Cultivating Our Garden
Sant Mat teachings show up in the most unlikely places. Recently, I came across a book called Square Foot Gardening, by Mel Bartholomew, and was astonished to find how neatly it fits into the teachings of the saints. It’s meant to show gardeners how to plan and cultivate their private gardens efficiently and effectively. But I found it to be all about our spiritual lives, our precious garden of meditation protected by the fence of our vows, our discipline, and the guidance and the encouragement of our Master.
Square Foot Gardening begins with a rundown of how and why gardening efforts fail. We waste space and seed; we don’t follow through with the weeding and feeding necessary to sustain it. We may try some exotic plants that are inappropriate for the soil and climate we live in. The harvest, if it comes at all, may be more than we need. We discover that we are overplanted and overwhelmed. We have too many squash and not enough tomatoes, and we give up the effort altogether because it’s just too much, too difficult.
And so it is with the garden of our life. As young adults we decide what to study in university, what we want to be. Then we get that first serious job. We need a car. Then we decide to get married, so we need a better place to live and all the furnishings and appliances, cake tins and blankets that go with that. Then a baby arrives, so we need a bigger house, a better neighbourhood, a minivan. Soon there are summer camps, a promotion, more work, more friends and more obligations. Then one day we wake up and discover the garden of our life is overplanted and we’re overwhelmed. Our spiritual path is full of weeds; too many obligations and not enough spirituality, too many squash and not enough tomatoes.
The square foot gardener gives us some concrete tips on planning and managing a sustainable garden. He points out the need to pace ourselves and to re-evaluate after every season to see if our gardening goals are being met. Have we planned for some to share and some to save? Have we planted more than we can take care of? We need a pattern of “controlled planting”, the gardener says.
Just so we should plan and discipline our lifestyle so that our spiritual goals are met.
In Spiritual Primer the author talks about how we are bombarded by advertising and mass media, sold on the idea that more is better, and reminds us that:
Rich is the person who has not the most, but who is happy with whatever he or she has. We have raised our standard of living, but sadly our standard of contentment has not followed suit.
Contentment has become almost a foreign word in today’s vocabulary and yet we have so much more than we really need.
The next lesson of small gardening is “keep off the soil”. The gardener points out that plants need aerated soil to thrive. If it’s packed down with too much machinery and traffic, its growth is thwarted.
What’s this got to do with Sant Mat gardening? Our spiritual work too gets jammed into a life over full of stuff and people and busyness. It tends to get smothered by the sheer traffic of life. The Masters remind us that we should consider every one of our actions and our attitudes. Will this take me nearer to my goal? Or will it prove an impediment to my spiritual progress? Leaving ample time, space, silence and solitude to consider our actions will help keep us on the right track and help improve our attitude to life and to meditation.
Next our gardener recommends regular garden maintenance and soil improvement: a trowel full of leaf mould, some compost, a sprinkling of fertilizer, and maybe some lime to keep the proper acid-alkaline balance, applied routinely between harvest and replanting.
Our spiritual garden too needs proper maintenance to keep it strong and growing: a mid-day break for a few rounds of simran, attending satsang regularly, as well as reading the books and Spiritual Link to enrich our spiritual soil. Eating light vegetarian meals keeps us healthy both physically and spiritually. And that bit about balance? Master tells us that balance is important for all of us on this path. A little honest work, a little family obligation, a little fun, a little seva along with our regular meditation all make for a balanced spiritual garden.
The Masters implore us to arrange our lives so that our daily meditation takes place regularly and punctually. Of course there will be times when that daily routine gets interrupted. But if we adjust to the situation, plan the work and work the plan, we can slip back into our maintenance, growth and harvesting without suffering any major disruption.
As a final bit of advice, the garden author says we should plant our square foot garden plots close to our living space. “Don’t plant your garden in the back of the yard away from your daily life,” he says. “Keep it close where you can keep an eye on it.” Similarly, we should not banish our meditation to those two and a half hours in the middle of the night and never think about it during the day. We must try to keep it always in the forefront of our consciousness as we go about our daily lives. Using simran to keep us mindful of Master’s presence in our daily activity, we will be aware when those pests – anger, attachment, greed, lust, and pride – make their inevitable appearance and be able to nip them before they cause any lasting damage.
The Master has given us the seeds and tools to make our garden grow, but we must make the initial effort. In Living Meditation it says:
We cannot force the growth of a tree we have planted. The tree has its own time to grow. Our job is to dig a hole, plant the seed, cover it with the soil, fertilize it, water it, protect it from pests and take care of it every day. That is the extent of our effort. The speed at which it grows is not up to us. If we have this attitude towards our meditation we will not obstruct the Master’s work and the tree of spirituality will undoubtedly grow and yield fruit in our lives. If we try to speed up the growth of the tree without first properly waiting for it to be rooted, then it can be torn up and destroyed by the winds of Kal’s world. If we try to hurry, impose our expectations or force visions, then we will just be complicating the Master’s work.
Our only concern is to keep our mind in simran at the eye centre, and to be receptive to the Sound. For that, and only that, are we responsible. It is for us to follow the instructions of Master and leave the rest to him. Whether results appear in our meditation or not, we will do well. Our part of the meditation is to keep our attention in the effort, not the results. The effort is up to us. The results are not.
All of us are spiritual gardeners. Some of us have old established gardens; some are newly planted. Some of us are raising flowers, some are raising food. Some could use a little more fertilizer. Some have more weeds than they should. But we’re all doing our best to protect our little crop of meditation and praying for showers of grace.
In the Buddhist tradition, a practice is viewed sometimes as a path, sometimes as a stream. The metaphor of the stream invites you to imagine a strong but gentle current that is already there to speed your journey. Just to enter such a stream makes you a different person. Even if you should go back to shore, you would feel its power. You might enter the stream then return to shore many times, but if you keep practicing you’re finally there for good – in the stream, on the path. Just to consider getting started expands your vision and lifts your spirit. Taking the all-important first step with a sincere heart can be a sort of enlightenment. It presages an evolutionary adventure, and offers inner peace.
Michael Murphy and George Leonard, The Life We are Given
When day by day the mind’s faculty of focused attention, which is an aspect of the soul, becomes pure through continuous practice, and all worldly desires have left the mind, the mind will never follow any external attractions, but stay only with the Satguru’s form. Then the Satguru will look upon the disciple with his glance of mercy; and as the Satguru’s compassionate glance keeps falling on the disciple, all the gross and evil tendencies of the mind will go away, and the mind will love the soul.
Baba Jaimal Singh, Spiritual Letters