THE POTTER’S HOUSE

      Most people hate or fear or are bored by matter. Clay is just straightforward matter; having no shape or size of its own, no one consistency and mainly borrowed colour, it could be said to be almost the essence of matter. It is a good indicator of one's basic attitude….
     It is a sensitive substance, mirror-like, registering every touch of the fingers. It is much more sensitive than wood, for example, which registers only strong action with metal tools. The changing shape of the clay mirrors everything that is in the mind: haste, confusion, boredom. But I never make any at­tempt to interpret what I see. What matters is that the indi­vidual should do his or her own seeing. Another person can no more do your seeing for you than he or she can do your eating. And anyhow this world is far too full of interpretations….
        A lump of clay in the hand is a minor planet. It is the very stuff that planets are made of. It is feldspar rock that has disin­tegrated through millions of winters and summers, before there were human beings to shiver or sweat. The earliest earthenware clays were deposited three hundred million years ago. Some clays, called secondary clays, were washed downstream into the beds of rivers, lakes and seas. But since the surface of the earth (if the process were speeded up) is as active as the surface of a pot of boiling water, this clay can be found not only in low-lying places, but anywhere - not everywhere but anywhere. Builders and farmers hate it be­cause it holds water and nothing grows in it. It is a headache for everyone except potters.
        Now as we hold these lumps of clay I suggest an experi­ment. Break the lump into two lumps of equal size and make them round. Pinch from one and add to the other until they seem to be of the same size and weight. Now hold one in each hand and try to discern which is heavier. (It is extremely unlikely that they have the same weight, if it came to ounces and grams.) These tiny planets, like all planets, are subject to the law of gravity. It is this force that pulls them towards the centre of the earth. I never ask for silence, for the clay does that. In their concentration they fall silent, and many tend by instinct to close their eyes. It is a wholly simplified situation: the body alone is being asked a question; the mind has noth­ing to offer. Perhaps the closing of the eyes and the mouths signifies this; and, as if to confirm it, I notice that many by in­stinct lift their forearms from the table. The body is saying, "let the message through."
        It is a pleasure to watch people becoming sensitive in their bodies. These friends are rapt in effortless concentration, and there is a softness in their faces such as people have when they pray. What a transparent miracle the body is! But how we exploit and dishonour it! The apparent cult of the body in these times is not one thing; it is many things together, good and bad, with only the word 'body' in common. There is a new sensitivity about diet, fitness, rhythms. But there is also the world of fashion and cosmetics, which is a multi-million dollar industry, and its advertising method is a cult of image, not body. Unlike any actual body this is quite abstract, and many people think badly of themselves for not having a body that matches the current image. This contempt for one's actual body is the fatal weakness that makes people fair game for the advertising industry. There is a special pathos about heavy make-up; however glamorous the effect, there is a cringing person behind it. But when I look now at my friend with clay on her face, I am reassured that here in the Mews, 'body' means actual body and not 'image'.
     This absurdly simple weighing of two lumps of clay in the hands is an exercise in being-in-the-body, Faced with this problem we would normally reach for a kitchen scales; in other words, we would bypass the sensitivity of the body and let a gadget be sensitive in our stead, We fill our lives with gadgets, every one of which helps us to be less sensitive, We alienate our sensitivity, becoming more and more empty and dead, An alive person cannot be exploited, only a half-dead one, Anyone who comes along can exploit people who, for example, feel hungry when the clock tells them to be hungry, The body itself has an exquisite sense of timing, but if we never allow ourselves to depend on it, it grows duller and duller till we hardly know day from night.

From Go Down to the Potter’s House: a Journey into Meditation, Donagh O'Shea,
Michael Glazier, Inc., and Dominican Publications, 1988


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