If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.
Dorothy, The Wizard of Oz
In both the East and the West, gardening has been used as part of contemplative practice. In the East, sages went to the forest, and spent some of their time gardening as a form of contemplative practice around their dwellings. The first Guru of the Sikhs included farming as part of a meditation on the wonders of creation. All the seers came to the conclusion that inner gardening, just like outer gardening, is a job of a lifetime. While traditional gardening focuses on the cultivation of plants and flowers, inner gardening focuses on the cultivation of one’s inner self. For inner gardening, just like outer gardening, we need help from experienced people and spiritual masters. For that we have to find the right master who could illuminate the path for us. We not only have to value the master but also master his/her values which are in concert with our true yearnings.
It is the law of nature that things have to die so that their energy can be incorporated into new life. Gardening exemplifies this phenomenon beautifully. In thinking through the similarities between outer gardening and inner gardening, I believe there are 4 steps to the cycle: (1) sprouting, (2) growth, (3) full bloom, and (4) golden dying. Through this pattern, the seed and our inner self may realize their full potential.
During the sprouting phase of a plant, the seed must die to give rise to the plant. The seed is buried under the dark incubator of soil which has been readied for receiving the seed. In the silence of the darkness in the soil, the seed frees itself from its inert state and a new life springs forth. Then, in the second stage, the new plant born out of the seed moves into a growth phase. It draws nutrition from the soil and tender care and love from the nature and the gardener.
In the third stage of full bloom, the plant reaches its zenith, basking in the glorious sunshine feeling a sense of immortality. Then the act of dying begins. The leaves change color and eventually fall back on the ground. In the process, seeds also fall on the ground. This loss propels the start of a new cycle, with some seeds from the dying plant getting buried in the soil naturally and some with the help provided by the gardener. The incubation starts again. The cycle is perpetually repeated where the seed is constantly called to embark on the journey of self-exploration.
We must cultivate our own garden.
Voltaire, Candide (1759)
We can consider our life, from conception to death, in a cycle similar to that of a plant. This pattern can also be used to understand the journeys of relationships, business, and spiritual quests.
In our journey of personal growth, the sprouting phase is when the seed of the deep desires rooted in our personal truths that we often shy away from confronting are awakened. Our inner monastery is the sacred incubation ground. If the soil of the heart is softened by introspection, the seed will take root. This stage is the most difficult, as confronting our personal truth can be a difficult. The process of seeing ourselves without the mask which we have nurtured as our “true self” is a fearful process. It requires adopting a warrior’s mindset and shedding one’s ego. If the heart is in the right place then the agony of sprouting lends to ecstasy.
In the growth stage, the awakening of the slumbering spirit starts happening. The seeker starts seeing flickering lights of virtues in his/her inner cosmos. A devoted seeker appreciates the fact that the effort is the only thing that is in his/her control. The seeker constantly meditates on the path that lays ahead. By constant attention, the growth gets well on its way, with minor setbacks here and there.
In the third stage, full bloom happens. Just like fruits and flowers are post meditative states of the seed, right actions in concert with unencumbered true nature become the seeker’s post meditative state. This is the most desired state of a spiritual quest, but at the same time it is fraught with dangers.
False pride and a sense of self-righteousness can take over the ego that was reduced to minor nuisance, allowing it to come back in its new avatar with a vengeance. One can develop the tendency of having a “holier than thou” attitude. This midway point of the journey requires a lot of reflection and solitude. Dante, addressing losing purpose said, “Midway in my life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods. The right road lost.” To continue through this phase, one needs to approach life with gratitude, humility, and nonattachment. This applies to our personal spiritual quests, but also the way we approach business and relationships.
In the fourth stage, the season of golden dying begins. The seeker is at peace and is in perfect communion with the forces of life. The heart learns the lesson of non-attachment and learns to rest in ever changing mystery. It recognizes that even with all the ignorance, and fear, the heart can stay on the path of love. The spiritual path is imperfect and it learns to live with inner contradictions. The seeker realizes that if he/she gives in to the forces of life, life will perpetually renew itself. It is time to say goodbye to the ideas that have served him well, but have outlived their utility. The new truth discovered during the journey requires a paradigm shift. Consistency is sure death. Faithfulness to the spiritual journey and non-attachment to specific beliefs is a path to move forward.
In outer gardening, the composting of dead leaves, branches and plants serve the new seed well. Similarly, it is said that in an examined life everything is compost where nothing is wasted. The soil fed to the heart includes good or bad past experiences, regrets, pain, and waste created by our actions. Using these lessons learnt, our journey moves purposefully on the axis of time, enjoying the perpetual interplay between powers within and powers which are beyond.
A good gardener pays as much attention to weeds as it does to plants. In a garden overcrowded with weeds, plants will eventually die. In our personal journey, weeds are ideas, thoughts, and endeavors that serve no purpose, but cloud our vision and make the journey foggy. The clogging of the mind with too many ideas impedes and stifles spiritual growth. A single-minded focus rooted in personal truth is all that is required.
This year, I have gotten back into gardening after not having done so for a few years. Gardening allows me to grow herbs and vegetables in my backyard and also offers a tool for contemplation and spiritual uplifting. While out in my backyard, I discovered that the heart has the fathomless capacity to cross tumultuous rough seas of worries and fear and still be at peace.
The plant grows with the sublime radiance of infrared heat and it communicates with its neighbors using infrared sound. Humans cannot hear infrared sound and cannot see light below red. Experientially, the spirit sees and hears both. Since the experience can’t be bound by words, therefore it remains out of bounds of human vocabulary. Sometimes in the garden, I experience fleeting moments of my spirit being lifted by these forces. That miniscule moment gives meaning to the whole endeavor.
Earlier this summer on June 23rd of this year, I was working in the garden and the sun was slowly settling down in the west. All of a sudden the wind picked up. It felt as though it was coming from all directions. It reminded me of a Lakota, a Native American Indian Tribe, belief that for a person on a spiritual quest these winds blow to implore the person to have courage, endurance, vision, and faith in spirit. Once one has cultivated these virtues, the journey will be full of bliss in spite of difficulties and occasional setbacks.
Soon after, a heavy downpour started that lasted for about an hour. It looked as if the lightning, thunder, and wind were playing hide and seek, and as soon as the rain stopped, the sun appeared. It was changing color from white, to yellow, and then to some red. The light reflected on our swimming pool was creating rainbow colors, like planktons on luminous lakes upon disturbance.
At around 8:20 pm, the aura around the sun was various shades of red. I felt impelled to take a picture of it. In a few minutes, the sun rays changed color to deep red, losing themselves in the bosom of the night. It was like lava merging into the darkness of the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii. A sense of wonder came over me and reminded of a Sikh evening prayer where the founder of the religion, Guru Nanak, marvels at wonder which is the universe. The beauty of the universe reverberated in me. It gave me a feeling of melancholic joy and my eyes welled up. I didn’t need to ask why.