Tag Archives: zen

Mu

16 May

In honour of  Mental Health Awareness Week I give you a scoop. Carved from a branch of Rowan over about 2 hours, it represents pretty much everything I do to stay mentally healthy.

Work with the grain, keep going, pare away everything that isn’t helping, use a tool  correctly, repeat.

If I get it the process right, I end up with a nice tea caddy scoop (I only use leaf tea, and drink a lot of tea) and everyone is happy. If I get it wrong I end up with a pile of shavings and a rough stick to beat myself with.

Everyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness will recognise some of these elements.

Work with the grain:

A measure of mental health is the ease with which we ‘fit’ in socially. Taking meds, applying behavioural strategies, listening carefully to other people are like working away with a tool on a piece of wood – keeping sympathetic to the direction of the grain and the nature of the wood. My natural instinct has always been to go against the grain.

Keep Going:

Mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder are inherently destabilising. For no reason at all I can become depressed and lose function and motivation. It happened today, so instead of working on a big (valuable) commission I made a small piece for a client wanting a towel hanger for her bathroom. I just kept going, trusting that eventually my dark mood would lift.

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Pare away everything that isn’t helping:

In order to make the piece above, I had to turn a large disc of walnut, turn it further to make an annulus, then carve the annulus into a ‘shamrock’ aperture to hold the towels. This process involves removing material in different ways to leave the desired shape. Paring.

I do this with my behaviour. I am not the same person I was before I was diagnosed with manic depression. I edit myself – though constantly tempted to perform, be funny (puns), be clever, witty, inventive, or judgemental. I pare these impulses back, where I can, by avoiding meetings, audiences, attention seekers, the terminally needy, focussing on facilitating, rather than being facile.

Use a tool correctly

My sharpest tool is my intellect. But just because you have the capacity and can perform to a high level does not mean you should do it. I park my intellect where I can do most good. Take it out when it is needed, confident that it will work to solve an appropriate problem, and help me and others when needed and not before.

Repeat

When you are feeling well, it is easy to become complacent.

Just as the diabetic must monitor her or his blood sugar levels constantly, I need to monitor my emotional state and act to stabilise it all the time. Woodwork is all bout cyclical repetitive strokes of a tool, not taking too much off, because you can’t put it back. So I keep taking the tablets, keep listening, keep walking away when something makes me feel uncomfortable, and keep being honest.

Mu means ‘without’, or ‘not have’ and it is the condition ‘before creation’ implied in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. It is central to Zen Buddhist philosophy.

It is a condition I try to move towards – the best way to describe the feeling I get when I am in the midst of making. Not have, not there, no thing.

I introduced a visitor to my studio to spoon making at the weekend. Sung Jin is an architecture student who has been visiting my studio as part of his learning journey. I asked him about the concept of ‘mu’ in Korean culture, where it is represented as 무.

“Same idea” he said “‘mu’ means not have”

He then went to the trouble of breaking down the ideogram for mu for me using the Japanese symbol 無 

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I was rather amazed by his pictographic analysis.

You can’t get more ‘not have’ than a crematorium.

You cannot be emotionally more ‘not have’ than when you are profoundly, suicidally, depressed and intent on ending up in the crematorium.

For me, woodwork is a meditation, a state where the ego disappears.

It is ‘not have’……yet.

Delayed gratification, keeping going until the end, not seeking the end.

The mind is so powerful, it needs to be taught to be still. There are many ways to achieve this, iterative movement and listening/feeling are the ways that work for me.

‘Mu’ yields stillness of the mind.

It is the emptiness of the scoop which gives it utility.

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