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The Garden Path

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

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.

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.

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.


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