Our balcony in full bloom

What Gardening Has Taught Me About Life

I was sitting in my therapist’s office, telling her how much I enjoyed gardening, when she said, “Gardening seems like a spiritual practice for you.” I stopped talking and looked at her in silence as tears started to well up in my eyes.

“What’s behind those tears?” She asked.

I paused for a while, not knowing what to say, not understanding why I was crying, trying to feel for the truth that was embedded in the present moment. “I think that you calling it a spiritual practice really made me realize how important it is to me.”


Even though I’ve owned several large gardens in my life, now I have only the tiny balcony of our rented apartment. Yet in this tiny space, a space that receives sunshine only in the afternoon, I have managed to create a deeply satisfying and verdant oasis.

Each morning, after writing, I carefully water all the plants, check their health, and rearrange and prune them. Every time I visit our balcony, I notice and enjoy the ways it has changed: the tomato plant has more fruit; the morning glory vine is trying to climb up the stucco wall; the nasturtiums have produced more seeds.

On a long pole, we hang a mesh sock filled with nyjer seeds. This sock attracts dozens of gold finches and house finches, birds that scatter as a flock across the inner courtyard when one of us opens the sliding door. Small, round-bellied birds called dark-eyed juncos hop around on the floor and the window ledge, pecking at spilled seed. During the day, birdsong echos around the inner courtyard so that from inside our apartment it sounds like we live deep in an English forest. At night, an owl hoots.

One of the two planter boxes bolted to our railings

Our lease prevents us from drilling holes into the outside walls, which means that we cannot hang baskets or attach shelving. Instead, I have bolted two large planter boxes to the railings. In one of those boxes we have been growing nasturtiums and in the other we planted petunias. The flowers of the nasturtium plant have evolved to not only contain one of the sweetest nectars, but also to be shaped so that only hummingbirds and some types of bees can reach the nectar. Bees continually buzz around our balcony, and hummingbirds dart accurately from flower to flower, chirping. At times, when I am tending to the planter boxes, a hummingbird hovers within feet of my face.

Deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, amongst the asphalt and the business parks, our balcony is visited by many large dragonflies and butterflies. We also grow sunflowers, hot peppers, lettuce, jasmine, and mint. The garden and the plants have so far taught (or re-taught) me several things about life, which I will convey to you in this article.

You Can’t Force Progress

Recently, I was talking with a coaching client about spiritual growth and the development of self-awareness. Even though by the time we first met he had already made great progress on increasing his self-awareness, during our work together he has become aware of aspects of his personality that had previously been completely completely hidden to him.

I celebrated his progress with him, and explained that the process of spiritual unfoldment, what I believe is really a form of un-learning, is gradual and natural. It takes time and care to achieve even slight progress towards full self-actualization, towards becoming fully innocent and child-like again. Having recently been learning so much from growing plants, I used that as a metaphor to explain further:

When we plant a seed, we must leave it alone in the darkness of the soil, and keep it moist enough and warm enough that it will sprout. If we dig it up to check whether it is sprouting, we will harm its roots. Once it breaks through the surface of the soil, and begins to unfurl its first leaves (the two leaves made out of the two sides of the seed are called cotyledons), we must make sure that it is placed where it can receive light to synthesize sugars from carbon dioxide and water.

As it grows, we must consistently water it, and feed it, place it in light but possibly out of direct sunlight, protect if from frost, and remove any bugs that start to eat it. In time, it may become root-bound in its pot and require careful repotting into a larger one, so that it can continue to grow.

If we take care of it correctly and consistently, then it will produce flowers, and, assuming that we place it in a supportive ecosystem, then insects, and sometimes other creatures like hummingbirds, will pollinate it, enabling it to form seeds. We can then gather those seeds when they are ripe, and we can either eat them (as fruits) or dry and store them to grow more plants in the next season.

The production of abundant harvests requires careful persistence, and only effort applied in harmony with the natural process will accelerate it. Watering, positioning, feeding, weeding, pruning, training, and protecting can all be effective actions with plants. Given optimal conditions provided by these activities, plants will thrive. However, if we spend our time and energy yelling, worrying, tugging, digging up, punishing, chastising, withholding, or in any way trying to rush the plant, we will inevitably make the process take longer, or perhaps we will terminate it entirely.

This analogy is particularly and clearly true of the process of increasing our day-to-day contentment and our utility as self-reflecting expressions of the intrinsic sweetness of the fundamental nature of reality. We must meditate, sleep, surround ourselves with encouraging and positive friends and guides, read, learn, eat well, exercise, reflect, and enquire within. We must also practice curiosity, hope, faith, care, and persistence.

Close-up of our nasturtiums

Too Much of a Good Thing Is a Bad Thing

When Cindy and I hike in the local mountains, up winding trails through shaded forests filled with oaks and pines, we sometimes see sprays of a delicate fern nestling on the banks of the path, undulating gently in the breeze. These plants are called maidenhair ferns, and they are notoriously difficult to grow. Friends have revealed to me their struggle with growing them successfully. Cindy and I have also killed at least one of these plants.

Now that we have a sustainably thriving maidenhair fern, and I know how to take good care of it, I understand how I killed these plants in the past. Even though they love moisture, they will die if their roots are soaked and not given time to breathe. I let the soil of our fern almost totally dry out before watering it. To achieve this, I feel for moisture in the soil at the top of the pot. Once it feels dry, which occurs every few days, I give it one or two coffee-cups-full of water, evenly distributed around its base.

Our maidenhair fern

One of the signs that a plant is being watered or fed too much is that the leaves begin to dry out. This is because the roots stop functioning when they are drowning in water, or are beginning to rot, or when the water in the soil is a stronger solution than the water inside the roots. When there is too much food in the water in the soil, osmosis causes water to be drawn out of the roots and into the soil to dilute the water there. When most people see the signs of overwatering or overfeeding, they instinctively water and feed the plants more, which eventually kills them.

Maidenhair ferns have an additional distinct overwatering signature: the leaves become very light green. The leaves of our fern will sometimes turn very light green over a period of a few days. When this happens, I know to ease-off on the watering, and the plant returns to its healthy state after another few days.

Many plants, such as nasturtiums and morning glory, do not thrive in rich soils. It’s important to use minimal and infrequent fertilizer with these kinds of plants, or they will not flower.

In life in general, it’s important to realize the many things that are nutritious in the correct quantities, such as water and fertilizer for plants, can be toxic or even fatal in larger quantities. We can be too generous, too persistent, too forgiving, too detached, too logical, too caring, too willing to sacrifice our own wellbeing with the intention of helping others. As with the care of plants, ultimate health is attained through a process of dynamically adjusting our understanding and actions by receiving and integrating feedback from the world around us.

Ugliness Can Be Beautiful

After I first hung up the seed sock and the finches started to land on it, I sometimes looked out of the window and said to Cindy, “Look at those two beautiful birds nibbling on my nut sack!” Actually, there are often up to nine birds, but sometimes it’s only one particularly greedy bird. That bird hooks its claws into the sock and whistles intensely and flap its wings vigorously at any bird that tries to land. That particular bird has become a little plumper than the others, but only slightly and probably because it spends most of its time protecting its territory rather than eating.

This has led me to realize that birdsong is really the sound of birds saying to each other, “Fuck off, fuck off, fuck off. This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.” The birds don’t know how much abundance there is. They don’t know that I have ten pounds of seed to refill the sock and that, when it’s all gone, I can buy another bag for $17. The birds believe, and behave, like there is a shortage. Since we love the sound of birdsong, however, their squabbling and territorialism is music to our ears.

Our morning glory, at night

Now we can pay attention to the things that seem ugly in our own lives, like harsh and defensive words, and we can shift our perspective to see the beauty in them. “Ah, there’s John ranting again. It’s music to my ears.” We also have the opportunity to notice and question our own lack mentality. Are there places in our lives where we waste energy and effort, and harm relationships, in an effort to acquire and hoard resources that are in fact being abundantly showered upon us? For example, many people have a tendency to grasp at creative ideas and try to hide and protect them. This distracts from the most important driver of success in any endeavor, which is simply to persistently execute.

Reality is Holographic

I practice Vipassana meditation as taught by S. N. Goenka. In this technique, the unconscious mind is systematically scanned. The seeds of suffering are extracted from the unconscious mind one-by-one and dropped onto a ground that is not fertile to them, a dry ground where they perish. The seeds got there in the first place as non-adaptive thoughts that themselves fell onto the rich soil of an untrained unconscious mind. There they began to sprout. This cycle of suffering in the unconscious mind proceeds automatically, with no conscious effort from us, and it leads to both a continued experience of deep suffering and the perpetuation of our conscious experience, both through this life and from life-to-life.

Vipassana mediation is a process of removing all of the plants at the root, and all of the seeds that are buried. It is a process of carefully watching the unconscious mind to weed out any remaining seeds that sprout before they too can produce fruit. Eventually, when there are no more plants, roots, or seeds, then there is complete and permanent liberation from suffering.

This metaphor of plants and seeds is used extensively by people who practice various forms of meditation, including in many other traditions from places like India. The mental impurities that I mention above, which lead to suffering in the unconscious mind and also to unfortunate external circumstances, are often referred to as “seeds of karma.”

It has been very instructive to me to actually witness the intense drive of plants to grow and reproduce. I understand the power of the metaphor much more viscerally after watching six relatively small nasturtium plants produce hundreds of seeds, and knowing that each of those seeds, if planted and nurtured, will grow into a whole new nasturtium plant.

Seeds from our nasturtium plants

I often recommend setting goals and reviewing them regularly, feeling the satisfaction and enjoyment of their future manifestation while doing so. This process of continually tending to the gardens of our minds, of planting the seeds of the things we want to have blossom in our life, is also so much more richly understandable in light of hours of physical gardening.

I learned at my transpersonal psychology graduate school that people who are considered “enlightened” differ from us regular folks in that they turn every experience into a teaching story. Even though I’m not enlightened, I do seem to transmute a lot of my experiences into stories that seem to help people. I believe that this tendency comes from having experienced, in meditation, many aspects of the fundamental nature of reality. I perceive how the root qualities of reality are repeated up through increasingly gross manifestations.

What I’m learning from gardening is that there is a teaching story inside every experience we deeply engage with. This means that simply living is a spiritual practice. The more we engage with reality, and pay deep attention to it, the more we get to know ourselves, because everything is a reflection of us at the most fundamental level.

Conclusion

I have so deeply enjoyed gardening over the past few months, and I have so deeply enjoyed writing this article for you. I’m grateful that you decided to spend your time with me on this journey, and I hope I’ve inspired you to develop and tend to your own garden, to plant what you love, and to nurture it with care.