I’m an artsy fartsy maker type, and I’d like to propose tinkering as a form of meditation.
I don’t do yoga.
That’s actually a lie. I took ballet and swimming as a kid. I’m super flexible and am fully capable of doing yoga. I just don’t do it often because I don’t get much out of it. It’s not a meditative activity for me as it is for some. (I say this as a nerd and stress-bunny who once took off mid-day at work to do a yoga class only to realize that it had run 30 mins late and now I was late to work!!! Panic!!! So much for stress relief). I also don’t regularly meditate, though I’ve tried as part of dealing with insomnia. I find that I can’t take most guided meditations seriously. If this rings true to you, I strongly recommend viewing this Dr. Who-inspired Dalek Guided Meditation.
Instead, I use tinkering as a form of meditation.
I’m a maker. I’m a dabbler in all kinds of artistic media from cardboard, to acrylic paint, to wood, fabric, metal, electronics, or food. (Did you know that some types of food containers are made of Shrinky-Dink plastic?) I love to make anything, and get a real thrill out of learning new techniques and applying them in new ways. (A jeweler’s saw, created to cut metal for jewelry, is also good for cutting metal, stone, and plastic!). You can see some of my illustration, quilting, and sculptures below.
I love the joy that comes from the process of creating something new… but don’t get a lot out of finishing projects. I actually feel lost after something is done and I don’t know what to do next.
So, I have lots of 90% complete and “this will never work” projects saved just in case I want to play with them again. I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an idea for something I just HAVE to make. I also find it is really important to me to make things that are really good, and have a purpose. (I too have an abandoned ETSY shop). This creates a level of stress on what otherwise could just be a fun hobby. (I’m an engineer professionally, and an artist by hobby. Sometimes those two cross in very positive ways, and sometimes negative ways).
On to tinkering. What is tinkering?
Tinkering is a freeform exercise where you take random materials and, without a plan, just see where the materials lead you and make something. Think of it as doodling, but with more dimensions and possibilities than with just paper and pencil.
- You have to turn off your need to make something specific (which I find very hard).
- You must stop worrying about whether it will work out.
Letting go and being in the experience is the key. You can do it: You see your kids do it all the time while they play. This is why I see tinkering as a form of meditation.
If you are an educator involved in project-based learning or play-based learning, this process may sound very familiar. Both use a method of stepping back and letting kids learn through exploration of a media or phenomena.
Does any of this sound familiar? Meditation (in my highly inexperienced unprofessional interpretation) is about turning off judgment and just being in the moment.
In meditation through tinkering, the goal is to use the “flow” state–a mental state where you lose complete track of time that comes from the joy of artistic creation–-as your meditative state.
Several years back I had been laid off from a startup and was in the process of finding my next engineering job. I had a toddler at the time, my husband was still working, and our mortgage wasn’t insane (this, I should add, was a privilege that most people don’t have). As a female engineer, job searching is tricky. Half of the search is identifying work you’d be willing and interested in doing for 40-60 hours/week, and the other half is guessing if the work culture for those 40-60 hours/week will result in a positive, respectful work environment, or one of high stress requiring regular therapy (and therapy isn’t cheap). The process is a mix of high stress, boredom, and guilt for not being productive. The job search was actively stressing me out even though I had always wished for some free time to just explore something artsy.
My first experience with tinkering was through volunteering with LA’s Tinkering School summer camp. It was a day camp for kids ages 7-12 that enabled them to design and build REALLY BIG things. Facilitators would teach basic hand and power tools, maintain a culture of safety, and then encourage kids to brainstorm and build all on their own. (Long story short, I spent part of my time off helping build up and eventually leading a tinkering program on my side of town for several years after). In my years of working with the program, students built 8-foot-long dinosaurs, a space cafe, time-traveling pirate ships, a functioning carnival, and more. It was all kid lead and kid built. It was spontaneous, creative, and play-based.
Photos above are courtesy of reDiscover Center.
As an adult facilitator working at the tinkering camp, it was also terrifying. This was not the way I learned to design things at work. What if the kids didn’t come up with anything to build? What if their projects didn’t turn out? What if the projects didn’t look good?
By teaching and observing, I learned to trust the process. Session after session, it ALWAYS turned out. (And we NEVER stepped in to beautify projects. Everything was fully kid-made). I learned to trust the process and let go.
So one day, while I was out of work, I dropped my daughter off at daycare, finished another application for a job that I might consider (worrying equally about what would happen if they did or did not want me), and I decided to
I made myself a promise not to try to make something. I would just see what happened.
No joke, this was incredibly hard to do.
Seeing tinkering as a form of meditation did not come naturally, after years of working within a very strict process as an engineer (the technical mindset invades your brain eventually).
I grabbed some wire and a pair of pliers. For the first time in a long time, I turned off my need to be productive. I just bent and placed. Bent and twisted, and made a design. No plan. I was just doodling in wire, rolling on instinct about what felt like good composition. I stuck it together on a piece of tape. And I felt a lot better.
Later, I tacked it together, which was not a meditative experience for me, because silver soldering fine wire can be very hard. Too much heat and you melt it all into a charred ball. Too little heat… a pile of disconnected wire with charred spots.
Here are my wire doodles.
This past year, I ran an after-school tinkering session for my daughter’s online remote 3rd-grade class. It was a chance for kids to be creative but also destress from COVID and school at home using tinkering as a form of mediation.
We gave kids bags of Play-Doh, tape, cardstock, buttons, foil, scrap wood, and glue, and an open-ended invite to be creative. We practiced brainstorming, and then let everyone free to tinker. The kids came up with some fantastic animals, spaceships, and inventions. I joined in on the fun too.
But first I had to stop caring about the end product.
I ended up with a very sad-looking puppet animal thing from a cereal box and a mini mini-golf course (is that a micro-golf?) in cardboard.
Do I love either of these? No. Do they represent my artistic skill? I sure hope not. But they were fun and relaxing to make. And my 3-year-old loves playing with them.
Want to give it a try? With tinkering as a form of meditation, unlike many other forms of meditation, you can actually do this with other adults or kids around.
- Gather materials you want to play with. They can be repurposed junk, art supplies, or whatever you have around: clay, Play-Doh, foil, cardboard, tape, glue, old buttons, plastic containers, paper towel tubes, whatever. You’re not making anything you care about, so stop worrying so much about whether you have the right stuff. Geez.
- Create a space to work.
- Repeat to yourself, “I’m just going to play. I don’t need to make anything. I’m just going to let it go and see what happens.” (This part is hard, but you can do it).
- Trust in the process.
- Make something. Let the materials guide you. Get into the flow of making something.
- When you’re done, look back. Laugh. Move on. No judgment. (Take a photo, especially if it’s really bad, so you can share moments of failure with your kids. More on “Teaching How to Deal With Failure” in a future article).
- Repeat as needed. The more you practice turning off your need for perfection, the more creative and capable you’ll find your tinkering skills.
Kids can be great at tinkering because they still know how to play. However, sometimes their exposure to brands and products can also highly limit their imagination (I had a no Star Wars and no weapons rule at tinkering camp). Their need for perfection can also get in the way. You know your kids best, and you also know if you need a break from them while you tinker.
As a side note, I eventually found that perfect job opening (making brain implants to cure blindness, holy cow!!!) and they liked me too. At the company, I met a technician who was also a professional jeweler. She clued me in on some secrets for silver soldering that made it a little less stressful, though I’m definitely not at her skill level. And one day, I’ll finish unpacking and get my soldering station set up again. But until then, I’ll add that to my list of unfinished projects.
From time to time when I get stressed out or can’t figure out what I want to do, I’ll wander around stressing over old projects, and what to start. Then I’ll put them aside, grab something, and just start tinkering. That old collection of moonstones from the beach? I haven’t used that in a while. Maybe I could just play with them for a bit and see what happens… and not worry if it looks good.
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