I’m reading Pema Chӧdrӧn’s How to Meditate. (What do you mean, how do you meditate? You just sit there and breathe, right? And focus on your breathing, right? Well, yes. Go.)
I want to underline everything Chӧdrӧn writes, just whole pages of underlines and highlights, because, thus far, pretty much every single sentence resonates, like I could pick each one and write pages and pages about what it means to me, even as “the settled nun” suggests that, as you develop a meditation practice, as you begin to “really get in touch with the feeling, the underlying energy, of your emotions … you begin to let go of the words, the stories, as best you can, and then you’re just sitting there.”
Just sitting there.
I wonder if there’s a special category of meditation for writers and storytellers.
Right now, though, I’m not meditating. I’m just sitting at my computer, dictating words into the screen while I knit, and I am thinking about this particular passage:
Meditation is a transformative practice, rather than a magic makeover in which we doggedly aim to change something about ourselves. The more we practice, the more we open and the more we develop courage in our life. In meditation you never really feel that you “did it” or that you’ve “arrived.” You feel that you just relaxed enough to experience what’s always been within you.
What’s always been within you. Transformative practice. The yarn I’m knitting with is yarn I’ve had for close to two decades, maybe more. When my brother got engaged, I decided to knit a blanket for him and my future sister-in-law. I picked this crazy Kaffe Fassett tumbling blocks pattern — dozens upon dozens of colours and strands of yarn, woven together in this complicated, three-dimensional riot. I spent weeks measuring out yarn and winding it onto individual bobbins, weeks and months more beginning to knit it, and I don’t know how much longer fretting over it, cursing every dropped stitch or tiny mistake and all the implications that followed from those. And then, finally, I gave it up. I never gave my brother and his wife a wedding present. And I shoved all that gorgeous yarn into some bins in the cedar closet in my basement.
Recently, though, I’ve retrieved the wool from its basement prison. I’m in the process of unravelling my work, pulling out all those painful, painstaking, jubilant, beautiful stitches, rewinding the strands onto the bobbins. I’ve looked up new patterns, for simpler projects, ones that won’t tax my hurt arms and wrists, that will keep me and other people warm, that will harness the beauty and the potential that have been sitting there for so long, waiting. (Rowan and Isaac are so upset by the apparent destruction of this project; they want me to keep it, finish it, and while I love their faith in me, I'm hoping that maybe they will learn something about boundaries and letting go from this example. But I guess that's their business.)
What’s always been within. Transformative practice. The yarn is there. Just like the yards and yards of fabric that I cut, years ago, into strips for a log-cabin quilt. There’s a longer post there, but the short version of it is that in the past couple of months, I somehow managed to resurrect the project yet again, to begin again the seemingly overwhelming process of sorting and pinning and sewing and pressing and ironing tiny bits of cloth into larger versions of themselves. (It helps so much that Isaac is interested in the project and that he can now iron. I have a homegrown quilting buddy. That's awesome.)
What’s always been within. I’ve wanted to learn how to play guitar for God knows how long, and now I am slowly teaching myself how to, by the simple virtue of the two friends who have dropped off guitars, no strings attached (oh my God, I didn’t even realize that was a pun, let alone such a bad one, until I reread that — both guitars had literal strings attached, for the record), for as long as I need them to learn, by the boundless resources of my friends who play, by online teachers. It was never difficult to get supplies or knowledge, but the impetus has always been within me, just waiting for me to sit down and commit to figuring it out, to showing up and focusing so hard I find my tongue poking out of my mouth as I try to play an F chord fluently. I will one day, won’t I?
What’s always been within. Transformative practice. Like how little, really, we actually need to go grocery shopping. The pantry, the chest freezer, the cupboards — they’re all overflowing. For a few weeks, now, I’ve been avoiding the grocery store, trying to see what I can whip up with those dried beans, that odd cut of meat from the quarter cow we purchased back in November, that can of rice-stuffed grape leaves, the beets and carrots and zucchini and garlic from our own garden, that cylinder of gourmet tea. I’ve written about this before: It’s amazing, what’s here already and what we can create from it.
Just like it’s amazing how many pairs of shoes I have, how many beautiful items of clothing that I forget about until I pull them out and try to combine them into new outfits. There are so many books to read in this house, and more at the library. I have some of the best friends imaginable, and they are lovely and generous to talk with. I have thousands of hours of music that I barely listen to. I can get on my year-old, gorgeous bike and be somewhere new in minutes, can drive out to the Cascades and lose myself in the rush of water and the permanence of rock.
Same with writing. The material is there, if I dig deep enough in the cedar closet or the pantry or the shed or wherever it is that I happened to stick and ignore it. I finished a draft of a short story today, one that's been brewing for close to a decade. (I wrote it while knitting; some kinds of multitasking seem to work together, the hands busy with their repetitive stitching while the words flow.) All I had to do was sit there (with the Internet turned off and my phone hidden in my underwear drawer, obviously) and get the words down, sometimes slowly, sometimes awkwardly, but down.
There’s a mistake in the knitting project I’m working on now — a knit stitch that should have been a purl or vice versa, several dozen rows down from where I’m at now. I’m ignoring it.
I’m trying to stay in this space, to remember it especially when a longing or anxiety or dissatisfaction (the Buddhists call it dukkha, Pema tells me) take hold of me. I'm trying to remember how much of this action is very likely propelled by that very dukkha, that I can do all those things when apparently consumed by it. It doesn’t actually matter how I feel. And I can do all those things in the hopes that the dukkha will dissipate, but mostly I just have to do them to do them.
I’m not intending to be all Pollyanna-ish here. I’m not chastising myself or anyone else for our blindness to our plenty. I'm not ignoring the reality that many people don't have the resources, the space, the time, the sheer luck and the luxury of having so much and the space and time for transformation. I’m not saying that everything will be better if we just wake up to what’s within. I’m just trying to stay awake and alive to what’s actually, objectively, almost always available to me if I simply slow down enough to access it, work with it. And sometimes I look up and realize that I’ve forgotten about everything else except the next stitch, the fashioning my awkward fingers into the next chord, the peeling of the beets, the downward thrust of my foot on the pedal. It's always, all of it, already there.