Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Very Small Garden

The staff at the retreat center has a small vegetable/flower garden, about 8 feet long and 3 feet wide. Two lawn chairs sit beside it, and that is where i go to make my daily phone call to my sweetie (since i'm not on a silent retreat).

Two tomato plants, 3 poles for pole beans, a squash plant, about 3 feet of carrots, 1 basil plant, sunflowers, and roses. In other words, this very small garden needs very little tending. Yet it brings great happiness, not only to the people who planted it, but to the string of people who go out there (at a distance from the retreat center's main buildings) to call home every day.

Our formal meditation practice can be like this: a small patch in our busy workday, at a slight distance from the people and activities of our life. If we tend our small practice daily, the results will make us happy, and, after a short time, bear the fruit (or vegetables) of the spiritual life.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Flower Teachings

I made a commitment to gladiolas about a dozen years: they are the only annual bulb (corm, actually) that i am willing to plant in the spring, dig up in the fall, and store during the winter.

Gladiolas start blooming in mid-July and flower though the end of August. Life daffodils, there are early season varieties, mid-season, and late season.

Early this week i harvested a bumper crop of glads, and my sweetie told me to take some of them to the retreat center when i left home on Tuesday. What a good idea! An offering--a form of generosity--unusual in the West, but an everyday occurrence at every temple in Asia.

I put the vase of a dozen blooming stalks of gladiolas on the retreat center manager's desk, and she promptly arranged them beautifully and placed them in the room where we met with Rinpoche. While he gave us mind-bending teachings on egolessness, the flowers offered their own simple lesson in impermanence. Every day the bottom flower on the stalk wilts, just as every day, every moment of our experience also wilts and fades away.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Meditative Gardener is on Retreat until August 1, then on vacation until August 12.

Sweet Plumeria

When i was 24, i lived in Hawai'i for 6 months and learned a smidgen of tropical flora. My first and favorite acquaintance was plumeria, which is also called frangipani. This very fragrant, usually white-with-a-yellow-center flower is used for making leis.

Nowadays my token plumeria blooms fitfully, sometimes in March, sometimes in September. Perhaps it has a few blossoms, then all its leaves fall off, and it goes dormant for months. This year it began blooming when i moved it outdoors in May, and it's still blooming. Go figure.

Sometimes our meditation practice is like this. It blooms unexpectedly, then goes through long dry spells when we even stop watering our practice by stopping sitting altogether. This is when we need a modicum of faith. I keep watering the bare branches of the plumeria for months. Sometimes it surprises me and blooms and blooms and blooms.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sleeping Better and Waking Better

There's another great advantage to turning off the computer an hour before bedtime. I not only sleep better, i wake better.

The computer is such a seductive date in the evening. Just one more e-mail, one more Google, one more Facebook. I break this addiction one evening at a time, knowing that the craving lies in wait with its oh-so-logical rationale of "doing just one more thing." I have to keep my eye on the long-term benefit rather than the short-term gain that turns out to have a hidden loss (of sleep and then morning alertness) associated with it.

I know very good and well what my bedtime is--10:00 p.m. Dullness sets in an hour beforehand. As a "morning person," i can work so much more efficiently in the morning. If i'm with a group of people, i become quiet at 9:00.

Ostensibly i want to turn off my computer by 9:00 p.m. because i want to have time to meditate. By that hour, i need a sort of rote meditation, such as loving-kindness, because my mind is moving slowly. In fact, my biorhythm makes 7:30 p.m. a better meditation time, thereby decreasing my evening computer contact even further.

My sweetie watches TV from 10:00 to 11:00 every night and has bad dreams 5 nights out of 7. My dreams are sometimes sweet, occasionally funny, and, once in a while, helping figures teach me something or assist in solving problems. The Buddha said that sweet dreams are one of the benefits of loving-kindness practice. Maybe this intention will guide me out of my evening dream-state on the computer.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Deep Summer

Deep summer has arrived. Crickets call this to our attention. Even though the temperature has been in the 90s for many more days than usual, and rivers, lakes, and ponds are quite comfortable for swimming, now is the mid-summer of deep tans and ripe tomatoes.

The great tomato race begins. They spill off the window sill in the kitchen onto the counter. Red cherry tomatoes in a green bowl; sungolds in a blue bowl. Eat tomatoes for all 3 meals and snack on them too. Salsa, BLTs, bruschetta, tomato and cucumber salad. The cucumbers are multiplying when our backs are turned. Now the full adulthood of the garden produces.

We en-joy this stage of garden life when vegetables are fresh and bountiful. Spread the joy: give the extras to friends or to the food shelf. Now is the time to feel deep gratitude for the abundance of our garden.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tall Plant Season

It is the season of tall plants blooming. Phlox, bee balm, and all manner of yellow sunflower-y looking things. In April and May, the short ones bloom--little ground cover type things. Johnny jump-ups and forget-me-nots. Some plants are so short that you may not even notice or recognize them--draba or mazus or arabis. What welcome patches of color they offer in early spring.

Now, after months of inching up, butterfly bush, eupatorium, and verbascum are taller than i am.

Meditation practice also varies from person to person. Some, few, bloom early on. Most of the rest of us, grow and grow, inching along before flowering. Whatever our own personal growth habit, let us simply be content with growing in our practice, knowing that we too can reap the fruits of the spiritual life.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Different Gardening Styles

When i go outdoors in the mornings, i stroll around my flowerbeds, clippers in one hand, bucket in the other. I'm dead-heading and propping up flowers, and generally tidying up some flowerbed or other.

At 7:45, i arrive for meditation at my neighbor Connie's, and there she is in her nightgown hauling foot-tall (or more!) weeds out of her vegetable gardens, her hands caked with dirt, and her white nightie pretty well smudged.

For me flowers are the priority; for her vegetables.

The mind loves to compare. So far as i can see, that's all the mind actually does. And in this comparison, the mind wants to divide the world into good and bad, black and white, better and worse. Yet here are Connie and i, two old friends with very different gardening styles, both reaping joy.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Japanese Beetles

Japanese beetles are feasting on my zinnias and potatoes, creating leaf lacework. They copulate on a marriage bed of creamy white marigolds. The beetles themselves are beautiful--iridescent blue-green and bronze shimmering in July's hot sun.

One friend, Kai, goes out to her vegetable garden every morning and picks off the beetles. It's a "weeding" out of bugs. A preventative measure protecting the life of the plant.

This sort of steady attention is a quality we bring to meditation. Every day, we spend some time sitting quietly. At first, we simply notice the weeds in our mind and identify them one by one: irritation, desire, confusion. Eventually we apply the antidotes: loving-kindness for irritation, generosity for desire, and wisdom for confusion.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Summer Sag

I call this season the summer sag. I look out my windows, and all i see in my flowerbeds is green. Where are the flowers? They must be blooming in someone else's full sun garden because they are not blossoming here in partial shade.

I confess: i still haven't mastered the art of rolling bloom--a little garden that is constantly full of flowers. Apparently i'm in good company. When the Garden Club toured my garden last week, i sighed about this, and the president said, "Who has mastered it?"

Those photos in gardening magazines and books are so beautiful. And the British make it sound so simple. "Just cut back the pulmonaria (or the doronicum or the....), and they will bloom again. They will bloom again in July if your summer high temperature is 70 degrees, but our weather on this side of the pond has been cooking for the past several weeks.

This is the delusion, whose spell we fall under: we can have a flower-filled garden like the ones in the photos. But the reality is that some season comes, the color sags, and all we see is green.

We live our lives in these sorts of hopeful delusions for the future that don't quite work out as we had planned. We are disappointed or disgusted. Perhaps we complain. This is just one example of suffering (also called stress). We want more of the pleasant (flowers) and less of the unpleasant (plain green). We stay in constant motion, tweaking our environment--inner or outer--and in order to do this tweaking we need an ego; we assume a self.

We can reduce our stress. In fact we can even become free of stress.

The first step is mindfulness. Let's begin there today by simply walking through our garden and noticing the pleasant. And noticing the unpleasant.

Let me know what you find out.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bug Joy

After strolling around my garden in my nightgown this morning, i came back indoors and felt something crawling on my leg. Even though the weather is too hot for ticks, i live in deer tick country, so i looked carefully. About twice the size of a wood tick, this 6-legged insect looked like a beetle.

A baby lightning bug! About half an inch long, it spread its wings and flew away.

So that's the result of the flurry of fireflies in June. The males flying their flashers around, and the females lying in the grass glowing back.

Lightning bugs bring joy--to young children chasing them and to grown-ups lying in a hammock at 10 p.m. looking at the night sky full of stars and fireflies.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Meditative Gardener is on Retreat until July 20

I'll Make You Special, If You Make Me Special

Here's the deal: I'll make you special if you make me special.

This is the quid pro quo i have with my garden. If i make it a special garden, then it will make me a special gardener. People will (and do) come to stroll around my garden, and then they think well of me. "Wow. What a great gardener Cheryl is."

We also have this deal with our best beloved people. "I'll make you special, if you make me special." Marriage partners, family and close friends--we make each other special in return for them making us special. When this unspoken deal fails--for instance, during infidelity or talking behind someone's back--a LOT of suffering, heartache, and stress results.

Sometimes the deal fails in small ways: someone we care about and want to spend time with doesn't want to spend time with us. If the heart doesn't exactly break, it does at least crack.

This is the price of attachment. This is the cost of something that looks like love, but actually has small clinging tendrils wrapping themselves around our hearts. This deal-making opens the heart to some dear ones, but closes it off to others.

What we are aiming for in our spiritual practice is an experience of the naturally open heart. Once upon a time, our hearts were as big as the world. They still are.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Taking Over the Garden

When one neighbor got married 21 years ago, a friend put in a small garden near the front door as a wedding present. Neither of the couple gardens, and they have spent a number of years on international assignments. Today all that remains in that garden is houttuniya. It covers an area as large as 2 children's swimming pools.

I once toyed with buying houttuniya for its beautiful cream, red, and green variegated heart-shaped leaves. Now i see very few of the multi-colored leaves because the plant reverted to plain green leaves and began to gallop. Only the lawn mower keeps it in check.

Sometimes we toy with unskillful behaviors--a white lie, a little cheat, the "borrowing" of something we never return, wine with dinner after we've promised ourselves to abstain. "It won't hurt anyone," we tell ourselves. These behaviors may even look quite attractive, like the variegated houttuniya.

When those behaviors become habitual, the flowers and fruits of the spiritual life are overrun. Our bad habits run over our best intentions. In my friends' garden, one lone cranesbill geranium pokes its pink head above the mass of houttuniya.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Allergic to Mindfulness

My sweetie has been taking a spoonful of local bee pollen since March in an effort to mow down his summer allergies. So far, it's working. He doesn't really like the taste of the bee pollen, which he chases with a glass of fruit juice.

I have to confess that for many years, decades even, i was allergic to mindfulness. On the one hand i could see that it was good medicine for the ills of daily life, but as long as i was feeling good, mindfulness seemed, well, SO boring.

Besides, i loved the way my mind worked. My particular mind is very good at problem-solving, and its form of creativity gives insights into how people and the world work. Oh! How i love that playground. Why rein the mind in to the narrow constriction of mindfulness?

Now i see that i was chafing against the subject-object duality of noting practice. If hearing was happening, there must be a hearer. If walking was happening, the walker should notice walking. (Yawn.)

Letting the mind run loose was so much more fun and interesting than keeping it fenced in with boring old mindfulness.

Then a teacher introduced me to contemplations, and my meditation practice bloomed. Contemplations interest my mind, but the way to get to them is to walk down the path of mindfulness. Now i begin to intuit the non-duality that lies behind this facade of mindfulness--the key i need to open the gate to the secret garden.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Gardening Clothes

This morning, as i do almost every morning, i get out of bed and throw on my gardening clothes. "Throw on" doesn't sound very mindful, but today i was deeply appreciating my 22-year old shorts. In 1988, short-shorts were in fashion, and i still prefer short-shorts, even though my body, as well as these shabby black shorts, are 22 years older.

Shantideva suggests wearing old clothes until they are rags to remind ourselves that the body itself becomes raggedy and patched together as it ages. Today's "patches" are pretty nifty and almost seamless--hip and knee replacements for instance. Yet the deeper lesson remains: the Earth element of the body--the bones and teeth, for example, are aging and sometimes becoming painful.

Meanwhile i wear my faded old shorts and body out to the garden happily.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Dry and Hot

July is dry and hot. Sometimes our meditation practice feels dry too. The same thing. Again. Boring.

Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how to refresh our practice. He's been teaching the same things for decades yet always finds a new and beautiful way to say it.

To refresh your practice, read one page from The Meditative Gardener. Or stroll through your garden, after meditation, perhaps with a cup of tea in hand. Notice one thing. Feel one feeling. Hear one sound.

Simple be present for just one thing.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Harmless Toads

I caught a toad in desert camo out in my white garden this morning, which is, come to think of it, the best place for camouflage if you're a white toad with a few brown and gray markings. My amphibian book tells me this is Fowler's toad, and that it croaks like a bleating sheep with a cold.

Catching a toad requires mindfulness and intention. There's no time for sissy reactions of "Eew" nor for the pseudo-compassion of "Poor thing, I don't want to hurt him."

Toad-catching requires a warrior's complete attention and intention. The Buddha himself was of the warrior class and brought these qualities to the practice of harmlessness in all aspects of life. A naga (a cobra-looking serpent) visited and protected the Buddha in the fourth week after his enlightenment. Compared to that, a toad seems pretty harmless.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cultivating Beauty

A neighbor's daughter is having her wedding in my meadow next week, and i've been prissing up the strip beds near the vegetable garden all spring. These beds are simply 3-foot wide strips of flowers separated by 3 feet of grass that my sweetie can mow in one pass on his riding mower.

Usually i use these 17 strip beds for cutting flowers; they're filled with reseeding annuals that volunteer every year to prettify the meadow. This year i'm out there every day, dead-heading and weeding.

These reseeding annuals are not so different from the effect of meditation on our lives. We cultivate beautiful states of mind such as kindness, compassion, generosity, and patience. The seeds of these divine qualities flower and reseed themselves in our lives, sometimes showing up in unexpected places.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Chilly Start to July

The first day of July was cooler than the first day of May, and even, this year, chillier than the first day of April. Sometimes this loss of heat happens in the middle of our lives or the life of someone we know. The body systems cool into some debilitating disease. The heat we generate by running around in our lives begins to dissipate.

Wait! That's not how it's supposed to be, we protest. As if our small minds know better than life how to live it.

Seeing things the way they are. This is the purpose and the challenge of meditation.

This summer day is cool, even downright chilly. Life reminding us that our energies too may cool at any time. That's the reason to take advantage of our good fortune right now and meditate. Today and every day.