Craft as a Spiritual Practice

Craft as a Spiritual Practice

Published on Wednesday, June 26, 2013.
Crafting Calm book cover

Crafting Calm is a newly released book by Maggie Oman Shannon.

Making things isn’t just enjoyable; it’s essential. That’s the message of the new book, Crafting Calm: Projects and Practices for Creativity and Contemplation (2013), by Maggie Oman Shannon of San Francisco’s Unity Spiritual Center. The practice of craft is a path to self-awareness and spiritual growth, Shannon contends, and her book outlines 40 creative projects that can bring peace and insight to busy lives. We interviewed Shannon about her mission to help people tap into their creativity and find new spiritual fulfillment.

You point out that only in English is the word "craft" associated with "skill." You suggest we need to shift our view of craft from being a skill held by a few to being a sign of the inner life force in each of us. What would be different in the world if more people made that shift?
At one of my recent book signings, a man in the audience began pressing me very insistently about why this subject was so important to me. I told him it is because we no longer have the luxury of telling ourselves we’re “not creative,” that we don’t have gifts to share. Our world is in a very precarious state, and we desperately need each person alive to feel empowered, to have a real sense of his or her inner creativity. Crafting can spark that feeling; it is a way of saying that what we do matters, who we are matters. And when we witness what we have been able to make – something that never before existed – we are more inclined to see ourselves as creators, as people who can make a difference in the world.

You lead workshops to help people tap into their creativity, spirituality, and personal identities. Tell us a bit about what happens at these workshops.
I take various approaches to my workshops and retreats, depending on the size of the group and the amount of time we have. I just got back from leading my church’s annual weekend Women’s Retreat, where we had the opportunity to explore a number of spiritual crafts, including making a personal prayer flag, making a finger labyrinth, and making prayer ribbons that were woven into a community art piece. At some events where I just have an hour or two, I would do just one of these kinds of crafts – but no matter how long a period of time I have, I do always try to convey the message that everyone is creative. Obviously some people master particular art or craft forms, as American Craft magazine beautifully illustrates, but my hope is to encourage people to simply try some form of craft – and that by immersing themselves in the process of crafting, they can learn something about themselves in a creative, spiritual, and personal sense.

What do you say to those who say they are not creative?
I have a woman in my congregation who was convinced that she was not creative; and it is a common feeling. Every time this woman came to one of my workshops or retreats, she would find herself in a place of resistance and would compare her work with others’. But I’m happy to report that with time and exposure to a number of different spiritual crafts, she has come to experience the joy in it – she now gamely joins in! And that’s where I begin with people who don’t think they are creative; I just invite them to try, to play, to explore. Usually the delight of seeing the beautifully colored paints, glitter glue, rhinestones, charms, and stickers is enough to at least encourage someone to try their hand at a craft; by dropping self-judgment and simply allowing themselves to “play,” they come to see that they are indeed inherently creative.

What is the value of calm to a spiritual life?
I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a spiritual life if one cannot access calm, if one does not allow themselves the time and space to slow down and simply sit in silence. Many people are familiar with the Buddhist concept of “monkey mind” – our minds are like little hamster wheels; we’re always on a mental treadmill, particularly now with ever-present technology at our fingertips. We all yearn for a rest from that, for a feeling of spaciousness, peace, calm. It is in those moments that we are able to connect with the highest and best of who we are, and with our conception of the Divine – that which is larger than us. I have found certain crafts to be a vehicle into that state, as I would imagine that many of your readers have also.

Do you have a story you can share about someone who underwent a transformation as a result of a crafting practice?
I have a dear friend who currently is wrestling with a serious health challenge. She has taken up beading as a meditation and a refuge. She makes beaded bracelets and necklaces for herself and for friends, and is finding that the practice is helping her to focus on the beautiful things of her life – the people she is making the beads for, the colors she loves, the shapes and textures that are intrinsically soothing (for instance, she made me a lovely necklace using turquoise stones, beads that are polished into smooth ovals that give you a sense of calm just rubbing them). She is transforming the experience of her health challenge into a creative calling, and it is a beautiful and moving thing to witness. I believe that art heals; beauty heals.

What craft practices are particularly satisfying or meaningful to you?
I am always eager to expand my repertoire of spiritual craft practices, and I still take workshops on mediums that are new to me – sometimes I learn just enough to know that it is a medium that I do not want to continue with, which is well worth discovering too. (Working with glass and Fimo-clay bead making come immediately to mind; I appreciate the art behind them, but know categorically that they are not the mediums for me!) The craft practices that I find myself returning to, because I do find them particularly meaningful and satisfying, are collage (making both “treasure maps” – often referred to as Vision Boards – and prayer/meditation cards) and prayer-bead making. I co-wrote a book on making personal prayer beads for different intentions titled A String and a Prayer: How to Make and Use Prayer Beads, and I have made prayer beads for my 40th birthday (I asked each guest at my party to bring a bead), marriage, motherhood, my business, my ministry, a beloved pet, and other areas of my life. I last made prayer beads for Crafting Calm – the cover features such beautiful red beads, so I bought some exactly like those on the cover, and added charms to represent seven of the spiritual crafts I mention, including a tiny glass bottle with a cork stopper that holds my intentions, prayers and hopes for the book.

Monica Moses is the editor in chief of American Craft magazine.