Pottery as Spiritual Practice – Centering

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.

Dancing Tree Vase

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.


About Claytastic

Health coach. Writer. Teacher. Artist. Living an amazing life with MS. Interested in bringing peace and beauty into people's lives.
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9 Responses to Pottery as Spiritual Practice – Centering

  1. jim says:

    interesting post laurie… i guess centering is a way for clay to “weed out” the gene pool as it were, although i never understood why the idea that anything worthwhile should and does take a commitment to practice and a certain length of time isn’t drilled into us starting in childhood. if people give up because they cannot center the clay right away, how, indeed do they deal with the other day to day challenges, some of which are much much more difficult than committing to get that little blob of clay to stay exactly in the center of the spinning wheel head.

  2. Laurie, I love that you are so life affirming and creative in your expression in both clay and words!

    It is fascinating how different people find “their center.” My mother was a painter and singer. I could not find my way in two dimensions, but as soon as a friend talked me into taking an adult ed class in hand-building clay, I was hooked. My kids, amazingly, never particularly liked the feel of wet clay!

  3. Inspiring post Laurie… Sometimes it takes a lifetime to understand that control is just an illusion. {{{hugs}}}

  4. Jesse Vollrath says:

    Marvelous vase! I feel the same way about centering– it is one thing to center oneself and another thing entirely to keep oneself centered through devastating weathers (ie. lots of water and/or snowfall, deaths of loved ones/lids that weren’t meant to be.)

  5. Bill Bunner says:

    I’m so glad to have found your web page. My pal mentioned it to me before, yet never got around to checking it out until now. I must express, I’m floored. I really enjoyed reading through your posts and will absolutely be back to get more.

  6. carter says:

    Thanks Laurie! Hearing your story is itself inspiring. I also appreciate your thoughtful consideration of these ideas. I am a big fan of the idea of art making as spiritual practice and I like your idea of focus on the journey rather than on the destination. As I tell my students, the point isn’t to get the clay centered (there is, after all, no such thing as perfectly centered clay), but that the closer you get the easier it is to do certain things. Centering the clay is a tool we use to achieve certain results. My old instructor Ron Meyers claimed he threw his pots the way he did because he could never quite get the clay centered. What a laugh!

    The beauty of working as an artist is, as you say, the journey. Instead of regurgitating stale and soulless cultural artifacts artists are contributing new and vibrant visions of what the world can be. I always thought the power of art lay in its ability to make the world a better place and that each of us has this creative spark inside of us that only needs to be nurtured and given the opportunity to express itself. The personal evolution of artistic creativity should be cherished in all its facets and all of its manifestations. Thank YOU for taking on this challenge!

  7. claytastic says:

    Carter, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It (along with other recent events) is sparking some new post ideas on this subject. Stay tuned.

  8. Charity Shouse says:

    Hello Laurie,

    Thank you so much for you blog entry. I am writing today with tears of frustration in my eyes and desperation in my soul. I am currently having a terrible time learning to center. As an art educator, I feel so blessed to have been awarded a grant to purchase a pottery wheel for my classroom. But I cannot seem to master it and feel unable to teach something I haven’t mastered myself. I desperately want my students to be able to experience wheel throwing and so I am committed to perservere. It was nice to know that someone else has “off” days too. Today was definately one of those days. Thank you for sharing your experience. I also believe that my ability to center has a connection with the centering of my soul.

    Also, MS has touched my life and stolen my father from my life. May you be blessed with healthy days that match your wonderful and inspiring outlook on life. God Bless

    • Charity,

      Hang in there. You will get this. And you will become a wonderful teacher.

      Be sure to use soft clay when starting out – better to center a block of cream cheese than a rock 🙂

      Also, be sure your stool is right up against the wheel (I presume you are using an electric). That way you can use your body to be that unmovable force to which the clay must ease into. Be sure the keep your elbows in and braced against your body. And then just practice, practice, practice.

      I am sorry to hear about your dad. This can be an awful disease. Yet I feel blessed to have clay and wonderful friends to help me through it.

      Keep me posted on your centering.

      Staying centered,

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