innovative Approaches for Professionals, 2013).

And why do we feel it is important to engage in mindfulness?

Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, shares the following benefits to mindfulness,

“There is a role in mindfulness in parenting [teaching]. Parents need to be conscientious, intentional, and caring in what they do. They need to be present moment to moment, tracking experiences, letting go of judgements, and really being kind and compassionate, having self-compassion…. They also need to be creative, so they aren’t coming to premature conclusions about who a child is and be open to the unfolding of a child” (On The Importance of Mindfulness, 2009).

To explore for ourselves the connections between mandalas and mindfulness, we offered participants the space to participate in the creation of mandalas. We wondered how, in this short timeframe, could we tap into the mindset outlined by Siegel.

Following their experiences creating, the participants reflected on their flow, their concentration, their enchantment with the materials, their personal pride in their work, and their meandering paths of creation.

As facilitators, one thing we noticed was how busy the room was as participants worked. There was never a time that all people were sitting still or quiet. At least one person was always up, looking at other people’s work, or gathering more materials, or even moving to a different space to work.

When we brought this reflection to the group there was some surprise. That had not been felt by the participants, and it clearly had not been a distraction. We thought about the classroom – how busy it can seem to someone not in flow – a teacher or a visitor – and how drastically different that can feel to the child who is deeply engrossed. Would we have ripped that thread of concentration if we had told our participants they were not allowed to move or talk with their neighbors? Do we rip that thread of concentration with children when we ask them to sit still?


 

This workshop, as with most of our Hawkins-inspired professional development, was intended to offer teachers insight into learners through participation in their own learning, rather than to offer teachers specific activities to take into their classrooms.

Look for a future blog post exploring possibilities for incorporating mandala work with young children in the classroom.

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