My understanding of mandalas as ‘maps of consciousness’ probably began somewhere in 91 or 92, through the work of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others; I also learned that the use of mandalas (a symbolic drawing or design within a circle) appears not only in Tibetan Buddhism but in the sacred art of ancient cultures all over the planet. The circle is such a primary symbol, refracted everywhere in nature, it seems a natural container for information; a circle completes itself regardless of its contents.
Between 1995 – 96 I painted a handful of A2-size personalised ‘power mandalas’. These paintings were another organic outgrowth of the personalised ‘esoteric’ art I had been developing previously (Essence Portraits & Personal Power Symbols), and inseparable from the personal transformations I was experiencing at the time.
In early 1995 I had connected with a community of people who were practising mindful living in the spirit of Osho’s Zen, earthy and dynamic, irreverently cosmic in their explorations of Inner Space, and with a vivid Tantric appreciation and devotion to Life as an energetic event. It was an environment in which I felt I was ‘allowed’ to just Be, in order to self-navigate whatever the hell my ‘Be-ing’ was.
This community lived by a system of intentional personal & societal values, and a framework that acknowledged the unfolding of Self in life as an evolution, a series of initiations and transformations, each with their own characteristics, archetypes and knowledge.
The community’s social scaffold was modeled in part on traditional Aboriginal social systems of the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia, with whom the Melbourne community had close ties. Another influence was Osho’s ashram style of intentional community; in both cases there was a focus on living with alert awareness, living truthfully, and learning to recognise & sidestep the ‘games’ we habitually play, with ourselves and each other.
The creators and Elders of the community, Daricha & Rachana, were both consummate facilitators and ran transformational trainings on their property, the Centre For Human Transformation. The techniques and processes they taught all shared the common intent of exploring and navigating one’s own consciousness, learning to reprogram ‘the human biocomputer’.
Daricha first approached me through a mutual friend who was editor of a ‘new age’ magazine at the time. He was interested in me designing an advert he was placing in the magazine, for an upcoming 5-day men’s Shaman’s Doorway training. I was profoundly affected by our meeting: when I showed him my folio of essence portraits and symbols, he responded that I was ‘working from a place of genius’. He made the distinction that he wasn’t calling me ‘a genius’, he was referring to the word’s original implication of tapping deeply into ‘the Source’. To me that was such an accurate recognition of my artwork’s deepest impulse, and my creative Being, that I cracked open on the spot and burst into tears. The impact of his deep acknowledgement seemed to release years of feeling I had to convince people I was ‘good enough’.
Daricha recognised that I was ‘ripe’ for their trainings, but the cost was beyond me, so he offered me a place at the Shaman’s Doorway in exchange for the advert design. It changed my life irreversibly, and I subsequently attended two more residential intensives at the Centre, and all of them so skillfully integrative that the learnings continue to live in me and shape my experience.
The teachings drew on many modalities: Zen, Tantra, traditional shamanism, ritualised initiation and trance states, deep tissue bodywork and holotropic breathwork, to name but a few of the mind-expanding techniques we experienced. They referenced the cutting edge work of scientists such as Stanislow Grof, Terrence McKenna, Dr John Lily, and the brainchange techniques found in the work of Jean Houston (Mind Games) and Richard Bandler (NeuroLinguistic Programming), among others. Each training was a profound journey into one’s own Unknown, stretching one as far Outward and Inward as you had the capacity to go.
From an autistic perspective, I can see that throughout the 90s I was seeking out skills for both self-awareness and social interaction: these years helped me build a vocabulary for emotional intelligence, take active responsibility for my own experience, and appreciate my particular sensitivities as abilities rather than deficits. Many Asperger adults report that self-awareness & self-mastery are a matter of survival: when you feel your ‘different-ness’ in the dominant culture so acutely, self-awareness (in the sense of feeling ‘other’) is immediate. Adaptive strategies such as ‘masking’, mimicry, comedy, or ‘scripting’ conversations require a certain self-mastery but are ultimately exhausting because they demand pretense, or create dissonance in contrast to one’s sense of ‘natural’ self. The adaptive strategies I was seeking out enabled me (over time) to set personal boundaries, communicate with integrity and live according to my most authentic sense of self, rather than feeling a need to conform. I often wonder now how many of the misfits, creatives, free thinkers and rebels I met through this time were unknowingly on the spectrum themselves, and found their own sense of community in each other.
I had already been honing my sensory awareness through Vipassana meditation and various body-based therapies / techniques, and I related to Robert Anton Wilson’s descriptions of metaprogramming one’s own consciousness, and of self-navigating one’s experience as energy (or information) in the nervous system. My contact with the community at the Centre seemed a natural continuation of this while taking it to a whole other level.
I mention all this because it was entirely within this context that the personalised mandala paintings emerged.
Creatively, in the years 95 – 96, these techniques for self-navigating resulted in an explosion of new capacities; I found myself spontaneously accessing more refined techniques, more complex ideas and skills than I had encountered in myself before. In the larger context of the other drawing and painting I was doing, the Personalised Mandalas were possibly a pinnacle expression of the time. They required many hours of intense concentration & attention to detail, and I felt I found a new level of sophistication and precision in my technique, as I learned the nuances of gouache paint and brush.
The mandalas from this period were mostly commissioned by people from the community who I’d attended the trainings with, and in some cases forged enduring friendships with, and having that shared language with each other gave more depth to the process of the painting. The two exceptions were mandalas I painted for myself, ‘Croc Dreaming’ and ‘Hawkmen’.
Whenever I worked on these paintings, I applied the shamanic awareness I’d learnt, using meditation and focused trance states (ie heightened awareness) with which to apprehend & explore the artwork, as if it were a living entity with a self-determining volition. Often I felt as I painted that the artwork was ‘working on’ me: sometimes I fell into brief fevers, or momentary sicknesses that seemed to expel something through me, or I would experience a wave of emotional catharsis. Several times there seemed to be ‘communications’ from ‘alien’ or pandimensional entities, or some kind of supraconsciousness.
During one painting I had to suddenly stop and lie down, while I experienced what I can only describe as ‘mantis consciousness’ – an acutely detached and probing intelligence, quite disturbing in its utter insectoid ‘Otherness’, which I felt moving through my body like a kind of living circuitry, investigating my nervous system with penetrating precision. Sometimes on other paintings I just had to allow myself to flap about on the floor for a bit and make a few primal noises. In accordance with my ‘reality tunnel’ at the time, I became a conduit for whatever the ‘energy’ of the artwork wanted to communicate. It was a very lucid, open state of awareness, both observing and allowing – a hunter state, attuned to signals in ‘nonordinary’ reality.
By engaging with these mandalas via their own trained conscious awareness, the recipients of these paintings utilised them as meditative ‘portals’ into deeper shamanic and archetypal journeying; often they reported feeling spontaneous surges of energy or emotion in gazing at them, or moments of profound personal revelation and insight. In this way the paintings had a life beyond being a piece of ‘art on the wall’, they were a kind of personal teleportation device.
One of the mandalas was designed, not for an individual, but to represent the Centre For Human Transformation. Rachana had asked if I could paint a mandala (and design an accompanying logo) for the Centre, in exchange for one of their two-week training intensives. The transformations I experienced while attending the training flowed into the creation of the mandala, imbuing it with the Centre’s ‘energy’.
Another mandala was commissioned by a friend as a gift of reconciliation to her father. This was a challenge in that I had no way of meeting her father, in order to get a direct ‘sense’ of him. I had to rely entirely on my intuitive signals, which in the end revealed some surprisingly apt connections: I had an impulse to use a mountain peak as a central symbol of his nature, and my friend confirmed later her father had some history in mountaineering; likewise I had an impulse to include Celtic references in the border design, and my friend later confirmed her father’s strong Celtic heritage.
The creation of these mandala paintings was a slow and meticulous process, usually spanning months of intermittent but intense bursts. In 1996 I expanded the mandala approach into an ambitious interactive exhibition / experience titled Ya Mana, which I will write about elsewhere. In return for some financial sponsorship towards this event from my friend Rob Fairbairn, the last mandala painting I created was for him – Turtle Dreaming, reflecting his own connections with the outback, his family and the wider cosmos. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get a very good photo of the work – it was already framed and reflections are apparent on its surface – but it is one of my favourites of this series. I have included some details of the piece in the slideshow below.