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.


Special Delivery

When you begin listening for the voice of God in your life, he speaks in many ways.  Sometimes, it is that “still, small voice” in my head during a meditation.  Other times it is looking up to see a sunbeam playing across the floor bringing just a little light into a dark moment.

When I pay attention to “living, instead of existing,” God manifests.  Perhaps you will say that these moments are simply coincidences.  I choose to view them as the breadcrumbs left behind to show me that I am still on the right path.

God sent two messages to me last week via “special delivery.”

I adopted “comfort and joy” as a little personal theme, brand or motto a year or so ago.  I post photos of teacups or flowers, bright colored yarn or even close-ups of my dogs. If it brings me comfort or joy, it’s a likely candidate for my instagram hashtag, #comfortandjoy.

I have an eye condition that makes it difficult to read sometimes.  I do as much of my reading on a screen as I can because I can tweak the contrast and the font size to make it easier to see.  As a result, I rarely look at “real” books anywhere anymore.

Last weekend I went on a little shopping expedition to two of my favorite thrift stores.  At the first, where I have never even glanced at the used book rack, I was forced to stop a moment by the shelves because a couple of people were admiring objects in a curio and blocking my way.  I turned to the bookshelves to pass the time, and my eyes lit immediately on a daily devotional about “Simple Abundance” with “Comfort and Joy” in the title.  I picked it up and paid for it.

At the next stop, I was waiting for my son to try on some clothing.  I had already checked out the dishware and found no teacups that called to me, so I walked to the book shelves.  Just the day before, I had reviewed my Amazon “Wish List.”  On it was Regina Brett’s book, “God Never Blinks.”  I’ve enjoyed reading Regina’s newspaper columns for years.  She has inspired me on many occasions.  I “follow” her on Facebook, and although I frequently have considered buying her book, I just haven’t gotten around to it.

Just as at the previous shop, the first book that I saw “called out” to me.  Its bright orange cover drew my eye, and into the cart it went.

Those books sat on my coffee table for several days, untouched.  I opened the cover of “God Never Blinks” and saw an inscription from a daughter to her mother on Mother’s Day 2012.  It made me a little sad to know that a carefully chosen gift had made its way to the Salvation Army store.

I turned the page, and saw that the author had autographed the book, and my amazement that this little book had found its way into my hands was magnified.  I turned to the Introduction section, and as I read the words, I knew that I had discovered a soul sister.  Tears streamed down my face.

I’ve been reading from these two books for a week now, with no hint of discomfort – no visual distortion.   Now, I read a lesson each day.  I want to keep turning the pages and consume the entire book in a single sitting, but it would be over too quickly.  Instead, like a box of expensive chocolates, I will savor just one each day, letting the words sink in slowly.

God didn’t just send me a message.  He sent me an autographed copy.  Thank you for your words, Regina, and thank you to unnamed “favorite daughter” who bought her mom and autographed book in 2012 that would be delivered into the hands of another mother nearly 5 years later.


Day 6/365: Prayer and Meditation

I spend a period of time each day in prayer and in meditation.   I set aside time each day for each of these practices.  I am not a theologian or a guru.  I have found, though, that prayer and meditation complement each other and add a great deal to my life.

I have heard it said that prayer is talking to God, and meditation is listening for the answers.  That may be an oversimplification, but I like the sentiment.

The first thing I do in the morning, before I get out of bed, is to give thanks for another day of life.  If my husband is in bed, I check if he is breathing and give thanks for that, too.  I (silently) say “this is the day that the Lord has made, I will rejoice and be glad in it,” and then I wake up my 16-year-old son and round up the dogs.

I go to sleep at night (literally) counting my blessings and giving thanks for the many people and things that bring joy into my life.  I don’t view God as a vending machine in the sky that doles out favors in exchange for prayer tokens.  I don’t spend much prayer time asking for specific blessings.  I do, however, seek answers.  I ask for inspiration, and I receive it.

I attempt to spend 15 – 20 minutes each morning in meditation.  I have some recordings that i like to use to get into a meditative state of mind.  It seems my mind is always working on one question or another, and it is difficult to reach a place where I can just “be” instead of “doing.”

I have learned to keep a pad of paper and a pen handy when I meditate because ideas just pop into my mind.  Without my mind planning projects or worrying about details, I am free to simply breathe in and out and listen for inspiration and answers – or just to relax and enjoy life.

There are many free meditation apps for iPhone and Android that are useful tools to help you learn to meditate.  Although it’s cold in Ohio as I write (1 degrees F, brrrr), when the weather is warn, there is nothing that I enjoy more than sitting in nature with my eyes closed and just simply observing the sounds of nature and the sensations of the sun and the breeze as they touch my skin.  In these moments I can truly disconnect from the wear and tear of life’s distractions and allow God to speak.


Comfort and Joy

Happy New Year!  I’m quite late for a New Year post, I know, and believe me, that’s actually a good thing.  You see, 2016 is the year when I make good on my promise to be good to myself.

“You cannot serve from an empty vessel.” – Eleanor Brownn

Historically, I have run in the new year and then spent hours poring over journal entries and blog posts from the previous year, decade, etc. to see where I’ve come from, and what track my life is taking.  This year was different – the clock struck midnight and my husband and I shared a sparkling grape juice toast with our youngest son before heading upstairs – together – and falling peacefully asleep.  There was no attempt to review the past – no tears shed at past hurts, and only one resolution:  to be good to myself.

2016 is the year of comfort and joy.  This is the year of self care and learning to say, “no,” when necessary.  I’m taking time (and making time) to do the things that bring me joy.  I’m allowing myself to enjoy the things that bring me comfort.

This is the year of silly songs at the break of dawn, loose leaf tea in fancy teacups, essential oils that smell like liquid joy or comfort in a bottle, and beautiful fibers that wind themselves into scarves and blankets while my eyes watch the television.

Thanks to the efforts of my husband and children, I once again have a “sacred space,” (named the Betty Room by my hubby) where I can sit quietly to read, pray, meditate, and contemplate.  I’m also getting a new bathtub with enough depth to soak – more comfort (and some joy, too).

My first bit of advice for 2016 is to make room for comfort and joy in your own life.  Experiences that comfort us and that allow us to feel joyful replenish the energy that we deplete when we give.  Although giving to others without expectation of receiving anything in return brings its own rewards, when people take from us without giving, over and over, it can take a spiritual and physical toll.  Seek out joy.  Seek out comfort.  Make your own happiness, and then share from that vessel that is no longer empty.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.” – Psalm 23:5

We can pray for comfort and joy, or we can seek it out. I had a difficult Monday with a difficult adversary in a difficult proceeding at work.   It was bitterly cold, and when I stopped my car for gasoline, I opened my back door to retrieve a hat.  When I went to shut the door, it would not latch.  Believing it to be frozen, I took it to a local auto repair place hoping they could quickly thaw it so that I could be on my way to a court proceeding.  It turned out to be a broken latch, not a frozen one, and replacement parts had to be ordered.  There was no way to fasten the door shut (except, possibly the rope and duct tape that my cousin suggested) for the 45 mile drive, so I had to beg for mercy from the party with all of the power in that situation.  The tone for the tense email exchange that followed was probably largely imaginary.  The tone of the voice in my head as I read the email response was set by the morning I had already had.

I wouldn’t go nearly so far as call that person an enemy, but it nevertheless the terse nature of the exchange (real or imagined) created a drain on my joy.  I set my little table with one of my favorite teacups as I brewed a fragrant pot of tea.  I rubbed a few drops of my favorite essential oil blends on my temples, and I allowed the aromas from the tea and the oil to surround me with beauty, comfort and joy.  That’s probably not what the Psalmist had in mind, but soon I was singing again.

My husband said, “boy, you’re in a good mood!”  I explained my quest for comfort and joy.  Sometimes you have to “fake it until you make it.”  When you’re faking joy, though, it quickly becomes real as it infects others with smiles (or even laughs).

I’ve had a tough week so far, but my cup runneth over.  Being good to myself is my only resolution for 2016.  Actively seeking comfort and joy is the first step toward achieving success.

Happy 2016.


The Disappearing Chocolate Bar

Last Saturday, I purchased a lovely piece of chocolate. I carefully budgeted the calories for it. I knew that I could eat it without a speck of guilt, and I intended to just that. As the sun set, my husband and I sat, reading books on our Kindles in the dark on our boat.

I remembered the teat that awaited me. I went below to get my chocolate. I carefully divided it into small pieces to prevent me from eating it too quickly. I arranged them on a small plate along with some berries, and I returned to my reading.

As I read the thriller, I reached for a piece of chocolate and a berry. When the chocolate had melted in my mouth, I reached for another piece, and another. Before long, I reached for another piece of chocolate, only to find the plate was empty. I felt around on the bench seat where the plate sat empty, in case a piece or two had slid off unnoticed. When my tactile search turned up no chocolate, I reached for my iPhone to turn on the flashlight. I searched the bench and the floor, sure that there must still be 3-4 piece of missing chocolate. My search turned up nothing except some dead spiders that had escaped the vacuum.

As I resigned myself to the fact that the chocolate was truly gone, and that I had finished it, I was sad. I had eaten all of those decadent, highly anticipated morsels of good chocolate and had barely noticed it. Instead of being an enjoyable experience all on their own, they had merely melted into the background of the story I was engrossed in.

Mindless eating is one of the causes of our epidemic of obesity. From the time that our parents hand us a container of goldfish or cheerios to keep us quiet, we learn to consume food without even thinking about it.

Mike McIntyre of Cleveland’s WCPN aired a show this week on Mindful Eating. Dr. Susan Albers shared a five-point strategy to practice eating mindfully so that the food that we choose actually registers in our brain as having been consumed.

Albers shared the 5 Ss:
Sit down – Sitting down (preferably at a table – not your desk, the couch,or the car) makes eating more of a ritual. Removed from the influences that keep us from focusing on our meal, we are more likely to successfully practice mindful eating.

Slowly chew – You’ve heard it said that it takes 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that it’s full. Many of today’s highly-processed foods are easy to swallow without chewing. Either they are soft, semi-liquid, or liquid like smoothies, pouches of applesauce, or macaroni and cheese, or they dissolve in our saliva as soon as they hit our mouth – like potato chips. By forcing ourselves to mindfully chew those foods rather than gulping them down, we can be more in the moment and eat mindfully.
Savor – When you eat mindfully, you can truly enjoy your food. I enjoyed the piece or two of chocolate that I remember eating. I savored them. Until I got into the book and began to consume them mindlessly, I really savored them. Had I not been expecting more pieces of chocolate because I failed to savor them all, I quite likely could have been satisfied with less.

Another piece of advice was to “eat like a chef.” Iron Chef and Cleveland native Michael Symon is famous for including bacon and fat in many of his dishes. Chef Symon is in great shape. Although he eats some decadent food, he doesn’t stuff himself with it. Many chefs eat just a bite or two of those spectacularly rich foods and walk away. Having savored that first bite, they can push themselves away from the table satisfied with the experience.

Simplify your environment – I overate last night. I’m usually very good about weighing and measuring virtually everything. Last night, however, I simply grabbed a bag of snacks and brought them to the computer room with me. As I took a handful of cashews, I promised myself it would be the last. Soon, however, I found my hand back in the bag.

Similarly, there is an open bag of potato chips left over from a meeting in my kitchen right now. As I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of water, I spotted the chips and my mouth started watering. Although they weren’t in today’s plan, I weighed out exactly one ounce. Although an ounce of chips won’t make or break my diet, had I put the chips away, I wouldn’t have craved them at all.

If you’re going to have your trigger foods in the house at all, do yourself a favor and put them where they are out of sight!

Smile between each bite. Albers suggested that smiling between each bite gives you a pause – time to consider how full you are before you take that next bite. That pause also helps to extend meal time so that you experience satiety.

Mindless eating is a big problem for me. I’m going to put these suggestions into play as I learn to be more mindful about not just eating, but regarding life in general.