The Mandala Forest
Long before the birth of Christ and the major religions of today, the shamans and medicine men of traditional indigenous cultures were making use of various natural mind altering and psychedelic substances, from mushrooms, peyote, coca leaves, marijuana, and ayahuasca, to connect with the spiritual world, the natural world, and the people in their community. They used these substances as a source of wisdom and inspiration.  The illegal status of such natural substances in today's world is more than an abrogation of individual rights as human beings: it is a restriction on religious freedom, even as the religions that made use of these substances for tens of thousands of years are dismissed and eliminated from the planet.  This sort of hostility and repression is happening side by side with the systematic destruction of the natural world.  It is for this reason I have created the marijuana mandala, which celebrates the beautiful, psychedelic experience that was fundamental to human spirituality since the beginning of  human history.

Today in the United States, where naturally growing mind altering plants are deemed illegal, the War on Drugs is leading to increasing unnatural violence, as products like marijuana, which are extremely inexpensive to produce, become artificially expensive due to their illegal status.  Because the upper level individuals selling the buds of these  plants cannot appeal to the law for protection of their property, they resort to immoral and criminal violence to protect an unnecessarily high priced substance, which can grow peacefully in the wild without human interference.  The War on Drugs in truth is not a struggle to protect individuals, but a war on consciousness and people's ability to make decisions for themselves.  Another side effect of the the prohibition of marijuana in the US is the outlawed status of industrial hemp, which is a highly nutritive food, supplying omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.  Hemp is a hardy plant which requires less water and pesticides than many conventional crops, and can be used in producing fiber and biofuel. This marijuana mandala, which could also be viewed as a hemp mandala, is an energetic call for sanity in a world which has criminalized and subjugated nature and erected in its place forces of violence and destruction.

In December of 2010 I completed what I have entitled the Earth Ascension Mandala, which was a mandala designed for the purpose of helping to foster peace and spiritual progress on the planet.  The ring of light around the earth on the mandala is a rainbow, and the fact that the Earth in the center is seen from space, and is then surrounded by a square form, gave me a sense that this was resonating with an earlier post I did about a specific Bon mandala and the five elements of that tradition.  My sense was that this mandala would be a great tool for people to place either in plain view or in a sacred space to serve as both a focus and a reminder for creating a positive future on this planet. 

The world is filled with so much suffering, and in the West we are hearing all sorts of speculation around end times, or radical new beginnings.  The notion of a "post 9-11 world," climate change, and "Change we can believe in," along with hurricane Katrina and the economic meltdown, have created an environment of radical uncertainty.   There are a whole host of apocalyptic narratives out there to chose from whether they be 2012, the Rapture, technological singularity, the rise of the New World Order, Islamo-fascist takeover,an upwelling of "socialist traitors" and "enviro-fascists" in the United states, looming widespread economic collapse, global warming, Peak oil, among others.  These narratives circulate within segments of society that range from major religious organizations, to fringe new age groups, to scientific bodies, to online conspiracy theory communities, to governments and economic think tanks.  What we are witnessing is either real or perceived crises on nearly every level of human existence.  We could argue whether or not these narratives accurately reflect reality, but in a way it doesn't matter, because a significant number of people from widely dispersed cross sections of society believe in one or more of them.  This means that we will likely face a derivative of one or more of these crises in actuality, or we will face a crisis created by our own powerful and misguided anticipations.  In essence, we have set ourselves up for some sort of shock, from which will either emerge a stronger, more uplifted and resilient humanity, or a further degraded and enslaved one.  It seems to me that neither outcome is clear at this point, though we hear all sorts of declarations of certainty about a coming technological salvation, spiritual ascension, or an approaching apocalypse. 

Reality is created by both what is already "out there" as well as what we believe, and the way in which we interpret our experiences.  Believing that there is no crisis, can in fact de-escalate some situations, while screaming about the way everything is falling apart can incite a crisis that may have been averted.  Yet it is a mistake to think that our belief supersedes the "outside world."    It would be nice to imagine that in today's world, we could just take a deep breath, keep calm, and move on, and the apparent storm clouds would reveal themselves to be little more than transient water vapor.  But if we recognize the fact that billions of people are living in poverty, that war is real, that the environment is under assault, and so forth, it becomes clear that there are tectonic problems in the world that are not going away.  When taken alongside escalating revolutionary rhetoric and declining standards of living in the West, we see tensions are ratcheting up on all fronts, and the so called War on Terror and War on Drugs are leading to governments that are increasingly positioned to do violence to their citizens should things get out of hand. 

A spiritual or meditative practice is extremely important during this time.  The notion that our practices will spark our kundalini, usher in a global awakening, keep us centered, or attract the attention of enlightened entities and compassionate energies, may help us to forge a vision for a better future which contrasts with the dark narratives that have been laid before us by the powers that be.   When we remain grounded, our efforts to create a positive future effect us and those around us, making ourselves and our communities stronger and more resilient.  Therefore these visions of bright possibility should be entertained and exercised. 

At the same time, idyllic manifestations should not be the foundation of our beliefs.  There are forces greater than any single human, no matter what their station in life, affecting us on levels which we do not understand and cannot predict or control.  While our hope and vision should be dedicated to bringing about the best possible outcomes in our world and in our lives, our  faith must rest in something beyond all of this.  While images like the Earth Ascension Mandala and countless other pieces of visionary art and music can act as points of inspiration and focus or lighthouses in troubled waters, behind this is the very notion that we can even have a boat or a body to pilot life's waters, both calm and choppy.  This is where the heart of faith resides, beyond specifically anticipated spiritual or worldly scenarios.

I don't believe this is something easily tapped into.  But if we are to look at the world and recognize the fact that genocide has occurred throughout history, that human slave trafficking exists today, that over a hundred billion animals are slaughtered each year often in conditions as bad as any concentration camp, we have to recognize that an ascended planet or an awakened mind achieved here on Earth in our own lifetime could not be the pinnacle of existence, because it would leave behind  the trillions of life forms that never got to see these things come to pass. If the universe is content to allow so many beings to pass on without tasting the Utopia that many of us anticipate, then surely we should not cling too tightly to our idealized visions of what we believe should be.  And for those who truly believe that an afterlife will reveal greater awareness, integration, and love than this one could provide, then surely they must possess the faith to not struggle too hard or put too much stock in an immanent spiritual golden age here on Earth, knowing that in time, all things are revealed that need be.  At times it is through letting go of constricted anticipation and single pointed goals that we open up and allow the universe to breathe its life more fully into us.

This is not to say we should abandon bright hopes, radiant possibilities, or faith in good things.  Instead, I think, we are here to help each other as best we can, with our chosen guideposts for a better future. In our imperfect attempts to move closer to our idealized visions, our deeply felt understanding of the darker aspects of reality allow compassion, charity, kindness and the like to become truly miraculous acts.   For myself,  this journey is aided by the belief that beyond our current and limited experience, beyond our dreams and nightmares and a world of dualism, beauty, and suffering, all is well with the vast, expanding universe of which we are all a part.

When we think of mandalas, we usually think of spiritually oriented, wheel shaped artwork, or perhaps natural forms like snowflakes which approximate mandalas.  Few of us would consider actually living in a mandala like setting.  This is not the case for inventor, designer, and futurist, Jacque Fresco, whose concept known as the Venus Project incorporates cities that resemble the ancient circular art form.  The center of the Fresco mandala, however, is not a religious temple, but a computer automated control hub, and examining a layout of the city design, there is no mention of spiritual or religious spaces.  What we see instead is a dedication to science, nature, and the human being, through a very specific lens of how the future might look.  As such, one cannot help but ask what it would really mean to live in such a place.

The city itself is designed to maximize open space and eliminate the need for automobiles through a light rail system.  Energy and food are produced within the city in order to increase both its sustainability and its self sufficiency.  Fresco hopes to actually construct a working prototype city in the near future, though his vision is more of a holistic approach to human living, and will therefore rely on networked cities operating together on a resource based economy, in order to create a peaceful and equitable living system.  The notion of the eco-city itself is gaining steam.  In Tianjin, China, an eco-city is in the works for completion in 2020, though the design is much more irregular and organic than Fresco's symmetrical design. 

Because we do indeed need a new system for human living, Jacque Fresco's approach is attractive on a lot of levels.  But it's requirement for a full system makeover is both appealing, as well as a potential stumbling block.  What might seem like a utopia to some, to others may appear to be a sort of totalitarian encroachment.   The way it apparently elevates humanity, science, and nature above religion, will mean that his city isn't going to sit well with religious fundamentalists, and if you listen to him speak, that becomes even more apparent.  I don't think he should compromise his beliefs in the matter, but he's not going to get anything close to a global consensus. 

In order for Fresco's computerized and secular mandala city model to take shape, there will be several necessary components.  One is the healing of individual trauma, alluded to in the Zeitgeist: Moving Forward film which also features Fresco's work, and which I first encountered on the Transangeles blog.   This will be especially true amongst those who actually support the Venus project, because those who oppose it will not get on board, and often will see no need to heal their own trauma.

The second necessity that I see is the city must live up to its promise being able to produce a surplus of both free time for the individual and then also a surplus of material products, whether they be food, energy, or technology, that can be used to finance and create the next city.  In this way, the system could become self replicating, which will be an important part in realizing this dream that clearly flies in the face of vested power structures and religious extremists.  The Venus project can't just be a really good idea only if everyone would just get on board.  It has to be viable as a single city, even when most people won't know what to make of it.  It will have to prove that it truly is something people will want to organically join, with the knowledge that in doing so there will be tangible benefits from the very beginning, even before the first ground is broken.

Because of this, it also needs to either be scalable or have a degree of functionality at various levels of development.  The project will have to provide for its members along the way, and not be seen as a sort of all or nothing undertaking, because what Fresco is talking about isn't simply the construction of a city, but the transformation of a culture, which is not something you can engineer the way you engineer a vertical farm.  Cultures change of their own accord over time. The process is not predictable or controllable like a light rail train schedule, and those who attempt to make it so are doomed to fail either outright, or through the realization of a totalitarian process rather than a beneficial vision.  This is the major challenge that Fresco faces: having people voluntarily assuming a cultural modality in which this city could both exist and be genuinely welcomed.  Issues around freedom and individuality will certainly come to play, but if the city were to arise in a truly organic fashion, rather than handed down by a lone visionary on high, then perhaps  some day we really will be living inside a mandala.

I took the mandala art posters  from this site and combined them into a music video, featuring a track by Stars of the Lid called "The Evil that Never Arrived." I hope you enjoy this five minute meditation.
One of my favorite speakers was the zen teacher Alan Watts.  In the video clip above about duality and the concept of the higher self, he alludes to the mandala form in reference to detachment and nonduality, when he says:

"And this person who doesn’t stick anywhere is like Dante's image at the end of the Paradiso where he says in the presence of the vision of God, but my volition now and my desires were moved as a wheel revolving evenly by love that moves the sun and other stars.  And the image of the wheel which is not too tight on its axle and not too loose, that is really with the axle, is the Zen principal of not being attached.  Not being sticky."

My last post about the Reconciliation Mandala fits into this discussion of the sense of duality and separateness.  Watts talks about understanding the reality of the one true self, without being caught up in illusions of fighting for the attainment of a higher self or fighting off one's sense of separation.  According to Alan, actively struggling with an illusion of a separate higher self or an ego would only strengthen a delusional inner fragmentation.   He also mentioned the mandala image from the Paradiso  in Volume 1, number 5 of the Haight Ashbury Tribune.

"People have always been fascinated by circles of glory, known in India as of mandala: the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, Byzantine mosaic upon the inner surface of a dome, the radiant and radiating petals of certain flowers, the design of snow-crystals, precious stones set in coronas of vari-colored gems, and mandala proper as they are found in Tibetan painting--circular paradise-gardens with their jeweled plants and trees surrounding an inner circle of Dhyani Buddhas and their at  attendant Bodhisattvas.  It is in this form, too, that Dante described his vision of God, ringed by the saints and angels, at the end of the Paradiso."

Watts was something of an iconoclast, pushing aside religious dogma and illuminating the fact that symbols were not the reality itself, and should not be mistaken for reality, as they often are.  One of my favorite examples of this was when Watts talked about the symbolic nature of money, and the lunacy of something like the Great Depression, in which the money simply wasn't there anymore to do the necessary work.  To Watts, such a scenario would be like showing up at a construction site, and the foreman saying, we can't work today because we ran out of inches.  Because of Watts's suspicion of symbols I think his reference to mandalas, like his command of language, should be seen as simply an arrow pointing to a fundamental reality beyond representation. 

His article in the Haight Asbury Tribune goes on to describe his wish to see or create a sort of psychedelic mandala light projection inside a planetarium, which would engage all the senses and move one through scenes of both horror and beauty, eventually engulfing the individual to the point that they were literally absorbed into this naturalistic mandala experience, and then, it would just shut off to the "here and now."  This seems to support the notion that Watts would have been less interested in a mandala symbolizing something, and more interested in an actual experience of a manifested mandala which reveals something about reality experientially.  With the advances of technology, someone may very well realize Watt's vision, though the mandala light show he described may be a thing of virtual reality rather than planetarium projections. 

I originally designed the Reconciliation Mandala as a submission for the Mandala Journal, which is "an online student-run multicultural journal for poets, writers, artists, and thinkers."  The image I ended up submitting is actually a derivation of this original work, and I will post that more recent version some time in the near future.

Most of the mandalas I have created up to this point do not have specific symbolic connotations, but this one is a bit different.  In order to symbolically represent reconciliation in the mandala, I placed two circles within a larger central circle, which at the time of initial design, symbolized for me an act of coming together for mutual understanding.  The colors of the spectrum signified diversity of perspective, variation, or movement toward specificity.  The the hexagram or Star of David is composed of two individual triangles, one pointing up, the other down, which in this mandala were meant to illustrate polarity, punctuated by the spheres at the top and bottom.  Upon further reflection, I realized the mandala was really about an energetic process of creation, individuation/separation/complexification, and then the wisdom of remembering, recognizing, or witnessing the underlying interconnection.  If you click on the thumbnail image, you will see a larger version within the Mandala Gallery. 

In today's fast paced advanced societies, we are constantly faced with a myriad of stressors that in moderation can help us gain a sense of strength and accomplishment, and in large quantities can make us constantly anxious, overwhelm us, and cause us to feel that our lives are spinning out of control.  Playing out in real time in the background of this high speed modern stage of ups and downs are the harsh realities of war, widespread poverty, and environmental devastation.  For the minority of the world's population that live within the neat confines of the suburbanized and walled off wealthy Western nations, the chaos and destruction of the world at large exists in a sort of cultural subconscious.  It is through this lens that I touch on the mandala and address one of the technological approaches to the challenges we face. 

Searching the internet for interesting articles about mandalas, I came across a video that demonstrates the integration of technology and human brainwaves.  I had first encountered a similar biofeedback program when a friend of mine lent me a copy of the  new age themed video game Wild Divine.  Using a pulse and skin conductivity sensor that clips to the fingers and plugs into the computer, the game teaches the player to modulate mental states and achieve relaxed focus.  Today, personalized and integrated brainwave sensors, pioneered by NeuroSky (SkyNet anyone?) and Emotiv, are on the cutting edge of high tech self monitoring, which groups like Quantified Self take very seriously.

A man by the name Beer van Geer recently developed the Dagaz app for use with NeuroSky's hardware.  The program, as demonstrated in the video, teaches viewers to enter into a meditative state through the interactive biofeedback based process of creating mandalas with one's mind.  A fascinating goal put forth by van Geer is to eventually refine the Dagaz application so that "players" across the world can co‐create mandalas in cyberspace, and perhaps even develop a sort of technologically mediated "telepathy."

Certainly we can see the potential benefits of biofeedback in general, whether they be overcoming addictions and phobias ,to improving focus in the classroom, to deepening our meditative practice.  Yet as programs like Wild Divine and Dagaz and the Dalai Lama's virtual tour of a three dimensional virtual mandala illustrate, technology and spirituality are openly fusing.  This is not entirely problematic, in the sense that through technology we are able to transmit significant or spiritual matters to wider audiences.  Yet through technology, the very landscape of human experience and what it means to be human, is changing.

And this is where we should be asking difficult questions, because things are getting a bit strange.  At some point we may very well come to regret the actualization of technological forces which, through a convergence of advanced self monitoring and biofeedback, genetic manipulation, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, computer mediated communication interfaces, high tech security monitoring, augmented reality, facial recognition tech, 3D geometry video scanning, state of the art rendering, digitized monetary transactions, RFID chips, cybernetic implantation and transhumanism, and virtual lives created through online worlds like Second Life, we become fully integrated into a global technology net, a complex quasi living electrical grid.  At a time of great turmoil and environmental degradation, we are fast approaching the merging of man and machine. Even today, this sentiment may sound a bit sci‐fi, but the rapid pace of innovation has set the stage for such a convergence, barely noticeable to those of us in the advanced cultures who take these high speed transitions as the norm with little consideration of long term systemic effects.  

As we ponder these seemingly inevitable crossroads, it would be good to ask ourselves a question that echoes the words of Terence McKenna: is it humanity, nature, or technology (0r some combination of the three) which we put in the center of our mandala? To what ends?  It is interesting to note the interconnections between the advent of the world wide web, open source code, wikis (and wikiLeaks), social networking, and the like, alongside the notions of technological singularity,  environmental systems awareness, and the "oneness" spiritual movements we see emerging in the West.  Perhaps we can see some trends coming to the fore, but it remains to be seen what the ramifications in human consciousness will be if increasing numbers of the historically unprecedented human populace are further separated from the natural life sustaining processes of planet earth.  Perhaps there is a way to balance our newly developed, technologically mediated lives with the necessary natural processes that sustain us.  And perhaps our increased interconnection through the internet will function to create a more integrated collective human conciousness.   It is up to us to decide what is valuable, what content we will emphasize, and how we apply it to our 3d lives. 
Mandalas first appeared in ancient Buddhist and Hindu art, and their use came to involve complex ritual visualizations and meditations,as in the Buddhist Kalachakra initiation still practiced today.  Those of us who are not steeped in these millenia old traditions may wonder what significance the mandala holds for us.  The answer is not simple, but certainly the mandala is important today even for those of us who are not making use of it in a more traditional context.

First and foremost, the mandala is a static reminder of deeper consciousness, interconnection, and our spiritual or energetic nature.  Having spiritually significant art work in one's living area, meditation room, or workspace helps us to stay connected to larger and deeper realities even in the midst of stressful circumstances.  The mandala does not erase the daily challenges we face, but puts these challenges  into a context in which they are more easily managed.  The mandala can remind us to take a breath, to get some perspective.  The mandala can also help us find solutions we may not have thought of, by reminding us of the way things subtly and mysteriously connect and affect one another.  Knowing this, we can remember that difficult situations often work out in unexpected ways. 

A beautiful mandala can be a source of  spiritual solidity that remains constant in the face of a constantly changing world around us.  Because the mandala can be a source of beauty, inspiration, and spiritual connection without specific reference to any particular religion, some contemporary mandalas have a way of speaking to people of different beliefs in a way that perhaps a deity laden Buddhist or Hindu mandala can't.  While in some traditions, mandalas were given to one's teacher or guru as an offering of the cosmos, the mandala can still make for a powerful gift or celebratory gesture, without the need for specific ceremonial references.  Clearly the mandala can easily play an authentic and important role in today's hectic world. 

The circle appears in various forms in nature, but humans have also made use of the circle for practical and culturally symbolic reasons.  The coin is one such example.  While it might seem strange on the surface to connect the mandala with the coin, as they apparently only have in common their circular form, there are a few deeper connections.  The coin, like the mandala, is a physical, cultural manifestation symbolic of something intangible.  In the case of the coin, this symbolic representation is that of the value of work.  The Alcoholics Anonymous chip represents work done in the name of staying sober and becoming a healthier individual.

The quarter is the kind of currency one carries as the result of work done at a job or a profession.  In a perfect world, this type of coin, circle, mandala, or symbolic token would represent the type of reward given for providing a good or service that helps the wider community.  While true perhaps much of the time, we cannot really make that generalization.  Unlike the AA community, the societies that issue such coins work internally at crossed purposes often with unethical and manipulative intent, which in some professions is actually encouraged rather seen as contradictory to the value structure.

Like the mandala, these two coins serve as tangible reminders and reinforcers of a certain type of reality, and the types of reality that these mini metallic mandalas stand in for are quite different.  One is a reality of spiritual growth, mutual support, and psychological healing.  The other is of competition and materialism.  It is interesting to note that the AA's sobriety chip, a loosely run organization literally by the people, issues the statement "To Thine Own Self Be True," whereas the coin of the more centralized and militarily backed US government tells us "In God We Trust."  This is not an indictment of trust in God, but a question about the intent, genuineness, and effect that these statements have within the context they are presented.  Do we really trust in God, as the quarter indicates (or perhaps commands), or is it money that is the real religion of advanced societies?  If we recognize the centrality that money plays in human lives, it is not a stretch to realize the power our culturally selected mandalas have over us, and the power they have to shape our reality.

I just completed the three black and white mandalas below which can be downloaded and printed off from this website for free, and used as coloring pages.  They can be found under the Mandalas heading, under Free Mandala Coloring Pages. Enjoy!