Cultivating Compassion With (Dying) Plants
Learning the power of compassion by tending to plant life.
I am a notorious indoor plant-killer. I can kill a cactus, and I have. I can also kill a $300 topiary if you leave it in my care too long. This is highly embarrassing given that A) I am the direct descendent of a houseplant queen: my mom has been living the urban jungle life long before it became Instagram worthy. B) My first job was watering plants at a local nursery. And C) My current job is with a company whose main mission is to “bring nature indoors” with LED lights for indoor gardening.
So the fact that I can turn green into brown without so much as a glance is quite spectacular, yet true. (But please note this extends only to indoor growing. I fully trust my capabilities when rooted in the earth and allied with Mother Nature). Ask around, I have references. Once my dad sent a potted tree to my north-facing Brooklyn apartment. It was spring. That thing lost its leaves so fast I thought winter really was coming. But despite my numerous non-successes, I don’t give up trying.
You see, failing at caring for indoor plants is almost as rewarding as succeeding. Why? Because it encourages the practice of compassion. When that potted tree started withering, I panicked. Then I reacted. In attempt to provide it with sufficient light, I dragged that wiry hunk of wood from window to window so many times each day the floor bared permanent damage. I Google-d common tree illnesses and inspected for leaf fungus. I even considered buying fish food, for a tree.
I went through an entire spectrum of emotions with that tree. Anger: at my dad for sending me an enormous plant when a bouquet of flowers would have sufficed. Sadness: for feeling incapable of caring for a tree. Frustration: at not knowing how to handle the darn thing. And finally pain, which isn’t an emotion, but was a result of the above-mentioned dragging back and forth of a very heavy pot and plant.
It took me awhile to arrive at compassion.
Compassion is hard to conjure up. It’s definitely not the first thing we reach for when we are angry at others or disappointed in ourselves. It’s probably not what we think to channel when we feel fear. And it’s certainly not something we can demand — of ourselves or others. Maybe that’s because compassion, like a houseplant, must be cultivated, cared for and then shared, but never forced. Once we find a way to shuffle through those dominant and overwhelming emotions and reframe them through compassion, boy does the load feel lighter and the world look brighter. “A sympathetic consciousness of distress together with a desire to alleviate it” can transform confrontation to conversation, envy into joy, guilt into acceptance, or a struggling houseplant into daily motivation to act with intention.
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ― Albert Einstein
Being responsible for one green(ish) living thing reminds me how powerful personal action is and helps me stay mindful of my emotions. It’s hard to be angry or frustrated resentful of something that is, in this case, dying because of me, right before my very eyes. Seeing my plant in pain sparked a desire to help. I wanted more than anything for that little piece of life to flourish: it had earned my undivided compassion.
Once I honed compassion for one small plant, it was easier to find compassion for the rest of the world around me. Plants have a way of reconnecting us with our ecosystem. They remind us that all things are living and that our smallest actions have the biggest consequences: on ourselves, on others and on the universe. They spur us to nurture compassion, to take action, each and every day. And when our baby plant starts to blossom (or heck, even if it dies), we can look around and see we’ve nourished (or tried) not just one little green guy, but part of the whole.
The truth is, if we can cough up compassion for a plant, we can probably dig around for compassion for ourselves. Then dole it out to friends and family and pass it along to strangers. And just maybe, if we start small, we can end big, creating through our actions a universe built on compassion for a stronger, more resilient earth and a kinder global community.
Epilogue: That potted plant ended up in a good home, just not mine. When it lost its last leaves I dragged it out to the sidewalk where it was promptly picked up by a neighbor promising to have a green thumb. Moral of the story: don’t tell my dad I killed his tree. And then conjure up a little compassion for me, and my plants.
Henna Garrison is a word curator with an appetite for all things written, edible and adventurous. She lives in Italy where her favorite pastimes include drinking morning cappuccinos and searching for blue skies. You can find her words and work here.
Post originally shared on Holstee’s online magazine, Mindful Matter.