Saturday, May 07, 2005

why I (love to) knit.

(note: I've been trying to put this into words for awhile now; this is the best I can do this morning, and I may return to this thought in the future. I warn you that it might not be your cup of tea.....)

Through knitting in class, I’ve remembered what it’s like to divide my attention.

I’ve been trying to come up with a good way to explain it, but all I can do is share my experiences in hopes that they’ll make sense. The background info that I’ve tried (many times) to incorporate into this just doesn’t fit, but I will say that now that I using all of the tracks/channels/streams of thought in my mind (again), I’m a much happier person.

An exercise to divide one’s attention: pick a piece of music that you are familiar with, and know the “in’s and out’s.” It works best if it’s an instrumental piece, and something with many types of musical instruments. I keep a variety of cd’s in my car and the one I fall back on is Heartland; it’s a collection of “fiddle” music and has a variety of styles of music on it. (I linked it so you could listen to the type of music I’m talking about.) The first thing I do is listen to the first few moments of a song and take the whole piece in. I listen to what the strongest section is, and allow myself to hear just the “biggest” or “strongest” part. Then I allow myself to acknowledge it, and let it “fall away” from my attention. What I was just focusing on is still there, but I shift my focus to another instrument, or another section of the piece. I try and pick out one single “line” of notes, and once I’ve “got” it, see if I can broaden my attention to the whole piece again. When I have the whole piece again I see if I can listen for the aspect I was just focusing in on, and if I can listen to how the smaller section plays a larger role in the entire song. Initially it was hard for me to effortlessly move between instruments or sections of a piece of music, but with “practice” (I use that term only because I can’t think of a better word to use!) it became easier and almost second nature for me to “float” through a musical piece.

Another exercise is thinking about how a mom of young kids can keep track of everything going on in a busy situation; I’ve witnessed moms pull together multiple kids and dogs and hats and coats and snacks and phone calls and stuffed animals all the while keeping up in a conversation with me. I asked one how she learned how to do it, and she said she couldn’t ever remember not doing it. If I think back to situations I’d been in like that, I had to agree; I was able to get several kids of varying ages out of the house on time with several unforeseen events along the way.

Using intention to shift my attention is one of the things knitting in class has re-taught me how to do. While in college I was able to sit in class and simply absorb all of the information that was being thrown at me; my scribbles of notes would help me remember key points, but in general I felt like I got it all when I left a lecture. After the car accident it was as though my thought process has become dull, and my memory wasn’t working. Now I know that it was because I was in “survival” mode, and was doing all I could to just get through whatever was going on (I returned to college to get through the last few months so I could graduate; I made it through the medical school admissions process so I could get to med school). Instead of using all of the different levels of my attention, I was “stuck” in one train of thought. It’s been three years, and it’s only been in the past few months that I’ve been able to put together how I used to think.

Knitting in class started as a coping skill during my first year of medical school, though I didn’t know that at the time. I picked up the needles again because I was spending an awful lot of time in lectures, and I was sure I could be more productive with my time. (I was also a broke grad student who figured I could knit everyone a scarf for Christmas that year!) Eventually I knit so that I could figuratively step back from the lecture and focus on what was going on with my needles. It offered me a break from situations I was unhappy being in (hours and hours of lectures), and gave me a “way out” in my mind’s eye. I also found that I could keep up with the lecture and take notes as needed without thinking about what my hands were doing; they could knit and purl and turn my work by themselves.

This year I had the opportunity to work with a few different clinicians during one of my classes. Almost all who saw me knitting commented that they wish they’d had something “like that” to do while they were in class, and a few said that learning how to do more then one thing at a time now would be helpful for me when I was seeing patients. I pushed them to see what they really meant, and one person likened it to listening to a stethoscope on someone’s chest and hearing not only the heartbeat but also the patient’s breathing, and the sounds of their lunch digesting. Some people will put the stethoscope on to listen to only the heartbeat and they’re missing out on all the other information.

This made sense to me and in the past few months I’ve used my intention to shift my attention in many situations. Med school can lead people to think on one track, and for most that is perfectly acceptable. I spoke with musically gifted doctor who said that it wasn’t until she finished school that the ever present “song in her head” returned. It bothered her more to know that she hadn’t noticed it missing then it did that it wasn’t there! Like that doctor I’d come to think that this was how it was “supposed” to be. Now I’ve found that by using more then “one track” I’m better able to remember the information I read/see/write and hear, and in general the material is clearer. After the accident I complained that it was as though my brain and memory had taken off, and “gone’ somewhere. I’m happy to say that it’s back.

The problem with having my mind working together in a million different ways is that it can be hard to settle it down. Again, I turn to my knitting. Trying to focus on just the stitches between my fingers instead of worrying about what I need to be doing and where I need to be is another exercise I try and practice. Some may argue that it’s not meditation, but it’s the closest I can come up with to quieting my mind, and for now it’s sometimes what I need to do before I go to bed.

I am so glad I picked up my knitting needles last year.


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