I find when talking to non-meditators that I really can’t explain the appeal of a zen meditation retreat. They can be tedious, painful (emotionally and physically), and often cold (or too hot – really there’s no perfect temperature when you are sitting on the floor for hours at a time). There are weird rituals around everything, and all that empty time allows one to pick apart whatever the mind latches onto (the food, the teacher, the person you are sitting beside, your life choices).
And yet. Our retreats fill up year after year with people who “get it”, who understand the power of sitting with other people in stillness and how that has to unfold over hours, days, and sometimes weeks to really penetrate the noise of everyday life.
As I wrote in my last post, I am still working on my samue set with a goal of having it finished and in the wash by tomorrow. I got the jacket done on Monday and it turned out beautifully. Now I’m working on the pants which I feel confident about, having made the pattern twice already in test versions. This is the second set of meditation-specific clothes I have made, which is still not enough sets for a 7-day retreat, but really, only one more set to go and I will have a full “wardrobe”. That third set might be practice robes, but I have a bit of an aversion to wearing those, and they take 8 yards of fabric, so it might just be another samue set. We’ll see.
This retreat I will also be sitting on a meditation bench that I made a couple of years ago. I’m not a woodworker, so the finish on it isn’t very good, but it’s become the only bench I can sit on for any length of time so it’s coming with me to this retreat.
This process of making things for daily and ritual use, is like the retreat experience in which I have a hard time explaining to non-makers the satisfaction of building one’s own material life. Sewing, weaving, woodwork are all sources of great aggravation to me. I get frustrated and make frequent mistakes, turning out items that are far from perfect. I am not always graceful in accepting the learning curve that each skill takes (just ask Brian about my sourdough bread meltdown on the weekend).
And yet. Each time I reach into my wardrobe, kitchen towel drawer, or quilt chest and pull out an item I’ve made, no matter how imperfect, I experience a small pleasure in the object I am holding. In the mornings, when I tuck my meditation bench underneath me, I feel supported by the product of my own hands as well as my daily practice. The home-canned goods in my pantry feed our household, and our community.
I’m not going to gloss over the fact that there is a tremendous amount of privilege in being able to devote time and resources to my life in this way. I have a job that only requires 37.5 hours a week and remunerates me properly, I don’t have kids at home, I have stable housing and live in a place with clean food and water. All of this is true.
But what’s also true is that there is room out there for many of us to make small choices towards a life that we understand through the lens of our own labour. It is as simple as canning our own pasta sauce or sewing a tote bag out of an old pair of blue jeans or fabric from the thrift store. To be fair, this won’t change the world one bit, but it will change your life. In ways I can’t really explain, but that penetrate deeply.
I have work to do, pants to sew, and a walking date later this afternoon. There’s such a bigger conversation here I want to have – about the future of the planet, about how we don’t see the truth of how we live – but I’m thinking about all of this as I sew. Thinking about the world I would rather live in and breaking my consumer impulses in favour of making my own life one small item at a time.
Producing the things you use is the ultimate psych job against capitalism. The notion of ROI gets erased just a little with every cut, bang, and stitch.
Am I a broken record on this issue? I might be.
And yep, it sometimes means living with an imperfection. I recognize the impulse to be, or maybe the headtape that demands we be, excellent at everything, that can turn some random setback or accident into “I failed personally, hara kiri is too good for me.” It’s hard to shut off, and I just realized while typing this that it might be a capitalist tape. An internalized notion that /every/ activity must have some minimum metric of “worthwhile.”