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Over the last couple of years I have been involved with a small group who meet to whittle. Whittling may refer either to the art of carving shapes out of raw wood using a knife or a time-occupying, non-artistic process of repeatedly shaving slivers from a piece of wood. I initially met a woodcarver at a storytelling festival and he was selling his work of spoons, objects, and bowls made from wood. Now I have to admit my own woodworking skills at school back in the 80’s were notorious as poor examples of the craft of woodwork. In fact, so poor were my efforts that for some years they were used as examples of how not to do woodwork.
Thankfully this past scene did not influence my decision to ask if I could try and make a wooden spoon. My interest and enthusiasm overcame the past. I saw it with fresh eyes and viewed it as an exciting challenge.
When I started everyone was very supportive and our facilitator explained to me that what I was taught in school was basic carpentry which requires you to follow certain tasks and rules to complete a particular join which often meant you had to have all the measurements right and angles correct. I can remember my younger self being deflated by such processes and distracted because I couldn’t learn in such a way.
In the group I attend what is more important is to get a feel for the wood, less on the measurements with rulers, and more on trusting your eye for something. I have to say that our facilitator has a way of sharing his knowledge which is inclusive and encouraging. This is important and activates me to attend and value the work we do together.
The other aspect which is most interesting from a psychological point of view is how mindful the activity is. I find myself focused on the task in front of me, am able to be with the tools and the wood, being mindful on what I am doing in the moment. We often for long periods carve in silence but also with conversation about different types of wood, trees, and tools to be used. It really is a here-and-now activity. You have to concentrate on what you are doing, work with the wood, use your imagination, and end up with your own creation.
When you’re in the zone like other activities it feels like worries, stress, and pressure can be released focusing on something outside of ourselves. The physical aspect allows for tension to be released, the focus required on the task takes you away from problems that now need to be dealt with through the carving process, and the interaction between group members gives a sense of support in that moment.
Using your eye and getting a feel for the wood, grain, and using your imagination to create something that you feel is alright is more important than the measurements. This I have to say has been an important learning process which has enabled me to be creative with wood and not only have I been able to produce a couple of spoons but also a drinking vessel called a guksi, a type of drinking cup traditionally crafted by the Sami people of northern Scandinavia from carved birch burl.
The important things I take from such an activity is that it allows you to be with the wood and develop your creativity through the act of whittling. I for one find it a very useful mindful activity.
Carl Dutton is a psychodrama psychotherapist working in the NHS in FRESH CAMHS at Alderhey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust.