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02 October 2006

Polish your mud balls

“When you start on a long journey, trees are trees, water is water, and mountains are mountains. After you have gone some distance, trees are no longer trees, water no longer water, mountains no longer mountains. But after you have traveled a great distance, trees are once again trees, water is once again water, mountains are once again mountains.” – Zen teaching

Dorodango_bruce_wagnerI know there are Big Things to Fear in Life. But there is also so much fear in the smallest corners of the world, of our days. I wonder why. What on earth is at stake?

In the classes I teach, I watch people navigate their fear of looking foolish, their desire not to admit that they don’t know, their need to be in control, to know, to have the right answer, to say what teacher wants to hear, to focus on something “out there” and not “in here,” to get the “A” or, at the very least, to leave without being changed in any significant way by their interactions with new knowledge or insight.

What if there are no right answers, just mud balls?

This image of spheres from Bruce Gardner’s website gives a hint at the artful beauty of the objects he creates. Is he sculpting these highly polished orbs from marble? No, he is creating hikaru dorodango (shiny balls of mud) from pure, simple, common dirt and sand lovingly caressed into these desirable and oddly soothing objects. He has perfected the art, but it took a lot of trying.  “Even my rough, malformed first attempts grew precious to me as I worked with them,” Gardner writes. “This curious attachment to the dorodango…is part of what make hikaru dorodango so special. As I've experimented with dorodango, I'm struck by how these objects, created from such humble material, are nearly the perfect expression of process refinement.” Author William Gibson has said a dorodango is an “artifact of such utter simplicity and perfection that it seems it must be either the first object or the last, something that either instigated the Big Bang or awaits the final precipitous descent into universal silence. At the very end of things awaits the hikaru dorodango, a perfect three-inch sphere of mud. At its heart: the unthinkable.”

They are heavy and cool to the touch, satisfying in their heft and texture.

Dorodango_boys_on_beachChildren in Japan are fixated on these mud balls—or at least they were five years ago; creating hikaru dorodango became a mania there. Professor Fumio Kayo of the Kyoto University of Education, a psychologist who researches children’s play, was responsible for the craze. He first encountered dorodango in a  Kyoto nursery school in 1999. As he made mud balls with the children, a teacher said, “I’ll show you a real dorodango,” and created a shiny mud ball for Kayo, who was intrigued and wanted to outdo the teacher. Through 200 failed experiments and an analysis using an electron microscope, Kayo devised a method of making dorodango that even children can learn. The kids spend hours creating and polishing balls of mud; they grow attached to and treasure their mud balls even if they are not perfect, even if they do not shine.

According to the Japan Information Network, Kayo was interested in watching the children at play—and they surprised him. A two-year-old would walk behind him, imitating his actions. At three, children tried to snatch his dirt. Four and five year olds pretended to ignore him, but afterwards were working with determined expressions on their faces. Children shared information on where to find the best dirt—and sometimes they kept that information secret. As adults, we aren’t much different, are we?

Developmental psychologists have long studied how children engage in role play and drawing and other “creative” activities; Kayo believes we’ve overlooked the creative experimentation children do in their daily activities. Is making shiny mud balls a good insight into the essence of play for both children and adults? The joy of hikaru dorodango is twofold: the sheer pleasure that comes with creating, that meditative and wondrous place we go sometimes in the creative moment—coupled with the desire to create the shiniest ball.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “Cheeks sent me high”) has studied “flow” for many years—the condition these kids appear to reach when creating their hikaru dorodango. There are eight hallmarks of reaching “flow”—I’m left to ponder what activities I do that meet these eight conditions:

Dorodango_collectionA Clear Goal - Knowing what you want to do in any given moment is a key element of the flow experience.

Feedback - You need to be able to tell if you are getting closer to your goal or not.

Challenges Match Skills - It is important that what you do matches your ability to do it.

Concentration - Total attention onto one task.

Focus- Focus on only one task.

Control - When you are in flow you feel that you can be in control of your actions and experience.

Loss of Self-Consciousness - There is no room for relentless self-monitoring.

Transformation of Time - Time seems to adapt itself to your individual experience.

Writing 37days is the thing that comes closest. What is it for you that brings you close to “flow” and why aren’t you doing it more often? If I fear that my dorodango might crack, I won’t create it in the first place, now will I?

Potterhands2smFrom Art & Fear comes this insight:

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the ‘quantity’ group: fifty pounds of pots rated an ‘A’, forty pounds a ‘B’, and so on. Those being graded on ‘quality’, however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an ‘A’. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the ‘quantity’ group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the ‘quality’ group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

I see the pottery metaphor play out at conferences. Some speakers are buttoned up, flawless, measured and practiced, with an answer for everything in a world that is expert-focused. They don’t risk much or, ultimately, give much. They are too involved in relentless self-monitoring, creating the perfect pot. Others learn as much from the people they are speaking to—they give and they take, they ride the wave that is in the room at the time, not the one they hoped might be there or the one they planned against as some do; instead, they stumble over new insights and acknowledge the stumble, they co-create meaning with the people they are engaged with, they are subject-focused, along with me as I watch them—they make a lot of pots, taking me along for the ride, letting me see myself in their story. 

Perfection is a tough road. I’d rather have fun, get clay slip all over me, and learn from the process of making all those pots. You? We need to play more, people. As Charles Schaefer has said, “We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything than when we are playing.” Play is significant—it is voluntary and free and outside of “real life”. As Johan Huizinga told us in Homo Ludens, we access reality by playing with it; we know by entering contests of knowing, not by refusing to enter them.

Dorodango_hand_palmAnd so, what if our lives are curious dorodango, enigmatic glistening spheres, with dents and dings, a constant forming and reforming, adding fine sand to our surface from time to time and smoothing it out, the sphere made by the accumulation of grit and dust and experiences both good and bad, our shine metric a measure of how much we have played, how often we have reached “flow,” how boldly we have formed that sphere knowing, full well, that it might crack as it dries. A dorodango requires pressure to form, and yet we resist pressure and discomfort almost universally. What are we afraid of? Those children love their dorodango even when they crack, when they are not shiny, when they aren’t perfectly shaped.

“About three inches in diameter,” William Gibson wrote in TATE magazine, “the surface of a completed dorodango glistens with an illusion of depth not unlike that seen in traditional Japanese pottery glazes. A dorodango becomes its maker’s greatest treasure.” He concludes: “just as a life, lived silently enough, in sufficient solitude, becomes a different sort of sphere, no less perfect.”

Dorodango_smAs the Zen teaching says, “When you start on a long journey, trees are trees, water is water, and mountains are mountains. After you have gone some distance, trees are no longer trees, water no longer water, mountains no longer mountains. But after you have traveled a great distance, trees are once again trees, water is once again water, mountains are once again mountains.”

Mud balls are at once mud balls, and not. As Csikszentmihalyi reminds us, “A person who forgoes the use of his symbolic skills is never really free.” We constantly create meaning out of our encounters with the world, with the soil of the spheres on which we journey.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Dorodango_kidsIf you can, watch this video about making hikaru dorodango.

Then play. Make a mud ball. Name it, talk to it, roll it in your hands, show it off, experience “flow,” take good care of it—lose yourself in that mud ball. Shine it. Love it even if it never shines, even if it cracks. Be loyal to your mud ball. Play.

Don’t fear the dirt.

Throw more pots. Make many mud balls. Or translate this challenge into your own terms--if you’re a writer, for instance, follow Gail Sher’s advice in One Continuous Mistake : write on the same subject every day for two weeks. Ready. Set. Go.

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This is great stuff Patti. Thanks for reminding me of these...something to settle into with my kids to explore and cultivate flow.

I'm thinking an interruption of the 'flow' describes the discontinuity expressed in your previous post.

...and the eight steps may a reminder of the route back to the place where we can do the things that allow us to reestablish the outflow of that which is trapped inside us.

Or: "All work and no play..."

Dan - your insight about discontinuity is an important one for me - thank you...

Chris - enjoy the mud! thanks for writing!

"You learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation." - Plato

I've felt flow at times, but, never really thought to break it down into four parts - truly interesting and inspiring.. a good guide to get to the flow with tasks that seem to lack that possibilty...lovely

how do you do it? i have been contemplating the idea of 'play' and what it means in relation to my daily life for about 2 weeks. i swear sometimes you get inside my head and write about what you find there! thanks for the added insight-- i love the mudballs. you have given me more to think about, again.

Betsy - one of my favorite quotes - thanks for reminding me of it! And perfect in this context...

Jylene - I love the image of me inside your head and rolling around in there as you make your way through the universe! Enjoy the mudballs - I'm thrilled that next month I'll be in Albuquerque to speak at a conference and have been invited to meet (and hopefully make dorodango!) with Bruce Gardner, the man I wrote about in this essay whose dorodango are the opening photo!! What a treat! And won't New Mexico dirt be beautiful? Thanks for your note!

Grace, T - I'm glad it was helpful to you. Thanks for your insights, which helped me, too!

I like what you said, "What if there are no right answers, just mud balls?" You are Zen!
Your big fun, Miki :-)

mine was really shiny. and i dont polish some of them. they just look to cool to make shiny. :)

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