The Mandala Assessment Research Instrument (MARI) is a Jungian instrument based on symbols and colors that are chosen intuitively. When displayed on the developmental template of the Great Round, these symbols and colors reveal a visual picture of one’s psyche.
Joan Kellogg developed MARI as an art therapy tool in the 1970s. An art therapist and researcher, Kellogg worked at the University of Maryland (UMD) at a time when many well-known therapists there were conducting groundbreaking psychological research. The therapeutic and transformative nonordinary states of expanded consciousness that started at UMD helped create a larger cartography of consciousness that ultimately culminated in the transpersonal perspective.
Only recently has mainstream psychology begun to recognize how various aspects of this expanded vision of the human psyche can be used to help our clients. Advances in biological and psychological research have revealed four major influences that are changing the way we understand the human psyche and making it easier for therapists to really help their clients.
1) The evolutionary perspective: A new framework for psychology. In psychology’s infancy, both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung sought to better understand the unconscious. Freud believed the unconscious was limited to the personal psyche, while Jung conceived that human beings naturally and biologically have access to a far greater collective consciousness. While it appears Jung anticipated the genetic connections that we all share, it wasn’t until the Human Genome Project was underway that we began to realize how deeply tied each one of us is to our personal and collective genetic heritages.
In the absence of this important evolutionary perspective, it is no wonder that psychologists had difficulty comprehending many Jungian concepts, and even Jungians argued over the true meaning and function of archetypes. This new evolutionary perspective has had a profound influence on providing a framework of biological and psychological connectedness to ourselves, to others and to the collective conscious and unconscious. Today, we recognize that archetypes are to humans as instincts are to animals and continue to discover how this connection shapes and informs our physical, mental and emotional responses in myriad ways.
2) The interconnectedness of spirituality and psychology. The days when counseling students were taught to refer clients struggling with spiritual questions to their priest or minister are gone. Spiritual beliefs determine psychological beliefs, and vice versa, to the extent that it is almost impossible to separate their influence on each other. We now realize that spirituality and religion are not necessarily the same thing and, furthermore, that spirituality can be defined in many ways. On the most basic evolutionary levels, we know that human beings “have a tendency to create meaning,” which has been defined in countless ways as God, Wholeness, Infinite Intelligence, the Tao, Oneness, Core or the Jungian Self, with a capital S. Regardless of definition, it appears to be part of human nature to imagine “something” greater than ourselves. Furthermore, this spiritual tendency and how it is defined appears to be primary and often serves as a basis for psychological development. For this reason, we need comprehensive psychological instruments that enable us to view our clients in relation to this potentially conceived wholeness.
3) The primacy of the unconscious. In his article “The great deception,” psychologist Brent Atkinson states that we have been working with the wrong part of the brain for the past 50 years. Focusing only on the conscious brain, we have explored and created countless ways to engage and measure consciousness. The latest research, however, reveals that we “know” and have made decisions on an unconscious level before we “know” consciously. Atkinson uses an analogy from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, in which the mother tells her daughter that the husband is the “head” of the house, but the wife is the neck, and the neck turns the head in any way it wants. The neck refers to the primary unconscious urges and impulses that turn the conscious head. We are now recognizing that we must engage clients on the unconscious level for real change to occur.
4) Greater understanding of how the body handles trauma. Peter Levine was among the first to recognize that responses to trauma go beyond fight or flight. He discovered that the body may also freeze in response to the trauma. All three responses, but especially freezing, often cause the trauma to be stored at the cellular level. The most interesting aspect of this new awareness is the recognition that, once evoked, the cellular-based conception of the trauma is in a changeable or malleable state. The days of re-experiencing the trauma in hopes that merely talking about it again and again would somehow help are over. Once the trauma is re-evoked, the subject must be provided with new and creative outlets so the trauma will no longer be resolidified on the cellular level in the same old way.
MARI: Anticipating the future of psychology
Kellogg spent more than 25 years working with drawn mandalas. The drawn mandala, a therapeutic technique first discovered by Jung and later used in art therapy, is as simple as presenting the client with a white sheet of paper with a pencil-drawn circle on it and a box of oil pastels. The directions are simple: “Surprise yourself.”
Jung recognized years earlier that the drawn mandala was the ultimate tool for exploring the unconscious. Each mandala is completely subjective, however, and Kellogg dedicated her career to creating a system that would bring more objectivity to the process of interpreting mandalas. Her great aha moment was to recognize that various symbols are associated in the human mind with specific developmental stages of life, such as beginnings, struggle and full consciousness. An upward pointing triangle, for example, is almost always associated with a new beginning of some sort. Even the triangular shape of pyramids suggests the beginning of a new life in the next world. Because symbols predate language, culture and even time, they reflect an evolutionary, unconscious knowing that all human beings respond to in similar ways.
Kellogg found the same thing to be true of color. There are universal responses to color that are similarly based on the evolutionary perspective. Jewel tone red, for example, is the color of blood. In the human mind, therefore, red is associated with the life force, passion, libido and strong feelings. One can only wonder if Kellogg anticipated all the new changes that would influence the field of psychology as she was creating the very tool for which counselors would be searching 40 years later.
Development of the Archetypal Stages
Kellogg spent years searching for a template that would help organize certain symbols and their relationship to the developmental stages of life. After numerous attempts, she designed a framework of 12 developmental stages of life arranged around a periphery, like a clock. The central stage, added later, completed the template originally known as the Archetypal Stages of the Great Round of Mandala. Based on a life-cycle theory, Kellogg’s model can be applied, as Carol Cox states, to enhance the understanding of “just about anything, from the evolution of man, to the development of an idea to the stages of a relationship.”
The Great Round, as it is known today, can be divided in half horizontally. Our brains have a tendency to consider that which is above the horizon — an invisible line drawn between Stage 4 (9:00) and Stage 10 (3:00) — as more “conscious,” “known” or “in the world.” Psychic information that is below the horizon is perceived as more internal, unconscious and related to the countless body-mind systems that function adaptively below the threshold of conscious awareness.
Like Jung, Kellogg imagined the center of the Great Round as the place where the conscious, orienting individual feels himself or herself to be. In many cultural and spiritual traditions, the center is conceived as the dwelling place, both of the gods and humans.
The Great Round
Neurologically, we process forward movement from left to right, in the same way that the sun moves across the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. The developmental stages begin with Stage 1, at the bottom, and continue clockwise. Each of the 13 stages of the Great Round has three symbols, each representing variations of that stage.
Both Jung and Kellogg recognized that symbols have existed for millions of years in our collective conscious and unconscious psyches and typically evoke specific intuitive responses. Each symbol can also serve as a “transcendent function” that unites known with unknown elements and points to something more than the consciousness can know.
The symbol cards for the Great Round are clear plastic, the size of playing cards, on which each different symbol is printed in black. Knowing where the symbols reside at each developmental stage would negate a person’s intuitive response, so the symbols are never shown at their correct stages. To give the reader some insight into the instrument, however, Stage 4 (Beginnings) provides several good examples. The client who chooses an upward pointing triangle at Stage 4 is involved in a new beginning and is typically “ready to go.” However, the client may also choose a symbol at Stage 4 that looks like a comma or embryonic shape. Although this symbol is also associated with beginnings, it suggests that, like the embryo, this client may need help or support to actually begin.
Kellogg also realized that, just as with symbols, our responses to colors are intuitive, timeless and universal. She used the chakra system of color because she felt it viewed the body of man as a teaching guide that reflected specific types of energy for the emotional and physical well-being of the individual. Immersing herself in both medical science and the science of color, Kellogg developed a color system that eventually contained 45 color cards. These cards have almost universal application and represent the primary colors as well as their lighter and darker hues. The color cards, which are the same size as the symbol cards, are designed to enhance the symbol with additional dimensions when placed behind and showing through the clear symbol card. Color adds dimensions to the symbol that may be emotional, physical, cognitive or spiritual in nature.
Kellogg intuited that a 13th stage begged addition to the center of the Great Round. This stage, known as Stage 0, contains symbols that human beings have used, historically and cross-culturally, when they conceive of something greater than themselves. Because of the various words and variations around this topic (for example, Wholeness, the Self, God, etc.), scholars suggest that symbols are indeed the best way to represent divinity in the human mind. Stage 0 serves to anchor MARI in a context of wholeness. It not only stands alone as its own unique stage but also informs every other stage. Stage 0 serves to bring a spiritual or transpersonal element to MARI.
The MARI card test
After having clients complete a drawn mandala, all 39 symbols are presented to them. The symbols are displayed with correct orientation but in random order on a white background.
The subjects are asked to allow themselves to be drawn to six symbols that they like or are most attracted to. Our response to symbols is not arbitrary. We will be drawn again and again to symbols that currently reflect what is going on, or is primary, in our lives at the time. The subjects are also directed to allow themselves to be drawn to one symbol that they dislike or are least attracted to.
The final step of the process is to ask the subjects to think of an issue in their lives with which they would like help or guidance. They are told not to share the issue but to imagine completing a sentence such as “Help or guidance for _____ (fill in the blank)” in their mind. While repeating this sentence to themselves, they are directed to allow themselves to be drawn to two symbols that seem to represent the help or guidance of which they are thinking.
The Great Round is then presented and explained to the individual client so that he or she has an understanding of the context when the symbol and color pairs are placed on this template. The Great Round literally reveals a gestalt or “picture” of one’s psyche, reflecting both conscious and unconscious aspects, when the chosen symbol and color pairs are placed at their corresponding stages. The six symbol and color pairs that the client “liked” are presented first, typically with the most positive aspects discussed first.
An ideal assessment for today’s counselors
Now that psychology has an expanded framework and greater understanding of the psyche, we are realizing that clients are often far more ready to heal than we previously believed.
According to Jung, the totality of consciousness is composed of four aspects: thinking, feeling, sensing and intuiting. The typical counseling session involves only thinking and feeling. With MARI, however, the intuiting function is activated when clients choose their symbols and colors. Most importantly, the sensing function — the fact that clients literally see their strengths and issues within a context of life’s cyclical nature — allows for change to occur very easily and rapidly.
MARI is based on the cyclical nature of life, representing change and growth. In the same way an oak tree starts as an acorn growing underground, enters the world as a sapling, lays down rings of protection to strengthen it and, in time, becomes a fully mature tree, we assume that the psyche is similarly constantly evolving. Each time that we traverse the Great Round, our awareness is changed and we know or sense things at a deeper level than before.
The cyclical nature of MARI is based on the premise that healing can occur naturally if given the opportunity. The psyche does not want to be maintained on medication so that it can better endure its struggle. Seeing their issues and strengths within a context of change allows clients to place their struggles and traumas within a natural context of cyclical growth.
MARI is projective, objective and connective. It is projective in that the subject responds on an intuitive level to symbols and colors. It is objective because right below the threshold of consciousness is a body of collective knowledge, associations and possible meanings that are associated with each symbol, stage and color. It is connective in that the subject’s choices unconsciously reflect what is primary in his or her psyche at the time. Our choices of symbols and colors reflect an uncensored picture of how we feel about what is going on in our lives and reveal our issues and strengths.
Card choices at the various stages reflect the possible meanings associated with that developmental cycle of life. For example, Stage 5 (Target) speaks to our need to protect ourselves, like the rings of protection of the oak tree, as we are learning how to assert ourselves. There is a sense of completion and closure at Stage 12 (Transformation), which is a final stage before we begin to anticipate the next step that ultimately will lead to a new beginning.
Each stage has its own unique attributes, strengths and possible weaknesses. At Stage 5, for example, have we chosen a symbol that reflects discomfort and very little room to breathe, or have we chosen a symbol that points to possible resolution? Color brings additional information about the stage. Color can indicate healing or heaviness, comfort or discomfort and many other possible meanings. Furthermore, each symbol can be chosen as a like, dislike or guidance card.
Why MARI is effective
MARI reflects the evolutionary perspective. Because we have an intuitive and unconscious response to symbols and colors, the client does not feel threatened in any way and often enjoys the experience. There is no sensed need to erect the conscious filters of the ego, which could potentially hide one’s issues or mask one’s true self.
Jung frequently stated that “the psyche will not tolerate self-deception.” For this reason, we are always drawn to symbols and colors that reflect what is going on in our lives. Even when directed to think of an issue in their lives with which they would like help or guidance, clients are told that they never have to share this issue. For this reason, clients feel comfortable and in complete control. They are unaware that, like an X-ray, their symbol and color choices are highly revealing. Furthermore, MARI practitioners are trained to understand that just because they see their clients’ issues and defenses doesn’t mean that they immediately have to share what they see. Instead, they can choose to wait until the appropriate time in the counseling process to share.
MARI is based in wholeness. Therapists who are tired of the clinical and objective approach with clients that seems never to get to the important and meaningful bottom lines are often drawn to MARI because it is as “deep” as the client is deep and reveals the philosophical and spiritual issues with which the client is grappling. MARI even allows for a distinction between true spirituality and religion, which may or may not provide a sense of wholeness. These symbols may be chosen as “like” cards, reflecting that the subject is in touch with his or her own wholeness. The Dalai Lama’s monks, for example, who view this stage as “detachment,” almost always chose Stage 0 as an integral part of themselves, while many Catholic nuns, who see themselves as separate from — and often married to — their creator, appear to be unable to choose this stage.
Stage 0 can also be chosen as a “dislike.” For example, a 70-year-old single woman suffering from paranoia may choose this stage as a dislike symbol with the color black. When given feedback about a possible heavy and difficult spiritual connection, she readily agrees that God is punishing her by making her neighbor spy on her and control her life.
The unconscious is primary and reveals a wealth of information. According to Jung, the unconscious is a common psychic basis that all humans share, just as they share a common anatomical structure. He conceived of the unconscious as the “matrix mind” — the birthplace of all thought forms. Furthermore, according to Jung, the unconscious mind maintains homeostasis, the principle of self-regulation, which in the normal psyche has the capacity to heal itself. The unconscious also provides for adaptation, revealing that the psyche is in constant search of its own fulfillment in life.
MARI can enable the body to release trauma. The life-preserving measure of freezing the trauma in the cells enables a person to cope, but the energy that is contained must be released at some point. For this reason, it is important that clients be given an opportunity to “do something” that allows for somatic experiencing, which can lead to a renegotiation with the experience of the trauma.
Levine states that every trauma provides an opportunity for authentic transformation. Various stimuli that evoke the memory can serve as impetus to put the subject’s cellular awareness in a changeable or malleable state, which, according to new research by Jill Neimark, may last as long as six hours. Because MARI can be used as a therapeutic tool, it provides nonthreatening opportunities for change on the unconscious, cellular level.
Using MARI therapeutically
Using MARI as a therapeutic tool is perhaps the most valuable aspect of MARI. When difficult issues are revealed, clients are given the opportunity to, as Levine suggested, “do something.”
Difficult issues are identified on MARI through both symbols and colors. For example, if the subject chooses a symbol at the “Struggle” stage with dark red, the MARI assessor may say something like, “Does it make sense that you are struggling with an issue around old hurt or pain (as indicated by the dark red of dried blood)?”
The subject almost always knows exactly what is being referred to and, for this reason (even beyond allowing the client to maintain his or her own autonomy), it really isn’t necessary to share the issue. The client is then given the opportunity to choose and introduce a new color (which represents a new feeling, perspective or perception in relation to the issue) under the symbol but above the old color, like a sandwich. The client is asked to insert the new color under the symbol to the extent that he or she feels comfortable. The opportunity to literally change the original visual picture of the MARI by bringing in new symbols and colors appears to further reinforce the new changes and strengthen the client’s psyche.
Both the mandala and the MARI scoring sheet can be given to the client or copied and kept to be presented later as a visual representation of how the client has progressed in the healing process.
Editor’s note: To see images of the Great Round and other symbols the author references in this article, refer to the April issue of Counseling Today (pages 41 to 47).
Learn more about how the MARI process works by visiting MARICreativeResources.com. You can also experience a mini-version of MARI by downloading the app “Instant Self-Insight.”
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.
Michele Takei is the owner of MARI and president of MARI Creative Resources in Raleigh, North Carolina. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com