Paying close attention to what’s here in the present moment, and meeting it with gentleness

 I like to do handwork, crocheting and knitting, and most often do it while watching a movie or TV show.  Although I have been known to crochet even while reading a book!  Once my hands get the pattern, I can glance back and forth between my yarn and needles and the TV screen or book. Happily following the thread of the story as I make something pleasing with the thread in my hands.

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This week though, I decided to move beyond knitting and purling and learn how to do a cable stitch.  So I watched a number of instructional videos on YouTube, bought a cable needle, got out a skein of wonderful Peruvian alpaca yarn, cast on to follow a pattern for an Irish hiking scarf, and turned on the TV to watch a silly British sit-com.

And I made mistake after mistake, losing the stitch count so it threw the pattern off, knitting where I should have purled, and vice versa, creating random stitches that were so loose they looked terrible and created holes where there should have been none.  I spent so much time  undoing and redoing, that after several hours I didn’t have much to show for my labors.

Yet still I tried to follow this painstaking (for me) pattern while also following my TV program.  Finally I realized that if I wanted to do a good job, to be proud of this scarf, I would need to pay a different level of attention to the work.  So I turned off the TV and just concentrated on the knitting. 

And still I made mistakes left and right.  And these were not just the mistakes of fumbling with the unfamiliar cable needle.  They were mistakes that came from losing the pattern.  Knit 2, purl 2, knit 2, purl 6, etc. – not difficult as long as I am attentive.  I settled in more diligently to pay attention, and soon noticed that every time I made a mistake, it was because my mind had wandered.

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We have had snow the past few days, and the snow-covered world is beautiful. Yet I find that I keep thinking about the seed catalogs that have come in the mail in the past month, and all the lovely plants I’d like to grow.  And I wish I had a greenhouse so I could grow 57 varieties of tomatoes…  Somehow when my mind wanders from my knitting, my hands wander and create their own pattern.  I drag my mind back and try again, and again.

Now, I’m curious. Rather than trying to knit while my mind is wandering, I’m trying to notice each time my mind veers off the handwork.  So I pause, stilling my hands, and turning toward the path my mind is taking.  I stay with the thoughts and feelings that come, until they seem to be ready for me to get back to my knitting, and I pick up my needles again, paying attention to each stitch, until thoughts of other things arrive, and I put down the needles again and pay attention to what came.

This is a slow way to knit.  But I have no reason to hurry.  I don’t need this scarf to keep me warm.  I have other scarves.  I’m making this scarf only for the entertainment value of learning a new skill and the pure joy of creating something wonderful.  The more willing I am to go slowly and pay close attention, the more pleased I am with the luxuriantly soft feel of the alpaca yarn, the more pleased I am with the way my stitches look.  There is no concern about how long this is taking, and no wondering about when the scarf will be finished.  I’m confident that whenever the scarf is completed, I will be happy with it.

Focusers are familiar with going slowly and paying close attention.  The same way that a knitter will pause with a stitch that’s too tight or too loose, a Focuser will pause with a place that isn’t right somehow.  There might be too much, too much physical pain someplace in the body, too much of some uncomfortable emotion, too much outside pressure to do or to be something other than what we are in the moment.  Or, there may seem to be too little

Recently I received news that a very dear friend has a quite serious illness.  I expected to feel worried, scared, sad, maybe angry.  Instead I didn’t seem to feel anything.  Ok, that’s not quite true.  I felt worried that I didn’t seem to be able to feel anything.  And it seemed pretty obvious that dreaming about a spring and summer garden was more comfortable than trying to be with whatever feelings might be lurking around somewhere waiting to be felt.

I knew that there were very good, self-protective reasons why I might be preventing myself from feeling anything, but I thought I should at least be able to feel sympathy or empathy for the one who is ill and for family and caregivers.  I managed fleeting whiffs of feeling, but not much and not for long. ( I do realize I have a lot of expectations about how I should react to bad news!)

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Though I wasn’t apparently feeling anything I could identify as a feeling, I wasn’t sleeping well either.  So in the middle of the night last week I decided to have a conversation with my heart, and see how things were going from its perspective. I wrapped myself in a prayer shawl, took time to get grounded, invited the support of Spirit, and I traveled to the region of my heart.  My heart wasn’t there.  All that was there was an empty, cold, abandoned cave. 

Fans of Harry Potter will remember the portrait gallery in Hogwarts that sometimes has empty picture frames because the people in the portraits have magically gone visiting someone in another frame.  So I decided to see if my heart had gone visiting in the night, maybe over having a midnight chat with my gall bladder…  I looked all over but my heart was not to be found.

Now this was getting interesting.  I was physically alive so my heart had to be somewhere.  I thought of the shamans’ descriptions of ways in which our soul will protect itself from too much, from trauma or even the potential of trauma.  And I gently let my heart know that if it was protecting itself, I understood and would not try to force it to be different. 

My heart spoke up to let me know that it was in a cave - not the the one I had been looking in, but a much smaller cave, deeply hidden from everyone, even me. From that secret place my heart could  monitor me and the world around me, and it said it would come out only when it felt safe and not before.  It reminded me of how hard things had been when I was 3 years old and my older sister died.  The sadness and loneliness was unbearable then, and my heart flat out refused to go through that again.

So, just like with my knitting project, my challenge with my heart is to patiently pay attention to what is happening right now.  When I daydream about the beautiful gardens I’d like to create, and dive into yet another escapist murder mystery, or suddenly feel a desperate need for a nap, I can be gentle with myself. It’s no wonder coping with bad news is hard; I wasn’t able to get the help I needed as a child to cope with a devastating event, and some place in me seems to feel that sadness and lostness just as keenly now as my younger self did back then. But I know that I have more resources than I had when I was a young child.  I have a supportive community, and I know how to Focus.  I can cultivate Grounded Presence that allows me to be with feelings and with a refusal to feel.  I can offer compassion to myself, for the wounded places that cannot trust yet that I can survive and thrive even when times are tough. And just like with my knitting project, I know there is no hurry — this patient loving listening takes as long as it takes, and is a lifetime commitment.