We’ve all noticed it: knitting has seen a huge surge in popularity within the last decade. Similarly, Buddhism—especially its meditation and mindfulness aspects—has experienced the same rise in popularity. Popular culture analysts theorize that the growth in both activities is part of the same phenomenon: people are increasingly disenchanted with America’s heavy materialism, especially in light of the terrorist attacks of September 11 and the increasing uncertainty brought by the economy and the war. Instead, we want something deeper, more resonant and calming. Knitting and Buddhism seem ready to supply that.
We knitters can see another trend: the publication of books with titles like Zen and the Art of Knitting, Mindful Knitting, and The Knitting Sutra—blurring the boundaries between the two practices. However, if we look beyond the surface of these similarities, we may be able to find a deeper connection between knitting and Buddhism: from new insights springing up in scientific circles, to discussions of personal practice, and even in examining Buddhist principles with a knitter’s eye.
While Zen and the Art of [place your hobby here] books have been popular for almost a half of a century, it was not until Harvard doctor and researcher Herbert Benson published The Relaxation Response that research into the meditative qualities of certain Eastern and Western practices began to receive attention. In the volume, Benson paired Eastern meditative, mindful and other religious techniques with “Western” triggers that elicited the same response, the relaxation response.
Benson defines the relaxation response as the opposite to the oft-touted flight or fight response, as the body’s way to restore balance in stressful situations. It can be triggered by any number of activities: running, washing dishes, meditation, repetitive prayer—and of course, knitting.
These triggers often fall under the same category, that of repetitive visuo-spatial activity, in which the same movement, often simple, is repeated continually, relying on hand-eye coordination. The trigger relies on two steps also found within Buddhist mediation and mindfulness practice. First, one focuses on a repeated action, sound, or prayer. Second, if there are any intrusions on this repetition, one passively puts them aside without judgment.
Of course, knitting is not inherently Buddhist, or even spiritual. But we can make it so when we practice it in a certain way, focusing on what Catherine Hinard points out as its inherent traits of meditation and mindfulness. We already apply patience, repetition and centeredness to our craft—by adding a deeper connection and a spirituality to our stitching, knitting can become something more.
Before we compare Buddhism and knitting further, we should take a look at the dark side of practices that become popular in America. Media tends to oversimplify and possess popular pursuits in a way that often mutates them into something that they are not. Suddenly, we knitters are all part of the “new yoga” even if we’ve never done Downward Facing Dog, stitching away at a craft that is “not your grandmother’s hobby,” and grouped into the hip “Stitch n Bitch niche,” even if we’ve lived in the same small town in upstate Minnesota for the past 60 years. Similarly, perhaps you’re “Buddhist” if you eschew meat, war and violence, keep a Buddha in your car or cubicle, and love to meditate (extra points if you do it in a barren room).
In short, we have to be careful in examining the relationship between knitting and Buddhism in order to not take away from each practice’s complexity and uniqueness.
That said, it’s pretty cool to see the similarities that do spring up between the two. For example, research is showing that knitting and mindfulness/meditation have quite a bit in common in the way that they shape and influence the brain, producing remarkably similar effects on individuals. University of Wisconsin professor Richard Davidson proved that just eight weeks of mindful practice heightens the immune system and has permanent positive influence on the brain and its functions. Meanwhile, other researchers, such as Betsan Corkhill, an ex-physiotherapist studying knitting’s therapeutic qualities and health benefits, have reported the same results (read her very cool article here).
Additionally, the left frontal lobe of frequent knitters and mindfulness practitioners becomes permanently enlarged, due to the increased production of theta and alpha waves, which in turn bring down, as Herbert Benson noted, stress levels and negative thought cycles. An enlarged left frontal lobe signifies permanent brain “damage,” if you will—in this case, a positive mood quality that lingers even when not engaged in practice.
In another recent study in the U.K., researchers proved that engaging in a repetive visuo-spatial activity before, during, or after a traumatic event lowered the risk of PTSD and negative flashbacks. Repetitive movements also increase production of serotonin, lowering symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Similarly, research has begun to show that mindfulness and meditation provides positive moods and even improve our sense of humor; and research goes so far as to indicate that in altering our reactions to be more positive— even in daily experiences—we can in fact alter gene expression.
There are more benefits to be found in the altered brains of both knitters and meditation and mindfulness practitioners: decreased infertility and digestion issues, increased energy in cancer patients, and reduced pain in chronic sufferers.
The formation of a stitch, the repetition of a pattern, the recitation of a mantra, the deliberation of a walking meditation, the creation of a mandala: all of these are examples of the inherent and beneficial repetitive aspects of knitting and Buddhism.
Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Buddhist practitioners have already used knitting and other forms of needlework in their practice. In one retreat focusing on Vipassana meditation, participants focused in silence on their needlework for an hour. In the next hour, they continued with their needlework, but communicated with each other about their lives. Many reported being able to speak and listen on a deeper more connected level due to the hour spent contemplating their needlework.
Western scientists and philosophers have always been deeply skeptical of evidence gathered from introspection and personal experience. However, the Dalai Lama speaks of this being a key element to the Buddhist contemplation of the mind, and many of us knitters would say that it is common to us as well. Therefore, it seems only fitting to visit Ravelry and hear from those who integrate their craft with their Buddhist spiritual practice, or relate the one to the other.
Some knitters, instead of using a direct fusion of knitting practice and dharma practice, view “knitting as perfectly compatible with my Buddhist practice in that it works alongside it.” That is, these knitters find and describe key ideas and concepts of Buddhism in their practice of knitting.
Knitting seems especially connected with Vipassana meditation, Loving Kindness principles and mindfulness. Vipassana meditation is the training of insight to develop a sense of self-inquiry, self-understanding and wisdom that leads to a transformation in which non-attachment and impermanence are finally understood. Knitting occupies certain parts of our brains, leaving other parts free to work out problems and to take a look at ourselves through the lens of the non-judgmental part of the brain. Julie Nelson is a yoga therapist, knitter and Buddhist who is currently writing a book on insight knitting, which is a meditation practice that is precisely based off of these concepts. The activity of making a stitch works as both a catalyst and a background to the work of gaining awareness.
Related to Vipassana meditation is Samatha meditation, where the meditator concentrates on a repetition in order to still the mind through this focus. Even though most knitters do not utilize their knitting specifically as a meditational or spiritual practice, it is the rare knitter indeed who does not at some point experience the calming, centering and mindful benefits common in both activities. Unfortunately, these same qualities are grossly overemphasized in American society, especially in the context of meditation— perhaps creating the vision of knitting as the “new yoga.” Knitters also use their craft as a mindfulness activity, making the knitter aware of the present moment through the miniscule movements of the each stitch, as is so well demonstrated in Tara Jon Manning’s Mindful Knitting.
Some knitters use their knitting to exercise the practice of Loving Kindness, or a similar practice, tonglen. They cast on and knit something specifically for someone who has made them angry or hurt them in some way to develop compassion and love towards these individuals.
When I first started studying Buddhism and came across the idea of impermanence, my first thought was of knitting a gauge swatch. Spending time knitting something that is ripped out moments after it is done is no small introduction to impermanence. The knitter of socks also knows this: creating thousands of stitches is an act of love that teaches impermanence the moment the first heel develops a hole. In fact it is necessary, if you wish to keep knitting socks, to develop a Buddhist practice of nonattachment as well when these socks are worn thin or accidentally thrown in the dryer. Many knitters who stitch for others—both loved ones and charities are also experts in these principles.
In one study, the majority of knitters said that knitting for others was just as or more meaningful than knitting for oneself. In her book Mindful Knitting, Tara Jon Manning says that through knitting for others, we see beyond ourselves, and thus, see things more clearly. In brain science, when we act mindfully, we slow down the critical and judgmental parts of ourselves that tend to act selfishly, and instead, see more value in acting communally and compassionately towards others, which is a key principle the Buddha taught.
Even the tools of knitting can be seen through a Buddhist eye. The finite inflexible needles can be compared to the short karmic lives each of us lives on the infinite wheel of samsara, so like the unending amount of yarn we can knit with: when one skein ends, we can simply add another with no interruption in the cloth. The needles we use on the row before—and how we use them to make the stitches—influences what happens on the following row, illustrating the principle of karma. There are any number of ways to knit, tools used, and cloth created, similar to the practices and principles of Buddhism.
While knitting and Buddhism are independent of each other and thoroughly complex in their own rights, the similarities we can see in the two show us a resemblance deeper than any arbitrary pairing of two practices.
If you’re interested, here are some places to read more (i.e. some of the places where I got my research):
Betsan Corkhill. “Therapeutic Knitting”
Herbert Benson. The Relaxation Response
Catherine Hinard. “Knitting as Spiritual Practice”
Susan Gordon Lydon. The Knitting Sutra
Bernadette Murphy. Zen and the Art of Knitting
Ravelry. “Buddhism, Mindfulness and Knitting”
Rosine Ferber. “The Psychotherapeutic and Transpersonal Aspects of the Art and Practice of Hand Knitting”
Emily Holmes. “Trauma Films, Information Processing, and Intrusive Memory Development”