Meditation is not about some state, but about the meditator.
Joko Beck (1917-2011 June 15), Everyday Zen
We started in on the vegetable garden. Finally! Not because we’re lazy, negligent gardeners. It’s a matter of weather; the ground really doesn’t warm up until about now. No amount of optimism in the warm and sunny days of May is going to change the fact that we only get one growing season here in Zone 4a. I’d always railed against it, pushing the season by setting things out on May 24th – that magical date for Northern addict-gardeners – then having to rush out with bed sheets and blankets to protect the plants from the chilly mornings.
A car-side chat with my equally fanatic-gardener neighbour opened my eyes to something. “You know,” he said, “We may only get one crop but you can still plant by July 1st and get it before frost.” Of course, I thought to myself as I drove away. I loved the turn-around. I could let go of getting the seeds and plants in quickly. I could now focus on just what was here: eight 4×4 boxes chaotically overflowing with relatively inedible greenery; weeds don’t believe in short growing seasons. Enthusiasm and equanimity strangled in a mental tangle of twisted vines.
Joko explains what she means by her statement above. It’s not about analyzing ourselves; it’s about watching how we get lost in our thoughts. We roam around in our heads as a way of protecting ourselves from what is unfolding right now, what difficulty we may be facing in this moment. “We want to figure life out,” she says. However, what really happens is that we slide into a fantasy about our boss, friend, family member, or even weed-filled boxes. It’s a way of protecting ourselves from reality. But it doesn’t work because it actually takes us away from reality and worse, creates one that is unflattering about who we are. That is why, when we sit, it should be with “great, meticulous care” and observe every thought, labeling them with attentive detail.
So I sat in the middle of that vegetable garden and treated it like my mind. Each plant was a thought that I labeled. “Green vine.” “Dandelion.” “Tall spindly thing with yellow flower.” “Thistle.” “Stinging nettle.” “Clover.” “Jerusalem artichoke.” Sometimes a plant would appear to be something I could cultivate into something edible; some of these weeds look like coriander or parsley. Label and pull: “Plant that looks like an herb.” Slowly, the boxes cleared and the earth shone through. By the end of the day, we had put in 30 tomato plants, 4 chilli peppers, and a few lettuce into five of the boxes.
Earlier in the Spring, I had checked the strawberry box and thought the 36 plants had not survived the winter. Peeling away the layers of weeds, I discovered several had survived – our first strawberries in a patch I thought was ready for the compost. I labeled them, tenderly, “Sweet.”
Zen is about an active life, an involved life. When we know our minds well and the emotions that our thinking creates, we tend to see better what our lives are about and what needs to be done, which is generally just the next task under our nose.
The concluding quote from Joko: “know our minds well and the emotions that our thinking creates” is incredibly important, if we’re to have successful relationships with the world. And she’s one of the few teachers (as far as I know) who acknowledge that emotions are fabrications, arising from thoughts, beliefs and views. They don’t just come from nowhere, anymore than a vegetable garden comes from nowhere. Both arise from intention.
a lovely tender post, just like the strawberries! I remember reading a short story from a Japanese author once. How he grew a strawberry plant in a pot on his balcony that yielded one strawberry. They had a little celebration as they savoured this single berry.