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Group Mandala

Description of a Group Dynamics Exercise

James Neill
Last updated:
26 Sep 2005

Group Mandala

  • Allows symbolic exploration of group structure and dynamics, and revealing of personal feelings towards others
  • Each person is represented by an object they choose themselves; objects are then "caste" like dice
  • Each person then shares how he or she feels about the position in which his or her object has landed (uses psychoanalytic technique of "projection")
  • Through various rounds, participants get to modify/adjust the position of their object until each individual is satisfied with where they sit in relation to the other objects (group members)
  • Logistically, a simple activity; facilitation-wise, a potentially difficult and challenging activity; lots of potential for subtle and deep group work
  • Group sizes of approximately 7 to 9 are ideal, but can be done with as few as 5 or as many as 12.





Equipment: Each group member to select one personal object or an object from nature, to represent themselves

Time: ~30-40 minutes

Background Information for Group Mandala

Acknowledgements: This exercise has been adapted from an exercise facilitated by Chris Loynes at the 10th National Outdoor Education Conference, 1997, in Perth, Western Australia and subsequent personal advice (see links).  Chris attributes his learning of the learning to Roger Greenaway who provided me with some excellent information about a similar activity he calls “Stones” and a related activity called “Human Sculpture” (see links).

Psychodynamics & Personal Objects:  My intention in developing this particular adaptation was to use it in an outdoor education graduate seminar class to facilitate within group communication and interpersonal understanding, and to stimulate discussion about psychodynamic theory in outdoor education settings. 

The most obvious psychodynamic principle at work is the notion of "projection", although this is a psychologically complex activity that is likely to elicit several other observable psychodynamic processes (such as ego states and interpersonal transactions).  The group had in the previous week been introduced to background readings about psychodynamic theory and had been challenged to think about possible ways this theory might be seen at applicable to outdoor education. 

Students were requested to bring a small, non-fragile object of personal significance to the class.  Note that the selection of personal objects of significance for the exercise is likely to bring into play the history of psychological association and meaning that individuals have attached and invested the object with.  Thus the decision to include these objects immediately heightens the level of psychological investment.  Using objects of personal significance comes with associated risks and liabilities of course and requires an appropriately supportive and trusting atmosphere, so use this feature carefully.  Using personal objects can make for a ‘weightier’ and more sobered session than might be the case when using readily available objects in the immediate environment. 

Surprisingly little has been written in the psychological literature about the psychology of objects.  Possibly the key text is still Jung’s “Man and His Symbols”, along with a relatively recent book by Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, “The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self” which states in the preface:

“To understand what people are and what they might become, one must understand what goes on between people and things.  What things are cherished, and why, should become part of our knowledge of human beings.  Yet it is surprising how little we know about what things mean to people. By and large social scientists have neglected a full investigation of the relationship between people and objects.”
Roger Greenaway made a useful suggestion here that

“it may be tricky to move from here to group dynamics if, say, someone brings a photo of their boyfriend, another a family photograph, another a tiny piece of jewellery, another a goldfish in a jar ... So each person may like to have the option of choosing a new object when switching into group dynamics that is more representative of their image or role within the group.”
Interesting effects might be obtained by instead bringing a lot of set of objects from which participants can select.

Also note that before the activity, give the group the extra instruction that their object will be subject to group activity, some of which will be beyond each of their personal control, and that they will therefore lose a certain amount of control over their object.  So if they wish they should select an alternative object for the activity.  Usually peope do not take up the offer, but usually someone has forgotten to bring an object.  In this case, they should use something handy, e.g., something from their bag or wallet, or a watch or pen.

What is a Mandala?:

Mandala is Sanskrit for circle, polygon, community, and connection.  The The Concise Macquarie Dictionary defines mandala as

a mystic symbol of the universe, in the form of a circle enclosing a square; used chiefly by the Hindus and Buddhists as an aid to meditation”.
Mandalas, however, need not be so narrowly defined.  A Google Image Search for Mandala reveals many traditional and contemporary mandala designs, several of which go beyond a circle enclosing a square.  What seems to tie them together is their patterned interconnectedness

By the way, I don't share the title for the activity with the students until afterwards, or possibly at all.  By leaving it nameless, it can help emphasize the discovery of meaning via intricate patterns and interconnectedness, both conscious and unconscious, that seems to form even in the most rudimentary of group structures.

Description of Group Mandala

Each of these steps should be revealed one by one.  This helps to enhance the unknowness of the activity (and therefore, any experienced meaning is largely socially constructed by participants themselves).

Also note, the facilitator should consider whether or not participate in the group - either way can be appropriate or not, depending on the nature of the group and the facilitator.

  1. Participants in a group select a small object.  The object can be anything, from anywhere: e.g., an object of personal significance or collected from the outdoors

  2. Standing in a circle, ask a participant for their hat (or use some other container).

  3. Place your object in the hat, and pass the hat on to the next person who does the same.

  4. Caste the objects, with some care, some randomness (like rolling dice) (may use casting mat, e.g., a sarong or coat, particularly if using personally significant objects).  Try to use the floor rather than a table.

  5. Ask people to look at the objects and then take turns sharing how they feel about the place of their object in relation to the other objects in the group.

  6. One-by-one then go around in a circle and have each person move his/her object to a new position, explaining to the group why it feels more comfortable for their object to be in this different place.

  7. Ask the group to discuss and collective create (move/shift) their objects into an ideal arrangement.

  8. Debrief: What do you think of this activity?  Why?

  9. What happened in this group during this activity from a Psychodynamic perspective?

Facilitator Notes

Participants could bring a surprising variety of objects, for example an engagement ring, a pocket knife, a stone bearing the inscription “inspiration”, a teddy bear, necklaces and rings, trinkets, and so on.  Initially I did not ask students to initially describe the significance of their objects – not asking this obvious question can heighten the sense of mystery and suspense in the activity.  By the end of the activity, the students responded favourably and more richly to an earlier hint that we might close the activity by sharing with others the personal significance associated with the object.  This provided a deep, satisfying sense of closing to the activity.

Overall, the exercise works well, but it can be a challenge initially to process as there is often some resistance and anxiety associated with the apparent open-endedness of the activity. 

At a critical point when a student challenged me on the seeming pointlessness of the activity I explained that from a psychodynamic point of view the ultimate activity is give someone a blank piece of paper and ask them what they see.  Whatever the person replies with would be an indicator of their inner psychological state, because there is relatively little external stimuli.  When we give people complex activities, it becomes difficult to distinguish what parts are to do with the person and what parts are due to the nature and structure of the activity itself.  Thus, I suggested, it is the very open-endedness of the activity which is the point of the exercise from a psychodynamic point of view.  This comment appeared to serve as a catalyst to help guide the student discussions behind the immediate details of the activity and more or less from this point they were able to make many interesting connections and insights to psychology and outdoor education.

Links to other descriptions

From Chris Loynes
  1. Place the objects in the hat - or whatever- and scatter them. What's going on in this group?
  2. Can repeat - how position changes felt sense of experience.
  3. Throw - What is the personality of your object?
  4. Throw - what would it be like to be your object in this group?
  5. Can be a repeat of 4.
  6. Arrange the objects to represent the ideal group.
  7. If they don't move to this in 6 anyways - what, given the characters you have developed - is an arrangement that represents the best this group can be?
  8. You could go on to - or introduce earlier - objects that represent their own characters explicitly.

It'll work well for the purposes you describe! I'd be cautious abut it being a fix for your group's particular dynamics but it could be a step in the right direction. If you can I'd recommend moving it into their own story rather than the fiction/projection they develop especially if their comments give you an opening in this direction.

From Roger Greenaway

There's many dimensions to this - starting with where the exercise came from and how different people have developed it. There is no correct way of doing this exercise. What I can tell you about is some of my own experiences of using it, and then I'll respond to your specific questions about using it with your group.

I remember trying out this exercise when I was at Brathay on hearing someone suggest arranging objects to represent group dynamics. I usually call it ''stones''. The most basic version is described on my website as part of my reviewing cycle tutorial (start at Facts and go round clockwise). A more detailed description is in the 'stones' file on the website: