The term “Zen” is typically taken only to mean a specific school of Mahayan Buddhism. Basically, it is a school of religious thought. As such, that title could be written with a number of substitutes: What’s Your Catholicism? What’s Your Atheism? etc. However, according to Wikipedia (which, of course, is never wrong) the word Zen is translated from the Chinese word Chan. This word, in turn, is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyana, which means meditation. This works perfectly for the purposes of this entry.
The same Wikipedia article explains that the main tenant of Mahayana Buddhism is that “all sentient beings have Buddha-nature, the universal nature of inherent wisdom and virtue” and that the aim of Zen practice is “to discover this Buddha-nature within each person, through meditation and mindfulness of daily experiences.”
Now, I should probably stop my train of thought here and point out that I do not identify myself as a Buddhist. As a student of the world and its cultures I’ve come to learn a bit here and there about it and it seems to me to be one of the more intriguing, applicable and fulfilling religions out there, but I am by no means anything resembling an expert on Buddhism and Zen.
That being said, I’ve come to find myself using the term Zen in connection with my sewing on a number of occasions. It makes sense, too. Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk and student of comparative religion, believed that “there must be a little of Zen in all authentic creative and spiritual experience.”
My sewing corner is one of my places I find and practice Zen. It is not always the neatest of areas – there is currently a treasure trove of flotsam and jetsam around it – but it is the one place in my house where I can pretty much always be guaranteed to feel wholly at peace. It’s easy to pick up the mess that sometimes accumulates around my machine. There are nearby shelves and baskets and cups where everything can be stashed away neatly and in no time at all I’ve managed to clear away the literal and figurative clutter in my mind, for a little while at least.
The trash of the day neatly compartmentalized, I’m able to turn my focus on specific tasks. Pinning, finishing seams, mending things…they all have their real world counterparts. While I sit at my table I can concentrate on the task at hand and see how it reflects the things that might be happening in the rest of my life.
One of my favorite things to do is to pick out seams. It’s a good thing, too, as I usually have to do it more than one time during every project that I work on. Now, I could get all upset about having to undo work that I’ve just spent a bunch of time doing but I like to look on it as a chance to go back and make a mistake look as good as new. There are so few times in our lives when we can go back and fix someting we did wrong. Even when we do, it’s rarely a positive experience. When i sit down and rip out seams, though, I can usually get the fabric I’m working with to go back to the way it looked before I put the original stitches in it. With a few picks of my seam ripper and a swipe of my finger across the picked stitches I can “erase” any record that the fabric was sewn together wrong.
I make a lot of mistakes when I’m sewing. I’ll cut out patterns wrong, sew them together incorrectly, forget to add seam allowances, inadvertantly make a hole in the middle of the fabric I’m working with…the list goes on and on. I’ve even had a needle break in the middle of sewing and fly up to get lodged in my lower lip before. When most of these things happen I chuckle at my own mistakes, take a big breath and see what I can do to fix things. It’s very rare when I get completely frustrated and give up.
The same can’t always be said for the problems I come up against in the world outside of sewing, but I certainly try to carry over the sense of peace and well-being I get while sewing into my non-sewing moments.
You might be wondering why I decided to write about this today. The answer is pretty simple. As I mentioned in the previous post my life has felt a little crazy lately. I’ve been worrying about money (spending a good chunk of your day working at a job that doesn’t actually reward your time with a paycheck will do that). I’ve been fretting about my thesis and finishing school. I lost a friend of mine. I had a traumatic experience with the worst customer I’ve ever come across in my nearly ten years of working customer service/retail. My father went into the hospital this past week and wound up having to get a pacemaker. I knew I needed to find an outlet for some of the worry and turmoil bouncing around in my head, so I sat down to sew today.
I had gotten a “sewing assignment” from a patternmaker in my email and hadn’t yet gotten around to finishing the project yet. I sat down at my sewing table and proceeded to turn a pile of fabric into a cute little tunic top. The entire process – from cutting the fabric out to finishing the seams – took about an hour. I snipped the final strings off, slipped the piece over my head and checked out the finished product in the mirror. I plan to make another version of the shirt, this one a bit longer and with one or two changes. As I looked at the piece in the mirror, though – flaws and all – I felt a little more centered and ready to deal with the rest of the day.
As I said, sewing is my Zen. It is what I turn to when I feel the world spiraling out of control around me. I suppose that’s because it’s something that I can control to some degree. I can determine what kind of fabric I’m going to use, what color thread I’ll put in my machine or thread through my hand needle. I am the one who decides on the next project to start. I sit in my chair and breath in and out and listen to the hum of my machine. I watch the needle bob up and down with mindfulness and concentration which, as you might remember, are elements of the practice of Zen meditation.
Sewing is my Zen. What’s yours?