In this post I draw parallels between the Tibetan Buddhist use of visual symbolism, its use in Jungian psychology and finally my animated AI art. I reveal a way to use the power of symbolism and metaphor – that you may have enjoyed in Tibetan Buddhism – but in a personally and culturally appropriate way.
What drew me to Tibetan Buddhism was two things: The philosophy as described in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying and the use of visual symbolism and metaphor. I really liked the idea of visualising something as my focus for meditation because I’d tried meditation before, but I found meditating on the breath so boring that I fell asleep. The Tibetan Buddhist practices, however, woke me up – in more ways than one!
I personally respond deeply to symbolism and metaphor, particularly of the visual kind. I worked with it initially as a painter, then as a visual theatre performer and later as an author. Now I’m coming full circle back to working with it in a visual art form – but more on that later.
Visual symbolism and metaphor in Tibetan Buddhism
What I found in Tibetan Buddhism was a richly visual tradition, filled with intricate imagery and powerful symbols that held deep spiritual significance. Each detail within Tibetan Buddhist artwork is purposefully chosen to convey profound teachings and evoke contemplation. Visual symbolism and metaphor play a crucial role, inviting practitioners to explore deeper levels of understanding. And I found this way of working with my mind profoundly transformative.
Then I left it all behind, but part of me yearned for that connection to spirit through symbolism and metaphor. It simmered away in my psyche seeking expression and finally popped out in my art, but with a surprising twist. One I hadn’t seen coming and didn’t conscously invite.
Symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist art
In Tibetan Buddhist art, symbolism is not merely decorative; it serves as a gateway to the depths of spiritual wisdom. Every element within a piece of art carries symbolic meaning, creating a visual language that communicates complex philosophical concepts. These symbols are not meant to be taken literally, but rather as metaphors that guide practitioners on their spiritual journey.
For example, the lotus flower is a common symbol in Tibetan Buddhist art, representing purity and enlightenment. The lotus grows in muddy waters, yet remains untouched by impurities. This symbolizes the potential for spiritual growth and transformation, even in the midst of challenging circumstances. Similarly, the wheel, or “dharmachakra,” represents the teachings of the Buddha and the path to liberation. Its eight spokes symbolize the Noble Eightfold Path, which leads practitioners towards liberation from suffering.
The use of symbolism in Tibetan Buddhist art serves as a reminder of the deeper truths that lie beyond the surface of our everyday experience. It encourages practitioners to look beyond the mundane and to contemplate the ultimate nature of reality.
The process/therapy of creating sacred art
Mandalas – intricate geometric patterns that represent the universe in Tibetan Buddhist art – are not only used as aids for meditation and visualization, but also the process of creating a mandala is a spiritual practice in itself. It requires focus, patience, and a deep understanding of the symbolism within the mandala. As practitioners engage with the mandala, they embark on a journey of self-discovery and transformation.
The strange thing I found when I started using an AI art generator to express aspects of my spiritual journey was that the creative process itself – which requires focus, patience, and clarity about what result you’re looking for – put me in a state of meditation. Apparently, according to research into autistism, spending time creating something one is passionate about is a way to regulate ones emotions when you’re a neurodivergent person. ‘Emotional regulation’ is what a Buddhist would call ‘equanimity’.
Not only that, but I also found that the art I created – once I’d animated it and set it to music by my husband Kris Newland – also inspired a meditative state when I just sat back and watched it.
I wouldn’t call it ‘sacred’ as such, but it does have meaning, and it does use symbolism, mosly European-culture based, and not consciously. Rather it is just there in my intention when I give my prompts and refine the images until I get what I want.
Jung’s active imagination technique
I discovered that the relationship I was having with this art was very like Jung’s active imagination process in Jungian psychology. Jung was, of course, very into symbolism and metaphor, and he studied it a great deal in the context of dreams. According to Jung, symbols and metaphors act as gateways to the unconscious, allowing us to unravel hidden meanings and understand our deeper selves.
Active imagination refers to entering a meditative or relaxed state and allowing the symbols and metaphors to guide your imagination. You visualize yourself in the symbolic landscape and interact with the imagery to gain deeper insights – also surprisingly like Tantric practices. I discovered I was doing this automatically, and wow, interesting things came up, things I’d completly missed in Buddhist practice. But things that in Buddhist terms remain as emotional obscurations unless I examine and heal them.
And yet some Tibetan Buddhist Gurus are scathing in their attitudes towards psychology! Clearly they missed this similarity in using symbolism and metaphor as a tool for transformation.
A modern approach to using metaphor and symbolism in self-reflection and meditation practice.
The active imagination process also works when the artworks are not one’s own creation, so any art rich in symbolism can be used. Pay attention to any images that particularly draw you and reflect on their possible meanings and how they relate to you and your current life circumstances.
Fantasy art is good in this respect. We can relate to the hero in us, the dragon, the wise woman and so on. Jungian archtypes appear liberally in fantasy themed art works, and they all are aspects of ourselves – just as the different Tibetan deities are representations of the various aspects of enlightened mind.
When we throw music into the mix, the power of the imagery increases hugely. Just as the chanting added another layer of transformative power to the Tibetan Practices. Hence my response to watching my animated AI art.
Feeling weak? Watch this one?
She’s a little reminiscent of a wrathful deity, yes?
Using animated AI art as the focus of your meditation could revamp your meditation practice or just allow you some enjoyable spacious moments.
Meditating without meditating
I talk about using the images for meditation a bit more in this video. At the end of this video is a fantasy landscape that I found so captivating that watching it led me into a deep meditative state. I felt a sense of tranquility wash over me, and I wasn’t even trying to meditate. That’s the way I want to meditate these days – without trying.
Does this idea ‘work’ for you?