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!