The Garden Path

It takes root; it grows; it blooms. Cheryl Wilfong on how meditation practice is cultivated like a garden.

Cheryl Wilfong
24 March 2021
Photo by 士航 魏.

A friend who works on an organic farm brought home two trays of lettuce seedling six-packs. The so-called seedlings were not only ready to be transplanted, they were ready to be eaten. That made gardening easy—transplant the lettuce and begin harvesting immediately.

We might find ourselves wanting do the same thing with our spiritual practice, eager to transplant it into our already-too-busy lives so we can harvest the fruits of practice right now. “I should really do yoga every day,” we think. Or we might give ourselves a pep talk, saying, “I could sit every morning and every evening for twenty minutes.”

When trying to transplant a spiritual practice, however, we first need to clear a space in which to sow the seeds of mindfulness. Taking care of a burgeoning Garden of All the Things We Want to Do requires rushing. Our lives might feel more like a loudly babbling stream than a still forest pool. We can try to maintain a way-too-big Garden of Busyness, or we can tend only as much as our tender hearts can open to.

Nowadays we have an extensive stress reduction menu to choose from: meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong. Or, if we’re chasing the endorphins of exercise, we might take up jogging or Pilates, or start working out at a fitness club. Basically we think, “If I just add one more thing to do, I can reduce my stress.” Question this belief. Racing to the gym or meditating with one eye on the clock runs counter to the intent of reducing the stress in our lives.

In our garden, it can be difficult to identify which plant is a weed and which one might actually flower.

Reducing stress, like reducing weight, means subtracting something. In our garden, the first thing we subtract is the weeds. In our daily life we might consider, for instance, how much news we really need. I went on a weekend retreat with my women’s group to Weston Priory in Vermont, where Benedictine monks maintain a farm, gardens, and orchard. They live an engaged life dedicated to justice and nonviolence in the world, yet they told us their only source of news was the Sunday New York Times. Their example inspired me to weed my own news intake, limiting it to once a day.

In our garden, though, it can be difficult to identify which plant is a weed and which one might actually flower. In the spring, we sometimes can’t tell the difference between a goldenrod and a sweet William. How then do we discriminate between weedy activities in our lives and skillful ones, such as meditation, that will sweeten our minds?

Try weeding out junk mail, catalogs, and unsubscribing from nonessential email lists. Write down one or two things you might consider weeding out for a week. TV? Movies? Shopping? People who went on a voluntary fast from their credit cards found they stopped dashing out to the store. They made do with what was on hand at home. And they felt calmer.

Keeping a space clear for meditation requires determination. Neighboring activities will try to encroach on our cleared space. In gardening terminology, such encroaching plants are called spreaders. Think of bee balm or any members of the square-stemmed mint family—if you give them an inch, they’ll take over the yard. Seemingly urgent incoming information will try to crowd out our important relationships, including our relationship to our meditation practice. Consider dividing in half the time you spend social networking. I set a “mindfulness bell” to ring an hour before bedtime on my computer to remind me to turn it off and sit for twenty minutes before going to sleep.

Plant the seeds of mindfulness by focusing on the breath, sounds, or sensations.

Clear some space in your home as well as your schedule. Set up a cushion or a chair. Perhaps use a nearby shelf as an altar. Then commit to sit, at a regular time in this regular place. Set a timer for, say, twenty minutes on your microwave or cellphone.

If you don’t have an established practice, I recommend beginning your meditation by softening the heart. First, visualize a place of still water. This feeling may last for only a second. Notice that. Next, express gratitude for the blessings of your life, even the common things that you take for granted. Third, practice loving-kindness toward yourself. This tenderizing of the heart is like preparing the soil in our garden—we turn the soil and add the compost of caring. Then we plant the seeds of mindfulness by focusing on the breath, sounds, or sensations. After your timer goes off, try to sit in a chair by a window with a nice view, or perhaps on a deck. With a cup of tea in hand, contemplate an aspect of a recent dharma reading. or stroll around a garden.

You know what your houseplants look like if you forget to water them for a while. The same thing happens with our meditation practice if we neglect it for a couple of weeks, or even for a few days. We water our practice by sitting daily. We support our practice by sitting weekly with a group. We fertilize our practice by reading dharma books or listening to dharma talks.

Occasionally we take our practice to a retreat center, where it may flower or bear fruit, as a plant will do in a greenhouse. On retreat we have just the right conditions—a schedule, nutritious meals that are prepared for us, and only the belongings that fit into one suitcase. Amazing how little we need to live comfortably for a week or so. Simplifying our lives gives us breathing space. One advantage of going on retreat is that someone else tells us what to weed out of our daily routine at the retreat center: no reading, no writing, no cellphones, no computer. No wonder life feels calmer.

The spring or fall of our lives can be conducive to transplanting a meditation practice.

A gardening adage about perennials says: “The first year they sleep. The second year they creep. The third year they leap.” This means that when you transplant perennials into your garden, they just sort of sit there the first year. But underground they are developing a root system that will sustain them for a long time. Our meditation practice requires this sort of patience. First we simply sit on the cushion and develop the habit of sitting. During the second year, perennials begin to look more robust—they bloom and begin to grow. The third year they are fully established in their new location and have a serious growth spurt. Some perennials are even slower, such as my climbing hydrangea that took five years to grow three feet. Then it grew three feet the following year. Now it covers half the side of my house, and a robin nests in it each spring. Our meditation practice needs time to flower and bear the fruits of a spiritual life.

Transplanting season does come to an end. The spring or fall of our lives can be conducive to transplanting a meditation practice, while the summer of our lives may be totally booked with work, family, and paying off the mortgage. In the winter of our lives, when we are on our deathbed, the elements of earth, water, heat, and air are likely to be out of balance, and possibly very uncomfortable. That’s when the mindfulness we’ve been nurturing, the wisdom we’ve gleaned from our practice, will support us—just when we need it the most.

Cheryl Wilfong

Cheryl Wilfong

Cheryl Wilfong is the author of The Meditative Gardener: Cultivating Mindfulness of Body, Feelings, and Mind.