Ceramic Zen: 3 Things I Learned From Clay About the Art of Living

Vanessa Setteducato, LMFT on Feb 26, 2023 in Mood and Feelings

Much as I aimed for a beginner’s mind, I ultimately arrived to my first pottery class with the anxiety of a perfectionist and the need to constantly be in control. Rather soon, the clay humbled me.

As adults, it can be hard to allow ourselves the grace of making mistakes. With so much pressure on our shoulders — logistical, emotional, or otherwise — it’s as if we don’t have time to not get anything right on the first try. Learning something new, then, can be taxing.

But once I started to own my fallibility in relationship with wet and spinning clay, I learned more deeply than ever before that perfectionism and control are not only barriers to learning new things, they’re barriers to everyday joy.

Here are three things I learned from the art of pottery that not only apply to pottery but also the life we make it for:

3. Own Your Own Rhythm

If I’m not already in mindful awareness of my mood and energy, pottery will surely reflect it back to me. A frustrated or irritable mind will not do well in the more fragile spaces of ceramic-making, like on a spinning wheel. While I may initially take one collapsing bowl after another as a challenge to meditate and get back into my body, if it continues not to work, I allow myself to pivot.

There are other ways to build with clay. Hand-building is a still format that is less susceptible to the delicate laws of physics. The clay is drier and stiffer, so it can hold its own against my angst. It still requires some degree of presence, craft, and patience, yet it allows the clay and me to interact at a speed closer to my own.

The lesson here is that sometimes outside challenges can invite us into a different way of being. And sometimes, our way of being is necessary for where we are in that moment. Instead of making yourself wrong or a failure for this, see if there’s a modified version of the task at hand that is more willing to meet you where you are.

2. Accept Outcomes

There were many times I’d arrive to the pottery studio like a kid on Christmas morning, chomping at the bit to see my finished piece come out of the glaze kiln. The thing about pottery — and many aspects of life — is there are several phases, and you can’t always predict the outcomes. Applying glaze to a piece before its final firing hardly gives you a chance to preview the finished product, which means you have to imagine it as best you can with the information available.

If you’re like me, it might be hard for the actual finished piece to live up to the fantasy version I created in my head. There were many times when I couldn’t even recognize my finished piece on the shelf because I had lost all imagination for it once I decided for sure what it should look like.

Outcomes don’t always look the way we dream them up. This doesn’t mean they’re wrong or bad. In fact, when I bring my most disappointing pieces home and let them settle into their place for a bit, I tend to fall in love with them over and over again. The further away my mind gets from the idea of what I thought it “should” look like, the more I’m able to accept and love it for what it turned out to be.

The latter is a much better place to be, especially when it comes to life beyond pottery — like the people we love, including ourselves.

1. Turn Mistakes into Features

Mistakes will happen in pottery. Unless you’re a highly skilled professional, there will come a point in the process when something doesn’t go as planned. Acceptance will help here again.

More than acceptance, however, I’ve found great joy in actually leaning into the mistake. Turning mistakes into features has become my new motto for life. If I accidentally nick a fragile piece, I add a similar mark on the other side and call it intentional.

In most ceramic situations, making something symmetrical is a great way to make it look like it was meant to be there all along. But it doesn’t have to be that perfect.

The idea is that some mistakes can be corrected. If your mistake is fixable, why not fix it?

But if the mistake isn’t fixable and your choices are to toss it, hate it, or lean into it and make it unique, why choose the first two? The human experience can benefit greatly from this motto. If you apply it, you’ll not only find your life having more unique reflections of an authentic you, you’ll also begin to move on from errors more quickly and gracefully rather than punishing yourself for something that’s probably no big deal in the end.

Vanessa Setteducato is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Los Angeles, CA.

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