Mandalas as Images of Belonging

Art by KC Kerr

Every person has two histories influencing their present actions and future choices. One history is made up of idiosyncrasies, encultured traits, and life events — the way you hold a pencil, how you dance, the people you’ve loved and their influence on who you’ve become. The other history is impersonal and connects us to our ancestors’ histories, their unique lives, and the choices they made — what they did to ensure their progeny, and their progeny’s progeny, would have an opportunity to become a link in the chain of human evolution. At all times, both histories are at work. Sometimes these two histories seem to have the same intent based on a shared understanding of the meaning of life. However, often at this time in human history — when we appear to have created the conditions for our own extinction — it is easy for these two histories to collide, and the personal history leads to beliefs and behaviors which the history inherited from our ancestors responds to as threats to survival. 

CG Jung spoke of these two parts of psyche as if they were distinct people, observing that in every “human being, however high his conscious development, is still an archaic man at the deeper levels of his psyche.”⁠1 One part, the personal conscious and unconscious, is a cumulation of our unique histories. The other, the collective unconscious, derives from the evolution of humankind. Jung wrote, “In addition to our immediate consciousness [and unconscious], which is of a thoroughly personal nature and which we believe to be the only empirical psyche … there exists a second psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature, which is identical in all individuals. This collective unconscious does not develop individually but is inherited.”⁠2

The collective unconscious communicates symbolically through archetypes, especially in dreams and fantasies. Archetypes are universal motifs and “categories of the imagination,” which through the process of evolution become similar to instincts, and thus activated by specific circumstances.⁠3 Jung wrote: “the instincts…form very close analogies to the archetypes, so close in fact, that there is good reason for supporting that the archetypes are the unconscious images of the instincts themselves, in other words, that they are patterns of instinctual behavior.”⁠4

Jung described the collective unconscious as a two million-year-old man who gives form to our psychic contents in accordance with the archaic world he inhabited. The collective unconscious guides human development according to the obstacles and threats our hunter gatherer ancestors encountered, but also according to what nurtured connections and growth across the lifespan. 

To understand archetypal reactions to traumas such as sexual abuse, we don’t have to go back two million years as Jung postulated. Instead, we learn more by looking at a period when this archaic man’s world began to change around 11,500 years ago. This was when Earth entered a new geological epoch, the Holocene. The planet became warmer and wetter as large ice sheets began to melt. In the area known as the Fertile Crescent, which covers parts of present-day Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, vegetation and small game became widespread. Humans no longer had to follow the migration of large mammals like reindeer and woolly mammoths in order to survive. Instead, our ancestors began to practice agriculture and live sedentary lives. 

By 3500 BCE, the first hieratic city-states peppered the region, known today as the Sumerian civilization. Despite thousands of years of environmental and social upheaval, the two million-year-old man’s expectations remained in these new conditions because of what Jungian analyst Anthony Stevens described as archetypal intent:

“Every living organism has an anatomical structure and a behavioral repertoire which is uniquely adapted to the environment in which it evolved (‘the environment of evolutionary adaptedness’). This is the environment in which individuals have a built-in expectation that they will live out their life cycle. Any alteration in the environment has consequences for the organism”⁠5

For only four percent of our species’ existence, humans have lived in the type of hieratic states that emerged during the Holocene. The remaining 96 percent of human history occurred in egalitarian, hunter gatherer societies in which power was measured by the extent to which one generously provided for others and fostered collective harmony.

From our hunter gatherer ancestors, Jungian analyst Marie Louise von Franz believed we inherited an archetypal expectation for belonging witnessed in the symbol of the Anthropos, which is also an expression of the history accumulated in the collective unconscious. Franz described the Anthropos as a “preconscious potential” that innately guides how to relate to individuals as well as humanity in general.⁠6 Although we are unconscious of the Anthropos, Franz claimed it nevertheless acts as “a kind of unconscious ‘group spirit,’ from which all individuals have their being.”⁠7 

Franz asserted the purpose of the Anthropos is to bring “about group identity or instinctive group solidarity,” although not around ideals or shared activities, but according to a profound empathy, if not love, that guides how to encounter other human beings — “positively without identification.”⁠8 In myths the Anthropos is often depicted as the collective body of human beings, and is meant to portray humanity as a whole. This archetype is witnessed today in modern patriarchal religions. For instance, Christianity has portrayed Jesus as a cosmic giant made from all parts of the world, and his soul has been described as “like the wick of a lamp, twisted together from many threads,” and made from the souls of all beings.⁠9 Similarly, the Buddha is a symbol of universal compassion. 

The underlying, archetypal idea of transpersonal connection associated with the Anthropos is also found in New Age philosophies, albeit without always appropriating the symbol of a Great Man. Instead, images of goddesses or nature are often used to represent a collective, empathic connection. Less important for this discussion is the symbolic form of the Anthropos than what these different symbols represent: a sense of interdependency (if not unity) in which being part of a collective has become an instinctual drive for humans.

With the emergence of hieratic city-states came specialization in trade and craft. People became priests, educators, farmers, traders, potters, builders, weavers, beer makers, and prostitutes. Each city-state had specific deities it worshipped, such as the goddess Inanna in the Summerian city of Agade. The population was also divided according to the affiliations many still held with their original clans before they immigrated to city-states.They also retained connections to the celestial spirits and ancestors of their original clans.⁠10 

Despite many differences among citizens, early civilizations regularly attempted to create a sense of collective unity, often through festivals and religious ceremonies devoted to the city’s reining gods or goddesses. Ideology was also used to foster a sense of unity. Joseph Campbell gives the example of the Hindu caste system, which he described as guided by the philosophy “we are all of one body, and each individual is a cell in one of the great organs of the body.”⁠11 Nevertheless, as witnessed by the Hindu caste system, different groups lived under radically different conditions, with different beliefs about the nature of personhood, what knowledge applied to them, who they could rely on, and what was possible in their lives. 

Campbell described this new world order as causing a particular stress on psyche and social bonds, one which the nomadic hunter gatherers didn’t suffer. The social stratification and fragmentation of hieratic city-states caused “a psychological and social tension — between oneself (as merely a fraction of a larger whole) and others of totally different training, powers, and ideals, who constituted the other necessary organs of the body social.”⁠12 

After hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of years living with collective belonging as the sin qua non of human existence, feeling a deep sense of interconnection with one’s fellow beings had become an instinctual need, much as fresh air and water are needed to survive. Campbell hypothesized the image of the mandala emerged around this time in response to the need to symbolically represent what was such a fundamental aspect of human psychic development, but for which the social conditions necessary to catalyze the archetypal feeling of collective empathy, if not a collective soul, no longer were present in the material world. Franz described the effect as dissociative. Just as profound neglect by a caregiver can cause an infant to dissociate intense feelings of fear and loss, the lack of a sense of connection to the collective can lead to constellating images such as the mandala — especially in dreams — signifying the need for a felt-sense of collective unity to resolve feelings of anxiety, stress, disorientation, and aloneness that have become common reactions to fragmented societies.

The symbolic significance of the circle as the underlying shape of the mandala may have to do with the environmental context in which rituals in hunter gatherer societies took place. Excavations of temporary settlements constructed by nomadic Paleolithic societies revealed they were often constructed in the round. Separate huts, or living spaces, were placed in a circle or oval. In the center, a pit was constructed where rituals took place. From their separate dwellings, the group would come together, united around a fire.⁠13 

Tibetan Buddhism, which is noted for retaining aspects of shamanism associated with its nomadic ancestors, developed meditative rituals to both connect with the greater whole and retain inner balance. Like their shamanic ancestors, Tibetan Buddhists believe it is the natural order of life for things to continually fall apart and thus also continually require re-integration. Fostering integration was also a central purpose of the rituals and spirituality of early hunter gatherers.⁠14

Tibetan images of mandalas were often two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional space. They frequently pictured temples or other significant structures at the center of the mandala. Early Tibetan Buddhist used mandalas as meditative prompts for imagining the temple or structure from every possible perspective — from all sides, above, and below. Through their meditations, they simulated taking the perspective of others, seeing as it were, through the eyes of everyone, gaining both a whole view of the temple but also embodying a type of mindful awareness that supported compassion for all. 

Jung associated the mandala with unus mundus, the sense of the one world in which everything is connected. For Jung, the mandala also represented the unity of all the archetypes and thus the unitary Self: “The mandala symbolizes, by its central point, the ultimate unity of all archetypes as well as the multiplicity of the phenomenal world, and is therefore the empirical equivalent of the metaphysical concept of unus mundus.”⁠15 Jung studied the appearance of mandalas in psychic life, especially when they occurred in dreams and active imagination. He observed mandalas typically emerged “in conditions of psychic dissociation or disorientation, for instance in the case of children between the ages of eight and eleven whose parents are about to be divorced….”⁠16 

According to Jung, the circularity of the mandala compensates for psychic fragmentation by creating an image of wholeness with a clear, unifying center. He stressed that mandala images occur naturally in the psyche, and are thus an instinctual reaction to the threat of psychic fragmentation that occur in response to loss, trauma, and mental illness. He wrote, “This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of Nature, which does not spring from conscious reflection but from an instinctive impulse….”⁠17 

The impulse to integrate is at the core of recovery from all types of trauma. Seeking the conditions that support integration is an archetypal reaction to fragmentation that has not changed from when humans first lived as nomadic hunter gatherers on an icy planet. What may be different, however, is how the collective unconscious responds to the need for integration.

We instinctively anticipate a sense of collective unity as a precondition for integration, but usually do not have the social support we need. Hence, the archetypal symbol of the mandala may have evolved as one way the psyche symbolically seeks, or simulates, the sense of being part of the Anthropos. Unfortunately, today the fragmented psyche is the norm, mirroring the societies in which we live. Nevertheless, we are still driven by a longing for supportive conditions that promote wholeness, as the appearance of mandalas in dreams during times of stress seems to suggest.

Questions to ponder: Have you ever dreamed of mandalas? Do you have images, gestures, movements, music (etc.), places, or groups that you associate with belonging? Do you believe you are instinctively driven to recover from sexual trauma? Why or why not?


Art by KC Kerr


1 Quoted in Stevens, Anthony. (1993). The two million-year-old self. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, p. 3.

2 Jung, CG. (1959). The archetypes and the collective unconscious. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 43.

3 Jung, pp. 42-43.

4 Ibid., pp. 43-44.

5 Stevens, pp. 63-64.

6 Franz, Marie-Louise von. (1994). Archetypal dimensions of the psyche. Boston, MA: Shambhala, p. 138.

7 Ibid., p. 139

8 Franz, p. 138.

9 Ibid.

10 Kramer, Samuel Noah. (1963). The Sumerians: Their history, culture, and character. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

11 Campbell, Joseph. (2013). Goddesses: Mysteries of the feminine divine (S. Rossi Ed.). Novato, CA: New World Library, pp. 103-104.

12 Ibid., p. 114.

13 Flannery, Kent, & Marcus, Joyce. (2012). The creation of inequality: How our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

14 Bellah, Robert N. (2011). Religion in human evolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

15 Quoted in Storr, Anthony. (1983). The essential Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 292.

16 Jung, p. 388.

17 Ibid.

© 2018 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing).

© 2018 KC Kerr. All rights reserved (applies to images).