Ponderings from the Wheelhead

My schedule is pretty full at the moment so I’m not spending as much time at the wheel as I would prefer. But I take advantage of the time I have and I’m working on larger art pieces instead of the functional ware I normally focus on. So, in a way, I’m back in training, pottery-wise, since I haven’t worked with larger pieces in some time and I don’t get to practice as much as I used to. So each session is almost myself teaching myself, using the same lessons I would normally give a student. Recently, I found myself obsessing over every piece of advice I ever gave to nervous students while about five pounds of clay swirled around my hand and, in the process, I caught myself staring at my outside hand as my inside hand pushed out the clay. My focus should have been on the inside hand as it created the space. So I closed my eyes and started to work by pushing and feeling with the hand I couldn’t see.

This can confuse a new student fairly quickly so I usually try to cover it early on. The inside hand pushes and shapes. The outside hand supports and guides. A beginner’s instinct is to watch the outside hand and try to do too much with what you can see rather than focusing on the inside hand that actually needs to do the work.

I usually tell the nervous student, “It’s not the outside of the pot that makes the pot. It’s the emptiness inside the pot that makes the pot”.  Which is a straight up Taoist concept.  The outer shape is a reflection of the space within. The focus should be on creating the inner space.

This has provoked more than a few blank stares which leaves an opening to elaborate and carry the lesson forward. But I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that some get hung up on the idea of emptiness being the focus. I think it’s largely due to the Western notion that emptiness is bad. You wouldn’t want something that’s empty. Full is better. Empty is depressing. One shouldn’t want an empty cup. Or stomach. Or house. Full means abundance and a lack of want or need while emptiness is the epitome of want and need.

But another way to look at it is that emptiness is potential. Stuff can happen, things can change, there is room to grow in the space that emptiness provides. An empty stomach can be a depressing thing but it also has the potential to be filled with an excellent meal. It’s an extension of “the glass is half full/half empty” meme that is bit more philosophically flexible and a little less absolute.

Another interesting relevant Taoist concept is the Void.  Now, from what I understand, the term “Void” is a poor translation of the actual concept but it’s the closest that linguists can get to a very complex construct of the “resting potential” that the universe emerges from. Pretty heady stuff but another neat way to think of emptiness: Resting potential. Ready to change, waiting to be filled and utilized.

The pot is formed by creating the potential that is the emptiness and that potential is reflected in its exterior shape.

So the clay was spinning and the shape was forming as I discovered the emptiness and I found myself considering the fact that my outer reality is also a reflection of my inner potential just like the pot. And that begs the question: What is being reflected? Is it the true reflection of the potential or is it a reflection of the psychological clutter that anyone would gather over the course of a lifetime? That’s a sticky one. Some would say that the clutter is manifestations of ego and all of it should discarded. I’m not so sure about that. Some of the clutter might have yielded a positive change and while the particulars should be abandoned maybe the change should be incorporated into the potential. Perhaps the change even made it’s own space.

Still, an inner reality house cleaning may be in order. Go through the clutter and throw out the trash, organize what’s left and, most importantly, rediscover the spaces within. Create the space to grow and change.

And to continue with the analogy, I think that meditation is the way to explore the house and yoga is a way to clear the clutter. Or at least begin to. As this practice develops, I’m noticing the created spaces but there are also a few boxes tucked in corners that I can’t throw away yet. But I know they’re there and I can get to them eventually. The point is I am finding space. I’m discovering potential.

But what is being reflect even as the clutter is being cleared and the spaces created? Is the true self even in there any more? Or is it all ego?

I think it’s time to delve deeper into this ego thing and examine the relationship between labels and limitations.

But that’s going to take some thought and I’m still making space.

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