Object-Based Learning in Nature
Utilizing the Context of Our Original Human Heritage
Making and Sharing Objects as Practices of Health and Wellbeing
I stand in the dark, watching the lighted lamps pass. Lantern-bearers follow one another upon the spiraling path. They glide through the darkness, almost silent, their faces dimly lit by the glow of the lamps. Beyond the edge of the labyrinth, with its ever-turning gyre and folding paths, the winter night stretches toward a horizon of shadow and rain. I watch the participants pass, singly and in small groups, their faces barely visible above the illumination they carry. I imagine our collective light as a single point, visible from high in the darkling sky, a ship of amber upon a vast sea.
An ancient thing, this. Old beyond measure. The lofting of the light of community, camaraderie, connection. An alchemy of sorts, shared and passed along the tumbled line of humanity. These days we tend to spurn the archaic, to place ourselves beyond the reach of simple acts of crafting and carrying hand-made objects. We march onward, not sure of our destination but committed nonetheless to erasure of our past. We’ve reinvented ourselves, in this modern age. We’ve turned away from who we once were. Our light presses forward in different ways.
But the light along these ancient paths is still vibrant to us. I see it now, in the faces of the lantern-bearers, in their mindful movements as they follow the path with slow and soft steps. I see the many designs of the wood and paper lanterns — some are festooned with images, colors and cutouts, while others are simple vessels of illumination — and I am heartened by the creativity of our community. A spirit of purposeful play, of authentic engagement, of curiosity and wonder shines through these small and fragile lamps.
These pilgrims have come from all over. Many are participants in my classes, some are visitors from other parts of the university — learners, faculty members, administrators — and a few have come by way of friendship, family ties, or simple curiosity. We’re a mixed and motley bunch, joined by this shared experiment in creativity but otherwise disparate and disconnected. We’ve built a makeshift community here, just for this one night. And yet, as I watch the faces pass, it’s obvious that many of the participants are deep in thought and feeling, their heads tilted forward as they wend their way. They are not just walking. I wonder what each of them finds, among these turns.
The lanterns are simple. We spent less than an hour making them with colored construction paper, scissors, wood, glue, and an assortment of decorative beads and baubles. A single votive candle rests at the center of each one. Now, as we walk the labyrinth together, more than sixty participants carry their creations, lighting the way for one another. Few of them have done anything like this before — at least not since childhood, when learning and play were the same thing. But now, for most of us, learning and play have become estranged, their alliance broken. Play is no longer welcome in the house of learning. But play is here, tonight, among the lighted lamps and moving figures. Deep play. The play of dreams and shadows, the play of mirth and truth, the play of the real.
Angela passes by. Her lantern is of blue and yellow paper incised with geometric patterns. She walks with careful steps as she holds her light aloft. Earlier in the day Angela came to help a small group of us build the labyrinth. We sat on the floor and talked about how to make it work: where the lines of tape should go, how the curves might bend upon each other, what the center should hold. We talked about myth, astronomy, religion, and the many roles that labyrinths have played in human culture. We discussed the Fibonacci sequence and the logarithmic spiral. We tried to draw our intended shape on paper, then found that the dimensions of the room — though vast as a gymnasium, almost — thwarted our efforts to reproduce our imagined design. We tinkered with masking tape, reworked various stretches again and again, and tried to calculate how many folded paths would fit in a given width.
When finally we were done, the paths of the labyrinth began and ended at a door facing the street. The pilgrims began outside, in the cold, and entered the darkened room with their lanterns. The path carried them ever inward and around, switchbacking upon itself until it was impossible to know how far one was from the center or the end. The inner space of the spiral became a zone of uncertainty, perhaps of disorientation also, a space in which all coordinates are fleeting and personal. Within this zone, our relationship with ourselves is the only reliable guide.
For thousands of years labyrinths have been used in this way. They’ve been built by hands with stone, wood, and soil. They are among the oldest objects crafted by humans. The image of the spiral — in art, ritual, science, and symbol — is one of the most enduring motifs of human expression. And yet our gathering this evening seems somehow subversive and heretical. We are in a university conference center, a place of rationality and decorum. The space itself is empty and faceless: no decoration, no distinctiveness, nothing but industrial carpeting and beige walls. We have entered this space and made of it something entirely new: fireflies of illumination and individuality passing across an anonymous landscape. This is not the normal use for such an environment. People come here to sit in chairs, to listen to experts, to chat with colleagues in the protected discourses of rationality. But we’re doing something different — primal and immediate, more fragile but also more robust. Our world tonight is one of feeling, metaphor, and symbol, all facilitated by way of our relationship with the objects we’ve crafted with our own hands. It’s a journey that is perhaps more inward and direct than outward and analytic. We’re searching for the whole person along these paths.
The line of pilgrims meanders across the darkened space. I glimpse several of my students who have gathered together into a loose knot as they amble along. The light of their lanterns weaves together, spreads across the shadows, and illuminates their faces. They are animated, joyful, and yet also purposeful. They wear the kinds of expressions we see often in our activities and which are so far removed from the stereotypes of bored young people in university classrooms. This space, so modified from its intended purpose, is our learning environment for tonight. And these people, who have come from all over to participate in this unusual event, are the members of our learning cohort. We are not using rows of tables and chairs, or digital projectors and write boards, or computers and texts. Instead we are walking, working together creatively, sharing our knowledge and perspectives about the possible fusion of ancient and modern human cultures and practices. We are building this environment together, with the help of peers, friends, mentors, and community partners. We don’t make distinctions between the domains of the academic and the real, between scholarship and daily life, between study and play. For us, learning is the act of engagement – with ourselves, with our communities, with the universe – and this is our classroom.
It’s no wonder that learners come alive in this type of activity. It is radically different from the learning environments they have been accustomed to since they were children. None of that passivity is here, none of the lethargy and withdrawal that seems to pervade so many educational experiences. What we’re doing is purposeful and fun, and people respond to it. They enjoy it. They find many kinds of deep meaning in these experiences. And not just here, during this night of the labyrinth, but in many similar adventures we create together using objects: rock sculptures on the beach, slate tablets with inscribed writing, driftwood carved into symbolic forms. Working with objects encourages us to expand what it means to be a learner, to go beyond the conventional boundaries of what university students can do.
I see Jonas walking alone, gathered in thought, his simple lantern carried at his side. He is nearing the centre of the labyrinth, where a single sheet of paper taped to the floor asks the question “who are you?” I think of the stone carving he completed last semester, made from diorite and decorated with symbolic cultural and personal motifs. Diorite was a stone much valued by ancient craftspeople for its dark and glistening sheen (the Code of Hammurabi was inscribed in a pillar of diorite). But it was hard for them to shape, and is difficult to work even today. Jonas spent many hours in his garage, working and thinking and shaping. The stone became a map of the landscape of his own life. Its contours flowed into the topography of his dreams, and somehow became a symbol of everything.
The correspondence between the inner and the outer worlds, the dissolution of the artificial barriers between thought and emotion and dreams, the recognition of the many uses of metaphor and symbol: these are common themes in our work together, and objects help us to recognize and cultivate those themes. Objects guide the paths of creativity and imagination, pointing the way to new discoveries and illuminations.
Our hastily-crafted labyrinth is intended to be a kind of sacred space. Most of us don’t engage with the sacred much anymore. It’s a subject of great awkwardness and uncertainty for many people. And yet, the urge to experience something akin to the sacred seems fundamental to the human animal. That urge takes many forms and answers to many names, but each one wends its way back to ancient and archetypal ways of knowing. And those ways – vastly old, easily forgotten, strangely persistent – are the usual means by which we undertake our adventures. Old and resilient things persist for reasons beyond inertia and time. They reach across our fractured horizons and remind us of what we must remember.
Our sacred space tonight is simple and rudimentary. It does not possess the gravitas of ancient sacred places – such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where pilgrims enter by climbing steps of diorite – but our simple labyrinth does mirror the spirals crafted by many cultures. The slow gyre inward, the mindful and purposeful steps, the stations for reflection and contemplation, the centre of stillness: these are all common features of labyrinths throughout the world. We’ve built ours to offer – through darkness, imagination, and fleeting light – resonances of all these others, as though we walk archaic trails laid down for us by invisible teachers.
Faces pass, lanterns flicker, sounds of laughter and quiet conversation echo in the dark. I do not carry a lamp. I want to pass unnoticed here, a shapeless shape in the shadows. I’m not teaching anything, leading anything. I’m just another pilgrim, full of questions and uncertainties. I do not wish to make suggestions, or to talk with others about their experiences – not now, not yet. These are the moments of encounter, of grappling with the shadows and lights inside each of us, and I cannot be anything more than a witness. I meander across to check the stations, where pilgrims can rest and entertain the posted questions: what do you know, where are you going, what must you remember? Each question is taped to the wall, or to the floor, with a single candle to mark its place. I see small groups of pilgrims huddled at each station, some silent, others talking together, while lanterns move behind and beyond them, following the track toward the center.
I wander to the center, where perhaps 20 people are gathered. Some are utterly quiet – just standing, alone in thought – while others are chatting and watching the procession pass. This is a good vantage point from which to view the unfurling and switch-backing of the entire group. It is like a long line of lighted ships upon the ocean, at night, each one nudged and jostled by the ceaseless waves. I scan the room for anything that might require my attention: someone in distress, or overwhelmed with emotion, or anxious about the dark. This, perhaps, is my only job right now: to get out of the way, but to be ready to come forward if needed. I spend much of my time in this way, trying to be invisible, making space for the emergence of things; deeper, more powerful things than anything I could provide.
One track leads in, one track leads out. The final track, the one that leads out of the labyrinth and back to the lighted room, is a straight line. It begins at the center and ends at the door. Among those gathered at the center, many are hesitant to take that track, to leave this sacred space and return to the modern world with its pressing and harried exigencies. They want to stay here, bathed in the glow of this stillness, accompanied by friends and strangers of like mind, grasping their hand-made creations like talismans. Sometimes people do stay, in these sessions, for an hour or more, soaking up whatever illuminations the darkness brings them. They return ruefully, at the end of the night, as we prepare to dismantle the labyrinth and head home. But most pilgrims remain at the center for roughly ten or twenty minutes. They barter and banter with themselves, negotiating the balance between their impulse for stillness and their curiosity about the sounds from the other room.
Big, loud sounds, made by drums and hand-made rhythm instruments of all kinds. Played by people who, for the most part, have no musical training in the instruments they hold. Sometimes a group rhythm emerges, a pattern we can all follow. During those moments, in which the cacophony is punctuated by the rhythmic blasts of African drums, the sound moves through the space with restless vigor. The music is visceral, palpable, loud enough that no conversation is possible. Players seated beside one another in the circle can communicate only with gestures. A multitude of hands strike the skins of drums, or shake simple rattles, or swing bells or clacking wooden blocks – and the faces of the players shine with inarticulate joy. This is simple, awesome fun. Most of the participants have not played music in this way since they were small children. For others, these moments of carefree self-expression are a kind of catharsis, an outpouring of passion or rage or sorrow – of whatever emotions their passage through the labyrinth provoked.
The sounds we make – more than 50 people, each with a loud instrument, each leaning into it with gusto – are far louder than any other sounds I hear at the university. University culture is, in general, a quiet culture, committed to ancestral values of scholastic silence. Libraries (and museums too, in general) emphasize quiet reflection. Classrooms are generally silent save for the voice of the instructor. Hallways are hushed passageways from one undisturbed space to the next. In my experience, learning tends to be a loud and messy business, so the enforced quiet of the university bothers me. I am irked by it. I like to make noise, and most of the learners I work with also like to make noise. Tonight we have the freedom to do so.
As the first pilgrims enter the labyrinth, volunteer drummers take up their instruments and begin. As the labyrinth fills, the two adjoining rooms become suffused with different kinds of creative energy: loud and turbulent rhythms on one side, and mindful, contemplative perambulations on the other. The wall between the two rooms is a sliding partition that allows much of the sound to pass through. Pilgrims within the labyrinth walk in a darkness that is alive with the vibrations of sound from the other room. And it is a primal sound, something old and elemental, the beating of the human heart amplified and shared. It comes from a distance yet is intimately close, resonant, a voice in the shadows.
Amy kneels on the floor at the center of the labyrinth. She is motionless, pensive, wrapped inside her own silence. Probably she is thinking about her past – which has been fraught with trauma – or her future, which is promising but still shrouded by the weight of lingering duress. She has been through too much already. But she moves forward, ever hopeful, seldom daunted, strong in the ways she needs to be. Earlier today she told me she was finding ways to enjoy being 22 years old: people, places, moods, moments. She has begun to move beyond her old self, the girl who came into my class two years ago, listless and lost.
I kneel down beside her to make sure she is doing alright. She looks at me sidelong, with a slight grin. I give the thumbs-up sign, along with a questioning look. And she raises her thumb in return. All good. Then she gestures again, turning and taking the whole of the darkness in with her outstretched arms, following the meandering spiral of the pilgrims, raising her face in the illuminated shadows. It’s a dramatic flourish, to be sure, but it is wonderful to see. She is energetic, clear, and expressive. She has, over these last years, found her way out of being lost. She has sculpted wood, turned clay, crafted simple and sustaining objects to carry her through into healing. I smile, raise my hand and thumb again, and this time jab the air for emphasis. She laughs, and I move on. Even though the sounds of the drums are somewhat muted here, and it would have been easy to talk, neither one of us has said a word.
Amy has climbed up and out of the deep well she found herself in – that so many people find themselves in. Most don’t climb out; instead they remain, huddled, wounded, and bewildered. But she has found a way forward. She will surely be wounded again by the seeming indifference of the world, but I suspect she will not again be crippled by it. She is defiant now, and resilient. She has found solace in the many experiences of connection, community, and creativity that form the basis of all our adventures. At the same time, her growth and healing are entirely her own, and have taken place in the manner of so much healing: in the encounter with the deep self, in the places inside ourselves we no longer have names for, in the forms we no longer call out to except in time of great need. We are, after all, creatures of myth and faith and mystery, and those old voices are still strong whether or not we listen to them. Objects, of course, remind us to listen more keenly.
The power of purposeful work with objects can be deep and authentic learning – the kind of learning that teaches us why we are in the world and that takes place anywhere people are open to it. Facilitating that openness, encouraging it, waiting for it, getting out of the way when it happens: these are my core tasks. I have to be sure not to make too much noise, or carry too bright a lantern, when I fulfill these tasks. Other people are working, crafting, making; I need to shut up so they can hear the real teacher.
The drums and rhythm instruments are growing louder, as more people leave the labyrinth and take their places in the music circle. It might have taken a pilgrim half an hour or more to navigate to the center, but the return path is a straight walk of no more than ten seconds. It is, perhaps, and intentionally so, an abrupt transition. But the pressing momentum of the drums eventually overtakes the inertia of even the most stalwart pilgrim. The drums beckon in ways that we seldom hear in modern life. We drum as often as we can, and typically we do it here, in this conference center, during the middle of the day. Even when we close the doors, people open them to look in, to find the source of these strange and compelling sounds. Usually they want to join us, and always we ask them to. They enter from that environment of the silent university into a world of bellowing, booming, clanging, thumping, cracking, whistling – into a foreign soundscape that seems strangely familiar.
I hear a voice from the next room as someone punctuates their playing with a shout of delight. The sound penetrates the dark. It is a beacon, another kind of lantern, and I turn toward it, wondering whose voice it is. One of our more boisterous learners, no doubt, someone with a flair for performance and improvisation. Our learning community includes many such members, who find their way to us from many diverse places within the university. Most are searching for whatever it is that lies beyond their known horizon. Some have no idea what they are searching for; they know only that their voices are too silent.
A few stragglers remain along the spiraling path: the meditative folks, the ones who would stay here all night, those for whom this activity is a ritual of self-discovery. A few of the pilgrims have rushed through, perhaps anxious about an activity so intentionally archaic and personal. A few have ambled, alone or with companions, and they have gone now too. I count six more, along with Amy at the center. I stand at the center and wait for them, nodding to each as they pass by. I listen to the sounds from the other room – jovial now, sometimes chaotic, often clamoring. And finally, Amy rises with her lantern and makes her way forward once more, this time to the exit and the sounds of the drums. She knows where she’s going.
Now the room is empty of pilgrims. Eight scattered candles mark the stations, and the center, and the door which serves as both entrance and exit; but otherwise the space is completely dark. I am alone, and I have perhaps three minutes until someone comes to look for me. The sounds of the drums are rising again, now with everyone taking part, and the rumble of those rhythms has the texture of wind in this open, empty room. The space seems cavernous now, large as a cathedral, though I have measured the longest side and I know that it is only 44 feet. The labyrinth was built by measuring the length and width of the room, then drawing the lines in segments that reach inward from the walls and toward the center. As a consequence, I know the dimensions of this room very well; but still, it seems dimensionless now, it seems to stretch out toward the matching darkness of the night, out and onward, toward those other lights, far and remote, that speckle the sky.
I stand here, at the center, and for a moment I loosen – ever so slightly – my grip on the strategic considerations that are always central to my role. I stop thinking about what’s happening in the adjoining room, I stop tracking, in my mind, the most vulnerable participants, I stop listening for the sounds of strangers or interlopers who might disrupt our sacred space. I stop worrying over the innumerable small details that I must manage while also trying to be invisible. I stop, for a moment, and just let the process stand on its own. They don’t need me over there, not right now. They’re doing fine. They have their voices, and their companions, and enough common purpose to carry one another wherever they might go. No one will wander into the street, or collapse in terror, or cry out in fury. I must trust their process.
And I do. But sometimes, over the years, people have wandered into the street, and collapsed in many ways (even, once, in the elevator during a class break), and they have cried out with every imaginable pain. And these expressions often come at unexpected moments, when I soften the edge of my vigilance or am drawn into self-satisfaction. Yes, things typically go well, but they do so only when I prepare for them to be otherwise. And so, my moment of reflection and stillness lasts for perhaps 15 seconds. Then I head for the door, make a single turn, and enter the room of sounds.
It is bright – overwhelmingly so after the darkness of the labyrinth – and the sounds of the music are astonishingly loud. There is movement everywhere: clapping, dancing, swaying, and the blur of many hands on drums, wood, and steel. So much is going on that I must stand still, gazing at the gathered company, scanning and thinking for several minutes until I have a clear sense of what’s going on. Everyone is safe. No one has retreated into themselves or out of the room. Federico is bashing wildly at a massive drum, his face a fleeting sketch of joyful abandon as he moves rapidly and rhythmically with the music. I glimpse Ameena, talking with her boyfriend as they both play small hand-made maracas. Jonas has his notebook out, and is writing with determination. Amy sits in the circle with a rain stick, listening to the pebbles fall. The new participants – those who came here tonight for the first time, with friends or family members – even they seem comfortable and at ease. They’ve moved beyond social awkwardness. They flow seamlessly with this strange, seemingly chaotic gathering that is precisely and purposefully built for finding what lies behind the chaos.
But it’s not chaotic. Sure, it’s different, vastly different from what people expect from a university experience. There is no formality here, none of the machinery of protocol, no canon. Or perhaps there is; an older canon, one that reaches back much farther than the modern mind. A canon of culture, memory, objects, and experiences. The first canon, the one we carry without realizing it. But it emerges, easily and effortlessly, in moments such as these, when we allow ourselves respite from the modern urge to be sharp and dull.
Simple creative play. That’s all we’re doing. But creative play is not simple: it provokes, nudges, calls, yearns, demands. Creativity is an exemplary teacher of all things useful to learn. It is the source of all of our human tricks, the root of every advancement, innovation, and folly. All of humanity is the result of the creative urge at play in the world. And here we are, tonight, each of us snatching a thread of that great, interlocking knot of human inquiry, each of us finding our own symbols, associations, ideas, dreams. We pull on the thread and it comes, bringing with it, up from the deep, a cargo of mysteries. Pulling on these threads is the essence of what we’re about; it’s really the only thing we do. We can’t stop doing it, even when we pretend we’ve stopped. The thread is always there, and the deep, and the urge to pull. Sometimes the weight of that cargo pulls us overboard, and down into the deep, where we flail and cry out and try to find our way. It’s dark down there. It helps to have a lantern.
I step into the circle, select two rhythm sticks from the jumbled pile of instruments, and begin to play. The music rises and falls, the energy ebbs and flows, and we share this language of sounds. Like most of the participants, I am not a trained musician. But notions about musical training and expertise are mostly modern conventions. People have been playing, just playing, for fifty thousand years or more. Even today, in many places where piano lessons are not part of youth development, entire communities play music together. Typically they don’t worry about perfect pitch, or recital skills, or music scholarships. No, they just play. The community is nourished by that play, is made whole by it, is carried by its sanctity. Without that music the world would disappear.
At least, that’s the belief of many people who belong to cultures that still preserve ancient ways of knowing. It’s not something most of us can believe, even those among us who do believe in religious narratives in which the world is formed by words and sounds. Perhaps, in the beginning, words and sounds made our world. But most of us aren’t so sure anymore. We don’t know what to believe, or we believe in nothing. But still we pull on those threads, and still we play, and still we walk in the darkness with our lighted lamps. We are consistent, even when we have forgotten who we are.
Amed, who studied drumming as a child in another country, slaps his drum in a rising rhythm. It’s a simple pattern that most of us can match, and as he drives up the volume, the entire group begins to follow. Amed’s hands strike the skin of his drum precisely on the beat – punctuating, leading, calling. Most of us are much less proficient, and our slaps ring out slightly before or after those of Amed. Our collective rhythm pulls and pushes itself around the room, reaching forward and falling behind as participants instinctively follow the sounds of their neighbors – close, immediate, pressing – rather than the tight, clean, slaps of Amed’s fingers. I sweep the circle with my gaze and I see many different kinds of expressions: concentration, abandon, chagrin, wonder, caution, joy. But all the expressions are connected, by gesture, word, and sound, to one another. And all are inseparable from the collective roar that we are trying to shape and capture. We are moving toward something.
And then, for ten or twenty seconds, it’s there: a resonant, conjoined rhythm that is one vast, integrated sound. Each percussive beat rises from the turbulent noise of the many players, curls into life like a cresting wave, thunders across the room, then retreats. The room takes a breath, then the thunder claps again. And again, onward into the night. From this unschooled, spontaneous group of players we have managed to coax a concise, singular expression, a voice that is unmistakable. That voice hangs together, seems to call out with the moods and feelings of everyone in the group. It is, for a short time, the perfect embodiment of our gathering. And, as I watch Amed’s hands and try to match him beat for beat, I recognize that this moment cannot be captured. No recording could replicate it. This immanence is fleeting.
And then it’s gone. We begin to slide away from our collective resonance. Hands tire, slight shifts of body posture move us away from precision, people become distracted by thinking about what they hear. Some of us retreat from that perfect percussive sound; it is too direct, too personal, as though each slap of the drum cracks us open a bit more. And it does; after all, this kind of resonant play brings us ever closer to one another, without the scrim of words. There’s a vulnerability here, as though the rhythm reveals us. Music, as many old myths say, discloses the authentic shapes of things.
I raise my hand, wait for the group to notice, then slowly lower it. The volume eases down, but the rhythm tightens up now that we are all focused on the single task of closure. We slap lightly, shake the bells gently. We become quieter. We gaze around the room at one another, poised over our instruments, some of us now laughing at our careful gestures. Quieter still, and more again, bringing the sound down to a whisper, then down again. Tiny taps against skins, wood, and steel. Then silence.
I breathe. I look around the room at this brief community of friends, mentors, and strangers. I think about the radical strangeness of this kind of activity in our modern world so devoid of play and ritual. I think about the differences between competition and play, between ritual and habit, and I consider the great gulf that we’ve constructed between our modern convictions and our ancient wisdom. I wonder about the price we’ve paid.
We end the evening with conversation about our experiences, our surprises, our insights and illuminations. Participants reflect upon the construction of their lanterns, the surprises and challenges of creating objects with their own hands, their moments of sharing and illumination, the meanings and associations of their objects, their feelings about giving and receiving with one another. They describe delicate and yet powerful feelings of releasing and unburdening as they walked the labyrinth, carrying their own light in the darkness. They share their appreciation of the communal aspects of this night, of the trails of light we've made together, of the symbolic and perhaps sacred shapes we've inscribed upon this quotidian space. They speak of discovery, clarity, and the sudden recognition of their own tasks of healing. We talk about the spiraling path, its ancient roots, its metaphors and invitations. We share some humor about lights snuffing out, becoming lost, and the persistent cynicism of the modern self toward such metaphoric paths. We discuss the importance of openness, and the tendency for cynicism to vanish in the darkness.
Amy describes her experience while sitting in the center, watching and thinking. She talks about her growing sense of belonging in the world, of the memories and fears that have dogged her, and of her commitment, finally, to being here. Jonas talks about recognizing himself in the many turns of the labyrinth, seeing his strong and simple light, crafted by simple touch. A participant I have not met before begins to cry as she describes her utter amazement at the evening’s events. She has connected with a part of herself entirely forgotten, older and much younger, a part of herself that remembers vital, elemental things. She describes a moment of childhood in which she walked across a rocky beach. In that moment she saw and knew everything – and then, somehow, she forgot it all. And now, tonight, she found herself there again, walking, touching, searching, sharing.
The conversation rolls around the room. Various people share stories and insights, vignettes and moments from the evening and elsewhere. We don’t have a particular goal or outcome in mind; we’re just talking, opening the space, inviting. The rhythms of our drumming are translated into gestures, our movements through the labyrinth are translated into speech, and we continue to build with whatever we can find. I look at the participants with their laughing and genuine faces, I think of the deep learning that was done here tonight, and I wonder what would happen if this type of activity was more common. And, as the conversations wind down and we prepare to end the evening, I become aware of my own deep learning, my gratitude that in our world of fractured thrashing the impulse for illumination still thrives. I think about the many young people who are here tonight, and I marvel at their openness and creativity. I think of the culture of the university, the vast distance between a traditional classroom and our adventures in this space, and of the strangeness of our presence here. But here we are, outliers and wanderers, making a claim for a kind of learning that is old beyond reckoning. And yet, that learning calls upon us to be younger, less hidebound, more in tune with our connections to the ourselves, to one another, to the world.
As we begin our farewells, each of us heading out into the welcoming night, I pause for one final moment of gratitude and wonder: this, right here, is all we need. This community, of anyone and everyone, this shared intent of purposeful discovery, this opportunity to craft and carry our own light into darkness and mystery. This sharing, and the intimate profusion of insights and clarity. It’s all here, everything we need.
Making and sharing objects in this way is a foundational part of my practice as a psychotherapist and educator. Crafting lanterns and walking with them in a provisional and constructed space is a typical activity for me. Sometimes the activity takes place in a park, or on a beach, often with a roaring fire fed by objects scavenged from the forest. Sometimes I work indoors, in corporate and formal spaces, where participants are unprepared for the vulnerability that object work typically evokes and for which, therefore, I must provide the objects myself and encourage participants to interact with them. In those circumstances I bring stones and shells of various kinds, oarlocks and similar small, curious objects. I provide many objects (as well as musical instruments) resonant of childhood and of play. In all situations I encourage participants to touch, to sense, to feel, to associate objects with their own lives and stories and memories. I ask them to reflect upon objects they have given or received, the ways in which objects can help us move through difficult moments, the capacities of objects to help us compose our own stories and to connect with the stories of others.
Therapeutic work with objects is a powerful pathway. Objects provide emotional containment in the midst of vulnerability. Personal themes and issues are literally held in the palm of the hand: accessible, touchable, graspable, and therefore manageable. To grasp is to understand, and to grasp an object, to craft it or to interact with it, to feel its contours and its meanings, is to grasp the shape of the inner life and to feel, by touch, our way through difficult moments and stages.
When given objects to interact with (stones, shells, childhood toys, action figures, oarlocks, juggling balls, beads, etc.), participants in workshops readily associate them with personal and meaningful memories and narratives. When participants make their own objects — lanterns, sculptures, prayer flags, inscribed stones, to name a few — they unavoidably utilize those objects to facilitate the releasing and unburdening of personal themes and challenges. When giving and receiving objects in communities of sharing (typically I will use small stones, carefully chosen, for this purpose), participants find many ways to bolster and amplify their own psychological work through synergy with others. All of this is contextualized by the work of hands, by touching, by feeling our way through a process that is ancient and at the same time offers much richness for the contemporary world.
I’ve explored these ideas and practices extensively in two of my books, Grain of Truth and A Stone’s Throw, which focus on the health and healing possibilities for wood and stone, respectively, and in my consulting practice with organizations in education, trauma, and mental health. Participants in widely divergent contexts — psychotherapy workshops, counselor training programs, interdisciplinary university courses, corporate team training, healing programs for indigenous populations — report that mindful and meaningful interactions with objects are exemplary in facilitating personal healing, creativity, and development. In particular, the creative crafting and use of symbolic objects — labyrinths, mandalas, rhythm instruments, lanterns, and the like — offer a broad sweep of possibilities for trauma healing, personal growth, spirituality, education, community development, and many related areas. This makes sense; after all, the work of objects can be intensely personal and inwardly-focused, but at the same time reaches out to others and forges connections beyond the striving self.