I received a bowl as Christmas gift this year from one of my sons. He intended it for me to make matcha. When I unwrapped it, though, I despaired of that purpose. It’s too big, I thought. It has a crease where the sides meet the bottom; the powder could easily get caught there. And the bottom’s very heavy; a heat sink. I have a low tolerance for tannins, and my matcha has to be hot as possible. I could warm the bowl up first, but still. That’s another task that would probably daunt my already infrequent use of matcha.
The bowl is actually ugly, in typical Westernized aesthetic. Lopsided and blotchy, crude, with an unfinished, gravely lip. It’s hand constructed, meaning, not molded or turned on a wheel. It has apparently not been touched by a tool, either; the base is constructed of a coil. My son told me the potter made my bowl with a primitive method learned in Tanzania, using coil construction.
We were FaceTiming when I opened the gift. He told me the blotchy sea-greens and copper toned glaze reminded him of the sea; seaweed or algae or some such. That matters because I am a Pisces by birth. He also said, “I thought it had a lot of soul”. That stuck; he was right about that. After we talked, I went into the kitchen, sat down, turned it in my hands, and decided it was a meditation bowl.
The kind of soul we were referring to is the sort that’s usually classified as archetypally feminine. By this definition soul is our inner heart centered knowingness as distinct from spirit, our transcendent aspect of being. Soul holds the qualities of earth and water, the feminine elements. Like my bowl, the Earth’s contours are irregular; lumpy, bumpy, lopsided, rough. Natural. Of course all pottery is rock, and therefore, earth. The little bits of glaze that look like seaweed or lichen mimic Earth’s soulfulness in their irregular beauty. The bowl could have been found sitting in a forest, or seabed, for many years, and begun to meld with its environment.
Most of the ceramics I own are very finished in their manufacture. I even collect ornamental plates, and crystal glass. Holding the bowl, the comparison between its rough shape and these highly manufactured items struck me with a wave of compassion. Perfection is defined as the condition, state, or quality of being free or as free as possible from all flaws or defects. The dichotomy between high falutin’ human polish and my crude bowl brought up my own persistent expectations of self.
Perfection, measurement, goal orientation, and mass production are archetypally masculine air element, the dominant archetype in Westernized society. Spirit, in the popular sense of the spiritual being having a physical experience, is air element, too. Whereas soul as I define it is a subset of our ethereal beingness specially designed as interface between spirit and physicality. It dovetails our incarnate life on Earth, and the Beyond. I am not only born into a time on Earth that is air element dominant, but I have chronic spiritual aspirations. I began in my early teens trying to reach enlightenment, basically, as defined in Hinduism.
Decades of spiritual striving transpired to mold my philosophy away from the desire to transcend the body, however. Bit by bit I waltzed away from airy perfection towards the natural feminine, the soulful holiness buried beneath my society’s perfectionism. Knowledge of the sacred feminine is on the rise for all of us now. As I meditated with my soul bowl, it asked me to see that, when I negatively judge myself, I negatively judge Gaia in the form of the rocks and the waters and the ways that they are ordered. I separate myself from the soul of Earth, and my own soul, when I persist in assessing my experience from the perspective of perfection.
Truth is, I am generally not a consummate perfectionist, and never was. I marvel at folks who can turn out something like a delicious cake more than once; I can’t re-produce ANYTHING. In that way, I am more like our Great Mother; soulful. As I held the bowl its refusal to try and be something else was communicated to me, and I relaxed into the moment, into a deeper experience of ME. Soul is deeper; spirit is higher.
Anyone who has been the container for spirit to be made flesh (as in pregnancy) knows it’s the most soulful of processes, though my society does their best to get the controlling masculine air element into it. The potter who made my bowl is aware of the nature of the pregnancy and birthing process. He didn’t struggle to perfect the clay, and he didn’t know what the pot would look like after it emerged from the glaze fire, certainly.
Glazing is a marvelous alchemy of rock, metal, liquid, and fire. Hard core primitive potters use wood kilns, of course, as opposed to electric or gas. I had a brief affair with potting, and I know that plenty of pots, no matter how laboriously formed, never make it to the bisque fire; they crack or otherwise fall apart while drying. Breakage is a distinct possibility in bisque fire, and glazes can fail in their firing, too.
My father, being a fan of Japanese ceramics, had a row of pots on his mantle. His favorite was a piece of Shigaraki Yaki, Shigaraki being a famous pottery manufacturing town. The style is famously rough, and features intentional irregularities. His Shigaraki pot had a slump, as though the potter had punched it in the shoulder. It was a good sized pot, over a foot tall. I don’t recall if it was hand built. My Dad told a story whenever we stood admiring the pots on his mantle. When some Japanese corporate bigwigs came to his office for wheeling and dealing, the top guy spotted the Shigaraki pot. He told my father that the pot clinched the deal; the pot proved my father was a heart-centered, wise and respectable person in his eyes. The man would be glad to do business with my father.
If you know much about Japanese culture, you have probably run across the old Japanese philosophical term wabi sabi. The businessman assumed my father’s taste in Japanese pottery implied certain personal qualities because Shigaraki is wabi sabi. Because the languages are very different, there are a number of translations into English for this Japanese aesthetic. From Wikipedia: “Wabi” came to connote rustic simplicity, freshness or quietness, and can be applied to both natural and human-made objects as an expression of understated elegance. It can also be used to refer to the quirks and anomalies that arise from the process of making something, which are seen to add uniqueness and elegance to the finished object. “Sabi” refers to the beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.”
Like some of us, my pot is nothing if not wabi sabi. And it’s absolute magic that, through its unique elegance of form, it can communicate that principle to me. I am well aware that containers are important. As a symbolist, I learned how to interpret the symbolic qualities of containers. Much of our human experience is involved with containers, anyway. Our bodies are containers for our ethereal selves, as far as we can tell. Bodily functions are very much reliant upon moving stuff from one container to another. The container game is ubiquitous, one reason small children will spend hours playing with containers. They are learning about an essential human experience.
I held my bowl in my lap next morning. It’s just the right size and shape for cradling it from the bottom, I noticed. Then I realized that it was next to another bowl; the pelvic bowl. For almost a year now, I have had bouts of trouble with hip joints and iliacus/psoas muscles. Holding the bowl cradled in my hands, it was as though I did the same for my pelvis. I felt a relaxation response- and as we all know, that’s a healing response. The healing response felt like I was in conversation with an understanding friend, one who could witness to life’s rough edges without needing to judge right or wrong. It’s a well known concept in the counseling community; counselor creating a metaphorical safe container for client.
As I felt the heavy bowl warming above my cradling palms, it did feel like a stone. I recalled Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s audiobook Warming the Stone Child. Published in 1990, it was early in the inner child self help movement. The inner child is indeed a soul archetype; our efforts to heal on a soul level often require turning to this child and loving it, warming it. Though there is a mature wise soul aspect in adults, wisdom development also requires the resources of the soul child.
Like my bowl, the inner child is natural, innocent of the survival tactics we must develop as adults. Inner child still holds connection to soul aspects of love before the need to defend, who we are before we molded ourselves to fit social expectations. It’s keeper of the essence of who we are as unique, divine cocreations and cocreators, and that’s a very supportive aspect indeed.
Masculine fire is, of course, a big factor in creating ceramics, or durable pots; masculine and feminine working together. On the soul level, fire element is, among other things, suffering; our most painful life experiences. In potting parlance, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; the pot must survive the fire. Working with healing principles like inner child work makes us stronger, by reinterpreting events from a wiser perspective. In pottery terms, warming our stone child is like the wabi sabi art of kintsugi; the art of repairing objects with precious metals. The child we are journeys through adult life and what is unsustainable, what is untrue, falls away, breaks. The wise adult has taken the child’s experiences and made of them a beautiful work of art, including respecting the precious, the eternal, present in the soulful human scars we carry..
Of course there’s wisdom lurking in all of it, from the crude and innocent to the highly refined and battle-scarred. We are all the painters, singers, writers, weavers, potters of our own lives, right? In theory, the soul contains it all, as a scintillating multidimensional bowl of transformation and creative power. I look forward to many more grounding conversations with my soul bowl.
My bowl was created by Dallas potter James Olney. Find more about him and his work at Oak Cliff Pottery, where the slogan is “Intentional pottery for the intentional soul.” Most of his pieces are named for deities. Love it! If you move your cursor over the images, you see another side of the piece; many of them are two-sided. I had fun researching the names I did not recognize. My bowl is closest to the Andromeda Teabowl in the shop.
An article that describes James’s techniques and more: Meet James Olney