Yoga of Seeing: Visual Paths to Union
by Bonnie Gold Bell
One of the surest ways to find divine wholeness is to see it with your own eyes. Pictures that lead us visually into a serene center are aids in uniting with Source. Such spiritual diagrams and icons have appeared in cultures everywhere, across time, and they are no less potent now. In the 21st century, we can still rely on sacred images to integrate us, body to soul, and guide us toward our core.
Many of us in the west first connected with this kind of art in the form of mandalas. The word mandala, from the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, means mystic circle. The form of the mandala is a schematic of a sacred universe with divinity at its center. Psychologist C. G. Jung found that creating mandala-like images helped his patients connect with their inner unity and even their collective awareness. Our human brains process this kind of pictorial data in ways that help us re-collect ourselves and regain integrity.
There are simple methods that will increase the benefits you gain from working with mandalas and other sacred art. Whether you make your own images or use existing ones, you can engage with this imagery in ways that benefit your health and your state of mind. I think of these visual exercises as the yoga of seeing. Yoga means union, and visual yoga can be a powerful aid in gaining physical and spiritual wholeness.
I can testify to the effectiveness of this approach. For more than a decade, my husband and I have been making mandalas and icons from Nature photographs. During this time, working with sacred art helped me stay strong in the face of a major health challenge. Even when the doctors’ prognosis was scary, I felt spiritually sustained and cellularly upgraded by the beauty-energy in these images. Now that I am very well, I still feel buoyed up by the radiance that I tap into through my vision. How wonderful that something so effective is also so easy to embrace.
How to Optimize Contemplation
Seating and visual alignment—as with any form of meditation, it’s helpful to ready yourself with some light stretching or at least a moment of conscious breathing. Sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion with your spine erect. Place the image you are contemplating at a height where you can see it straight-on, without having to raise or lower your head significantly. Seat yourself at a distance from the image that allows you to see it in clear detail without straining your sight. Experiment with various placements of until you find the combination of height and distance that feels easeful and natural. The yoga of seeing is about being filled with beauty, so you want your body to feel good while absorbing the imagery.
You can get really creative with placement as well. If want to get up close and personal with an image, you can hold it in your hand. We have an MD friend who has put our mandalas on the ceiling above his examination tables so that his patients can feel their calming effect of the art while being treated. You will discover what works best for you.
Images that are symmetrical and that have a strong center create a visual focus that supports integration and harmony. As you gaze on your chosen image, your breath will ease and your body will open, enabling the reception of blessing through your eyes.
While your contemplation of a sacred image will begin with eyes open, it is also natural that they may close as your meditation progresses. No problem. You can still “see” inwardly what is coming to you through the image. Your whole body can perceive the energy and power of genuinely sacred art.
Feeling through your eyes—what lifts normal looking into sacred seeing is that you are regarding the image with depth of feeling. You could say that you are seeing with your entire body from the vantage of your heart, rather than your head. That is why comfortable posture is so important. If your body feels relaxed and supported, then you will find it natural to extend your vision into contemplation.
To achieve this open state it is also important that you choose a meditation image that brings you pleasure. The yoga of seeing, as I practice it, is based in enjoyment. Part of being balanced and uplifted by a sacred image is feeling good in its presence. Contemplation is a kind of visual embrace. I like the old word “beholding” because it conveys the way that feeling-seeing can be a path to union. An image that deeply appeals to you is an image that can draw you into oneness with the divine.
Below you will see one of the images David and I made, called “So Lotus”. In the middle is a traditional Indian painting of Sri Krishna and his beloved Radha as the lotus couple, archetypes of sacred union and bliss. Around them we have created a mandala collage from photographs of earthy and heavenly elements. The lotus lovers are surrounded by rings of flower petals and bird feathers. These natural elements add their colorful energy to the couple’s blossoming joy. An outer border of a deep space star field conveys that these two are both present on Earth and cosmic in their essence.
I chose this image because the central figures are engaged in the very kind of beholding gaze that takes you to a place of illumined union. When you hold any one or any image in this kind of feeling regard, they become a portal to unity.
Coming into the present—one more tip that I can pass along is to come into present time as you begin your contemplation. This is easier said than done in our age of hyper-stimulation. I have found that my best allies in this matter are my senses. I light incense or diffuse essential oils in the space where I do my yoga of seeing. Many times, I put on music. I may bring flowers or crystals into the room to visually complement my chosen image. The scents, sounds and shapes begin the process of awakening me to the moment.
Art’s power to pull me into the present is one of the reasons I like to use it for communing with Source. When my health was challenged, it was hard not to go into fear of the future or regrets of the past. I found that seeing something that embodied wholeness and beauty helped me immensely. Whether we are faced with dramatic crisis or the daily demands of life, we can all use this kind of help. A spiritual image acts like a magnet to draw us out of the fray, into a calm place. As we look deeply at the visual features of a mandala or icon and tune into its vibrational quality, we are pulled beyond our
repetitive thoughts. We leave our concerns behind and let the energy of the picture bring us into the here and now. We become present to what is before us. We are then drawn into unity with the core of being, which is inherently divine.
Seeing the World with New Eyes
Perhaps the most essential gift I’ve received via the yoga of seeing is that it has awakened me to a new vision of myself and my world. Here’s how it happened.
In 1996, David and I moved to a very remote property in Mendocino, California. After years of intensive spiritual practice and service, we found that Nature, the Earth was beckoning us into a different form of worship. David started taking close-up photographs of the brilliantly patterned rocks that we found in the creek beds near our home. I began using his photos as backgrounds for collages I was creating. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were embarking on a path of visual yoga.
David, an accomplished computer person, decided to try working with his photos in Adobe Photoshop. The Eureka moment came when he assembled one of his mineral close-ups into a symmetrical grid. Where he had flipped and joined the parts of his photographs, a perfect circle became visible (see this mandala, called “Full Circle” below). The fact that the fractal patterns of quartz in rock spontaneously assembled into this round form, so like a painted mandala, was a revelation. Thus our first “matter mandala” was born.
This discovery prompted us to keep going with creating these photo-collage mandalas. The images were balanced right to left, and up to down. They all had strong centers that drew the eye and feeling inward. Paradoxically, by multiplying the sections of photographs, a picture of oneness emerged. Meditating with these images drew us farther than ever into the place of union.
Through this practice, I began seeing myself and my world from the perspective of unity. I reside at the center of a living mandala—a soul in a physical body, embedded in a field of life that is complex, colorful, and filled with spirit. I am at the center and I am continuous with the whole. This is the root awareness of my practice of the yoga of seeing. I am infinitely enriched by what has been revealed to me through my visual meditation.
The Messages in Mandalas
There is another, more subtle, aspect of sacred art: its vibrational component.
In the Indian yoga tradition, every mandala or diagrammatic yantra is associated with a mantra, prayerful syllables that impart the blessing in the image. This holds true for the sacred icons of western religion as well. When we regard the figure of a saint or deity, we are connecting with their blessings and prayers. Subliminally we hear the message in the images.
When David and I began making mandalas, we discovered the same thing. Part of the message comes from the Nature elements themselves. It is the song of Earth that comes through the patterning in the rocks, feathers, flowers, and all natural elements. Added to that is the message from spirit Source that comes through the intentional re-mixing and layering of the natural materials into sacred geometries.
When we started connecting with these blessing vibrations in our mandalas, we called them “seedsongs”. They can be perceived simply as the vibe or feeling of the image, or as actual messages that may be heard through the voice of inner guidance.
This more subtle effect is one of the most powerful aspects of the yoga of seeing. We are so aware, on a personal and global level, of difficulty and uncertainty. It is extremely valuable to tune into the vibrational messages of hope and timeless spirit that shine through sacred imagery. Not only do our bodies get refreshed when we sit in contemplation, our souls are also nourished and given guidance.
This is the wonder of working with sacred images. They work on so many levels at once. In their presence our heartbeats slow. We come into better balance and into the present. Stress-releasing chemicals flow from our brains throughout our bodies. The vision of a chaotic world gradually gives way to a greater vision. The voice of Source inside is given space to speak.
The yoga of seeing is a path that it is always new, every changing and self-empowering. In each moment, you are the seer. What I’ve written here can only hint at the pleasures that await your contemplation. It’s a little tricky to use left-brained language to describe a process that is essentially right-brained and integrative. As a final vision, then, please enjoy the image that graces the cover of our 2009 calendar, Healing Mandalas: Meditations on Personal and Planetary Peace. This image, entitled “Reflection”, is composed from photos of an orchid, fluorite crystal, magnolia petals, and the western side of planet Earth. The words beloware a meditation written for this image. May it bring blessings.
“How does a single flower reflect the complexity of the cosmos? How does onestone display the structure of the universe? Contemplating this image, theanswers are revealed. We are born with this holistic wisdom, which can only beaccessed within. With the world as your mirror, you will see splendor.”
This article first appeared in soulfulliving.com magazine, Spring 2009.