Just Doing in the Midst of Emotional Difficulty

I had an odd yet intense spiritual experience recently. I’ve been meaning to sit and write of it since but find myself feeling both daunted and also maybe a bit too insecure to share due to the personal nature.

However, I feel that it’s for the best to do so. So, I will try to write this in a manner that’s without a flavor of gossip or personal samsaric rumination.

Recently, I was dumped by someone for whom I really cared. I thought that she and I had a future together, and I had been working hard to convince her to work towards that with me. Ultimately, there was some disconnect that could not be bridged, so that path is gone.

That’s just background, though. It’s not the focus.

I was in the middle of knitting a hat for her when she broke up with me via text. I saw this turn as a likelihood, but it didn’t take away the surprise, due to sheer undesirability if nothing else. However, I was left with a quandary: what to do with this knitting project that I was roughly halfway done with? I had sunk in about 30 hours of work, and I knew that I had that much more to go to reach the end. I wouldn’t want to keep it for myself. My roommate tried to claim it, but that felt weird to me as well. I also didn’t want to tear it up and reuse the yarn or throw it away…. So, what?

I decided to finish it and send it to her, knowing that it wouldn’t change anything, just for the pure act of completing a gift I had planned and giving it. Doing this in the miasma of feelings I had, especially spending 10s of hours and 1000s of stitches wading through to the end, was incredibly difficult emotionally. Knitting is soothing, usually. In part, I think I’ve gravitated toward it over the last few months as a sort of mindful, therapeutic practice to help me through one of the most stressful times of my life, but this time, it was mindful in the opposite way. I had to show up and be present for every single stitch. Furthermore, there were a couple points where I overlooked something in the directions and had to “tink” (backtrack/unstitch) a full round or more. Each round was 144 stitches, so those events meant a lot of time reversing just to do those stitches over again.

One of the key takeaways for me in pretty much every version of Buddhism is to sit with whatever arises, without attachment or aversion. It sounds simple, but it is incredibly difficult to actually do. Sitting through an emotionally laden task just to reach the end of it was sitting with whatever arose — the beauty, the despair, the fatigue, the joy. An experience like that really reminds you that we have a variety of emotions that are intertwined in our life. Even darkness has the flickers of stars, the moon, and fireflies. Over the hours, I walked through a lot of darkness, and it was quite the experience — one I feel I’m failing to capture in words here.

By the end, I felt acceptance for whatever arose in my situation as well, as uncomfortable and unwanted as it may be. I was reminded time and again of the Zen saying: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Sitting and working on the project to the end, merely to give it away as planned, without attachment or clinging to any reactions (as difficult and tiring as that was) felt like this. It felt as being engaged fully in the project, watching my story of ego flit by without it attaching to me or stopping the task. Ego struggled to push, pull, drive an emotional reaction to everything that was happening, especially the symbolism of the 1000s of stitches left in my hand. However, I’m also reminded of another quote that always signifies to me the process of beginning and completion:

a thousand-mile journey
begins with a single step

Tao Te Ching verse 64, trans. Hinton

In every moment, there is just this, just this step. There is just the chopping wood, just the carrying water. We live our lives, already in the midst of nirvana, but as the sages would tell us: we still need to fill our bellies and those of others. Daily life goes on, even after enlightenment. We merely can show up to it without the struggle of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. Our minds, the interpreters that build the five aggregates which lead to an emotional reaction and narrative built on top of our experience of now are challenged to the core to sit and just do, just be. This experience was that. It was a shikantaza of knitting, and I’m grateful to have sat with it.

May this inspire readers to sit with their most difficult experiences and find peace and insight in the process.