Cultivate the Garden of the Mind

January 17, 2021
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Garden with purple and yellow flowers

Yogis, meditators, mindfulness coaches, Christians, and countless other spiritual seekers commonly employ the metaphor of the garden to represent stewardship. Perhaps the most famous garden is the Garden of Eden: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15).

Patañjali's Yoga Sutra I.14 states: "Practice becomes firmly established when it has been cultivated uninterruptedly and with devotion over a prolonged period of time," and in his discussion of this passage, the American Indologist Edwin Bryant writes:

"If we correlate citta [mind] with a garden, sattva [peacefulness, virtuousness] with a beautiful bed of fragrant and attractive flowers, and rajas [passion, activity] and tamas [destruction, chaos] with weeds and pests, then we have a useful metaphor for the practice of yoga. As any gardener knows, maintaining a garden takes devotion and uninterrupted weeding and pest control for a prolonged period of time. In fact, these processes can never be interrupted, since within a remarkably short period of time, even the most devotedly cultivated garden becomes overwhelmed by weeds and pests; if left unattended, all one's hard work is easily undone." (50-1)

Right Effort

Likewise, Ajahn Sona, a Theravada Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition, prefers to use the simile of the garden to describe the Buddhist concept of "right effort" (sammā vāyāma). The Buddha describes (in Dīgha Nikāya 33 and elsewhere) right effort in terms of the four "right exertions" (sammappadhānā):

  1. Prevent (saṃvara padhāna) unskillful states from arising
  2. Abandon (pahāna padhāna) unskillful states that have already arisen
  3. Cultivate (bhāvanā padhāna) skillful states that have not yet arisen
  4. Maintain (anurakkhaṇā padhāna) skillful states that have already arisen

The related practices of letting go of the unskillful/unwholesome (akusala) and cultivating the skillful/wholesome (kusala) are central to the teachings of Buddhism. One must be able to recognize mind states that have arisen and respond appropriately in order to bring about positive changes.

Tending the Garden

To view the mind as a garden is to view it as a place with potential value and commit to cultivating it. One must locate the space and make effort, which can take a variety of forms. One can tend to the garden of the mind while doing yoga, meditation, or any other activity in life.

Investigate whether your mind is overgrown with weeds. Negative thoughts are the unwanted weeds. A weedy garden is not inherently bad, but if the goal is to have a colorful, peaceful garden, then there is a process to tend it. You can cultivate appropriate attention, use your desire for skillful purposes, and resolve to abandon the unskillful.

Some gardens require an intense focus. Other gardens are more forgiving and the attention can be more relaxed. Whether you are practicing yoga, meditation, eating breakfast, or anything else, explore your garden. What grows there? Is the soil rich and welcoming for plants or flowers? What is the climate? What kinds of seeds would you like to plant?

Set limits regarding what goes in the garden of the mind. Be selective in calling on the appropriate memories to cultivate peace. For instance, when you notice feelings of sleepiness, physically sit up. When hateful thoughts arise, choose to bring about thoughts of loving-kindness. If the mind is busy, then direct the focus to the breath. It's up to each of us to figure out the techniques, practices, and situations that support our goals as well as the ones that do not.

Importantly, the process of tending the garden is not about getting some thing or becoming some body. The process requires effort (viriya), but it should not feel like a chore. It's not like having to work all week and then looking forward to the weekend. Not waiting for the next thing. Rather, it's marked by a sense of freedom. With determination and consistent effort we can cultivate a garden of tranquility.

If you would like to try a meditation practice the uses this simile of tending the garden, you can listen to this recent episode of Pretty Good Meditation.

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