My spouse, Kip, and I have a plot in a community garden. A few weeks ago one of our fellow gardeners asked me how we manage to keep the weeds under control. When I told Kip, his quick response was, “We weed!”
Easier said than done. Early this spring we had to dig up dozens of strawberry plants we’d planted last year, because over the winter, weeds had encroached into the patch. That’s actually putting it mildly. The weeds had invaded—and they had conquered.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to grow strawberries, but they’re a monster to weed, and I understand now why some ingenious and probably frustrated person came up with the idea of a strawberry jar. The plants propagate by sending out dozens of little runners that make using a hoe between them impossible.
After struggling to clear out the weeds by hand and getting nowhere, I realized it would be easier to dig up the whole strawberry patch, extricate the weeds, and transplant the strawberries all over again.
The experience of weeding our garden got me thinking. Which most everything does. Which brings me to my point.
My mind is a lot like a garden plot. Thoughts of all varieties can grow there, some of them fruitful and nourishing and some of them thorny and nettlesome. My job is to pay attention to what’s growing there and decide which sorts of thoughts are going to stay.
You’ve probably known people who, despite tremendous hardships in life, grow into their old age full of gratitude and generosity. You can usually tell them by the wrinkles around their eyes—they’ve made such a habit of smiling. You’ve probably also known people who have grown bitter over the years and whose chronic scowl has become etched in flesh.
Neither of those outcomes happen by accident. Sure, we’re probably genetically predisposed one way or the other, but blaming it all on genes I think is a cop out. I believe our disposition is due, to a large degree, on whether we have been good gardeners of our mind.
When it really comes down to it, I think tending the mind—choosing what sorts of thoughts we are going to allow to grow there—is the most important responsibility any of us have. The thoughts you cultivate will express themselves in every action you take. Our thoughts, quite literally, determine the shape of the world.
Sometimes people see see themselves as victims of their thoughts, and there may be instances—such as in cases of trauma or biochemical imbalances in the brain—where that’s the case. But for most of us, when our minds are overgrown with all manner of nastiness it’s just because we’ve been lazy. With attention, dedication, and practice, most any of us can cultivate the sort of mind we want to live in. After all, you’re the gardener. You have the power.
But how do we manage the mind? How do we keep the weeds from taking over? Well, that’s where spiritual practices like meditation come in. Meditation cultivates in us the ability to notice thoughts as they appear—like seeds floating by on the breeze—and then let them drift on by rather than landing in the fertile soil of our imagination.
But here’s the tricky thing. We’re all living in a community garden, so to speak. Unless you’re a hermit up on a mountainside (and if you’re reading this, you’re not) you are constantly exposed to what’s growing inside other people’s minds. Just like the solid mass of dandelions that were flourishing in the garden plot next to ours a couple years back, the unhelpful thoughts that have established themselves in someone else’s mind will launch their irksome seeds into the air and some of them are going to land in you. You may as well get used to it.
But here’s another thing. When that happens, you still get to make a choice. You can either resent them (the thoughts, the person) in which case you’re letting those seeds sprout and root inside you, or you can patiently, deliberately, and compassionately go to the garden shed, get the hoe, and start reclaiming the only mental territory you’re responsible for: your own.
I say patiently, deliberately, and compassionately because compassion really is the key. We need to be compassionate with ourselves, because we’re never going to do this perfectly—and that’s okay. And we need to be compassionate with one another because, as I try to remind myself, when someone is launching the seeds of anger, hostility, and judgmentalism it’s because that’s the plot they live in, the plot they themselves have to endure. What could be more unpleasant than that?
Just like weeding our garden, this mind-weeding work is never done. But look at it this way: life’s simple frustrations are simply giving us the chance to practice.
Here’s a case in point. I had just finished my final edits to this post and was just about to click the “Publish” button when WordPress wigged out on me. It lost the final draft. I was very unhappy. And then I got it.
It was just one more chance to practice, and in this case my hoe consisted of facing the facts of the situation and not trying to fight what was. Once I did that, I could return to my task with focus, patience, and serenity.
By the way, just this week I harvested the first of our strawberries. They’re red and juicy and sweet—and they’ve convinced me that all that weeding a few months ago was worth it.