Discovering the life worth living:

“Gardening can be understood as a form of space-time medicine,” says Dr. Sue Stuart-Smith, author of the highly acclaimed book The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature.

In a recent interview for a New York Times article, Why Gardening Offers a ‘Psychological Lifeline’ in Times of Crisis,[1] Stuart-Smith, a practising psychiatrist, describes gardening as “an accessible form of creativity [which] allows us to bring something new into the world.”

What Stuart-Smith says about gardening as a therapeutic activity and the peace to be discovered in self-forgetfulness, resonates deeply with the wisdom and healing processes of meditation.

The gardener comes to see and accept their participation in a creative process much larger than themselves, which holds everything, in which you can “lose” yourself and “find” yourself and touch a place of calm and peace:

There is a paradox here: Gardening is empowering, and it’s also disempowering. It feels enormously empowering to harvest your own pumpkins and share your delicious tomatoes. You know you’ve made something good happen, and you can share the pleasure and the nourishment.

I see gardening as a coming together of human creative energy and nature’s creative energy. This can make it more accessible than other creative, therapeutic activities.

Learning to paint, you start with a blank canvas — it’s all down to you. In the garden, we are facilitating a creative process, and we can feel a wonderful sense of achievement when it goes well, although really nature has done most of it.

As part of that, we have to accept that we’re not fully in control…

People tend to see gardening as a hobby, an activity, but I think it’s primarily a relationship. Many gardeners speak of the importance of feeling part of something larger than themselves. This is where the deeper existential experiences in the garden come from, this feeling of being part of the web of life.

To be a gardener, you need to tune in to how the plants are doing, and attend to what they need. Many gardeners also testify to a feeling of receiving something in return — of being gifted, almost, whether through beauty or the food they harvest.

People often describe losing themselves in the garden. Therapeutically, this is important. When the ego falls away and we are at one with a task, we experience a sense of inner calm. For people who are depressed or struggling with anxious or negative thoughts, that switching off the dialogue in their head can be very, very helpful.

The immersive quality of gardening helps pull us into the present moment.

As with gardening, “the immersive quality” of meditation gently releases us from the constricting bonds of our preoccupations and helps bring us home to the gift of our life in the present moment.

As the gardener loses themselves in the garden through a therapeutic falling-away of the ego and comes to “experience a sense of inner calm,” the meditator loses themselves in their practice and in self-forgetfulness touches the ever-present peace within them.

At the heart of the Christian contemplative tradition (and all the great contemplative traditions of the world) is a radical, often challenging and sometimes mind-boggling message: the peace we seek (all we ultimately seek) is right here, buried in the soil of our life like a precious jewel, even as our life might be feeling very far from peaceful.

If God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, as St. Augustine tells us,[2] our very being, as the author of the Cloud of Unknowing teaches,[3] we need not worry ourselves by thinking we need to acquire what isn’t missing. Rather, we need to realise what is always present and available because it is the very essence of who we are.

This realisation is not something we can bring about. It is all gift. Our only work is the slow, steady businesses of allowing and receiving this gift.

Gardening, says Dr Stuart-Smith, is primarily a relationship. So, too, the practice of meditation (and all prayer). The gardener and the meditator have to accept that they’re “not fully in control.” Both lose themselves and find themselves by way of engaged, receptive release.

This losing which opens into finding, releasing which opens into touching, has nothing at all to do with achieving special mental states or feelings, with what we experience or don’t experience in meditation.

In meditation we let go of any thoughts or concern about how our practice or life should look or feel.

We cannot lose ourselves as long as we continue to grip tightly to the idea of someone seeking to achieve or obtain, feel or experience something. It’s difficult to become self-forgetful if we are always remembering ourselves. Instead, we quietly immerse ourselves in tilling the soil of the present moment, allowing and working with whatever happens to be here.

The wisdom and healing processes of meditation unfold, like seeds, out of sight.

The fruit of our practice manifests in our relationships. It shines in the quality of our being-with and being-for those around us, as the radiance of our essential being, which is love.[4]

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/16/realestate/gardening-pyschology.html

[2] St. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford University Press, 1998), III, iv, (11), p.43.

[3] The Book of Privy Counselling, chap. 1, in The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, trans. A.C. Spearing (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p.104.

[4] Matthew 7:20; 1 John 4:7–8.

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