Planting in the garden of life

This is a weekend for the beach, the golf course and the garden — to be in nature. After what seems like a long, hard winter and a so-so spring, finally, wonderful weather.

As nature awakens, even the world-weary cannot help but be thrilled with the buttercup and the butterfly, the hyacinth and the hawk, the spider and the sparrow.

We marvel at the multiplicity of life, but just as amazing is its tenacity and resilience. During the Great Die-off 250 million years ago when a large meteor slammed into Antarctica, almost all life was wiped out.

Then, 65 million years ago, another meteor — a much smaller one — splashed down just off Mexico. It caused the eradication of the dinosaurs and allowed our ancestors to grow, flourish and evolve into someone out in the garden this weekend celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday.

Life blooms and bursts forth all around us as we putter and pot. The mind slows as we dig, plant and replant. Gardening allows us to listen to a sermon in stone, to engage spider consciousness and follow the way of the butterfly, to feel the web that connects all things.

“Listening not to me, but to the Logos (the way of things), it is wise to agree that all things are one,” Heraclitus wrote almost 2,500 years ago.

Gardening allows life-enhancing thoughts to bloom, rather than the negative ones, the mental weeds: what we shouldn’t have done yesterday and what we’re going to do tomorrow. As we plant our knees on terra firma and plunge our hands into nature’s entrails, we’re reminded that life is an inward-outward process.

Away from the garden, we like to think things happen outside us. We project our concepts of the world outward and proclaim them real. Thought precedes action, but if we don’t like what happens, we try to fix the result, rather than change the thought.

“There is really nothing external, so I must spin my thread from my own bowels,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote.

Gardening gives us the time to contemplate the big questions — not what we’re going to have for dinner or whether we should go for a run — of purpose, life and death. While we’re at the office, in traffic or paying the bills, we forget the magnificence of life and the wonder of it all.

But as we watch buds unfolding, flowers reaching toward the sun, an ant dragging its prey toward the nest, or a spider munching on a fly, it grounds us in the now and reminds us life isn’t static, that it fills atoms, molecules, cells, planets, stars, galaxies, universe, multiverse and beyond.

We — this collection of virtues, vices, memories and aching, arthritic  bones — are only here for awhile. But we’re also infinity in a bag and when the bag breaks, the energy is released back from whence it came. The essence of who we are moves on.

Thousands of books have been written, numerous sermons delivered, countless points argued about the first cause, but we don’t know whether the primeval particle that banged 13.8 billion years ago was ignited by something or was just one in an endless series of big bangs. And how it happened doesn’t matter how we live today.

But in the garden, there are numerous examples of how to live written more plainly than any book and more convincing and insightful than any Sunday sermon. Nature has its lessons to teach.

We could learn from the Monarch as it dipsy doodles by. It started as an egg; as a caterpillar it shed its skin — and ate it — a few times before creating a chrysalis out of itself. When the time was ripe, without any help — because help would kill it — it emerged as a butterfly and then headed for a place it had never seen.

Two generations die on the journey, but yet the Monarch flies, mates, re-produces and dies so life can keep going.

In the garden, it all makes sense — this faith, this commitment, this dedication, this longing.

“The first, essential step in becoming a butterfly is to recognize that we can’t make it as a worm,” wrote Zen master Joko Beck. “We have to see through our pursuit of the false god of comfort and pleasure.

“We have to recognize that we cannot manipulate life to satisfy ourselves, and that finding fault with ourselves or others is not an effective way of helping anyone. We slowly abandon our basic arrogance.”

Unlike the butterfly, we have a choice in how we live and who we will become. While certain physical imperatives drive us, we choose how we act in the process. Each day, we emerge anew and can decide how we will behave.

“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill,” Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who was also a philosopher, wrote in Meditations.

“I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together.”

In the garden, not of good and evil, not of duality, not of separation, we can see through the delusion into what is real and what we should honour about ourselves, others and life itself.

“There is no need of struggles, convulsions, and despairs, of the wringing of hands and the gnashing of the teeth; that we miscreate our own evils,” Emerson wrote in Spiritual Laws. “We interfere with the optimism of nature.”

That’s a thought worth planting in the garden of our life.


You wear the mask

“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.”
Paul Laurence Dunbar

Most of us have forgotten that we wear a mask, that the persona we concocted for public consumption isn’t who we are.

We started hammering out our facial armour on the anvil of our disappointments when we were too young to know what we were doing or what the long-term consequences would be.

We learned the world was not our playpen the first time our parents told us no or smacked us because we didn’t live up to their expectations, when our friends played with someone else, when we didn’t make the school play or the hockey team.

Each time, we forged more steel into our mask to hide our hurt and confusion; with each embarrassment, each rejection, we added more layers until by the time we were adults, our real face was hidden even from ourselves.

By the time we stumbled though university, marriage, mortgages and children, we didn’t particularly care who we were as long as we could get enough sleep and pay the next bill. The mask had become us.

It slipped sometimes, when we had one too many glasses of wine or in a moment of accidental reflection wondered who was behind the eyes staring back from the mirror.

Even if the questions keep us awake, just before dawn, as our body tightens and readies for the assault of another day, the mask locks into place. As the radio alarm clicks on and the all too-perky DJ marshals us for the day’s battles, we check our face shield to make sure we are ready for what lies ahead.

When — and if — we remember we wear a mask, contemplating taking it off is akin to Aesop’s fable of who will bell the cat. The task is daunting, but we don’t risk much; the most we will lose is an inauthentic life.

It is a creation of our fear — and we’re all afraid of something, even if it’s just fear. We are, however, so accustomed to the fear that we rarely notice the tightness around the chest, the knots in the stomach, the clenched teeth, and sphincter.

This dis-ease has become normal, one of the reasons some of us become ill on vacations. We hold ourselves together by will power and habit, and when we relax, there’s the universe waiting with a sickness — a warning that we can’t keep living like this.

ut instead of paying attention to life’s, or our psyche’s, warning, we take some pills and soldier on.

We can hide our fear behind our mask and suppress it, but it usually shows up, like a beach ball pushed underwater; the force we use to hold it down will be the power with which it comes up.

Eventually, we have to confront our perceived ugliness and emptiness and realize we aren’t any different than our neighbour. We like to think that the successful, the rich, the powerful and the famous are exempt from what troubles us, but the stories out of Hollywood and the sports meccas tell us differently.

At the core, we are the same, all connected. Daily, we breathe in the atoms that Lao Tse, Buddha, Jesus and everyone who ever lived exhaled. We are all atoms in the organism called humanity. There are different atoms — one with a nucleus of one proton and others with many more — but they all perform a vital function.

Atoms don’t — and can’t — judge. A hydrogen atom, No. 1 on the periodic table, doesn’t think it isn’t as good as one that has 68 protons and 68 neutrons.

We do judge, which is why we wear the mask. We think we aren’t good enough, smart enough, beautiful enough, that we are empty as an atom, which is 99 per cent nothing.

We aren’t honest enough to admit we are afraid, but the amount of money spent on anti-depressants and alcohol suggest otherwise.

We can start taking off mast by accepting right now. If our luggage goes to Spain while we’re on our way to Mexico, the dry cleaner ruins our best dress and someone spills coffee into our computer before our big presentation, we can have a temper tantrum or we can smile graciously and deal with the problem.

The truly fearless and wise are open to what is. One definition of enlightenment is the acceptance of what is. When the fear, the anger or the panic hit, we don’t have to go into a rage or pretend it isn’t there, we can cradle it in our awareness and breathe it away.

It takes courage and patience to overcome ingrained beliefs, and leaving the mask on might seem safer than taking it off. We don’t have to go cold turkey. When it becomes too frightening we can always put it back on until we learn to appreciate the openness.

Like the coming of spring after a long, hard winter; the wind and the sun feel good on the exposed face.

“We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
     We wear the mask!”

— Paul Laurence Dunbar

You're really it!

There are many definitions of enlightenment, but the one that makes the most sense today is acceptance.

Acceptance of self and the world.

People who accept themselves and life — whether modern mystic in the marketplace or spiritual seekers in a monastery or cave — without complaint give off a different energy than the ones who rarely have a day without giving an Oscar-award-winning imitation of Chicken Little.

How many of us know ourselves, like ourselves and are committed to being our own best friend?

How often do we sail the ocean of self looking for that undiscovered country? Of the daring souls who do, how many slink back to port when the seas get a little stormy?

By not trying, or giving up too soon, we miss reality, and our own sheer wonder. In all creation there has never been anyone like us, and there never will be.

Never again will there be a chromosome cocktail stirred, or shaken, quite like us — or like our spouse, our children, our neighbour, or the paperboy. 

In the movie, Matrix, Neo only come into his own power — become whole — when he accepted the fact he was the one. Not many of us face life-or-death decisions in our every-day life or fight a system that enslaves humanity, but we do face demons of our own creation — the fear, dread, anxiety and stress we summons from our private hells.

Yet, once we align ourselves with life and get into the flow, we won’t have to cast out those devils, they’ll disappear like the phantoms they are.

We create our own matrix with what we believe about ourselves and the world. The result is different if we believe we are separate from everything than if we believe we are aligned and woven into the tapestry of life.

One belief creates artificial boundaries and one opens us up to our own greater good.

We are all the chosen ones, every one of us; we all choose who we are and who we would become. We are here because we were there, a logical consequence of the steps we have taken.

And the steps we take now will lead us ever on.

“We are already one and we imagine we are not,” said Catholic monk and mystic Thomas Merton. “And what we have to recover is our original unity. Whatever we have to be is what we are.”

When we withhold the gift of us from ourselves, we hide our light and deprive humanity of our uniqueness. Many males secretly see themselves as John Wayne figures — strong, resolute, the good guy righting wrongs — but most of are more like Woody Allen or Pee Wee Herman — dithering, indecisive and anxious.

And it is at this point where we have to work on acceptance; accepting that we are wonderful in spite of not being who we think we should be.

“You can’t change your shortcomings until you accept yourself despite them,” said Dr. Bernie Siegel.

We could do worse than follow the advice from Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose essential teaching was belief in self. That essay has been on the nightstand of many a great man and woman.

It had a profound influence on author Wayne Dyer, who read it at 17 while waiting in the principal’s office for not being respectful enough of authority.

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies with us,” wrote Emerson, who, considering what had happened to him — wife and son died, no job, at odds with his society — was probably shoring up his own belief system, talking to himself as much as the reader.

Most of us are disconnected from self and don’t trust ourselves enough to buck the perceived wisdom of society. We pay so much attention to others that we don’t recognize our own innate wisdom.

Anyone who has ever watched trivia shows on TV – Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader — know the answers often come to us in a flash of insight, but we dismiss them because we don’t think we should know.

Yet, no matter how many times we find out we were initially correct, we still consider it coincidence.

Emerson made that point quite clearly in Self Reliance: “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.

“Yet, he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

Like Emerson, most great spiritual leaders have stressed the uniqueness of self, of the need to go inside, into our silence. There we learn the great lessons, there we tap into the wisdom of the ages.

“The greatest religion is to be true to your own nature. Have faith in yourselves,” said Vivekananda, the Hindu religious leader. (The great seers) are signposts on the way. That is all they are. They say, ‘Onward, brothers!’

“We cling to them; we never want to move. We do not want to think; we want others to think for us. The messengers fulfil their mission. A hundred years later, we cling to the message and go to sleep.”

It’s much easier to let someone else tell us what to do, what to believe because accepting responsibility for ourselves, our actions, our beliefs is scary. But when we do, we miss our life.

We strive to be true to others, to meet our obligations to organizations such as banks and the electrical company and gas company, but can’t be bothered to be true to ourselves, to be impeccable with our word to ourselves.

If we did, we’d be slimmer, non-smoking, calmer, serene version of the person who pounds the steering wheel while stuck in traffic.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” Emerson wrote. “Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events.

"Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the Eternal was stirring at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being.”

We can re-establish that intuitive connection that the birds and the bees still have with the Eternal. We can emulate the butterfly, which allows itself to be transformed and then answers the call of a place it has never been.

Butterflies and mystics see into the essence of Big R Reality.

“All the talents of God are within you,” wrote Hafiz, the 14th century Sufi poet.

“How could this be otherwise when your soul is derived from his genes. God disguised in myriad things and playing a game of tag has kissed you and said,‘You’re it — I mean, you’re Really it!”


Start spring cleaning now

Winter is an odd time to do spring cleaning, but last month many of us vowed to shift our agreement with reality, to reshape ourselves.

Many people resolved to slim down, bulk up, stop smoking, start exercising, to become a better parent, a better spouse, a better human being.

“The greatest human quest is to know what one must do in order to become a human being,” 17th century philosopher Immanuel Kant observed.

But in that quest, we look for what’s broken and accentuate what’s missing, how we don’t measure up to a standard that was probably set by someone else, or worse, by a TV commercial.

We’re faultfinders. We love pointing out what’s wrong – with ourselves and with other people. We chuckle over Martha’s defects because that makes us feel better about ourselves. If she’s wrong and we’re right, that means we’re OK.

Usually, we not interested in changing, instead we look for things that re-inforce our current world view, but at the beginning of the year, we often tinker with our belief system and try to change the channels of our perceptions.

But real change means growth and that’s possible only by challenging ourselves to create new thoughts and the willingness to embrace the results

Our thoughts emerge, like weeds after a rain, out of our unconsciousness and we often wonder, like the guy who just mowed his lawn and looks out and sees a tide of dandelions, just where they came from.

That forces us to root out thoughts that create a reality we don't like, or don't want. We create ourselves in our own image although we’re uncertain what that image is, or who we are.

Often, while we're waiting for the new us to sprout, we forget to weed and prune. It's a lot easier not to do the backbreaking - or mind-bending - work to pull the dandelions and censor unwanted thoughts.

But we know from a lifetime of experience that beating ourselves up when we forget, or when we’re lazy, doesn’t work. We need to be persistent, but we also must be gentle with ourselves.

We learn to treat ourselves as we would our children when they come home with a report cards with Cs and one A and while the instinct is to criticize them for the low marks we are smart enough to praise them for the one high mark.

We know criticism doesn’t work, otherwise we’d be what our parents wanted.

And isn’t it odd that we think a new year is the only time to redefine who we are when we can do that at any moment? Every moment is a crossroads.

We have the wonderful ability to see, but we don’t notice life flowing around us; we become blind to the miraculous until it becomes trivial or we don’t see it at all.

We don’t see what we take for granted.

Remember being spellbound when our children were born, but now don’t really see them in our day-to-day lives; they’re just there, part of the background?

We can still evoke that moment when Cupid’s arrow pierced our heart, but now wonder who that person is who keeps showing up every day.

We don’t need Auld Ange Syne and noisemakers to make resolutions. We can make them daily. We can decide before we get out of bed how our day will be. And if the resolve slips, we can choose at every moment to renew our commitment.

Sometimes the best choice is simply to keep our mouths shut and the scars on our tongue can be a testament to our growing wisdom, or at least our diminishing foolishness.

We know we can remake ourselves into whatever image we like, but it’s also equally valid to wonder why we feel compelled to lose 10 pounds, to get into shape or learn Spanish, why we cannot accept that we are already perfect, whole and complete, an integral part of the universe.

Science and most spiritual traditions proclaim we are all connected, that we hold hands to form the great chain of being. Maybe it isn’t hard-won resolutions we need, but an easy shift in consciousness.

“The universe in a sense guides us toward truths, because those truths are the things that govern what we see,” physicist Brian Greene told Scientific American magazine.

Maybe we simply need to accept who we are and to be receptive to what life brings. If we flow with it instead of fighting every step of the way, we just might end up becoming that which we hoped  for.

“We can’t make ourselves be a certain way,” said Zen master Joko Beck. “To imagine otherwise is one of the biggest traps in practice. But we can notice our intolerance and unkindness, our laziness and the other games we play. As we notice how we really are, things slowly begin to turn.

“Only when we give up the hope that things will get fixed can we come to the realization that things are fine as they are.”

Mythologist Joseph Campbell had similar thoughts as he was nearing the end of his life.

“In my own life, I am now looking back and I can tell you that there’s a wonderful moment that comes when you realize, ‘I’m not striving for anything.’

“What I’m doing now is not a means of achieving something later. After a certain age, there’s not a future and, suddenly, the present becomes rich and it becomes a thing in itself which you are now experiencing.”

More Transitions articles

About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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