Tending the Soul
One Saturday morning I was listening to a gardening programme on BBC Radio 4, Gardeners Question Time. In it they talked about onion blight in an allotment (in the UK this is a plot of land rented by an individual for growing vegetables or flowers). An audience member talked to an expert and said he had problems growing onions one year as they had been hit by blight. One expert said that the opinion of most professionals was that the soil must be left for 8 years and no further onions should be grown for that time, but one man from the audience said he had grown perfect onions the next year. He had put compost containing coal soot on the affected area which had turned the soil more acid and the blight had gone. What struck me was what another expert said next – when you change the conditions of the soil you can grow a good crop.
What hit me immediately (I listen to a lot of self development CDs and read books by various authors) was how this applies to the mind. Poor thinking and introspection is like a weed strewn, untidy garden – it can produce results but only small amounts of fruit and vegetables grow. A well tended mind is like an allotment which has rich soil – fertile for growth and abundant harvest.
How then do we create a mind which is fertile and creative rather than one which is bogged down by worry, self doubt, anxiety or stress?
So, what the threats to natural and healthy growth and how can they affect our allotment.
The parasites of doubt
Everyone experiences doubt. Doubt about themselves (can I do this, that or the other?), doubt about their friends, colleagues or strangers (Can I trust them? Do they like me? What if they talk about me unkindly when I’m not there? Will they physically or emotionally hurt me?), doubt about the world (Is it safe to go out? Will I lose my job? Am I good enough to do well in the world?). Even those who are seen as successful by most people’s standards can doubt themselves and feel they are a fraud.
These parasitical doubts eat away at people’s self worth, confidence and belief and cause years of insecurity, anxiety stress and depression.
As gardeners of our minds we have choices, we can live with the parasites and maintain a status quo or tend the mind, gently nurturing it.
Ignoring the doubts is one way to cope. Some can lead an almost imperceptibly normal life by doing this, but it can be an uneasy existence with their parasitical friends in tow which may lead them to become critical of others, moody or submissive. Almost like Stockholm syndrome, they are being abused by the doubts but can “live” with them.
Some believe they are alone in having these thoughts and go to their Doctor and receive medication. Others, sadly, turn to self medication with drink or drugs to help block out the problem, in much the same way as the gardener might spray his or her crop against these parasites at the start or end of each year, the problem goes away, but only temporarily. The negative conditions are still there, fertile for dis-ease rather than growth.
Doubt can absorb and destroy lives. It lives on the edge of our thoughts, controlling emotions which then lead on to us living our lives in negative and harmful ways. The only way to make our lives free from doubt is to change the conditions which allow them to exist. They are only there as we allow them to be there. An allotment may be blighted for years by parasites which damage crops. The gardener has the information and tools to change the conditions for them not to exist. If these stay collecting dust in his shed the gardener will experience the same problems indefinitely.
The Weeds of Fear
Weeds can spread and choke an allotment. They grow quickly, blocking light and stunting growth of the seedlings. In a short space of time the allotment is overrun, the soil becomes poor and, if left too long, it will take a great effort to treat. In some cases the job of clearing the weeds looks so daunting we think the effort required is overwhelming and leave it to its own devices. Weeds then take control as can fear. In much the same way fear can block the potential of growth for us, fear can spread quickly, it can turn us against other races, religions, stop our creativity, choke our dreams and become an excuse not to do anything joyful and fulfilling in our lives.
Confronting fears is necessary if we wish to grow and enjoy the life we deserve. Many of us come up with excuses why we can’t confront our fears – it’s too hard, I can’t face it, it will take too long to overcome. Some fears can be very real and debilitating but to not address them at all is foolish. Each persons fear is individual and very personal to them. Although some fears are genuine and have resulted from some serious incident in the past, many fears are irrational such as spiders (but try telling that to someone is scared of them!).
People who are scared of spiders can mostly live unhindered in their lives. Other fears such as flying, heights, stepping out of their front door have a basis but can be overcome. Some try and do overcome their fears with the right treatment- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Hypnotherapy to name just a few. A well known book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers is a great example of facing and overcoming them. As a weed takes over the garden, a fear takes over the mind. The only way of tackling the weed is to take control!
How can this be done? As mentioned talking therapies, doing whatever you are scared of or challenging the fearful thought in your own mind. Critically examining the danger associated with the fear may be all that is needed. You may get to the point that when you tackle them head on you can live with it and not hide away from it.
An example of fearful living could be this. An employee is asked by their manager to do a talk in front of a group of senior managers. The employee says they can’t do public now speaking as they are afraid to. As not doing it may lead to receiving the wrath of their boss, and may lead them to lose their job, they now have a quandary, “which fear do I fear more, talking in front of several people who I do not know (which would be uncomfortable temporarily) or the possibility of losing my job (which may lead to having no money to pay bills, lose their house and all their belongings)”. They may then decide that to do the talk is the better of two evils. They may feel nervous at doing the talk but when complete have praise heaped upon them from the senior managers and receive opportunities for promotion and pay rise.
This is just a simple example but when one critically examines fear it can actually break down under scrutiny and even benefit from tackling it. The example also throws something else up. The employee had the fear of speaking in public. When confronted by the boss another fear manifested. This shows that when conditions are right, one weed (fear) may be plucked out, and another will grow in its place. The trick is not to give them the conditions in which to grow. If we challenge the fears we can lessen and overcome them.
The blight of blame
“It’s not my fault I’m like this, it was the fault of my mum/ dad/ brother/ sister/ boss/ bullies at school.” A critical parent, sibling rivalry, being beaten up in the school yard, a boss who constantly finds fault with work can all lead to some sort of inaction or response to situations in our lives which results in us not achieving what we really want to do, or not doing something we need to do.
Not blaming a person or people is a very difficult aspect of our thinking that we need to come to terms with. “How can I have been responsible for bad things that happened to me in the past, I was only young/ I was one against many”. The crux of the matter is that you are blaming the person/ people/ groups now. By using what the perpetrator or perpetrators did or did not do to us in the past (years ago or hours ago) to influence what we do now is to still give them power over us.
You are responsible for your thoughts and your actions. You don’t live in the past, it has come and gone. Nor do you live in the future, it is obviously yet to happen. You only live now, in the present, there is no other time. If we are behaving or thinking in a way which is impacting on ourselves or others negatively because of something that occurred in the past we are living in an illusion which must be stopped.
The anti-social neighbour
As with blaming someone for something we perceived they did to us in the past, we should be wary of someone who is doing something to us now. If a man (or woman) in the next allotment makes constant disparaging remarks about our fruit, flowers or vegetables and we take this on board, become negative and give up our fine work in our allotment we are doing ourselves and also them a disservice. People generally take criticism badly, they take it to heart and then start beating themselves up about it, “the other person must be right as they are perfect/ are more knowledgeable/ more popular than me”.
As adults we can revert back to younger times and throw a tantrum if criticised. Receiving feedback is what we need in life, good bad or indifferent. If we can do something better, quicker or faster and it is for our good then that’s fine. If you are an athlete hoping to win a medal in a competition you would want your coach to optimise your performance and you would allow that to happen. If you are growing cabbages and the person in the next allotment is berating and belittling you, question if this is for your benefit or to make him feel good about himself (he may have lost the “Best Cabbages” Prize in the annual Allotment Awards last year and is jealous of yours!). If you feel that it is his or her issue and you are getting the brunt of a bad temper you are more than in your rights to explain this to him (or her), firmly but not too firmly……
Our allotment neighbours can also give us cause for concern. They may act strangely, make us fear for their safety and also their health. We may go down to the allotment everyday and their worrying behaviour may lead us to tend to their allotment more than our own. We spend all our time and energy trying to dispel their parasites and remove their weeds. For a time this may work and we go back to our allotment again which, by this time, has become overgrown. We feel exhausted as we have used all our energy and now have to start again on our own weeds and parasites.
Many people feel they have an obligation to make sure all the allotments around them are blooming and that they can help the other allotment holders out, cure them of their strange behaviours and tend to their garden. This is not the case. We can work to make everyone around us keep their allotment as well as possible, we could do this for a thousand allotments but it would not make the slightest difference to their destiny. It is hard to let others be, to let their destiny run its course, to let a healthy harvest wither and die while we stand back helplessly. In the end it is not our destiny it is theirs. Never overestimate how much you can change others, never underestimate how much you can change yourself.
The Mindful Gardener
To grow anything successfully it must be nurtured. Seeds must be put in a rich compost, kept away from cold, watered regularly and once they have broken through the soil kept from predators until they are strong enough to look after themselves and survive on their own.
The gardener must always be on the look out for anything which may be negative to his crop. So it is with the mind. A mind may be fertile for positive growth, ideas pop up, plans may be drawn up and then put into motion leading to exciting projects, training, education, setting up your own business or just simply changing the way you dress to suit you and not someone else!
Being mindful is to not let the condition of your allotment to change for the worse. It must remain fertile for growth and you must always be vigilant against the negative conditions we saw in Part 1.
Mindfulness is maintaining alertness, listening to what people say and do, listening to what you say and do yourself and also listening to your thoughts (are they positive or negative?).
Mindfulness should not be confused with paranoia! You should be at ease in mindfulness, see it as sitting in your allotment with a cup of tea viewing the comings and goings (of thoughts), not on a rocking chair with a shotgun ready to shoot the next negative thought or person down who comes into range. Neither is it about pointing the shotgun at your foot when you feel you’ve slipped up and pulling the trigger!
A negative thought may pop up, that’s fine, they’ve been at home in your allotment for a long time. Be gentle with yourself and let it go. On the flipside of that if you see someone on another allotment not tending to theirs with the care you are now giving yours, be gentle with them. Don’t project your negativities on to them (like our anti-social neighbour earlier!).
The elements affect our allotment in many different ways. Spring warms the land and we see the first signs of growth. Summer sees our produce flourish, Autumn is the time when flowers start to fade and we harvest our crops and Winter is when most things (except the most hardy) perish ready for the next season.
Traditionally we see our lives as seasons with our formative years been seen as spring, summer our adult years, Autumn when we look to slow down our work life and retire and the Winter being the time when we may physically and mentally deteriorate before we pass out of this life.
That is traditionally the view of the seasons in our lives but it is also very simplistic and not one shared in many people’s life experiences. Serious illness, loss of close family or children, addictions and mental illness, loss of a job can be seen as a spring frost or summer downpour which ravages that which we are trying to grow. Unexpected things happen which we cannot possibly be prepared for and one incident may lead to a series of traumatic and longer terms problems which affect us and those around us.
I have seen and heard of many such stories in my time working in homelessness and addictions. Out of chaos and adversity there have been people who have found an inner strength which has been sparked into life by one final event which has got them off the path of addiction and into living a richer life.
We all live in a community which is part of a larger society which can affect how we are brought up.
Weeding the worries
Worries come to us all the time in some form. Mostly from other people, which join the parasites of doubt we have attached to our thoughts. “I want to do a night class at college – (I’ve never done it before, so I will probably fail)”. Most thoughts which are negative about ourselves never actually occur, and even if they do (unless threatening our health and wellbeing) are something that we will recover from.
There is a saying which goes like this “If you worry about something you cannot change, why worry as you cannot change it. If you worry about something you can change, why worry as you can change it”. With that in mind you really have no course to worry about anything. Worry is an emotion, a negative one that creates unease, fear and anxiety. If you have ever thought “I’m really glad I worry all the time, it makes my life so fulfilling and rich” I would be surprised. Worry is the obstacle to getting things done and all in all it’s one of the most useless and wasteful emotions in the allotment!
A fertile soil
A fertile soil is created by a lot of environmental factors. The soil should be free from weeds (obviously), not too muddy and not too dry. A mind can absorb comments and criticism and if it is too muddy the thoughts will stick and it will be hard to get them out.
If a mind is too dry it becomes hard and both criticism and feedback bounce off in equal measures. The muddy mind is a well of doubt, introspection and misery whilst the dry mind creates a person who never listens, is insensitive and generally….annoying to everyone around them! The soil (and mind) should be open to everything and closed to nothing. A bed of rich, well matured compost grows vegetables and fruit easily, it is easy to work in and when weeds grow they are easy to take out. Like this rich soil, the mindful gardener can allow new experiences in and is inspired to grow something which they never thought of before (a hobby, a job, a new way of thinking).
The blooming allotment
We have gone through ways of “being” to develop the greatest thing on the planet, the human mind! It is capable of the most amazing things, developing medicines, creating amazing technologies, building amazing architecture, protecting the environment, writing classic stories, making beautiful music. Everyone is capable of doing more than they think. When you see the diverse life and landscapes of the Earth, look at the night sky and see the pictures of the grandeur of the Universe, think of YOU as part of that infinite creativity.
You are meant to have an amazing life, to create whatever you want in your life, all choices are present for you now or are coming in for you soon. You have the power in your life ALWAYS to choose something better. No one can make you, no one can force you. Tend to your allotment, free it from what holds you back and choose to live your life in a better way – NOW.
Submitter Name: Mark Edwards