Thinking Through: The Mind and the Mandala
In the Tibetan tradition, the mandala is envisioned as a beautiful palace or a sacred temple through which the initiate may wander, both physically and spiritually, in a quest for inner peace and enlightenment. It is as if we move through a labyrinth of breathtaking splendor, embarking on a life-long journey to penetrate to the very heart of understanding. The layers of illusion fall away as Maya reveals its innermost truths, and as we spiral inward toward the essences of reality we come closer and closer to communion with the supreme ultimate. That center of being, that essential element in the tapestry of universal awareness, is our own mind. It is the ageless wisdom of the universe, the wondrous tool that establishes the circular link between the mandala within our self and the mandala of universal structure. As we go through our lives searching through the mandala for the merest glimpse of enlightenment, we already know, if only deep within our subconscious, that the key to this amazing spiritual metamorphosis is our own cognition.
Thought and meditation are steps on this path toward enlightenment, while mind and universe are the temple halls through which we stroll. As we develop our thoughts and quiet our minds, we study the architecture of this inner temple, this sacred structure where the vast becomes one with the infinitely small. Physical space has no relevance here, nor do any human values such as good or bad, superior or inferior, sacred or profane. Those are human inventions, and since humans themselves are universal developments, their own social constructs cannot be applied back onto the cosmic source. That source existed before human society, and as such can never be completely described by us. The first words of the Tao Te Ching tell us that
The Path that can be taken is not the Eternal Path.
Human behavior emulates universal behavior, and this is perfectly natural because we are as drops of water from the cosmic spring. Patterns can be easily traced forward from the universe into us, but not the other way around. The words of the Tao Te Ching tell us that we can observe the universe and carve out our own paths through it, and we can also apply definitions to the elements of our universe until there are no names left to assign. But in reality the universe is a fluid, ever-changing structure, and the unimaginably complex flow of its myriad elements can never be understood, or even known, by humankind. All of the cosmos is a holistic, indivisible entity—a single, interconnected wave of probability and potential. We can assign names all we want, but what we are doing is an artificial and fundamentally mistaken dividing-up of a structure that knows no separation within itself. We say “this is a planet,” “this is a bird,” “this is a stone.” But those names, and those divisions themselves, are only human inventions. They are attempts to apply the characteristics of a complex system (the human mind) onto a much simpler system (the macroscopic universe). So while the human mind has developed the tendency to divide and identify in order to try to understand, the universe does not lend itself to such division because it is truly seamless. Science is a valid and valuable tool to help us understand the universe as best we can, but we must not confuse the conceptual approximations of human measurement with the ultimate realities of the universe.
The mandala is a clear example of pattern transferal in the opposite direction—from the cosmic source forward into us. This can be effectively applied because just as the universe is described by the structure of the mandala, so too is everything that springs from it—in the same way that fragments of a hologram retain the structure and information found in the original image, or as new cells formed through mitosis are identical to the original cell. Since Humankind springs from the universal form, we can not help but have its form inherent within us. That form is the mandala. Our mind weaves through the patterns of the mandala by exercising its energies in thought and meditation, in focus and reflection. In doing so, the mind resonates with the structure of the mandala because our subconscious intuitively recognizes that they are one and the same. This activity, this mental journey through the mandala, is the very essence of life.
According to the Santiago Theory of Cognition, developed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, the presence of cognition is the defining factor for the determination of life. Fritjof Capra, author of the breathtakingly insightful book The Tao of Physics, elaborates on the meaning of the Santiago Theory in another fascinating volume, The Web of Life:
The central insight of the Santiago theory is the identification of cognition, the process of knowing, with the process of life. Cognition, according to Maturana and Varela, is the activity involved in the self-generation and self-perpetuation of living systems. In other words, cognition is the very process of life.
Since the universe is so rich in interdependent systems that act and are acted upon by their environments, what is the absolute determining factor that can identify a living from a nonliving system? Maturana and Varela believe that the defining factor is cognition, and they argue the point convincingly. At the Human level, cognition means abstract thought, language, art, and countless other complex activities. However, cognition can be much simpler and still qualify as cognition. Maturana and Varela argue that any system that can actively sense conditions in its environment and independently react to those conditions is exercising cognition. So, when a single-celled organism perceives, through its outer membrane, certain differences in temperature or chemical composition in its environment, and this perception can lead to a change within the organism, this is a simple example of cognition. On the other hand, a stone may be subjected to weather that, over the centuries, wears it down and changes its structure and shape, but at no point did the stone actually sense its surroundings and actively institute change within itself. Thus, cognition is the ability to sense conditions in the universe, and to intentionally react to those conditions.
Which brings us back to the mandala and its essential role in our spiritual quest. When we draw a mandala, or simply meditate upon one, it is this innate cognitive sense that is engaging the cosmic mysteries. Our mind perceives the motion of the universe and finds its own stillness in contrast to the vast flow of outward reality. Observing the totality around us in the cohesive imagery of the mandala allows us to ground ourselves, to find a firm footing in a world that seems in continuous chaos. We are aware of ourselves, clearly, and then of the world around us, a world of change and upheaval. In that maelstrom we feel lost, but the mandala roots us firmly in place. This interaction with the mandala is a confluence of forces, from within us and from without, that draws the human mind into a state of alignment with the grand pattern of existence. In fact, the very act of perception is a recognition of the continuity of universal evolution. The shape of our thoughts, the lines of energy that we expend in consideration of the mandala, inevitably come to emulate the shapes and lines of the universal structure. This focusing of the mind, this quieting of the spirit, comes about gradually, but with certainty, until the mind, the universe and the mandala all resonate, together, to the entrancing rhythm of the cosmos.
July 1, 2005
by Peter Patrick Barreda, material copyright 2009, all rights reserved