Jung on Alchemy (2): The Mandala

The Zodiac, San Miniato al Monte, Florence

The Zodiac, San Miniato al Monte, Florence

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls. They will practice Indian yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen or diet, learn theosophy by heart, or mechanically repeat mystic texts from the literature of the whole world – all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their souls. … It is rewarding to watch patiently the silent happenings in the soul, and the most and the best happens when it is not regulated from outside and from above. I readily admit that I have such a great respect for what happens in the human soul that I would be afraid of disturbing and distorting the silent operation of nature by clumsy interference.”

Carl Gustav Jung, “Psychology and Alchemy,” par. 126

On the psychological level, all alchemical operations served to obliterate the separation between the conscious and the unconscious mind, which the alchemists saw as the real source of life:

 “In my experience the conscious mind can claim only a relatively central position and must accept the fact that the unconscious psyche transcends and as it were surrounds it on all sides.” (par. 175)

The “dark depths of the unconscious” are limitless and unfathomable. They are undefinable and must be approached with humility. Any claims of knowledge about what is hidden out there should be inspected with caution because we may always be wrong. We are caught in the maya web of our illusions, and yet so many of us sense that there is something “out there,” a mystical centre from which the visible universe emanated:

 “We can hardly escape the feeling that the unconscious process moves spiral-wise round a centre, gradually getting closer, while the characteristics of the centre grow more and more distinct. Or perhaps we could put it the other way round and say that the centre – itself virtually unknowable – acts like a magnet on the disparate materials and processes of the unconscious and gradually captures them as in a crystal lattice. For this reason the centre is often pictured as a spider in its web.” (par. 325)

The mandala, similarly to the stupa, the vessel and the egg, are all symbols that deeply resonate with the meaning of this all-encompassing sacred psychoid (i.e. both mental and physical) entity that Jung called the Self.

The centre of the mandala has been likened to the calyx of the sacred Indian lotus – the Padma, and has a feminine significance. If the lotus seed gets split in the middle, a miraculous discovery can be made: it turns out that the seed contains the leaves and the branches of the whole plant in miniature form. The One Seed holds all the possible forms within itself. Jung also compares it to the vas bene clausum (well-sealed vessel), and the uterus where the child is gestated. Nothing can escape the circumference of a sacred mandala nor can anything undesirable enter the walls of the sacred enclosure of the well-sealed vessel. From its primordial womblike Unity, the Centre, as the cosmic energy source, radiated things into existence.

Jung muses further: “Among the various characteristics of the centre the one that struck me from the beginning was the phenomenon of the quaternity.” (par. 327) All manifest reality that emanated from the centre is governed by the number four symbolizing the stable organization, the principle of wholeness, the triumph of order and structure over chaos.

Image from a twelfth century breviary in the monastery of Zwiefalten, Germany.

Image from a twelfth century breviary in the monastery of Zwiefalten, Germany.

In her book Japanese Mandalas: Representations of Sacred Geography, Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis, gives an excellent analysis of the significance of the mandala in the Esoteric Buddhist tradition in Japan. In particular, she talks about the Mandala of the Two Worlds, which has two component parts: the Diamond Way mandala and the Womb World mandala:

“Broadly speaking, the Diamond Way Mandala represents reality in the Buddha realm, the world of the unconditioned, the real, the universal, and the absolute. The Womb World mandala represents reality as it is revealed in the world of the conditioned, the individual, the particular, and the relative. Each mandala is fully meaningful, however, only when paired with the other.” (p. 37) (bolding mine)

The Womb World mandala

The Womb World mandala

The universal gives meaning to the particular as much as the particular gives back to the universal, and thus the circle closes. In the centre of the Womb World mandala seats an open eight-petaled lotus, eight being the number connected with the cyclical and temporal nature of manifested form. The process of individuation can be likened to a spiral journey round a mystical centre which is never quite reached but always sensed and seen with the eyes of the soul. While moving around the centre a sacred precinct is marked off; at the same time high concentration and fixation are achieved. Such a ritual focused action creates a sense of inner unity:

“The squaring of the circle breaks down the original chaotic unity into the four elements and then combines them again in a higher unity. Unity is represented by a circle and the four elements by a square. The production of one from four is the result of a process of distillation and sublimation which takes the so-called ‘circular’ form … so that the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ shall be extracted in its purest state. This product is generally called the ‘quintessence…’” (par 165)

This quintessence is the jewel birthed by the lotus.

All quotes, unless otherwise stated, come from Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy.

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31 Responses to Jung on Alchemy (2): The Mandala

  1. litebeing says:

    I am in awe of mandalas and as an astrologer, in love with all circles. The art is exquisite here and you brought forth fascinating facts and musings. The first Jung quote is fantastic.



    • Linda,
      Thank you! I definitely share your fascination. I put that quote as a motto because I am becoming more and more convinced that specific techniques or the so called spiritual practices are only external and much less significant than the actual soul work.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Monika. Great post, as always. Two things really stood out for me, first was the quote: “On the psychological level, all alchemical operations served to obliterate the separation between the conscious and the unconscious mind.” I love that!

    Second was what you said about “the number four symbolizing the stable organization.” I seem to remember that in tarot, the number four also represents stability.

    Thanks for another inspiring post. Hope you are well, and I am glad that Ida won an Oscar 😉


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jeff,
      Always happy to see your comment. And thank you – I am doing much better. About tarot, without claiming to have any expertise, I always saw fours as representative of some sort of stagnation (?). I think Jung is much more positive about the number four.
      P.S. I think Pawlikowski rocked that Oscar acceptance speech and the photo session afterwards. I was very happy. I heard him say later that the movie is not about the Holocaust, contrary to what some Americans say, but first and foremost about various visions of Polishness. I agree.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Gneiss Moon says:

    “…disturbing and distorting the silent operation of nature by clumsy interference.”
    How I love this !
    I understand getting/giving a heads UP re: upcoming aspects, but the all out stiffening and railing against them, no.
    Dance with them, I say ! Dance !
    Great post, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Maria F. says:

    I see a similarity with the ‘Samsara’ or ‘Wheel of Life’:
    I don’t fully understand them, but do you think they are also Mandalas? I suppose they are, but are more in line with the Hinduism, Buddhism, Bon, Jainism, Taoism and Sikhism religions. Beautiful quotes by Jung and the story of the sacred Indian lotus.


    • Oh yes – the samsara is the ultimate mandala. I should have written about this, too. That reminds me of Empedocles and his famous “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.”


    • Maria F. says:

      Thanks so much for the link, what’s so striking are the similarities between both the Greek and Hindu philosophies: “As to the problem of the way by which Indian influence reached Greece I have no new solution to offer and fall back with others on Persia as the intermediary.” So even Heraclitus’ thought ran parallel with Hindu philosophies and Buddhist’s concept of Karma,

      Liked by 1 person

  5. dimvisionary says:

    Jung is eloquent when he declares ‘fear’ at ‘disturbing the silent operation’, however the man did exactly that and thank heavens! I’m curious, do you think the unconscious is inside or outside? Your second paragraph makes an interesting switch there. But then, when does a circle have two centers? When held in a mirror. Thanks for a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, yes – he did that but also warned that there are moments when intervention can ruin the silent process. I also love the fact the Jungian therapy seems to be the least prescriptive and the least technically oriented.
      Is unconscious inside or outside? Great question to which I have no answer to; this is why I was ambiguous. Sometimes it feels like an invasion from ‘outside,’ but nothing will come from outside if there was not a potential for it inside.
      Thank you for the thoughtful comment.


      • dimvisionary says:

        I don’t have a definite answer either, but I do think it is of note that any symbol only has power to a living human being. A rather species specific phenomenon…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautiful selection of quotes, reflections, and images once again. The opening quote from Jung is profound for me and connects with a lot of my recent thoughts and experiences. I think it relates well to Saturn in Sagittarius and associated events we could be experiencing in connection with the transit of Saturn in Sagittarius. There are so many who self proclaim themselves as dispensers of certain rituals or mantras that you need to do in order to clear this or that or to come into contact with your higher self. As well as many steeped in ancient traditions of religion and philosophy, or more relatively recent streams of New Age thought, who again can offer practices of spiritual discipline that have been found to be beneficial for countless numbers of people across time. Yet in the end it is our own Soul we must bear full witness to, sit and move with full awareness of, with all of its deep darkness as well as its more ethereal hues of light. I have also found that many times it is the people focused on outer practices and spiritual disciplines that have a huge shadow they project on others without seeming to be aware of it. While it is important to be part of community, it is also important to seal off our vessel to make contact with our Soul- I feel it does take a willingness to silently sense what comes out of our Soul and to notice it. It is not necessary to grasp onto an outer spiritual practice in order to find our Soul, as we are already in Soul to begin with.

    I also enjoyed reading about Jung’s thought on the spiral, as that has been one of my favorite symbols and I did not previously know about the Womb of the World mandala and how they connect. Also the squaring of the circle, the unity of chaos broken into the four elements, of course goes so well with astrology so I can’t help but make that connection in my mind. There is also an interesting connection to me between astrology and associated philosophies and the idea that it is important to sustain awareness of the connection between the Universal, the Diamond Way mandala, and the Particular, the Womb of the World mandala.
    with gratitude and love,

    Liked by 1 person

    • So beautifully put, Gray. I especially love the idea of silently sensing what comes out of our soul – and not only for the cool alliteration. Staying with ‘s,’ the spiral is also a fascinating symbol to me as a Gemini, who remembers what Rudhyar wrote: “Aries acts in a straight line; Taurus in a circular motion — Gemini will combine both through the spiral.” The patient circular motion is called circumambulation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circumambulation), and perhaps I should have written more on that. Anyway, thanks so much. Always lovely to read your words.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Don says:

    I warm to the explanation of the Universal, the particular and the process of individuation – brilliant. Thanks Monika.


  8. Nataraj Express says:

    Beautifully written, as usual. Thank you Monika for your insight!


  9. Nataraj Express says:

    Reblogged this on Nataraj Express and commented:
    Jung, Alchemy and Mandalas. Can’t think of three other words that could go better together. Thank you Symbol Reader.


  10. Beautiful imagery and musing, Monika. Thank you. The metaphor of spiraling around a mystical center feels so apt, and elegant, too, and yes, the ‘clumsy interference’ is a good reminder, too! Thank you for the lovely post. ~ Jamie

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Jung on Alchemy (2): The Mandala | lampmagician

  12. the centre is indeed unknowable – the Gita asserts: ” Some look upon the Self as a marvel, as a marvel another speaks of it, and as a wonder another hears of it, but though all hear of it none know it”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have always been fascinated by mandala’s and their intricate designs.. The symbology behind them and enjoyed your post which I learned so much more from
    Blessings Sue

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pingback: jung mandala symbolism | Ucwrk

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