Mandala Symbol and Meaning

14th century Tibetan thangka painting of the Mandala of Vajravarahi c.14th century. US Public Domain

A mandala is an image used in meditation. The word mandala comes from Sanskrit word manas, meaning mind. In Buddhism and Hinduism, the image represents the nature of the mind or the nature of consciousness.

Carl Jung used the term to describe a larger archetypal pattern that related to what he called the archetype of the Self. Jung says that the mandala is “the psychological expression of the totality of the self” (CW 9, para 542).

The mandala guides movement toward self-realization. Mandala and quaternity symbols emerge into dreams and visions as we begin to encounter the deeper aspects of the mind and the inner Self. The archetype of the Self guides the path toward wholeness, integration, and enlightenment.

Jung believes that the mandala’s “basic motif is the premonition of a center 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.” (CW 9i, para 634) This is certainly in enlightenment with the enlightenment teachings (see below, for example).

In the enlightenment teachings, the mandala represents this paradoxical relationship between the individual self and what is sometimes called the supreme Self or the unbound, eternal, infinite nature of the Self (as consciousness or mind).

The mandala motifs are varied across cultures, but all take on a similar pattern. Carl Jung says the mandala represented the “totality of the individual in his inner or outer experience.” Jung say,

“Individual mandalas make use of a well-nigh unlimited wealth of motifs and symbolic allusions, from which it can easily be seen that they are endeavoring to express either the totality of the individual in his inner or outer experience of the world, or its essential point of reference.” (ibid)

For Jung, the mandala is an image of the Self, and the totality of the Self, which is both conscious and unconscious.
“Their object is the self in contradistinction to the ego which is only the point of reference for consciousness, whereas the self comprises the totality of the psyche altogether, i.e., conscious and unconscious.” (ibid)

This is where it gets a bit confusing to compare Jung’s view with the perspective of enlightenment. The word unconscious is not typically used in the enlightenment teachings. In the enlightenment teachings, the aim of the mandala meditation is to make contact with the eternal, infinite, unbound, unmodified dimensions of the mind, sometimes called pure awareness, or the One mind, or Budda Nature.

I believe that Jung understood this to some degree. But that he was coming from a more materialist perspective. Jung does speak of the collective unconscious as “indefinitely large”. He says,

“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” (ibid).

Jung also calls the unconscious the “field of experience of unlimited extent”. These ideas indicate Jung sees the unconscious as infinite and unlimited. Here is another such passage from Jung:

“The deeper “layers” of the psyche lose their individual uniqueness as they retreat farther and farther into darkness. “Lower down,” that is to say as they approach the autonomous functional systems, they become increasingly collective until they are universalized and extinguished in the body’s materiality… Hence “at bottom” the psyche is simply “world.”… in the symbol the world itself speaking. (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para 291)

I am not sure if Jung understood or encountered “pure consciousness” in its absolute form. In the passage just referenced, Jung says that the psyche loses its individuality in the “body’s materiality.” From the perspective of Enlightenment, pure consciousness transcends the body’s materiality and material existence. Pure consciousness is superordinate to all material existence.

Jung was more focused on the process of individuation than he was on enlightenment (as the realization of pure consciousness). For Jung, the aim of individuation was to “become a self.” (Cw 12, para 105). This is certainly important for our lived experience. In this regard one says, Jung says:

“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”(ibid).

Jung is speaking of an instinct to reach our potential, to Self-actualize. His use of the term Self is psychologically oriented. Everything happens in psychic life, making up the “total personality.” Jung continues:

“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” (ibid).

Self-realization is a process of integrating the aspect of the mind that is unlimited and infinite. The mandala motif represents this integration.

Jung says that the unconscious has at its disposal “all the subliminal psychic contents, all those things which have been forgotten and overlooked, as well as all the experience of uncounted centuries laid down in its archetypal organs” ((CW 7, p.196). Jung want to bring the eternal into the temporal thought the contact with the archetypes.

Jung’s form of enlightenment is well suited to the Western mind. The process is a deeping into the depths of the Self, integrating the various layers of psychic contents and archetypal dimensions of the mind. This opens the ego slowly to the unlimited and indefinite aspects of consciousness. This may be the most healthy way to approach enlightenment for the western ego, especially if we fear ego decompensation.

In terms of enlightenment, the realization of pure consciousness is always integrated into our lived experience. This is true because we are alive. In the modern Enlightenment teachings, it is said that the ego dissolves. In my experience, it is more that a new center emerges, and this center is the Self.

Vajravarahi Mandala

I would like to explore the mandala of Vajravarahi as a means to understand the perspective of enlightenment. Vajravarahi is a goddess invoked in Tantric meditation. Her name means ‘Diamond-like Sow’. According to the Met musem: “The goddess represents the triumph over ignorance (symbolized by the sow).”

Notice the six-pointed star in the middle of the mandala. “The Sadhanamala describes the six-pointed star as the union of male (the upward-pointing triangle) and female (the downward-pointing triangle) energies”

I believe that Jung would say that the two triangles represent the integration of the conscious and the unconscious.

From the perspective of enlightenment, the triangles represent the interplay of the temporal and eternal dimensions of consciousness, or said another way the modified and unmodified dimensions of consciousness.

Integration of the eternal and temporal dimension gives rise to the enlightened state. In meditation, Vajravarahi is visualized as emerging from the heart. The heart is an archetypal space and place for the integration of the eternal and temporal dimensions of Being.

The eternal, infinite, unmodified unbound nature of consciousness is beyond body, beyond the material world, and yet is ground or essence of the material world. It gives rise to our lived experience and yet extends beyond lived experience.

“Early Tibetan translations of Sanskrit texts, such as the Sadhanamala (Garland of Means for [Spiritual] Attainment), the Nishpannayogavali (Garland of Perfection Yogas), and the Hevajra Tantra, describe Vajravarahi’s mandala as unfolding within the heart of a practitioner” (ibid).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Jung might also see the Vajravarahi as a syzygy image. The syzygy “always takes the form of the paired opposites, where the One is never separated from the Other, its antithesis”. Jung realized the syzygy to be an image of the “experience of individuation, the attainment of the Self”. Jung sasy, “It is a psychological fact that as soon as we touch on these identifications we enter the realm of the syzygies, the paired opposites, where the One is never separated from the Other, its antithesis. It is a field of personal experience which leads directly to the experience of individuation, the attainment of the self. A vast number of symbols for this process could be mustered from the medieval literature of the West and even more from the storehouses of Oriental wisdom, but in this matter words and ideas count for little. Indeed, they may become dangerous bypaths and false trails. In this still very obscure field of psychological experience, where we are in direct contact, so to speak, with the archetype, its psychic power is felt in full force. This realm is so entirely one of immediate experience that it cannot be captured by any formula, but can only be hinted at to one who already knows.” (Carl Jung, CW 9i, para. 194


Jung, C. G., (1934–1954). The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious. (1981 2nd ed. Collected Works Vol.9 Part 1), Princeton, N.J.: Bollingen. 0-691-01833-2
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Carl Jung, 9 Part 1 – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious– 1934–1954

What is Active Imagination? It’s Role in Spiritual Growth

Active imagination is a method of using the imagination for conscious exploration of the inner world. In active imagination, we perceive the sacred symbols as they spontaneously emerge from the depths of the psyche.

Spiritual teaching of various spiritual traditions call upon active imagination to engage the sacred dimensions of being and awaken the soul. It is through active imagination that we may begin to explore and perceive the True Nature of the Self.

The use of active imagination involves journaling, art, poetry, mediation, and spiritual contemplation to enrich the spiritual experience and encourage spiritual awakening. According to Jung (1997) there are several ways that one can access the imagination:

The visual type of person allows the active imagination to arise through inner images.  Jung (1997) states that for this type of person a images will appear in the mind’s eye. They then follow that image, and allow it to change and shift. This process allows the divine to present itself in one image or a series of images, much like the dreaming process.

The second type is the audio-visual type of person.  These individuals usually hear words or perhaps fragments of various apparently meaningless sentences.  Sometimes the auditory person hears their internal voice. This ‘voice’ comes across as an audible voice that can be heard as an internal dialogue. This internal voice is sometimes known as the muse.

The third predominant way of expressing our relationship to the divine via active imaginations is through the hands, by creating  art.  A fourth way is by experimenting through the movements of the body.  A fifth way is through a process of automatic writing, although Jung claims that this method is rare.


Continue reading “What is Active Imagination? It’s Role in Spiritual Growth”

What is Sacred Cosmology?

Sacred cosmology expresses the sacred dimension of Being, both of cosmos and of the Self. They speak of the inner Unity of the cosmos and the Self. 

Sacred cosmologies are found in myths and spiritual teaching from around the world. Sacred cosmology seeks to understand the origin and meaning of the universe. While sacred topography explicitly speak to origin of the cosmos, there is often also an hidden teaching on the Nature of the Self. These esoteric (hidden) dimensions seek to the process of spiritual transformation in relation to the sacred cosmology.

Roberto Assagioli noticed a configuration of symbols that are found in many sacred cosmologies. Assagioli is a post-Jungian thinker. He focused on expanding Carl Jung’s method of the transcendent function, as well providing some great insights for Self-discovery. The symbols that Assagioli mapped illuminate our relation to the esoteric cosmologies.

The Experience of the Sacred Dimension

The Inner world
Assagioli believed that turning inward was the fundamental way to experience the sacred dimension. The first group of symbols are those related to the inner world and introversion. Roberto Assagioli understood that through an exploration of the inner world, we may discover our “center of true being” (p. 35). The symbols of the inner world involve the concept of an “inner space”. Goethe summed this symbolic metaphor up well when he claimed that “when we have done our part within, the exterior will unfold itself automatically” (Cited in Assagioli, 1969, p. 35).  

The Descent Myth
The second group of symbols are those that relate to “deepening or the descent to the ground of our being” (p.35). The descent myth involves mythic tales of a journey into the underworld and the shadow realms of the psyche. After the descent into the shadow, there is the return with heightened knowledge and increased capacities. The descent entails the idea of an individual “who is willing and courageous enough to recognize the lower side of the personality, without allowing his knowledge to overwhelm him, achieves a true spiritual victory” (p. 36).  This ‘spiritual victory’ can be interpreted as a newfound energy and creative capacity.

The third group of symbols is that of ascent or elevation.  According to Assagioli (1965) these symbols begin to occur once the individual has explored the inner space. He states that once we have gone into the lower world of the shadow; we may encounter higher worlds and the higher Self. In the symbolism of ascent, we encounter the ethical dimension and philosophical reason. The symbols of ascent also include the worlds of imagination, intuition, and the world of transcendence. Assagioli (1965) says that these symbols are often represented as images of the mountain top, the top of a tree, the sky and the heavens.

The fourth group of symbols are those that relate to expansion. These symbols relate to the broadening of consciousness, and a broadening of self.  It is the idea of opening to other beings, and is related to the symbolism of love.  It is the symbol of being beyond time and space,and  the expansion of consciousness to include the experience of “ever wider circles, a temporal continuum of varying dimensions” (p. 38).

The fifth group of symbols is that of awakening. According to Assagioli (1965) the average man is in a dream state, engulfed in the world of illusions.  These illusions concern the idea of our sense perceptions of reality, and are effected by our emotions and preconceptions of “reality”.  In Assagioli’s (1965) view much of our knowledge of reality is derived from external influences creating a sort of veil in which true reality is difficult to see. The enlightenment symbols concern waking up from this false illusionary reality. Within this symbolic group is the idea of finding the true self that exists beyond the ego and sub-personalities that relate to “reality”.

The sixth group of symbols are those of light or illumination.  According to Assagioli (1965) spiritual awareness is symbolized through light and  illumination. The light symbolizes the ability to see within one’s self.  It further symbolizes the ability to hold inner vision which sheds light upon inner darkness. From this set of symbols intuition arises, and the ability to discover inner truth. Assagioli (1965) further states that the symbol of light is related to the “light immanent in the human soul and the whole of creation” (p. 39).

The seventh group of symbols is that of the symbol of fire. Assagioli (1965) claims that this symbol appears across cultures and is found in all religions.   It is related not only to ideas such as sacred illumination, but also to the inner experience of the creative fire of life. In Ezekiel’s speech to the Covering Cherub he says: “Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God … thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire.”

Mapping the Inner World

The featured image represents a Spiritual Model of the Human Psyche, created by Assagioli (1973).

The lower unconsciousness
This is the part of our unconscious where our fundamental drives and primitive urges are stored. Here we find the “emotional complexes, charged with intense emotion” (p. 17). This is the place of dreams and imagination of the “inferior kind” (p. 17). The lower unconscious controls our bodily functions and the life of the body.

The middle unconsciousness
The middle unconscious is where we process easily accessible memories. It is in this space that our mental and imaginative experiences are assimilated, elaborated and gestated before they birth into consciousness.

The higher unconsciousness
This is the region from where we receive our higher intuitions and inspirations such as artistic, philosophical scientific urges to action. This is the source of higher feelings like altruistic love and genius. It’s also the space of states of ‘contemplation, illumination and ecstasy” (p.18).

The field of consciousness
This part of our personality of which we are directly aware: “a never ending stream of sensations, images, thoughts, feelings, desires and impulses that we can observe, analyze and judge” (p. 180)

The conscious self or ‘I’ (the Ego)
This part of the self is emerged in the flow of sensations and thoughts.

The higher Self
This is the Self behind the I. This is the aspect of Self that is not afflicted by the daily stream of our consciousness or our bodily conditions. This is the center of our consciousness. Assagioli states that the conscious self is merely a reflection or projection of this higher self.

The collective unconsciousness
Each of us are embedded in this larger field of consciousness. There is an exchange between the individual consciousness and world surrounding it. Assagioli referred to this as osmosis between an individual human being and the larger psychic environment.


Roberto Assagioli, Symbols of transpersonal experiences, 1969