Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Meditating with Hitchhiker

I’m still thinking about how the default mode network relates to meditation and knitting.  At this point it seems to me that the default mode network is most active during “down time” when one’s mind is allowed to wander aimlessly.  My very rudimentary understanding of meditation has been that one needs to develop the skill of not allowing the mind to wander.  This is most obvious in the standard instructions for meditating: focus on something like breathing, and when your mind inevitably sneaks away from that fascinating function, you non-judgmentally bring it back to the wonder that is THE BREATH.  Please know that I do appreciate the wonder of breathing, but I’m sorry to report that I find it rather tedious to FOCUS on it. I would much rather let my mind wander.  In fact, for years now I have set aside a portion of each day to knit, drink whatever adult beverage is socially acceptable at the given hour, and let my wandering mind take the reins.  I relish the solitude and enjoy the ideas that float around.  Sometimes one of the ideas is interesting, or is an important reminder of something I should do (later).  Until recently, I believed this to be the ultimate form of meditation, but now I understand that it is actually the OPPOSITE of meditation.  All these years I’ve been strengthening my default mode network, giving it a rigorous workout every day, and now it seems that I should have been applying that effort to the neural circuits that mediate focused attention.
Well, I spend the other 16+ waking hours of the day focused on a mind-boggling array of tasks, like driving to and from work through the rabbit warren that is my little city, or teaching a course or a workshop, or meeting with an advisee, or consulting with a colleague on a thorny issue, etc.  It’s no wonder that I have difficulty focusing on breathing—my focused, task-oriented brain circuits are fried, either in anticipation of all that focusing, or after a long day of it.
I’ve gathered from Kingsland’s book that the goal of meditation is to strengthen the ability to CONTROL which brain network dominates at any given time.  The idea is that having better control would allow someone to reduce distractions while they are performing a focused task, and to maximize the benefits of relaxing by not allowing focus-oriented tasks to invade one’s thoughts uninvited.  So, when I’m grading a tall, teetering stack of papers, I should be especially focused on providing worthwhile feedback and making fair assessments of my students’ hard work.  This is one of the most challenging parts of my job, because it takes a long time and is very important.  I hate, despise, revile and loathe grading, and I avoid it to the fullest extent possible.  Would meditation practice allow me to actually enjoy grading?  It really is a privilege to be in a position to foster my students’ intellectual growth, so why shouldn’t it be a rewarding task?  I’ve been wondering if it might be possible to convert the pain of grading into the anticipated joy that it should be, by strengthening my ability to focus on the task.
Perhaps meditation practice would be a good way to flex the task-oriented brain circuits, as Kingsland’s book suggests. While breathing is a convenient behavior because we all do it and thus have a shared experience upon which to build an understanding of how to meditate, there is nothing special about breathing when it comes to being a target of focused attention. One could just as easily focus on the knit stitch, over and over as each one is performed.  Have you ever watched yourself closely while knitting?  All the micro-movements that move the yarn around as the stitch is made?  The needles switching positions from front to back?  The yarn moving from the skein to the fabric of the project?  It’s all very fascinating, and a much more appealing target of focus than the breath, in my opinion. 
Tara Jon Manning instructs us to knit with focus in her book Mindful Knitting. She offers a simple pattern called the Deliberate Focus Garter Stitch Scarf, which is designed as an opportunity to follow the instructions for knitting as meditation.  I’ve read this book a number of times, but only recently did it click in my wandering mind that this strategy might be the antidote to my difficulty using the breath as the target of focus during meditation.  As I reread the scarf pattern, which is essentially cast on 20 and garter stitch until you run out of yarn, I realized that an alternative pattern that might serve the same purpose is Hitchhiker
I can’t believe that I’m only now discovering Hitchhiker.  It is such a great pattern!  It starts off fast, each 8-row section taking just a few minutes, and then it has this nice curve to it, and it grows wider so that each successive row gives the knitter a moment longer to savor the process.  It’s mindless default mode network-engaging for 7 rows, and then provides a nice little jolt of dopamine, waking up the other networks as each spine is formed on row 8.  What makes it even more perfect as a meditation tool is that the initial rows are very short, making it possible to reach the end and still be focused on the stitching.  As one develops their meditation skills, the progressively longer rows of Hitchhiker provide just the right amount of added challenge.  By the time one finishes 42 spines, they will be a skilled meditator.  Forget breathing, we’ve got Hitchhiker!
Hitchhiker #1 in Folio Lace

Hitchhiker #2

Hitchhiker in limbo
To make this even more appealing, and to follow Ms. Manning’s advice, I’m going to use yarn that changes color every few stitches.  My first Hitchhiker, which I finished a month ago, was done using Berrocco’s Folio Lace.  My next Hitchhiker was done using a sock blank that I dyed in intervals of black, grey, light and dark blue.  For practicing meditation, I think this might not be the best option.  It takes too long for the color to change, and we need something that will keep us focused on each stitch.  The next Hitchhiker I started a few weeks ago confirms this: I’m using 100% cashmere, Greystoke by Valley Yarns (thank you WEBS), which by all accounts should be the most appealing yarn ever, but I’m not finding Hitchhiker as addictive using it.  I’ve now switched to a new acquisition: Louisa Harding Yarns Pittura, which as you can see changes color every few stitches. Let the mediation begin!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Default Mode Network Continuum

For a few years now I've been trying to understand the function of the default mode network, a brain circuit that is most active when a person is doing nothing.  As its name implies, it keeps things going while task-oriented brain circuits are not in use.  At first I understood it to be important in skill learning, especially when a new skill is practiced enough to become habitual, thus allowing the default mode network to take over what a task-oriented circuit needed to support before.  Then I started reading about how it's involved in mind-wandering and in the more-problematic state of thinking: rumination.  This constant and negative focus on one's faults and misdeeds is an element of depression, one that seems to precede the onset of an episode. I've also read that the default mode network is involved in creativity, allowing someone to link seemingly unrelated ideas together in unique ways as the mind wanders about.  And if all that wasn't confusing enough, I'm now reading about how it is involved in meditation.

I highly recommend James Kingsland's book about meditation and brain function, Siddhartha's Brain: Unlocking the Ancient Science of Enlightenment.  He considers the default mode network extensively in the book, summarizing evidence that meditation not only decreases activity in this circuit, but also helps a person learn to control whether or not their default mode network is active. This idea appeals to me, because I believe that there are some benefits to allowing one's mind to wander, but it would be great to be able to determine when and for how long that happens.

As knitters we know that there are some projects that require focused attention and others that we use to pass the time or multitask while watching TV or reading a book.  I use a project that promotes mind wandering in the morning while I drink coffee and come to terms with the day ahead. I had been thinking that this was a good idea, but now I'm beginning to wonder if I should be spending more time on projects that require focused attention, and that perhaps doing so would help strengthen those circuits. Perhaps then I won't be so prone to distraction in other tasks. Kingsland makes the point that one of the benefits of meditation for promoting mental health is to strengthen the task-oriented networks, so why can't we do the same thing with knitting a demanding pattern?  Can knitting be a form of meditation?

When I first attempted to make Martina Behm's Fractal Danger, I found it very challenging.  This was partly because I began the project during a knit-along at the delightful Alamitos Bay Yarn Company, with lots of people I had just met, plus a glass of wine.  And it was just after a very challenging semester and my default mode network was probably the only one capable of any activity.  Once I had the initial section done, it became rote knitting and required no thought whatsoever.  I was so glad to have its steady company while waiting for cross-country flights, and it was nearly done by the time I got home from vacation.
Fractal Danger
I have recently found myself working on Hitchhiker, another Behm pattern.  This one took about 8 stitches to become a mindless project and has completely engaged my default mode network.  It is, however, very appealing because something interesting happens every eight rows.  I have had trouble putting it down, although I did reach a point this weekend when I craved something more challenging.
Hitchhiker using  Berroco's  Boboli Lace on size 4 needles
Not to worry, something more challenging was waiting on another set of needles.  This is Butterfly/Papillon, a pattern by Marin Melchior.  I saw it on display a few weeks ago at Creative Fibers and was completely inspired.  It calls for fingering weight yarn, and I had ample quantities of some that I had dyed myself, left-over from Casapinka's Purpleplexy.

The first of 3 sections of Butterfly.  The yarn is Valley Yarns Charlemont.
I wasn't sure that those colors would work for Butterfly, but as it grows I'm increasingly motivated to continue. The pattern is so complex that I need to have it in front of me constantly. Default mode network doesn't have much of a chance here: 

There are 5 pages of this...

The original use of those colors was for Purpleplexy, in which I used the blue variations for the daisy stitch detail that is such a beautiful feature of this shawl.  

All of these projects are primarily composed of garter stitch, but they are not all easy, by any means. I plan to continue to grapple with understanding the default mode network, mostly while I simultaneously work on Hitchhiker and finish Siddhartha's Brain!

Friday, May 6, 2016

What happens in Northampton...

Click the picture to make it large enough to read!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Romney Fleece #4179

I'm not certain if #4179 refers to a sheep or the fleece...The greasy label that came with the fleece indicates that I'm playing with the first shearing of a yearling from Elihu Farm, which is in Valley Falls, NY and is owned by Mary and Bob Pratt.
I love the color in the fleece, a combination of brown and grey that has a bluish appearance.  It's remarkably soft, too.

The skein

Which was a batt, which before that was scoured fleece that began as a greasy fleece with some vegetable matter.

I'm slowly working my way through the fleece, occasionally scouring a batch, carding it and spinning a 2-ply skein. Oogy wonders if it has told me what it will be yet...I heard "poncho", but I'm waiting for confirmation on that.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

heritage sweater progress

The sweater evolves!

We've reached the armhole, folks.  You'll notice that I've had some difficulty deciding what cable pattern to use.  Another odd design feature to match the specks of un-dyed yarn.

My dad has dug out the old sweaters that his mom made for him, but the one that I'm replicating doesn't seem to be among them, based on the descriptions I heard over the phone. Or, it's quite possible that I'm remembering, or not remembering the sweater accurately.  Memory is notorious for being inaccurate, despite our perceptions of remembering something in vivid detail!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

New Heritage Sweater

My grandmother taught me to knit when I was 7.  I have no actual recollection of the learning process, but have pieced together evidence that it happened then.  It wasn't until I was 20 that knitting appealed to me, and then it quickly became the obsession that it remains today.  I have wondered how much that early experience laid the tracks for this intense focus on all things yarn.  I know that I greatly admired my grandmother, and over the years I have seen, and even worn, some of her beautiful work. I acquired from my dad one sweater that I liked very much: a dark red pull-over that had one cable along the side, with twisted rib edges and a wide, high neck.  It was frayed around the edges when I got it, and I wore it that way for awhile. I don't know what happened to the sweater, and I had not thought of it in years (Okay, DECADES) until last month when Oogy gave me some undyed Cascade 220 to play with.  Something about the yarn's heft and ply made me think of the frayed red sweater.

I dyed it with ProChem dye "cape cod cranberry".  My dye pot would hold only 3 skeins, so there are 2 dye-lots that miraculously appear to be the same color. 
They are not perfect--some areas around where the skeins were tied did not get saturated with the dye, so there are intermittent light spots. I have convinced myself, and have been encouraged by a few Camel Knitters, to accept these as legitimate design elements. 

I'm replicating the frayed red sweater that Grandma made for Dad, updating the style just a bit.


Friday, January 15, 2016


Each time I begin a new fair isle project I rediscover how much I enjoy watching the yarn transform into a pattern.  And then, it transforms again when it gets washed and the stitches gel.
Harrisville Shetland Cones in White and Tundra

Rows 1-30, Chart A of Crazed Scandinavian Cowl by Wendy Johnson

Once it's washed, the pattern is very clear and the yarn loses it's stiffness.