Find a DIY guide to peace of mind in Crafting Calm (Viva Editions, 2013). Author Maggie Oman Shannon offers 40 projects that promote mindfulness and spiritual practice. In this excerpt, create easy inspirational crafts that help reduce stress levels, such as a meditation fountain, a Zen sand garden and more!
You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Crafting Calm.
Inspirational Crafts: Tabletop Meditation Fountains
What is it about the sound of running water that produces such a state of serenity? For almost everybody, it does—and there have been some experiments by researchers that seem to back up what we’ve always instinctively known: the sound of water is healing, and can measurably reduce stress levels.
In the last fifteen years, sales of tabletop meditation fountains have risen steadily—in 1998, only a hundred thousand were sold; as we moved into the twenty-first century, that number had increased to more than three million annually. Why have these indoor fountains become so popular? The answer to that question can be found by simply tuning in to the ambient noise around us at any given time—our busy modern lives are attended by sounds of all kinds, many of them unpleasant: car horns, slamming doors, people talking on cell phones. The sound of trickling water can help us to focus on that, instead; and with that shift in focus, our minds can become calmed.
Thus, tabletop meditation fountains can become inspirational crafts that keep on giving—if you decide to explore making your own fountain, you will find spiritual rewards involving almost all of our human senses. By choosing crystals, special stones, or spiritual figurines to place in your fountain, you are creating a living altar that will be a feast for your eyes. By listening to the sounds of your fountain, you will give your mind the opportunity to rest and your heart the chance to be reminded of nature’s wonderful watery delights: waterfalls, rain, rivers. Most importantly, you will give your spirit the opportunity to dwell with God—as that wonderful verse in the Book of Isaiah put it, “to be like a flowing spring whose waters never run dry.”
How to Make a Tabletop Meditation Fountain
To make your own tabletop meditation fountain, start with a ceramic container or bowl that supports your meditation intention—perhaps it will be in the shape of a flower, or be a color that soothes you. It should be between eight to twelve inches in diameter and at least four inches deep. (Buy a container that does not have a hole in it, and be sure the depth is sufficient to cover the pump. If possible, buy a pump that has a suction cup to keep it in place.) You’ll need a small water pump (aquarium pumps work well for this purpose) that pumps less than a hundred gallons per hour; also buy plastic tubing with a five-eighths-inch outer dimension.
Then comes the fun part: choosing what elements you will want to place in your fountain: a special heart-shaped rock? pebbles from a faraway beach? an amethyst crystal or tiny geode? a colored shell or interesting piece of driftwood? What about adding a plant or a small figurine? (I have an ivory-colored Quan Yin, a flat amethyst stone, and a rock printed with the word “pray” in mine.) Whatever special elements you choose will add to the meaning and intention of your fountain.
Place the submersible pump in the bottom of your container, and add enough water to cover it; otherwise, the pump will burn out. Plug it in (this will need to be near the back of your fountain) to make sure it’s working. Add larger rocks to fill the bottom, and use smaller ones to decorate the top, which will be seen. Fill the container with stones, leaving an inch from the top, and arranging them in such a way that the water will flow in a pleasing sound to your ears. Once the stones are in place, you can add the accents—the crystals, shells, or figurines that are meaningful to you.
After you’ve made your fountain, check the water level daily; if there is too much water, you can remove it with a turkey baster, and if there is too little, add more to ensure that the pump stays covered. To keep the water running clear, add a small amount of bleach and make sure to clean the components of your fountain every month to remove any algae that might have built up. (You should take the fountain apart and clean each element about every three months.)
Inspirational Crafts: Visual Journals
I first began making visual journals when I was in college, not knowing there was even a term for them—to me, they were just containers for saving all the wonderful pieces of life that were flying my way: a postcard of a cobalt-blue Matisse cutout, seen on a weekend trip to Manhattan; a wonderful quotation from Rilke’s Lessons to a Young Poet, about “living the questions now”; a ticket stub from a Bruce Springsteen concert, which had provided four hours of transcendent joy. They were a celebration, a grab bag for the eyes, a profusion of personal and cultural diamonds, collected by me as my life and heart expanded with the joy of discovering a big wide world out there.
While journaling by its very nature could be considered a spiritual practice—since we are, after all, “baring our souls” in our journals—one can use specific techniques for consciously making it even more of a spiritual practice. Marianne Hieb, a Sister of Mercy who is the director of the Wellness Spirituality Program at Lourdes Wellness Center in Collingswood, New Jersey, as well as an art teacher and the author of Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling: Learning to See and Record Your Life as a Work of Art, has even created a trademarked process—Art-Journaling—through which one can uncover greater depths. Marianne describes how she was led to visual journals as a spiritual practice: “When planning a weekend retreat with a wellness spirituality theme, the staff encouraged me to include a creativity session in the format. As a result, I brought drawing paper and oil pastels, writing supplies and an outline of the meditation to the weekend experience. Using ‘the gift of the present moment’ as a theme, the retreatants considered the aspects of their ordinary days, used the pastels to create lines and shapes to express that experience, gazed at their visual expression, and then moved into a time of reflective writing. The meditation was followed by silence and optional sharing. The art-journaling prayer process as I would present and facilitate it was born.”
Marianne continues: “In my definition, Art-Journaling shares in the disciplines of spiritual direction, design theory, fine art, art therapy, creativity, and the contemplative tradition. My particular approach to journaling is holistic, and includes the combination of nonverbal and verbal aspects. In my retreats and workshops, I urge participants to trust their inner wisdom, and their belief in the God who desires to reveal.
“In Art-Journaling prayer, we begin with a theme or question, respond prayerfully to that question with art materials, take some time to ‘gaze contemplatively, non-judgmentally, receptively,’ and only then does the retreatant go into the verbal journaling process. Over the years, through the graced sharing of the participants, I have learned how the combination of nonverbal and verbal approaches can yield profound and surprisingly swift insights.”
Whether you work with Marianne’s Art-Journaling® technique, another’s (see “Visual Journal Resources”), or create your own system of visual journaling as I did that literally includes pieces of ephemera from your day-to-day experiences, it can reveal important insights about your life—and spiritual—journey.
Visual Journal Resources
With the popularity of visual journaling, there are many published books (many by North Light Books) that will guide you through technique and offer inspiration. Among them are:
Creative Awakenings: Envisioning the Life of Your Dreams Through Art by Sheri Gaynor (North Light Books, 2009)
Journal Spilling: Mixed-Media Techniques for Free Expression by Diana Trout (North Light Books, 2009)
True Vision: Authentic Art Journaling by L. K. Ludwig (Quarry Books, 2008)
The Journal Junkies Workshop: Visual Ammunition for the Art Addict by Eric Scott and David Modler (North Light Books, 2010)
The following books focus more on visual journaling as a spiritual practice:
Inner Journeying Through Art-Journaling: Learning to See and Record Your Life as a Work of Art by Marianne Hieb (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2005)
The Artful Journal: A Spiritual Quest by Maureen Carey, Raymond Fox, and Jacqueline Penney (Watson-Guptill Publications, 2002)
Art Journals and Creative Healing: Restoring the Spirit Through Self-Expression by Sharon Soneff (Quarry Books, 2008)
Inspirational Crafts: Tray Zen Sand Garden
When I first saw the famous Ryoanji Temple garden in Kyoto, famous for its placement of black rocks on white pebbles, I found myself mesmerized by its simplicity and grace—something no photograph of it can fully convey. Millions before me have had the same experience—and there have been academic papers written to analyze this response. According to one of these, the particular pattern of the rocks leaves a subconscious impression of a tree, and the sensitivity of our subconscious minds to the artful associations between the rocks may be why the garden is so calming. Perhaps that explains the haiku that I felt inspired to write before leaving the temple grounds?
Unlike Western gardens, which can bombard viewers with their pluralistic and profuse beauty, a Zen rock garden is a minimalist meditation: a few rocks, a lawn of smaller pebbles, a raked design. It is deceiving in its simplicity, profound in its execution. There is nothing there that is not supposed to be there…but what is there will be experienced differently by everyone—and even by you, if you take the time to view it from different perspectives.
Trying to understand Zen art and craft is fruitless without an understanding of the culture it comes from. This awareness came to me on another trip to another place: Standing atop Uluru (formerly called Ayers Rock) in the heart of the Australian desert, and seeing the same scrubby dots of dry bush below me that are reflected in the pointillistic dots of Aborigine art, I realized how the art native to a country often reflects that country’s landscape and culture. Thus, I understood the haunting beauty of a Zen rock garden after spending a bit of time in Japan; it reveals a disciplined impulse that is diametrically opposed to our Western excess—and for that reason alone, a tray Zen sand garden can be a useful form of meditation. Just like life!
How to Make a Tray Zen Sand Garden
To make your own tray Zen sand garden, find or make a shallow wooden box in a dimension that intrigues you (most tray sand gardens are rectangular, but do not feel bound by this shape). Consider keeping colors minimal; there is something very arresting about black rocks on white sand. Fill your tray with sand, and place rocks on top of the sand—your meditation will begin with the very placement of the elements. Zen sand gardens are raked; you can use a doll’s rake or even use a wide-toothed comb to make patterns in the sand. Let your inner Observer bear witness to what thoughts and feelings come up as you work with your tray sand garden—and consider employing haiku into this practice if desired.
Inspirational Crafts: Rock Cairns
There is a certain mysterious quality to rock cairns, which stand as small Stonehenges—arresting yet inscrutable. They have been made for thousands of years, as altars, as focuses for meditation and prayer, as symbols of hope, and as pointers to the way home. Cairns are each unique, like snowflakes; but what they share in common is material (rock) and form (rocks stacked on top of each other).
Modern-day artists are working with rock cairns, building these mysterious towers which carry different meanings for each viewer. They are, literally, a practice—for with any misplacement, the cairn will come tumbling down. For that reason, concentration is vitally important—making rock cairns is truly a method for cultivating present-moment awareness.
If you feel drawn to exploring rock cairns as a spiritual practice, you can work on as large a scale as you want—using stones as light or as heavy as you can handle. Possibilities include stacking small stones from a treasured collection as a morning meditation; actually crafting and affixing stones together to “point the way home;" or creating cairns outdoors, which will offer different reflections with the changing seasons. However you choose to explore the inspirational crafts of rock-cairn making, you will find that it is a practice that will never be “set in stone.”
Inspirational Crafts: Message Bottles
The first piece of art I ever sold was an assemblage I made from a wooden box, holding a row of small glass bottles that were all filled with a curiosity, a la the artist Joseph Cornell (whose work I have always loved). Five cork-topped containers against a mirrored background each contained a mysterious element: a scroll with ancient writing, wrapped in a silver cord; bits of dried flora supporting a clay doll’s face; a black-and-white image of a nineteenth-century couple kissing, surrounded by parrot-green feathers; a severed baby crab’s claw, resting in white sand; a burgundy-stained cork nestled in dried redrose petals.
Though I can’t remember now the personal significance then of each image, when looking at a photograph of this piece now, I discover that they each still evoke a mood, a sense of awe, a wondering. Filling bottles with the ingredients of life, whether as part of an assemblage or as a stand-alone reflection, can take one on some interesting journeys.
There is a romanticism connected to a bottle with a message in it—haven’t we all dreamed of finding one washed up on a beach (or throwing one out to sea ourselves)? Songs, novels, and movies have all focused on the intrigue of sending out a personal message held in glass. But, when created as a spiritual craft, our “messages” can take on deeper meanings—you might want to explore something that you’re aware of “bottling up,” or something that you want to “let out of the bottle.” Think of it as sending out your own personal SOS—Soul Offering to Spirit.
How to Make Message Bottles
There is an endless array of glass containers available for use in message bottles—from tiny, inch-high bottles with a teeny-tiny cork top intended for jewelry-making, to small three- to five-inch bottles made for spices, to yet larger sizes still. The size you choose will define the materials that you are able to include inside.
Reprinted with permission from Crafting Calm: Projects and Practices for Creativity and Contemplation by Maggie Oman Shannon and published by Viva Editions, 2013. Buy this book from our store: Crafting Calm.