Monday, February 28, 2011

Christmas Tree in the Garden

In early January, i take the Christmas tree--still in its stand--out the front door and plunk it in the snow in the front garden. All of a sudden, i have an evergreen tree--something of visual interest--that subtly tells the observer, "This is a garden, even though it's covered in white."

With the most recent snowfall, even the 5-foot tall Christmas tree is about to be completely covered by snow. Only the top 10 inches is still visible.

Sometimes our lives can feel totally snowed in, even though the weather in our garden is bright and sunny. Just when it may feel most difficult to practice mindfulness, this "snowed in" feeling is the perfect time to bring your attention to the present moment.

I'm feeling bright and sunny right now, despite overcast skies outdoors.

What's your interior weather report today?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Green Burial

A 90-year-old friend died last week. Pam had co-founded our local Hospice in 1979, so it wasn't surprising that she chose to have a Green Burial--an old-style home burial that makes as little impact on the earth as possible.

After death, her family washed and dressed the body. A friend had made a pine box. A funeral director helped them fill out the necessary paperwork, so that the daughter could transport the coffin in her station wagon.

Last fall, Pam had told her children, "Old people die in the winter, when the ground is frozen." So she chose a spot, and a local farmer came and dug the hole.

Last Tuesday, her family laid Pam to rest in her chosen spot, in a forest much beloved by her.

Pam's body never left the care of her family. Her daughter said, "It was very intimate."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Early Warning Signs of Spring: Skunk!

The skunks have woken up from their winter sleep. I smelled skunk yesterday morning. It must be skunk mating season.

After Groundhog Day, i think of the smell of skunk as the next early warning sign tht spring is on its way--despite 12 inches of new-fallen snow.

This belief turns an unpleasant sensation (skunk smell) into a pleasant thought (Spring is just around the corner!)

Pleasant and unpleasant actually run our lives, but we are too busy to notice. Take time today to observe: The feeling of Pleasant leads to "I want more of that." (e.g., I want more thoughts of spring!) The feeling of Unpleasant leads to "I DON'T want any more of that." (Pee-yew. Skunk!)

Let me know what you find.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Winter Ages

Winter adds yet another layer of snow to cover up dirt-spattered snow banks and cracked patches of ice. Like an old lady applying too much make-up and looking so obvious, the latest snowstorm would have us believe in winter's youth.

But this snow is heavy and wet. The powder of the really cold winter is weighed down underneath Nature's newest heavy white down comforter.

For i am comfortable hibernating in my den, pretending i am snowed in and can't drive to the Connecticut Flower Show today.

I am seduced by winter's beauty once more. Like an old lady in beautiful new clothes, my attention on her finery and not on the wrinkles of snow that were so evident just yesterday.

Everything ages. Even winter.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Watering Kindness

I live in a passive solar house with lots of glass on the south-facing side. From about Groundhog Day until the Spring Equinox, the sun beams in through the windows turning the entire house into a greenhouse. Every sunny day (this week all 7 of them), the temperature in the house rises into the 80s. Every day feels like a day at the beach, even though the morning started in the single numbers, and the daytime temperatures struggle to reach 32 degrees.

The houseplants in the solarium soak up all this sun, so i have to increase my watering schedule from 2 to 3 or even 4 times a week. The hanging plants, in particular, are prone to drying completely out.

Sometimes the conditions of our lives heat up (and maybe even overheat)--irritation and frustration at work, anger toward our nearest and dearest, even rage or disgust when it comes to talking about certain issues.

When anger, frustration, and irritation heat up to point where we are rehashing the same thing over and over, that's when we need to step up our watering schedule of loving-kindness (toward ourselves), compassion (toward ourselves), and gratitude about the blessings of our lives. (We have sun. We have water.)

Repeating these practices, even several times through the day waters the deep roots of kindness and friendliness in our lives.

The houseplants look a lot better when they're not wilted and parched. You will too.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shopping for Plants

When i go shopping--even for plants--there comes a moment when i feel slightly removed, slightly dissociated from my surroundings. I try to remember my intention: to buy! But really, i can't whip up the enthusiasm i had 10 minutes ago.

What has happened is that i have been overwhelmed by all the possibilities and all the choices. My craving has been satiated--just by looking! I am actually ready to leave--sans plants. I don't "need" anything or anything more, my body tells me.

But my mind has the last word--as it always does. "You drove 45 minutes to get here, so make the best use of your time and buy something." "You came here specially for...."

The mind overrides the wisdom of the body, the natural mindfulness of the body that is saying, "I'm full of sights and scents. It's time to push away from the sales tables."

The mind, however, has fallen into mindlessness. "More. More. More." The mind moves the body robotically through the aisles, and turns its head to look and look some more.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sprouting Roots

The potatoes that i harvested 6 months ago are beginning to sprout roots. I'm keeping them in a small refrigerator in the basement where it's dark and cool. Still, the potatoes can "feel" the approach of spring, when conditions for growing will be right for them.

So it is with our bad habits. Even if we can't entirely uproot overeating, impulse buying, or a short temper, we can often prune them sufficiently to noticeably improve our lives. Still, the roots of those bad habits--greed, aversion, and delusion--are lurking, just waiting for the right conditions to grow into our lives again.

This is why the practice of mindfulness is SO important to bring into our daily life. We do our best to chill greed, aversion, and delusion. Yet when they do show up, we greet them like old friends. "Oh, there you are, Stinginess." "I see you, Irritation." "Hello, my old friend Confusion."

Like making lemons into lemonade, i'll be having a potato fest here during the coming month.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I'm pawing through my box of spring flower catalogs, looking at all the pretty pictures and salivating at the delicious vegetable names. Then, i realize, i have never, ever placed an order with this particular company. Why don't i save a tree and take myself off the mailing list?

I call 1-800-whatever-their-number-is and press 5 for customer service. When i hear a live person on the other end of the phone, i say, "Can you take me off your mailing list?"

Limiting my inventory of catalogs is a form of renunciation. I think of it as voluntary simplicity. I am simplifying my life, and simplifying the company's mailing list too. Perhaps i can save a few tree branches, if not an entire tree.

Voluntary simplicity reduces my stress, and also the stress on my bookshelf, which is groaning under the weight of all those catalogs.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Sap Starts Running

My friend Paul tapped his 6 sugar maple trees on Sunday. On Monday the temperatures rose above 32 degrees for the first time in weeks. The sap starts running when daytime temperatures rise above 32 and night-time temperatures fall below 32 degrees.

40 gallons of sap makes 1 gallon of maple syrup. The sap has to boil and boil before it distills to a fine, pale brown essence that you can pour onto pancakes.

Our meditation practice can seem like this distilling process. We sit 40 times before we taste one sweet insight. Oh!

Another lesson to be gleaned is paying attention to the present moment. The first sap is the lightest and finest. Maple farmers have to be alert to when the trees are ready. Wanting the trees (or meditation) to wait until I am ready only leads to dissatisfaction.

Take your seat now. Relax into meditation. And breathe.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Rooting Cuttings

I'm potting up the cuttings that i took in December--begonias, geraniums, purple-leaved wandering jew. By now they have rooted in their jars of water. Well, at least some of them have.

Leggy begonias and leggy geraniums don't root that easily. But roots sprout very easily from a place on the stem where a new offshoot of growth is just beginning.

The Buddha gave us several lists of skillful qualities, and it's up to us to try to root these in our lives. Choose just one of the following:

The Sublime Emotions
Appreciative Joy

The 5 Precepts of Integrity
Today I intend to:
Do no harm to anyone;
Take nothing that is not freely given;
Use my sexual energy wisely;
Speak truthfully and helpfully;
and Keep my mind clear.

The Supreme Qualities

Choose just one and plant it in your life today.
(Hint: Consult my book, The Meditative Gardener, for assistance and a pep talk.)

Tell me which one you choose.
Write to me at
cheryl.wilfong at

A Blooming Basket

I'm an inveterate plant saver--sometimes i save them; sometimes i don't.

Last spring i bought a hanging basket chock-full of pink petunias, purple verbena, and silver-leaved helicrysum. A month later, all their tongues were hanging out. If i missed a day of watering, all the flowers looked cooked. I divided the planter in half, and both planters limped along. By the end of the summer, one sprig of verbena remained in one basket.

I brought it indoors in September. Now, 5 months later, the pot is full of green leaves and 2 delicious purple blooms.

Our meditation practice can feel very full and blooming after we've put ourselves in the "greenhouse" of a retreat. Then we come home, and life's frictions heat us up. We come dragging home from work with our tongues hanging out.

Re-commit to the regular watering of meditation practice, and within a short time, you too will be blooming.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sky Burial

My neighbor's 18-year-old, still-healthy calico cat didn't come home one morning after her nightly hunting expedition. Although it was unusual, it was not unheard of, so my neighbor Connie didn't worry--yet.

About noon, Connie was looking out her kitchen window, and out beyond the vegetable garden, she saw a crow fly from the ground up to a tree with something white in its beak. Connie walked down to the vegetable garden, and there were the remains of Calico Cat. The predator had become prey--probably of a fisher cat (a member of the weasel family).

Connie, who trained Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal, has seen "sky burial," which is practiced in Tibet and parts of Nepal where the rocky, mountainous ground makes earth burial impossible. Dead bodies are butchered into joints of meat and fed to lammergeyers, a type of vulture.

In this way, death immediately becomes life by feeding these creatures of the sky. So too, Calico Cat had her own Tibetan "sky burial." Her dead body fed crows (and a weasel) and thus became life.

May all creatures be free from suffering.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Aerating the Fishpond

I slog through the icy snow on showshoes today to take a close look at my little fishpond. "Close" is a relative term since i am essentially standing on top of the backs of the metal lawn chairs that are completely covered by snow except for the top inch.

I poke a shovel through the snow and in the 3-foot deep pond. Fortunately it goes right into the water. 7 goldfish and 5 frogs are hibernating in the icy water to the hum of a circulating pump, which i turn on for an hour a day just to create this hole in the ice.

What i notice is that the water has no smell. If it's been iced over too long, the fish use up all the oxygen in the water, conditions become anaerobic, and all the fish and frogs die. Pee-yew.

So far this winter, so good.

The breath may not seem that interesting, but imagine if you ran out of air. Breathing could become very interesting, very fast.

The breath is such a handy meditation object; it's always available, no matter where you are. It might be worth a bit of curiosity and interest to observe how the breath actually functions.

Today i'm glad the fish and i are both still breathing.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wateriness of Water

They say a molecule of water doesn't have the quality of wateriness. Not until a sufficient volume of water molecules get together does that slippery-slidiness of water exist. How many molecules? Obviously fewer than a single drop of water poised to drip off an icicle, fewer than a single dewdrop hanging at the tip of a blade of grass.

I recently saw a photo of a dewdrop reflecting all the flowers around it, like a gazing ball. I love walking through the dewy grass on a summer morning, like walking through a field of soft, shimmering diamonds--the whole world prismed into tiny rainbows.

What does a molecule of water "see"? Its neighbors--each individual molecule as an individual. None of the individuals having any sense of their conglomerate wateriness.

Perhaps a water molecule sees its neighbors as individuals and lives it life believing in its individuality, having no sense of being part of a river rushing to the sea.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Funeral Flowers

I like to send flowers to the family when someone dies, even though the obituary says " lieu of flowers." I often send the flowers directly to the home rather than the funeral home.

I like flowers; i like to receive flowers. So i just assume other people do too.

In order to support local businesses, i go to and type in "florist" and the zip code where my friend lives. Then i call and order cut flowers rather than an arrangement.

I try to remember the death date so i can send flowers again on the anniversary of the death. The rest of the world will have mostly forgotten that dead person, but the family member re-members.

Funeral flowers remind us of the impermanence of life. One day, one year, we are in full bloom. A few days or years later, we start to wilt. And finally death and the compost pile.

Flowers don't have person-hood, so we can easily see how decaying compost gives rise to new life. When it comes to people though, our attachment to person-hood, to "self" interferes with this simple, straight-forward understanding.

A friend who had a heart attack and a near-death experience said she looked down at the carcass on the table--the carcass she had formerly called her "self."

How are our physical bodies really any different from flowers?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Bird of Paradise

A Bird-of-Paradise is blooming in my solarium, as it does every year at the beginning of February. A friend who had lived in Hawai'i for 25 years gave me the plant, and it took a few years for it to become root-bound, and then bloom.

Why is it that some plants need constriction before they will bloom?

The same can be said of our spiritual practice. Constricting our activities--usually called renunciation--enables our hearts to bloom.

By pruning our busy lives, we make time for a meditation practice. By counting to 10 AND being mindful, we are less likely to say something we regret later. By zipping our lips around the latest piece of juicy gossip AND being mindful, we find that people begin to trust us more. Simplifying our lives leaves us more time for solitude and to be thoughtful of others.

Slowly but surely, our life blooms with love, generosity, and wisdom. Paradise is right here.

Monday, February 7, 2011


I'll send you a packet of wildflower seeds FREE.

Send me your address.

heartpathpress at

Ordering Seeds

I ordered seeds yesterday--mostly seeds for the vegetable garden. My first step was to look at the inventory of seeds i already have. Somehow, i have enough bean seeds--bush and pole, yellow and green--for the next 5 years.

Still, i was missing a few key ingredients and ordered about 10 packets--a broccoli mix, some small cabbage, and long cucumbers.

Planting seeds is one of my favorite gardening activities. I prefer growing my own (despite the unpredictability) to buying 6-packs of nearly mature plants.

Our actions--also called karma--plant the seeds of our future actions. We call them habits. Some habits seem harmless, others don't serve us, but the force of habit carries them on in our lives with the momentum of a river. Swimming against the current is difficult.

Take a look at the habits you are growing in your life. The habits of maintaining the body seem harmless. Simple add mindfulness to brushing your teeth and getting dressed.

How about the habits of the mind? What seeds are you watering there? Kindness or irritation? Generosity or desire? Wisdom or confusion?

Plant seeds of kindness and mindfulness now in order to reap a bountiful harvest at the end of the season.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nature's Pruning

Rain at 32 degrees last night coated all the tree branches with ice. The morning sun shining on the ice-covered forest makes all the branches twinkle as if elves have covered all the trees with fairy lights. Spectacularly beautiful.

On the other hand, the ice becomes so heavy that branches break off wholesale, littering lawns, paths, and roads with tree limbs as Nature does her pruning. Perhaps reminding us that it's nearly time to prune our own shrubs and fruit trees (or the ornamental varieties--crabapples, flowering cherry trees and such).

We might also consider pruning some of our so-called "bad habits"--irritation, impatience, spending too much, gossiping. You well know your good old friend--the habit that bugs you.

The first step in pruning is simply mindfulness. "Oh, there it is." (Begin by pruning off the word "again.") Professional pruners stand back and look at the tree. We stand back and look at our habit in action. "Oh, i'm gossiping now." Feel how it feels in the body; feel the sensations. Listen to yourself; hear. Notice how you feel emotionally. Becoming aware is the first step.

The second step is loving yourself like you love a puppy whom you are training. The puppy has its annoying habit of barking or jumping up, yet you calmly train your dog to lie down--and you love your pet. Bring this same love and calmness to your own annoying habit. "Stay. Stay. Good dog. Good for me."

The third step is to refrain from the action while practicing mindfulness of the sensations of the body and the feelings of emotions. Count to 10 AND notice how irritation feels in the body. Zip your lips AND notice the pressure of words wanting to come out; notice the busy mind.

Step by step, we begin to prune our internal landscape

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dry Cold

In the desert, people sometimes say that dry heat isn't that hot compared to the sweltering, humid heat of the tropics. Oh, the desert is hot, but even the normal summer humidity of the Eastern woodlands (from the Atlantic coast to Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky) can feel like a hot washcloth on the face.

In contrast, i have to say that dry cold--3 degrees yesterday morning--doesn't really feel that cold. (And i just returned from 2 weeks in the Yucatan!) Winter is, in effect a desert, here in the north country. All the moisture is white and on the ground (i.e., snow). Unusually for the East, this year's 3 feet of snow is all dry powder. No snowballs or snowmen, so far this year. Skin is dry and lips are chapped.

The water in the ground is frozen, so trees, shrubs, and perennials are not taking in any water. The leaves of the evergreen rhododendrons have curled tightly into cocoons to try to keep warm.

Well, yes, my fingertips got cold quickly at 3 degrees, and took a long time to warm up. This is what happens when we die--heat leaves the extremities of the body first--the fingers and toes, hands and feet--as the heat and water elements of the body unbalance. The dying person probably stops drinking water, and the caregivers simply swab the lips to prevent dryness of the mouth.

This deep freeze of winter is an excellent time to reflect on death. The death of the year, of the old season, and also our own deaths. Everything in Nature dies. Even we, our precious self, is of the nature to die.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hibernating at Home

Due to snow, all schools and events have been cancelled for the past 2 days. Even though i have a 4-wheel drive truck (for hauling gardening stuff, of course!) and have been able to drive wherever i needed, i have mostly opted to hibernate at home. It's rather nice to pretend i am snowbound and take the opportunity to renounce the world.

Today i wanted to go to a Garden Writers meeting in Boston, but i heard the streets of Boston are flooded (and freezing into ice rinks) due to frozen drains to the storm sewers. I decided to stay home rather than go skating in my car along with a city's worth of other skating cars.

Renunciation is one of the 10 perfections (paramis or paramitas)--supreme qualities that we practice. After all, practice makes perfect(ion).

But renunciation is SO counter-cultural, just the word "renunciation" is enough to make someone scrunch up their face, wrinkle their nose, and go "Ooooh. I don't think i want any of that." (Thereby renouncing renunciation!)

I love these snow days because they give me an excuse to renounce the world, to hibernate with the Dharma, to meditate and to read, to prune my activities way back, so that in the spring, i can spring into action.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Groundhog Day

The groundhog is going to have a tough time today here in the north country. In December, the ground froze into an ice block due to no snow cover.

When my neighbor Connie wanted to roast some roots for Christmas Eve dinner, she took a hatchet to the garden because the spading fork just bounced off the frozen earth. (I can vouch that the resulting parsnips, carrots, potatoes, turnips, and caramelized onions were sweet and delicious!)

January brought snow, then a layer of ice, another layer of snow, another layer of ice. February began yesterday with several inches of snow, and today more snow.

That groundhog will need heaters on his paws and a hardhat on his head to tunnel through the tundra here. Or maybe he should just stay in bed. Sleep sounds so much more inviting.

Torpor, or sleepiness, is one of the 5 hindrances to our meditation. Torpor is SO seductive. I should know--i have taken many nap-lets on the meditation cushion. Summoning will is nearly impossible as energy drains right out of the body.

So i have become aware (= mindful) of the early warning signs of a doze. Here are my indicators. (Yours will be different.)

1) The breath feels like it drops off a cliff. It lets go. (This is a 1-second experience, so easy to miss.)

2) The breath has a 4-part pattern. First, a deep breath, followed by a slightly shallower breath, followed by a still shallower breath. The 4th breath is a very light breath, followed by a pause. That pause is heavenly.
Then the pattern repeats.

3) Nonsensical images or phrases arise. I call them dream-lets because they last about 1 second. I think i'm conscious, but the dreamlet is a mini-dream that's just about to ensnare me.

This is the time to stand up and practice standing meditation.

But the seduction continues. Oh, i'm awake now, i think. I'll just continue to sit. Z-z-z-z-z.