Thursday, February 24, 2011

Zen and the Art of Landscape Maintenance

“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.”
~ Buddha

Most people today seem to be constantly busy --constantly rushing from one place to another -- constantly texting or talking on cell phones or checking the internet or listening to music.

The big problem with that, for me anyway, is that my mind doesn’t have the chance to just open up and think. I’m assaulting it with so much activity, that there are no empty spaces in there for original thoughts or discovery or enlightenment.

I’ve read quite a few self-help and philosophy books in my life and many of them say that you should learn to meditate--that you should set aside time and clear your mind and not focus on anything, except perhaps your breathing. You should try to attain what is called “zen mind”. I just can’t do it. I never have been able to. Either my mind just continues to race or I fall asleep, trying.

That is, until I step into my garden. There is just something about working outside in nature that gets me more in touch with my inner thoughts. The deeper my hands dig into the soil, the deeper my thoughts seem to become.

One of my favorite activities for deep thought in the garden is hand-pulling weeds. Manually pulling weeds is one of the best forms of organic weed control. It's easy to do, doesn't pollute the environment, and its free!

When I weed, I go out into my yard, sit down on the grass, sometimes on a towel or a short stool, take a deep breath, and using a weeding fork or trowel, I start removing weeds.

When I find a weed, I grab the plant close to the ground, insert my weeding fork or other tool into the soil and gently loosen the roots of the weed and remove the plant.

I’m careful not to dig too deep so I don’t disturb the roots of any nearby plants or bring deeply buried weed seeds up closer to the surface where they could sprout.

As long as the weeds don’t have any seeds on them, I pile them up to toss into my compost pile.

I’m not sure why this process is so relaxing. Perhaps its because it takes enough concentration to keep my mind from wandering anywhere else. I have to focus on finding the weeds and digging down deep enough to get all of the root. And it takes just the right amount of pressure. Pulling too hard will tear the leaves off the plant, leaving the roots behind. But it is also a rather mindless activity, leaving me time to concentrate on the other sights and sounds around me. And then every now and then, out of no where, some really deep thought will pop into my mind.

It makes me wonder if Buddha, the original “father” of Zen thinking, spent much time in a garden.

Back around 500 B.C., Siddhartha Gautama (also known as Buddha) set out to achieve enlightenment. It took him years of struggle, but he finally realized that “everything changes, nothing remains unchanged”. His conclusion from all of this was that the only thing that is really important in life is the joy and pleasure and experience we receive from each passing moment.

Unhappiness, Buddha decided, is a result of attachment to specific things or circumstances which, by their very nature, are impermanent. “By ridding oneself of these attachments, one can be free of suffering.” This is the basis of Zen and somehow, to me, it all seems very relevant to gardening.

We all have certain attachments to ideas about what our gardens should be. And then along comes the weather (freezing temperatures, drought), financial restraints, homeowners regulations and other things that can interfere with our grand schemes – like weeds. What’s a gardener to do?

Perhaps the secret is to adopt some Zen thinking for our gardens. No matter what we plant or how much money and time we spend in the garden, none of it is permanent. Instead of measuring our gardens in the number of beautiful blooms and fruit-bearing plants, perhaps we should measure the success of our gardens in the number of enjoyable moments we spend there.

Certainly there is no pleasure in dousing weeds with broad spectrum herbicides, polluting the planet as you go. But to gently reach down into the earth and pull these stray plants free, listening and watching and inhaling all of the sights and sounds and smells around you….those are the moments that can turn landscape maintenance into landscape magic.

Perhaps that is what Buddha was doing when he said:

“When you realize how perfect everything is you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky” ~ Buddha

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