Clay as a Healer: Pottery and the Flow State

Working with clay has undoubtedly been for me a healing practice first and foremost. What do I mean by this? Sitting at a wheel for hours on end, immersed in a flow state, creating forms from raw material to completion, does something to my brain, nervous system and body that takes me out of myself and makes me feel, well, better.

I have a loud mind. If it isn’t angsting over some minor aspect of my behaviour a decade ago, it’s freaking out about my future or - its favourite thing to do - filling me with existential dread and/or helplessness over the destructive nature of late-stage capitalism and the imminent collapse of society. It’s… exhausting.

Anyway, noisy brain. And when I say I’ve practiced various healing modalities to get some peace, I mean it. I’ve spent years meditating, thousands of hours of yoga practice, a couple of months in an Ashram, a 10-day silent meditation course (where I got pissed off, stomped around the grounds and knocked over some zen rock statues), therapy, hypnosis, psylocibin, reiki, astral projection. You name it, I’ve tried it. And I’m generally still a skittish chihuahua on the inside. But when I sit down and throw, it literally goes away. Completely stops. Like magic.

So why? How? Apparently engaging in an activity like wheel throwing gives you the opportunity to become immersed in a flow state. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, there are 8 characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. A balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. A feeling of control over the task is present

Being in this state is associated with a decrease in activity in the pre-frontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for higher cognitive function, things like self-reflective consciousness, memory, temporal integration – basically our conscious state of mind. In a flow state, this part of the brain is down-regulated and we therefore experience a lack of self-consciousness and a quietening of the inner-critic. Being in this state also releases a bunch of neurochemicals that make us feel good and create optimum performance conditions.

The way I feel in this state is productive, but peaceful. It’s as though my brain has the space to engage in a creative process and just enjoy it without the critical, reflective mind taking up too much space. It’s important to note that accessing a flow state isn’t limited to artistic pursuits, or sport, the two main activities you would associate with such a state. It can be found in any work that aligns a sense of purpose, passion and those 8 characteristics.

This flow state for me is pretty key in my own mental health and happiness, and I’m consistently grateful to clay for allowing me to access it daily.