Thursday, November 11, 2010
Tending the Mental Garden
Every spiritual writer through the eons has used the analogy of thoughts as plants in a metaphorical garden.
For me, this metaphor works very well, so, since I think about it nearly every day, I'll share some blooms and weeds with you.
Thich Nhat Hahn says "Water the seeds of joy." It means, what you pay attention to and encourage, will grow. So grow the good thoughts and actions!
I noticed this when I first put some plants in pots in my meditation area outside. Practicing calm abiding for a period of time every day by looking at a variegated begonia, I also began to care very much about the begonia. Since it supported my practice and allowed me to project all my mental patterns on it while it just sat, it became a dear and trusted friend. So I removed its dead leaves and kept it just moist enough—not too moist. After about 6 months of this the plant was very large and beautiful! I did the same with a columbine plant, then my eyes moved around the garden. Soon I was probably doing more gardening than meditation, but Hey, it was peaceful. I'd say mantras and prune the roses, remove the dead bird of paradise spears, and pull weeds.
When my mother, a locally renowned garden writer and teacher, became sick, I left my gardening behind for a few years and tended to her. Our relationship blossomed even as her body withered. She spoke of being able to accept the naturalness of plants aging and dying, even as she fought to stay strong.
After she died, people came out of the woodwork to tell my family what her garden advice had meant to them. My sister and I inherited garden books galore, along with the implicit, unmentioned idea that we should, we must continue to garden.
I came home and took a good look at the weeds, the stumps, the deadness of plants that hadn't been watered or fertilized all winter. I began slowly with weeding and tending some epiphylums I brought home ("airlifted") from my parents' house. I was rewarded by a giant epiphylum blossom within weeks of her death, followed by a rare daylily's bloom. We had a very large earthquake during that period, but I didn't feel it because I was standing on the earth, pulling weeds and trimming overgrown lavender.
If you hate gardening as much as I once did, your eyes glazed over a while back and you're probably checking your email. If you are a gardener, you may be chuckling at the tale of a novice gardener getting hooked on plants. If you, like me, are turning to your garden unexpectedly during this time of turmoil and hyperactivity in the world, you understand. A garden takes so much, but it never pushes or demands. It lies dormant until the time you have the energy and feel the need to shape it up.
Like our minds! Our minds wait, accustomed to our patterns of thought, until we begin to notice those thoughts. In Buddhism we call it mindfulness and awareness when thoughts are observed compassionately but dispassionately. And once you find the state of your mental garden, you can begin to chose how to shape it!
Most meditators, or those starting a contemplative practice of any kind, want to pull the weeds right away. Shocking how many of our thoughts are angry, envious, judgemental of ourselves and others, and how creepingly lazy—like ivy, they are. We decide we don't want a weed, we pull it out, and lo and behold it pokes up again above the surface. Don't give up, we've been told. So we pull the weed again—this time grasping as much of its root as we can and pulling strongly and gently. Victorious, we relax.
You know, next time we look, the weed is back with many friends! At this point our frustration at having to live with this blight for eons feels intense. But we try something new. We don't pull the weeds until after a rain, and they come right out! Easily.
Over the weeks, months, and years that we tend to our gardens, be they mental or true yards, we learn patience and endurance. We get a sense of the vastness of the chore. We find humor. And we observe that those weeds become fewer, smaller, and more manageable over a long time of care.
Simultaneously, we plant the beautiful seeds of love for all beings; generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, meditative concentration, and wisdom—all of the necessary 6 paramitas, or transcendent perfections, that form the basis for spiritual practice and training for the bodhisattva. And we water those seeds of joy—until our lives change even when we aren't practicing.
Lately I've really been wanting to share these thoughts with you. The mind is a garden—tend it well, kindly, and with love for yourself. And never, ever give up.