Zen and the Art of Knitting

I took a class on world religions when I was in my 30s. I was raised in a evangelical fundamentalist Christian household and community, and the class was my first real exposure to ideas that were not based on the Bible. I was intrigued by both the similarities between religions and the differences.

While most of the religions focused on one or more deities who needed to be pleased or appeased, Buddhism stood apart. Although Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, plays an important role in Buddhism, Siddhartha was an earthly prince. He was a human who lived and died.

One of the concepts of Buddhism that I found my mind returning to again and again is the concept of impermanence and non-attachment. I will readily admit that I’m not good at non-attachment.

Buddhist monks may spend days or weeks making intricate sand paintings called mandalas. When the design is completed, rather than affixing it to a board and framing it for all to admire, they pray over it and sweep it away. It is no more. The fact that “mandala art” is become part of rock painting and decorating is antithetical to the very concept of the mandala. Recently I encountered “mandala yarn” used to crochet elaborate wall hangings to be cherished for generations. I considered making one.

I began crocheting when I was a little girl. Mom handed me a crochet hook and a ball of yarn to keep me busy. I was soon crocheting elaborate doll clothes and simple shawls. Although there have been periods in my life when I didn’t crochet for months or even several years at a time, crocheting, and more recently knitting, have been a big part of my life for several years. Learning to knit, for me, has been more than a lesson in arts and crafts. It has been a lesson in embracing imperfection, a lesson in patience, and most recently in “letting go.”

For years, I’ve tried meditating to combat anxiety. I’ve used mantras and scriptures, apps and music to facilitate that state of near-trance when I enter a state of flow – where my mind stops chattering long enough for God to talk. For me, nothing has been more thought-clearing than the simple act of creating with yarn. There’s something almost magical about turning a single piece of string into a piece of fabric. Whether it’s a dish cloth or a fancy garment, the simple rhythm established by wooden needles passing one over the other creates a calm that I have yet to experience through any fancy application of technology. The creation of a garment or accessory is a bonus.

Yesterday I found myself part way through a knitting project. I have a tendency to buy yarn that appeals to me and then try to find the right project for it rather than choosing a project and then choosing the fiber. Sometimes I pick the wrong project. Yesterday I found myself looking at a piece of knitting that I started a couple of months ago and put aside because it just wasn’t working.. I’ve tried several times to love it and to finish it, but I couldn’t’ get to that place where my needles fly on their own without thinking. Every stitch was a struggle. It was one of those projects where the design was just wrong for the fiber.

I really wanted to love it, because I had at least 15 hours invested. The yarn was hand-dyed, purchased at a trunk show and cost a pretty penny, too. I looked at the work in progress, spent another hour or so knitting another couple of inches and finally accepted that I was never, ever going to love what I was making enough to finish it. I had a hard choice to make: I could stuff it into a bag and try to forget about the expense – both monetary and time that lived in that little bag…. or I could “frog it.”

I don’t know where the term “frogging” came from. Simply put, it means unraveling the fabric and recapturing the yarn or string. What had taken so many hours to create took only a few minutes to unmake.

I thought that I would feel a twinge of remorse at watching all of my work-time disappear, but I didn’t. At one point, I was left with a huge tangled mess when the stitches didn’t unwind evenly. I picked through the mass and pulled the knots apart one by one. After a long while, I was left with three balls of yarn that looked just like they did before I began the knitting with them in the first place.

I looked through my electronic gallery of patterns and one seemed to cry out, “make me with that beautiful yarn,” so I listened. My needles flew. I found the rhythm, and the world dropped away.

From time to time, I would look around the room from my knitting chair, and I spied possessions that no longer serve me. Some were broken or outdated. Others tied me to a place in the past. Like the “frogged” project, they no longer felt right. I took the broken things to the trash and the things that might be useful to someone else to the “donation” box. The ties to those objects unraveled much like the knitting. I encountered “knots” as I removed certain objects that had belonged to a beloved family member, but that I never loved for the sake of the object.

As humans, we long for continuity. We become attached to people, places and things. The concept of detaching from our possessions, relationships and even our ideas is painful. We hold onto things (ideas, belief, possession, and people) that harm us because we are afraid to trust our instincts – afraid to admit that what we are doing, keeping, and believing isn’t working.

No earthly thing is forever. so long as we live, we will be forced to say “goodbye” to people, places and things over and over. The more we are tangled up in the past, the harder it is to move into the future – to live the life where the design and the material work together.

Sometimes “frogging” means admitting that I hired someone that was wrong for the position I needed to fill. Sometimes it means realizing that I’m not the best person to handle a project because my skills just don’t match the needs of the client. Whatever you’re dumping bucket after bucket of your energy into, make sure that your going to have a result in the end that you can be proud of – or at the very least, one that won’t make you cringe every time you think of all of the time and expense that you put into it.

I wouldn’t be a very good Buddhist monk. Although I give away a lot of my finished projects, I admit that I become attached to some – those I keep. Others I donate. Some I give to people who I love. Others end up in the “frog pond” and are turned back into a ball of yarn waiting for just the right project to come along. There’s no shame in that.

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