It took me longer than expected to complete this installment of my pottery as spiritual practice series. Ironically, the subject is about being centered but I haven’t been feeling centered. As I have learned, like life, being centered is not about the destination; it is about the journey. (“It’s about the Journey” is a spiritual pottery lesson slated for another post).
As I reflect on how pottery taught me to be centered, I think back to the fact that I came to it as a stress release. But what are we really searching for when we are seeking a stress release? Sometimes it is just to go numb. But sometimes, we are trying to catch a glimpse of our soul. The activity – whether meditation, pottery, painting or other – wipes away the grit of obligations, judgments, and self-doubt from the window to our soul so we can see our true self. When I took my first pottery class 7 years ago, I had no idea I was starting a journey to find my center while learning to center the clay. I am grateful for every moment of this journey.
Centering clay is the first thing a potter does when making a vessel on the wheel. It requires the potter to simultaneously apply pressure to the side and top of the clay while the wheel is moving, until it glides smoothly underneath cupped hands. If you fight the clay, you will never center it and it will throw you around. The better approach is for the clay and potter to create a close bond and work together to create a vessel of the potter’s vision.
When I am feeling centered, I have a strong sense of who I am and what I want. I feel safe and strong. I feel at peace within myself. I work with myself to make my dreams come true. Learning to center, helped me learn to center myself.
As any new pottery student will tell you, centering on the wheel is the hardest thing. I have seen many students discouraged from pottery because they “couldn’t” center. How ironic since so many adult students come to clay as a stress relief but leave because they can’t control the clay. We seek relief from our stress through art, yet it stresses us out because we can’t control it. Hmmmm. For those that leave in frustration, I always wonder what they do when they can’t control life. I wonder what I used to do? Oh right, I was a total stress case.
I started pottery as a respite from a hectic 60+ hour a week job and go-go life. I had tried several other art forms, but nothing stuck for long because of my own frustration and impatience. Luckily, there was something about connecting directly with the earth (as opposed to a paintbrush or a camera button) that spoke to me and calmed me. I learned to center the clay, while the clay taught me about myself. It taught me that I am an artist (something I never believed when standing in front of an easel). It taught me patience. It taught me self-confidence in a way no other activity had.
For wheel potters, we are always working with the clay to get it centered. Some of us then like to push the clay beyond those boundaries by altering the clay out of round. We find it more interesting and artistic. Of course, we can’t alter the clay with any intention and success unless we start with centered lump.
The same applies to people and life. The curve balls of life alter us out of round. But if we start from our center, the curve balls don’t collapse us, but become growth opportunities that make us more interesting and beautiful.
None of these lessons on centering were quick or easy to learn. It took a couple of years before centering clay became second nature. And it has taken decades for me to become centered (or least to know how to visit that destination as often as possible). I still have days that I can’t center clay to save my life. Similarly, I am not always centered. My recent MS diagnosis was probably the biggest curve ball I have ever received. Some days I’m not centered and I wonder know how I can deal with this for the rest of my life. But then I walk into my house of worship – the studio – and I remember why I am self-injecting and leading an ultra-healthy lifestyle; I want, I need to be making pots. It is at this moment that I am filled with gratitude that only months before my diagnosis, I had taken steps to make pottery more central in my life. Being in the studio is not just a creative outlet or a stress release anymore. It is a reminder of who I am – I am potter.