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Being or Doing? Or Both? Or Neither?
I am in the process of publishing a book with the same title as this column: Bringing Mindfulness to Life, and as part of that I have been working with a filmmaker on a promotional video. You see me sitting at ease in the ramshackle rain shelter at our community allotment garden, scribbling in my notebook, then lifting my head to gaze thoughtfully over an eclectic arrangement of paths, beds, poles, and compost bins, before resuming writing with renewed application. The scene aims to evoke a sense of calm, leisurely absorption in sensory experience. While that certainly can be my experience there, it is not the whole truth.
On arrival at the allotment plot, I immediately see what needs doing: weeding, above all, throughout the year. And sowing, planting, watering, mulching, dividing, deadheading, and composting. Rigging up protective netting for the kale (birds love it); placing collars made from cut plastic bottles with a ring of copper tape, over young courgettes and sunflowers (as slug barriers); replanting tiny, self-seeded poppies to more convenient and picturesque places. I do “stand and stare”* a fair amount too, but often with an eye for improvement: “If I were to thin out that rampant euphorbia, maybe I could grow a white currant bush there. Would it get enough light, throughout the season?”
There is nothing wrong with doing. Without my (and my husband’s) vigilance and commitment, there wouldn’t be a garden. We wouldn’t be eating our own lettuce and radishes; we wouldn’t enjoy so many homegrown leek and potato soups or rhubarb crumbles. We wouldn’t have vases full of free flowers most months of the year. When our even more industrious allotment neighbor of many years gave up his plot, after a bad case of COVID-19, a young couple took over. After an initial burst of enthusiastic digging, weeding, and marking out new beds, all went quiet. The weeds took over and offered a glimpse of what would happen if human activity ceased altogether: the site would be a nitrogen-rich heaven for nettles, dandelions, dog-weed, brambles, buttercups, ground elder, and forget-me-nots. The apple trees would be doing well, for a while, and so would the Jerusalem artichokes, mint, and lovage. I don’t blame the young people; they have their lives, their careers to grow. For a garden to flourish, you have to be present in it, often.
I love tending our plot; it does all the good things for my body and mind that research mentions;** it often tangibly improves my mood, steadies and balances me. There is something straightforwardly useful and wholesome about gardening, when many aspects of modern life are so complicated and removed from sensory reality. I love the smell and feel of the rich earth on my hands; I feel enticed to enrich and collaborate with the natural environment, and I enjoy giving away split-off plants and surplus produce to neighbors. It also gives me the opportunity to explore that koan*** of Being and Doing. Digging up potatoes can be an unhurried, mindful, and purposeful pleasure, or it can almost recede into the background while the mind unhappily and busily churns over some apparent or threatening calamity. We are so compelled to sort things out by ruminating over them, aren’t we? In order to use the beneficial opportunities presented by gardening to the full, some training of the mind through sitting practice will be of great benefit. It will open up more choice and agency with regard to our mental states in any situation, whether physically active or not.
Our plot is only five minutes’ walk from our home, and when it is dry and reasonably mild (not something to take for granted in Scotland) I will go there in the morning to do some physical warmups and meditate outside. In the same way as I avoid looking at my phone before meditating at home, I hold myself back (not always successfully) from starting to pull out some of that stealthy ground elder, couch grass, and bind weed, before getting ready to sit. The lines from a poem by Rumi come to mind:
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to
Kneel and kiss the ground.
Today the sky is clear and I choose a shady corner of the allotment between the apple trees to set up my blocks for sitting meditation. Maybe you will join me in this little meditation, wherever you are?
Just sitting meditation
Getting a general sense of arriving in the body, in this place. A few deeper breaths help us to be grounded and settled. A sense of the Earth, vast and ancient, holding us.
Becoming aware of the hands, where they are resting, what they are in touch with; air, skin, clothes. What is the energy in the hands like? Are they still expecting to do something? Letting the hands realize that now, nothing needs to be done.
Letting the feet know that now, there is nowhere to go.
Letting the face know that now, there is nothing to communicate and nothing to hide from the world.
Letting the belly be soft and get on with its business of digesting. It knows what to do.
In this atmosphere of quietude, the heart might open naturally, like a flower when the conditions are right.
Allowing a sense of belonging, without having to do anything to prove our worthiness.
When the urge to do, to ponder, to fix something arises, sensing the vitality of that energy. This is how life expresses itself; let it brighten the moment. Perhaps your breath can ride that energy, tame it with ease, channelling it into contentment.
If it feels right, we may drop in the question of Being versus Doing. How is it playing itself out for us right now? Is it about both? Or neither?
Sitting with ease, for as long as feels right.
The Sun has reached the crown of the trees and dappled light amazes the skin on my face. Early morning city sounds are starting to clank and whirr. A rustling of leaves nearby. Sitting peacefully, thoughts arising in tandem with everything else, coming and going, no big deal.
* What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare? (From the poem “Leisure” by W. H. Davies)
** Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis (ScienceDirect)
*** A koan is “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.” (Oxford Dictionary)
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