The Zen of Gardening

“Most cherished in this mundane world is a place without traffic; truly in the midst of a city there can be mountain and forest.”
Wen Zhengming (1470-1559)

Springtime is an opportunity to feel more alive by getting our hands in the dirt and being part of the growing that is happening outdoors. Garden work can be just a chore we do grudgingly, or it can be a fulfilling opportunity for satisfaction and even spiritual practice.

If you visit a formal Japanese or Chinese garden, you find that it draws you into a more contemplative mental state. You see, not so much individual plants, but pleasing arrangement. Like a song puts together notes to form a composition, the gardener puts together plant and earth to create balance and flow, movement in stillness, a natural harmony within the context of confined space. As you move through these gardens, your mind tends to settle down. The garden asks to be seen with fresh eyes. It invites the busy mind we brought through the gate to calm itself.

What must it take to create such harmonious natural beauty? What state of mind must one attain to foster such a peaceful environment? The oriental garden may be less a showplace than a place for the gardener’s spiritual practice.

We don’t need acres of land to bring gardening into our spiritual practice. We can tend a single plant in a pot with mindfulness and compassion. But if we have a piece of land, why not use it to create something beautiful, to bring another dimension to our mindfulness practice. Working with plants and digging in the dirt can be stress relieving. It brings us back into contact with the natural world. We become aware of being part of the whole process of growth, death, decay and rebirth. Gardening is a lesson in the truth of impermanence. It invites engagement with the cycles of nature.

As you tend your garden, practice mindfulness. Create the intention of paying attention. Instead of daydreaming or running your thoughts, focus your mind on the task at hand. If you are digging in the soil, just dig. Feel your body, the shovel, the movement, and the feel of the soil. Not so much thinking. Just doing with awareness.

Take time to see. Look at the garden as a whole. Observe the land and the plants. Observe the sky and how your garden interacts with it. Feel the garden. Get a sense of it as a unique place. Feel the energy. If it flowed like water, how would it flow? Where would it go? Look at your individual plants and how they fit into the whole. Look at the space where there are no plants. How can emptiness create form?

As you prune plants and pull weeds observe your emotions. To the extent that you take away life, do it mindfully and with clear intention.

Don’t just work in your garden. Spend some quiet time there. Enjoy the beauty. Appreciate the life there. Open to the wonder.

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week


© 2008 Tom Barrett