On a warm summer afternoon, I met a Do-On Zen Priest. He talked to me about a man who sat in the woods and listened to animals speak. This imagery opened my heart. If listening to the animals was the answer to my enlightenment, I could achieve that. I was curious to learn more. In my overenthusiastic fashion, I gathered armloads of books about Zen Buddhism and meditation. The simplistic ideas in those books intrigued me, but the tangled words remained fathomless to my wee brain. Recently, while corresponding via post with my father, he asked me if I knew what Zen practice means, and I began to turn the question upside down in my mind. I can most assuredly say that I don’t know what Zen means. Perhaps, if you feel that you know what it means, you have missed the mark. Although, when I knit, a piece of me is spurred to imagine this as the essence of Zen practice.
I knit for hours on end until my hands and neck are tense. I stretch out my fingers and flex my hands, shift in my seat, pick up the needles, and knit some more. I am shocked when I look at the clock and see that hours have slowly ticked past. I stretch out my legs, walk to the bathroom, and then return to knit some more. My shoulders ache and my eyes get bleary, but the practice of knitting calls me to its side. The wool and the needles make me sit, and they force my mind to be attentive to the practice.
The things I knit are simply garments. They will not change the world, and while some of them are quite pretty, they will never be works of art admired through the ages. Last year, I made a sweater that won a best in show placement at the local county fair. Many people admired it, and I received a few compliments. Several people asked, “How long does it take you to make a sweater like that?” I said, “I don’t know. I could never count the hours that I sit and knit. All I know is that I waste too much time doing it.” One lady responded and said, “You can never spend too much time doing what you love.” That comment spoke to my heart, and I believe it may be at the crux of Zen and the focus of non-attachment.
Although, I knit for hours at a time, I am not concerned with the outcome of my knitting. I don’t care if I am able to someday knit faster or if the garments become more lovely. I care only that the wool is moving through my fingers. I prefer to do Fair Isle knitting with a color held in the right and left hands. A student asked me once, “How do you knit with a color in each hand?” I said, “Practice. It’s only practice.” She frowned and seemed disappointed that I wasn’t able to share a more enlightened tidbit.
One should ask how the Olympic swimmer was able to win so many gold medals? Through practice. How did the concert pianist arrive in Carnegie Hall? Through practice. How did that artist’s paintings come to hang in the Louvre? Through practice. Although they produced astounding results, I believe that the athlete, musician, and artist would all reflect that their work could be a little better with even more practice. I believe too that the Zen priest may reflect that his power of attention and observation may become a little more refined through additional practice of listening to the Universe.
Although I devote hours to my practice of knitting, I’m grounded in non-attachment to the knitting. I could be concerned with getting faster, with churning out more garments, or with finding the perfect colorway. Attachment to outcomes such as those will lead to frustration. Instead, I am concerned with the time that knitting allows me to spend in my own head. It’s not a time to daydream or to imagine a different lifetime. Knitting is about counting stitches, concentrating on a pattern, repetition, and sometimes it’s about re-knitting certain sections. Most importantly, the time I spend in my head with my knitting is time spent in the present moment. If I focus on the future and the finished garment, the stitches will drop and the colors will fade. If I spend time in the past, my knitting will once again become the fleece of a certain generous sheep.
Through my knitting I am able to relate to Zen practice. Zen meditation is a time that must be spent in my head in the present moment, with no attachment to the outcome. There have been times when I cut several inches of a certain color combination off my needles. I didn’t even bother to try to rip it out because the yarn was useless after I had messed with it for so long. I cut it off and threw it away. I had spent hours with those colors that simply didn’t work. Some may say that was time wasted. Perhaps, I should have ripped it out carefully and tried again. Instead, I believe it was time well spent understanding that those colors didn’t work on my needles in that time and in that space. Perhaps the colors may work for someone else’s needles at another moment in time.
The same is true for meditation. Sometimes, the practice is too tiresome. My legs ache too much, my body is too fidgety, my dogs are too persistent in unhinging my focus. Although, I fidget through as long as I possibly can, I may become frustrated; or I could instead, realize that mediation practice looked more fretful in my body on this day. It’s not a measure of getting “better” at sitting quietly, it’s instead a reminder to continue sitting, continue reflecting, and continue practicing patience with my human nature. Zen is a practice that will not survive in the past or the future. Zen will only manifest in the present moment of the sound of the clock, the sway of my breath filling my lungs, and the aching in my legs and shoulders. That aching reminds me that I am human and in my human existence, I find solace in the art of sitting and the practice of emptying my mind.
Let’s see one blackberry pie, one peach pie, and one blackberry cobbler later, I’m still working on processing my fresh blackberries and peaches.
Here’s another recipe to die for! It’s absolutely delicious, and I can eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
3 cups old fashioned oats
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (I think it would be really good with real maple syrup, but I didn’t try that this time.)