There’s something distinctly satisfying about peeling bark from a branch. I become mesmerized watching thin ribbons of wood spool away from the edge of my knife to drift and settle in a pile at my feet. Carving wood is my favourite form of active meditation. Especially when I’m doing it in nature. It just feels right, you know? My body can experience some sort of tactile harmony, a meshing of my body, my mind, and the physical world in which I sit.
Whittling helps me live more naturally, more in sync with my own “humanness.” I am so happy to share with you some information and informative videos to help you incorporate this practice into your wellness routine.
What is Active Meditation?
Meditation comes in many forms. The most common are in the form of “sitting practices.” These typically involve finding a comfortable position to sit where you can close your eyes and focus your attention on the breath or on specific imagery. It can be very relaxing; and there is certainly no lack for evidence supporting how healthy this practice is for our well-being.
But sitting still is not easy for everybody. I’ll be the first to admit that!
Active meditation uses physical bodily motion as a point of focus for the mind; this can be a focus on your knitting needles, your footsteps, a martial art, your brush strokes, the paddling of a canoe, or the movement of your carving knife. Active meditation engages your motor functioning so that you can fall into a flow state, where your body and mind are working very closely together, coordinating. You’re not just walking or knitting or carving, you are absorbing yourself into the feel of the process, into all the nuances that make up each movement.
Your whole body can be engaged with an active meditation practice, while your brain reaps similar benefits of a sit.
Meditation seeks to create an environment for contemplation of our thoughts so that they can be examined. By actually observing our thoughts, we can come to understand the emotions that they might cause (and thus the consequential behaviours). But it all starts with the intentional elimination of new information.
Imagine you’re hosting a party: as your house fills up behind you, you are standing by the door greeting everybody as they arrive. All of your guests would like you to mingle with them, and also, somebody told you that the toilet is plugged and that your best friend accidentally kicked the chandelier off the ceiling. You need to go and deal with those things, but somebody just fired up karaoke in the living room and your favourite song is playing right now.
But people keep showing up! You don’t even remember inviting this many people.. You can’t go anywhere, you can’t resolve or enjoy because you’re stuck at the door greeting the constant flow of guests. Until you shut the door and limit how many people can come in, you can’t take care of any parts of the party that need your attention, or enjoy any parts that you want to give your attention too.
Our brain is the “host” of the party, the “guests” are the new information entering our mind, and the “events” within the party are the thoughts, memories, and emotions within us. Stress and angst mount the longer we leave our party unattended, the more chaotic and busy it feels from the sidelines, and the more we feel overwhelmed, confused, or strung out.
Active meditation enables me to focus into a sort of tunnel vision, helping to stifle external information (EG: news, ads, events.. anything trying to grab my attention) from entering my collection of thoughts. When I’m focused on a physical task such as whittling, my body and mind are requiring so much attention for the movements and the processes of what I’m doing, there isn’t as much space for new information to get in.
When I’m able to stop the inflow of info, I can take the time to review the information that already exists inside of my brain. I can reconcile and release negative thoughts, freeing up mental energy to consider positive ones. I can physically slow down, relax, and recognize joy, finding the space to learn and mold new thoughts of my own.
Stopping the inflow of info is key to releasing stress and anxiety. So we need a gatekeeper. Active meditation acts as that gatekeeper for me. When I sit down to whittle or do some writing it’s like I’ve hired a bouncer to stand at the door of my party and say “no more people, sorry folks,” allowing me to go mingle with everyone that is there already.
But that’s not to say focus in active meditation is impenetrable – not at all. Not by a long shot.
Finding Space for Contemplation
Can you imagine this: you’re in a beautiful temple – white washed lime plaster walls, a cool stone floor. There is a light breeze pulling the scent of wildflowers through the windows that overlook a meadow and a steel gray mountain range. You’re settled into a relaxing sitting position, you are breathing deeply, you are focused. From the next room you can hear the faint sound of a newscast and the occasional ping of a text mes….. wait what?
Our environments play a huge role in our ability to stop the inflow of info. Try as we might with any form of meditation, if our cellphones are dinging or we have a podcast on or non-ambient music playing, our little bouncer for our party is fighting really hard to keep everything out.
So doing what we can to distance ourselves from distraction when we are practicing our active meditation is important for success. I find it very hard to be in a meaningful flow state when I’m in living room with a TV on.
Nature is a space for me to distance myself from distractions. While an active meditation practice may provide me the tools to contemplate my thoughts, nature provides me the space to contemplate. And I don’t always go far from home.
While I love the benefits of true wilderness contemplation, I’ll more often find a green space in my town, face myself away from the busy-ness of a walking path or from the traffic on the street, and settle into my whittling or writing (whatever I’m doing that day). If I’m in a place that is intrusively stimulating (nearby construction, people chatting, etc.), I’ll put headphones in and play some white noise or ambient music – anything that isn’t talking to me: no lyrics, no podcasts, just something to block the unwanted sounds (and external information) as I relax. Stopping that inflow of info.
Whittling as a Bridge to Nature
Creating is a tool for contemplation while nature provides the space for contemplation, but nature also provides the inspiration, materials, and sometimes even necessity to create.
I like to think about things that I’ve carved as if they are in the centre of a large web. Zooming out I can envision little threads going all over the forest to different points of interest or new things that I’ve learned. I might carve a spoon but in the process learn about the properties of oak or maybe even about the hillside on which it grew. I might follow threads that take me to learn about a watershed or soil system. I might get curious about a bird I hear while I sit and create, or wonder at how a different culture would craft or represent a similar object.
This is where the real magic of creating lies for me. It’s not in the object that I create, but in the process by which it is made, the things wondered and learned along the way. I believe it is what has propelled human evolution to where we are today. There has been a constant bond between humans and nature linked by ingenuity and the creative process that we’ve always enacted with our hands. We’ve adapted through creating.
But we’ve become so good at it that we’ve created machines and systems to do most of the work for us, we don’t all feel this bond like we once had to for survival. This is hard on our spirits. Imagine a beaver not using its teeth to fell trees, a lemur not using its tail to navigate the jungle, or a cheetah refusing to run. It’s absurd!
These tools are part of what makes these animals them. To live life in a way that doesn’t utilize these physical and behavioural adaptations would be akin to carving against the grain. You can do it, but it’s a lot of work, and it’s not very effective. To live without these tools they’ve developed would be to live in disharmony with their body.
Now imagine a human not using their hands to create things, to touch, smooth, sculpt, carry. That’s what we are facing today. As I type, my hands and wrists are feeling the atrophy of computer work that is all too common.
Whittling and wood carving feels like a bridge for me, a path back to the benefits of creating in and with nature. It has to start outside, from there I can take it wherever, but it starts outside. I learn as I harvest, I clear my head as I meditate in the work, and once my head is clear I learn some more. I get inspired, get new ideas, explore new techniques; I wander, find new materials, and explore new places.
This video enters a layer, just one layer, of my personal learning web for the practice of whittling and wood carving. In this video I discuss trees and how they grow, what they do, how they work. This knowledge is useful for understanding how to utilize the wood that they make that we create things with. But also, I hope that it can inspire you to see trees in a way that you haven’t considered before.
Getting Started with Whittling and Wood Carving
Whittling is a very accessible hobby. In terms of tools, you can get by with nothing more than a single knife. While there is a vast range in quality, good knives can be found for less than a $20 bill.
Carving on the other hand, while it still can be accessible, there are a lot more tools associated with the craft. But you can start the same, by finding one inexpensive knife and some wood laying around.
Further on I do talk about the difference between whittling and wood carving, but in terms of a tool-talk summary, whittling is synonymous with pocket knives and opportunistically found wood, whereas carving usually uses more select pieces of wood and includes gouges and rasps and axes, and scorps…. the list goes on and on.
In this video I discuss some basic considerations when choosing a knife, and then dive into some tips and techniques to make sure you and those around you stay safe while you work.
If you live in the Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia and would like to purchase a knife, consider these two affordable options that I offer.
Before we dive into the actual carving, it’s important that you have a sharp knife. A sharp knife will be more responsive in the wood, more predictable, and just all around more comfortable to use. This video talks all about the process of sharpening your knives by using sand paper! You really don’t need to go out and buy expensive sharpening tools to have safe knives to work with.
Whittling as Active Meditation in Nature
Whittling is different from carving in that it’s not product-focused but rather process-focused. When I whittle, I am just interested in the motion of it. Sometime’s I’ll make a figurine or a utensil or something, but it’s usually a side-effect. Most of the time when I whittle I just end up with a pile of shavings and a toothpick. I just grab a branch without a plan, letting the knife and the wood interact via my hands and my focus.
When I am sitting down to carve, on the other hand, I usually have something in mind that I’d like to create. That’s why I have come up with this equation:
Whittling = process > product; Carving = product > process.
I dive into the distinction between the two in this blog post here, and at the start of this video. Following this explanation we’ll dive into the basic cuts to help establish this as a practice you can grow with.
You might find yourself with a woodshop making furniture in three years! Or you may just love sitting in a park or by a creek to watch little ribbons of wood float away. This video goes through a very basic first project that has all the cuts for most anything you want to make given some patience and practice.
There are many forms of meditation. The ones that feel the best for me are those which connect me to nature and engage my creativity. To practice active meditation in nature with whittling seems like a bridge to times past, bringing me into harmony with my own human-ness, embracing the creative learning process that drove our ancestors forward through history.
While it seems that becoming too good at creating has lead us humans to lose touch with our relationship to the land and our hands, ironically, when I’m creating simply and mindfully it feels like I’m travelling down a path towards a more holistic wellness, one with a reasonable pace, well considered, both for us and for nature.