And what Zen has to do with the infinite list
When I first realized the truth of the infinite list*¹, I knew it was a big shift, but I wasn’t sure what it meant I should do. I’ve had a few months to think about that now, and I’m ready to put a few ideas out there. In the language of that NPR post*⁶, I’m advocating utter surrender. And acceptance, and curiosity, and a huge sigh of relief. I’m advocating letting go of the unreasonable expectations we hold over our own heads, for whatever reason. Let’s talk about it.
(You may have noticed that I’m going old-school with the citations here. Otherwise I was trying to jam too many things into one little paragraph. All the numbers refer to the numbered list at the bottom of the post, you can find more info about my sources there.)
From the beginning of the infinite list idea, I kept wanting to associate it with Zen, or Buddhist ideas, or mindfulness, but I wasn’t quite sure how or why. So I decided to do a little research. The first book I read*³ mentions a cultural idea of “that’s very Zen” which can mean something is minimalist or tranquil, and maybe those were the ideas I had in my head. As I read further though, I found some actual Buddhist/Zen ideas that did have something to do with what I was getting at. (Both of the books I read were by Zen Buddhists, so I’m not entirely clear on where one ends and the other starts … may need more research.)
The Buddhist idea that resonates with my ideas right now the most is that of trying to see past appearances and old patterns, into the truth of the moment. I’m interested in choosing what I will actually make next, and making it, instead of spending lots of time dreaming and planning, but not much time making. I’m interested in finding out how much progress I can actually expect, like how many projects can I really do in one winter, rather than fantasizing that I’ll make them all.
I read this quote by Alan Watts earlier this year*⁵, and it was the best expression of just exactly how I’d like to relate to life I think I’ve ever seen:
“For the perfect accomplishment of any art, you must get this feeling of the eternal present into your bones — for it is the secret of proper timing. No rush. No dawdle. Just the sense of flowing with the course of events in the same way that you dance to music, neither trying to outpace it nor lagging behind. Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”
It may not seem like it, but this has everything to do with my life as a maker. I spend an awful lot of my time, and thus my life, making and thinking about making. By choice! It’s a major part of how I define myself and what’s important to me, and a great source of joy and satisfaction. But if my making time is crowded with expectations, with piles of projects that MUST be done, one coming right after the other, even with an un-doable number of ideas floating around and tapping me on the mental shoulder all the time, then I’m not present, not enjoying or relating to the moment, even though the act of making something with my hands can be a beautiful expression of myself in a moment in time, if I let it.
I’m scheduling less. I’m vowing to surrender completely to the idea that I can’t do anywhere close to everything I’d like to, and so what matters is what I’m doing now. I’ve been literally writing fewer things on my calendar, and trying to understand how much I can expect to get done in a day, a week, or a month. The longer time frames are the hardest, at least for me, and I’m definitely still working on getting this right. Even so, having a little calendar, weekly goals, and daily tasks which I try to keep at a reasonable level, is helping me feel less overwhelmed and more present.
For a long time I thought I thrived on having a ton of ideas at once, and working on different projects at the same time, a bit of this and a bit of that. It seemed the more ideas I got, the more would appear, and it felt very creative and energizing and full of sparks and life. But lately, partly thanks to Felicia*², I’ve been thinking about focus. That maybe, if I head straight for the things I want, just a few at a time, I’ll actually make more progress? Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a firm believer in taking some little time for creative projects every day, I need it! But I’m starting to think I went too far the other way, until the ideas themselves were at the center, and I was generating more of them and completing fewer. As I’ve been on this journey of working more in the here and now, I find fewer spontaneous ideas popping up into my consciousness, but call me crazy, the ones I do get seem more thought out, more relevant. I like this way much better than a crazy swarm of ideas I’ll never get around to.
I’m letting ideas go. Let’s be clear, I still have lots of ideas that pop into my head, many more than I need. If they seem important/good ones, I try to write them down or sketch them out, to get them out of my head, and have them stay out there until their time comes up, if it ever does. And if not, that’s fine with me too.
Besides the ideas in my own head, I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your notice that more new indie patterns than one person can possibly sew come out just about every month, not to mention all the projects on Ravelry, Pinterest, etc. I do love this digital revolution that’s fueling our maker movement, but I don’t go surfing around looking for “inspiration,” unless I’m actively looking for a pattern or researching a particular thing. This is a really personal choice, and it will be different for everyone. For me, I’ve found that I get much more satisfaction out of sitting down to make something I already have the idea for, than out of looking at new ideas.
Sounds like I’m on the path to crafting enlightenment, right? Well, maybe. Let’s just say I’m still figuring it out. The holidays were a perfect excuse to go back to dreaming of random projects, grossly over-estimating how much I can do in a short space of time, and scheming ways to fit in more making at the cost of other things. But, I made a chicken pattern, and then the chickens! I have no regrets, I loved the things I made, and the results when folks got the packages. At the same time, part of what I’m hoping for from putting this post together is to get back on the path, closer to where I was in November.
So here’s another Zen idea for you: forgiveness, starting over again, and again, however many times it takes.
By the time you read this, Bryan and I will be visiting his family in MI, and then heading to the East coast for an opening of his work at the Griffin Museum, and then a little quality time with one member of my family who I don’t get to see nearly enough. For the two-week trip, I’m taking yarn for a pair of socks to knit, supplemented by a little extra to experiment with, for my upcoming class on socks.
That’s it. Ok, and maybe the finishing touches for the mittens I’ve been making Bryan, if I don’t finish them before it’s time to go. Witness my heroic effort to accept the fact that this, combined with thinking and taking notes about socks for my knitting students, will be plenty (after all we’ll be spending a lot of the time with little ones, who have their own way of taking over your whole life), and that knitting is a really good activity for this kind of time (blogging is not). If I did what I usually do: take my laptop and fantasize that I’ll find time for some research or writing, I’m kidding myself, and that doesn’t help anyone. It just makes me grouchy because I couldn’t realize what I wanted, and then I feel like I’m behind, when in fact it’s a trap I’ve set for myself. This is what I’d like to do with all my plans, not set myself up for disappointment, but focus on what I can do.
By the way, I have no plans at this time to actually become a Buddhist … But these ideas are pretty compelling, right? What do you think? What path would you like to be on in the next year?
This post draws on just about everything I’ve read and thought about in the last 6 months, and a lot of it goes much further back. I owe particular debts to:
1. Sarai, editor of Seamwork magazine (and head of Colette patterns). She asked me to distill an essay about the infinite list from my original post, for the January issue! I’m excited and proud to be published there, and grateful for the encouragement this assignment gave me to keep thinking about all this. (Did you know that “focus” was Sarai’s watchword in 2014?)
2. Felicia of The Craft Sessions, for writing the most thoughtful sewing/making blog I’ve found, maybe … ever? Seriously, it’s fantastic. Several of the ideas here have bounced around there first, either in the comments, or in my head as I read what she’d written.
3. Tell Me Something About Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. If you’re curious too, I thought this was a great book to start with. Not everything in it made sense to me as I read, but when I started the next book, I realized it made much more sense than it would have without reading this one first!
4. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it contains phrases like “Do not think you will necessarily be aware of your own enlightenment,” I really enjoyed reading this book as little further introduction to Zen.
5. Alan Watts was a British philosopher who was one of the first to bring Zen thought to the West. I discovered this quote via Brain Pickings. It’s from a book I would really like to read more of, but my library is lacking so I may have to pick up a copy elsewhere: Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality
6. Although not about making, but about taking in culture, especially books, this is totally relevant: The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything on NPR’s monkey see blog.
Also, I’d like to publicly thank my sweet family, particularly the Albuquerque branch, for being spiritual seekers, and introducing me to the ideas that were floating around in my head when I started thinking about all this.
Happy New Year everyone!