The Spinning Mandala: Transformation Through Pottery Wheel Work

Dr. Suzanne Engelman
California Licensed Psychologist PSY7977
Board Certified in Biofeedback
Certified Thanatologist
Certified Animal Assisted Therapist

30100 Crown Valley Parkway
Suite # 17C
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677

Office Phone:  (949) 460-4908 
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Suzanne R. Engelman, PHD, BCB, FT

Indian Journal of Psychology, 2005  21-30

I am a clinical psychologist, as well as an aspiring potter.  I have been studying pottery and making studio pots for about 2 1/2 years. Working on the potter's wheel and the process of centering has generated considerable passion and excitement for me, vitalizing an inner sanctum.

Although there are many transformative aspects of working with clay and seeing it through the firing process, this paper will focus on the specific elements of using the spinning pottery wheel and the process of centering.  I believe these important aspects of clay work facilitate a transcendence of ego boundaries and attitudinal shifts.

Following this discussion, I will present a dream and interpretation exemplifying the transformative aspect of working with clay.

The Spinning Pottery Wheel and the Circle Archetype

Devotedly sitting with the spinning pottery wheel-- working, moving clay into balanced, expanded forms-- inspires inner spiritual awakening and connection to others. The process of sitting, being focused upon the turning clay is meditative.

One's inner core and essence becomes vitalized in those "hours of silent practice in the arts of transformation" (Richards, 1989, p. 20). The turning wheel evokes the archetype of the circle, and concomitant associations of wholeness. The mandala image, or magic circle, is said to represent the union of opposites and occurs in both Eastern and Western cultures (Wilhelm, 1962).

Walk to the well.

Turn as the earth and the moon turn,

Circling what they love.

Whatever circles comes from the center.

(Rumi, translated by C. Bark, 1995)

To begin, the clay is touched in one place, but the whole is moved. A dialectical exchange takes place between the hands and the clay, between one's whole body, mind and spirit, and the clay.  One's fingers simultaneously hold both the developing inside and outside of the shape (Richards, 1989). 

Resist-yield; resist-yield is played out with the hands, body and clay on deeper and deeper levels, as the clay shape is refined. As the clay is worked on the spinning, turning wheel, somatic images, sensations, sensuality, a diminishing of ego boundaries and a receptiveness to what's deepest within are evoked.  Like the whirling dervish, who, according to Maria Rilke, is spinning to an empty place   "where human and divine can meet," the clay and wheel potter are being transformed (as cited in Barks, 1995, p. 277). 

Touch – Mergence – Balance - Then Emergence of a Shape. 

As the wheel work continues and the shape is refined, the archetypal circular form may emerge as a bowl, begging to be filled; but with what? Clay teaches the value of both positive and negative space, and we choose how to fill it.

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;

But it is on the space where there is nothing that the

Usefulness of the wheel depends.

We turn clay to make a vessel;

But it is on the space where there is nothing that the

Usefulness of the vessel depends….

Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should

Recognize the usefulness of what is not

(Tao Te Ching, as cited in Waley, 1958, p. 155)

How the bowl is filled, is a direct and intuitive reflection of the person who made the pot. To open the clay, changes its destiny, yet it holds onto qualities of its original nature. The pot contains the seeds of the maker, which are active at the time, and  "gives off its innerness, that which it holds but which cannot be seen”  (Richards, 1989, p. 20). 

Ancient Chinese potters have said that it is not the outside beauty that matters, for that is merely the shape of the pot; rather, what is important lies within and is what remains after the pot has been broken (Richards, 1989).

Soetsu Yanagi, credited with setting the foundation for modern day ceramics, felt that true genius is exemplified as an "intimate expression of the spirit of man" (Shoji Hamada as cited in Yanagi, 1989, p. 97).

It was among the unintellectualized folk art pieces made by unknown Korean and Japanese craftspeople that Yanagi believed exemplified a truer representation of a culture's quality of life. Many early Korean bowls had a beauty and imperfection in their bumpy, uneven, irregular surfaces, and it was just these idiosyncrasies that were seen as the gift - "an empty space, a place for mystery" and numinosity (Bender, 1995, p. 150).

What is most perfect seems to have something missing;

Yet its use is unimpaired.

What is most full seems empty;

Yet its use will never fail.

What is most straight seems crooked;

The greatest skill seems like clumsiness,

The greatest eloquence like stuttering….

(Tao Te Ching, as cited in Waley, 1958, p. 198)


This appreciation of imperfection, and stilling the voice of criticism that was coming forth in my own pottery work, was also being called forth in a shifting attitude towards myself. In my personal imperfection and that of my pottery, I would find solace.

So How Do I Fill My Bowl?

At first, my personal issues emerge to fill my bowl such as self-doubts and criticisms. Sitting with the spinning wheel, initial thoughts may center on unfinished business in the conscious world in and outside of the studio.

This is followed by ego concerns directly related to the shape of the clay.  Can I really make this shape? Is the bottom curved enough to "flow through"?

However, as I am able to stay with these self-doubts, I process and move through them. With passing time and shaping, the bowl emerges, and I am consoled and feel inner healing. My thoughts quiet. I embrace what is created and feel acceptance. "We do not need to be free of error in order to be in the midst of poetry" (Richards, 1989, p. 56). 

The potential of the clay that I helped bring forth is a reflection of my own potentialities.

Centering Clay as Archetypal Expression

The process of centering clay on a spinning wheel is an important element in the transformation of both clay and psyche. The imagery of centering has archetypal roots and can be experienced cognitively, through our hands, or with our other senses. This archetypal process of centering carries a mysterious power referred to as numinosity. We can see references to such power in ancient times, where the numen was the physical center of a sacred city.  In Roman times a symbolic object called the numen, was placed at the center of the city and it held such strong mysterious power, that people would be drawn to the particular place (Wilmer, 1987, p. 219). 

When people are "on center", the totality of reality, rather than fragments, is experienced (Richards, 1989). Centering in the clay, as well as being psychologically centered,  " leads to a focus of attention, of inner listening to the inner voice,…letting focus bear within it an expanded consciousness…an instinctive hope toward wholeness" (Richards, 1989, p. xx). This experience of centering involves a muting of the ego, in that individual differences and fragments give way to the sensations of wholeness. When one is centered, the self feels different: "one feels warm…in touch, the power of life a substance like an air in which one lives and has one's being with all other things, drinking it in, and giving it off, at the same time quiet and at rest within it" (Richards, 1989, p. 56).

Just as we strive to stay on center in life, appreciating our experiences within a complete context, centering clay involves the challenge of being psychologically and physically attuned to the clay changing process. It cannot be done by force; rather by coordination of efforts, sensitivity, and responsive to feedback the clay is giving the potter. Centering the clay body joins one's personal exertion and dimension, with that of nature, and then watching and feeling the result. Both hands in their respective places supporting one another-

pushing down,

pushing in,

moving up,

pushing in,                                 

moving up,

pushing down,

moving  into center,

all the while spinning,

until the clay moves into a balanced, symmetrical rhythm.

What starts at the clay's center, influences its outer shape. Without an inner core that is on center, the pot's shape will be distorted. The whole of the pot's potential is contained in the centered core; the fragments are reflections of the whole.

A person may feel more whole doing wheel work. As the result of a new balance being established between the conscious ego and the unconscious, a new attitude can be developed.

When I work in the studio on the wheel, I hear and see my fellow spinners at their labors.  I feel my connection to community, the larger world past, present and future. I see my teacher Richard sensitively facilitating his students' transformations. Feelings of love and peace, being at one with the larger community arise. This is akin to Jung's Transcendent Function (Wilmer, 1987, p. 184).

Yanagi Dream Sculpture

The mysterious influence of "centering" may be called forth in dreams.  The dream presented below arose during my early months working on the wheel making bowl shapes. After having the dream, I made the sculpture described in the dream.  Although this sculpture was not made on the wheel, it occurred while I was engaged in wheel work and makes several references to the circular center.

I am making a composite slab picture in my dream. I want to use feathers in clay and they are in the center drawer of my desk, where I have many feathers of all sizes, some very large ones.  Soetsu Yanagi is the teacher in the class and Yanagi tells me where to find some odd shaped, pretty peach-colored pieces like pottery shards to use in my piece. They have Degas designs in the center of each of them. I tell another woman in the studio about my exciting discovery. I know I will make a nest type design in the composite picture with the feathers. The feathers radiate counter clockwise, going from larger to smaller around a center.  I need to find small circular bead type objects to be a path going into the feathers. Small aspirins would work. The left border on the outside panel will be composed of geometric shapes, circular indentations and lines in squares next to each other.

(Insert picture of Yanagi Dream Sculpture here)


For me, this dream reflects a symbolic "creative synthesis" of two simultaneous mythologies. The psychologist mythology and newly emerging potter mythology are integrated, resulting in a change of perspective and attitude (Krippner, Bogzaran, & de Carvalho, 2002, p. 23). Through the Jungian technique of active imagination, and also following the activity within the dream to make the composite slab picture, this integration of mythologies becomes externally symbolized.  There was a numinous quality to the dream and in the making of the slab sculpture itself.

Soetsu Yanagi appears as an inspirational animus figure, encouraging me onward in my creativity. Yanagi provides positive impetus for my work, at a time when my conscious mind is questioning my ability to "succeed" on the wheel. Yanagi, is known for emphasizing the importance of "seeing" beauty, which is a born faculty, rather than relying upon "knowing," which is acquired and has more to do with the intellect.  According to Yanagi, true seeing involved the ability to "contact things directly and positively," as in the Zen state of muschin “no mind” (Yanagi, 1989, p. 112).

In making pottery, then, Yanagi advises that one shift momentarily from working in the sphere of the vision of outer perfection, to the vision of inner connection by suspending objective judgement. The appearance of the great master Yanagi, was inspirational for me, the unknown floundering potter, and also comforting that I should trust my love and appreciation for the clay.

If I surrendered to the clay and allowed myself to connect with my deepest place, rather than needing to be perfect, I naturally would to my best work.

Yanagi encourages me in my work towards the "center," and to use the unusual symbols whose discovery excites me. First, are the prominent feathers, which are found in the center drawer in my desk. Feathers are commonly used to represent the bird costume of shamans, The shaman is one who uses various methods and processes to "access information that is not ordinarily available to members of the social group that gave them shamanic status" (Krippner, 1999, p. 109).

Mythologically, the eagle is thought of as father of the first shaman, and is instrumental in both the shaman's initiation and ecstatic journey  (Eliade, 1974). Feathers are indispensable for transportation and ascension to other mystical worlds. In this dream sculpture, I believe the feathers represent a transcendental state, transformation and healing.

The feathers are found in my "center" drawer, and placed in a counter-clockwise arrangement, further signifying the central importance of movement into the unconscious, away from the individual, personal level of reality. The feathers are in a nest arrangement, symbolizing protection, and nurturance, while being expansive and unrestrained. The circular arrangement of the feathers suggests healing, wholeness and transcendence.                                                                                                                   

The pottery shards, which Yanagi locates for me in the studio with Degas images, signify one path to the inner, central circle of feathers. I interpret this as meaning my impressionistic designs on my pottery, coupled with physical movement (reminiscent of Degas’ dancers) and making pottery will give me access to inner transformation.

On the left side, the aspirins are the path inward to the center of the feathers. I believe this path represents a complementary mythology wherein overcoming a painful back injury also brought spiritual solace and personal transformation. In shamanism, sickness, dreams and ecstasy may all serve to "transform the profane, pre-'choice' individual into a technician of the sacred”   (Eliade, 1964, p. 33). 

Suffering and pain are initiatory for the shaman, but also prepare the non-shamanic individual for greater connection with spiritual endeavors. This segment of the piece could also represent my psychological work as a therapist, in my efforts to midwife the pain of others, leading to transformation of the therapist and patient alike.


In conclusion, pottery making on the wheel lends itself to being a transformative art, both for the clay and the potter. The elements of meditatively sitting with the spinning wheel as well as the process of centering, facilitate a loosening of ego boundaries that allows for greater access to archetypes of creativity and resultant attitudinal shifts.

The personal dream presented suggests that both the power of making pottery, enduring pain and hardship, as well as being the midwife of others' suffering, can all lead inward to healing, greater self realization, and connection to a larger whole.

Suzanne R. Engelman, PhD, ( is a licensed psychologist with private a practice in Laguna Niguel.


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Krippner, S.  (1999).  Shamans as mythmakers and psychopomps. Curare, 22(2), 109-113.

Krippner, S., Bogzaran, F., & de Carvalho, A.  (2002).  Extraordinary dreams and how to work with them. Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

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Wilmer, H.A.  (1987).  Practical Jung. Wilmette, IL:  Chiron.                                            

Yanagi, S.  (1989). The unknown craftsman. Tokyo: Kodansha International.