Jerry Braza, author of The Seeds of Love, reflects on growing mindful relationships.
Imagine a baby as she leaves the haven of her mother’s womb to be born into the world. Her only major fear comes when she gasps for her first breath. She is surrounded by loving parents and extended family, who celebrate her birth. Her mother is there every moment to hold, stroke, and feed this newborn. The seeds of love have been planted and are already being tended, as each action stems from mindfulness. Mother and child return home to a stable environment in which the primary focus is on this child, as she is welcomed and nurtured in loving ways. Her life’s story continues to follow this pattern as she grows. From her first moments of consciousness, she is aware that she is loved, and she in turn is able to love others as she moves through her life.
We have all seen children growing up in this kind of environment, and I describe the results being like flowers blooming in the most beautiful garden. A child growing up in a family where love abounds, in an environment where she is nurtured by parents who believe in the importance of positive interactions and realize that such is the soil needed for their beloved child—such a child will blossom. The seeds of joy, love, compassion and peace characterize her family. Smiles are celebrated, tears are wiped away with compassion, and the home resonates with peace.
Family and friends also support this little girl in loving ways. In school other caring people who see her unique set of gifts as positive seeds to be watered surround her. Her parents take time to be with her, and she understands that she has value and importance. We can easily project what this child’s life might be like as she grows and learns.
Now reflect on a baby whose conception was unplanned and whose life is more intrusion than blessing. His parents are no longer together. Their lives were marred early on by their own suffering parents. Although this young couple loved as best they could, they had not established a beautiful garden in their relationship. Their own seeds of love and suffering had not been tended and transformed, and they did not have the mindfulness sufficient to nurture those seeds in themselves so they could do the same for their child.
As this child’s parents attempted to find peace and love, they searched for ways to dull the pain of suffering that permeated their lives. Their ability to love and cope was marred by their own toxic behavior and addictions, and they were unable to be present with their newborn. We expect a different outcome for this story. With such an upbringing, this little one might be inclined to violence and could potentially self-medicate to avoid the pain of life.
I have personally witnessed these drastically different scenarios. Through my own Buddhist practice as illuminated by my teacher, Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests “the quality of our lives is based on the quality of seeds in our consciousness.” From this perspective I continue to discover that to live a healthy life, we need to become a master gardener of our consciousness. On my journey—working with individuals, serving as a university professor, and now as a dharma teacher—I realize that every interaction has the potential to create happiness or suffering: That which we nurture is that which we become.
Our life stories are based on the ongoing creation of what is known as “mental formations”—a constellation of events based on what is occurring in our body, what we are feeling, and what we are thinking and perceiving. These stories register in our “mind consciousness”—above the soil of our garden. If these stories continue to remain alive, they become seeds and are deposited in our “store consciousness”—below the soil.
My former experiences as a prison volunteer have taught me how the seeds of affliction can dramatically shape a person’s life and happiness. One particular inmate, whom I supported as pastor and volunteer, is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole. For the last 10 years he has been living in and out of the Intensive Management Unit—a small separate cell with nearly 20 other inmates housed on two tiers. He is constantly bombarded by the collective seeds of affliction planted in the store consciousness of his “cellies.” During his own early years, the seeds of suffering were watered in a challenged family environment. The soil and conditions of his early life were fertile ground for growing the seeds of anger, jealousy, fear, hate, and violence.
I learned that he started on his path to prison in the first grade, when he was caught stealing from his teacher. Later in life, it seemed like every chance he to assert himself ended in destructive acting out. In his early 20s he committed a violent crime that placed him behind bars for life.
In recent years, I visited him monthly to support his interest in Buddhist meditation. He received the Five Mindfulness Trainings (Buddhist Precepts) and started to live his life differently. He described how he practices walking meditation in a narrow, enclosed space in a high-walled corridor with only 15 feet of sky exposed as he looked upward. This is the venue for exercise time in a maximum-security prison. Following 60 minutes of walking meditation and light exercise, he returns to his small cell, where he is in lock-down for the remainder of his day, surrounded by men who have been sentenced for horrendous crimes and who also expect to spend the rest of their lives in prison. Their language alone mirrors the inmates’ inner turmoil and waters the seeds of suffering 24/7.
Despite this horrific environment, my prison friend has found the practice of mindfulness to be a true refuge. He has learned to return to the present moment, realizing this is his only chance to find peace. He writes to tell me that his mindfulness meditation practice has been a saving grace—a means by which to cope with the ongoing violence and verbal assaults that take place around him daily. He continues to transform the seeds of affliction through his sitting and walking meditation and growing knowledge of how to cultivate the garden of his consciousness. He writes for dharma newsletters and shares his journey with our sangha and other dharma teachers. Now in his early 50s, he has nowhere else to go. Every day he regrets the choices that will keep him in that prison the rest of his life. Every day he finds refuge in the present moment. He hopes, through his practice, be a model for the guards and his cellies. In a recent letter he wrote, “Cultivate peace in the garden of your heart by removing the weeds of selfishness and jealousy, greed, anger, pride, and ego. Then all will benefit from your peace and harmony.”
I also knew the little girl who was born into a family who felt blessed by her birth and daily presence with them. She did not thrive simply by chance. Her parents, early in their life together, discovered the importance of the seed of mindfulness. They learned to develop the habit energy of returning to the present moment, both to nurture their love and as the best antidote for survival and well-being in their busy world. They attended many Buddhist mindfulness retreats, and enhanced their relationship through their sangha and daily meditation practice.
Based on that strong foundation, they discovered a desire to share their love, and their beautiful baby was born. Their long-established practice of being present for each other and cultivating loving-kindness now extended to each other and to their little girl. They practiced a mantra suggested by their teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh: “How may I best love you?” They discovered ways to “selectively water” the best seeds in their relationship. In doing so, they learned how to understand each other so they could nurture the seeds of loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity. They allowed their love to be actualized, not simply by sharing the words of love but by discovering that when these seeds were nurtured and acted upon, they found “true love.”
The prophecy for this family and child will be one of awareness and love. The seed of mindfulness was planted, watered, and it slowly penetrated the core of their individual and family consciousness. “Stop, breathe, and smile” became their family mantra—enjoy the present moment. Mindfulness soon became the centerpiece of their garden and all of their relationships. It became a beautiful practice, enabling them to be more present for life and to be with whatever feelings or circumstances emerged. Having all the ingredients of happiness, they did not need to look outside of themselves for fulfillment.
With the seed of mindfulness as the core, they continue to nurture themselves and their daughter. A community of family and friends who share their beliefs reinforces their gardening. By being truly present for others and receiving the same, they discovered that they have all the conditions for happiness in the here and now.
Both stories illustrate how watering the seeds of mindfulness and love has the potential for transforming each person’s journey. Regardless of what seeds were watered early in life, each of us has the ability to transform the present moment through mindfulness. As we look deeply, we can quickly discover that each moment is ripe with possibilities and that the choices we make “moment by moment” can truly define us and guide our lives. By lingering on the positive seeds such as joy, compassion, and loving-kindness—we clearly enable these sprouts of awareness to blossom into a beautiful garden.
Ancient wisdom tells us that even a blade of grass needs whispers of encouragement to grow. How much more do the people in our lives need us to whisper words of love and inspiration on their journey of growth and change? Imagine the face of a child hearing, “You are so precious. You can do it. I’m so glad you were born.” Picture the look on your loved one’s face when you say, “You are perfect as you are. You are such a joy. I am here for you. Thank you for being in my life.” Beautiful seed watering at its finest—that which you nurture is that which you become.”
Jerry Braza, Ph.D., is the author of The Seeds of Love: Growing Mindful Relationships, published by Tuttle Publishing — which includes a foreword by Thich Nhat, in whose lineage Jerry serves as a teacher.