Many of us have had a perfect day in the garden, the kind of day that we hope would never end. A day when the herbaceous borders burn brightly with colour, and the trees and shrubs stand green against the blue sky. A day when the grass is soft and rolling. A day when there is a warm sweetness in the air while you prune and weed and plant out seedlings. It’s a kind of day that leaves you feeling calm, collected, and aware.
If you’ve ever had a day like this, there’s a good chance you’ve achieved, at least for a few moments, a mental state known as mindfulness. In the last few years, mindfulness has had a great deal of media attention. Simply put, mindfulness is about being more aware of what is happening both inside and outside ourselves. Mindfulness stems from eastern Buddhist traditions and practices. In the west, it has been embraced and modified and is now considered a useful tool to help focus the mind. Many have found it particularly useful for mental health problems, and it is recommended for issues from anxiety to depression. Even the NHS has endorsed mindfulness. Their website states that, “Becoming more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better.” There are now hundreds of books on how to become more mindful. There are classes being offered in church halls and offices. There are apps, CDs and DVDs.
For me, the perfect activity to truly become mindful, the thing which allows me to genuinely engage with the world around me, is something I can find right outside the back door – my garden. I do practise mindfulness meditation in the classic way (eyes closed and belly breathing), and I have found it to be very useful. I’ve even been known to light the cliched stick of incense or two. In short, guided meditation is good. But nothing connects me more to my surroundings than gardening. We gardeners know that on a good day, when all the plants around us are reaching toward the sky, when the soil in the vegetable beds runs richly through our hands, that we feel totally connected to the present moment. There is a calm in gardening which cannot be found anywhere else.
My peace comes in those long days adrift in the garden. As I pot on seedlings, carefully lifting them by their new bright leaves so as not to damage their delicate stems, or saw strenuously on the branches of an overgrown privet hedge, I disappear into the act of gardening. The horizon in my mind seems to become smooth and level like the open sea. At this point I have entered what psychologists call “flow”: a term used to describe a person’s state of mind when they are completely absorbed in an activity. The feeling of flow is closely associated with mindfulness. When I’m lost in the act of gardening, few things can draw my attention. Yes, I’ll stop what I’m doing if my daughter asks me to play with her on the grass or if the grumbling of my stomach tells me it’s time to stop and get something to eat. Family and food always come first – after that, it’s the garden.
Trite as it may sound, I feel as if all the individual threads of my mind are woven properly together by the act of gardening. We’re taught in school that humans have five major senses (though in reality I’m told there are many more), and if mindfulness means being fully aware of the world around you, fully engaged with your senses, then I can think of no better task than gardening to become more mindful, for what keen gardener has not closed their eyes and bent down to inhale the gentle fragrance of a flower? When I’m gardening, a great point in the year is when I can begin to harvest early peas. It’s always exciting to pull the first one from the vine, pop open the pod, tip my head back, and with a flick of my thumb pour a handful of sweetness into my mouth. Then there’s the other senses: the dazzling sight of cherry blossom in spring or the sound of grasses dancing in an autumn breeze.
These experiences are not the preserve of the elite; nature is all around us. My garden is no rural estate; I live in a quiet suburb attached to a larger city. My plot of land is typically narrow and long. There is nothing unique about where I garden. And that, is the beauty of gardening; it is an activity which is available to almost anyone. Most of us do not have acres of land, but around 90% of British households do have access to some kind of garden. For those who do not have any outdoor space, there are allotments and community gardening schemes across the country. With a modicum effort and a decent trowel, we may all be able to find our little piece of Zen.
Gardening and mindfulness seem like a perfect match. There are so many aspects of modern life which people seem to disconnect from – long monotone office meetings, spreadsheet filled computer screens, cramped train rides or traffic jams. Due to the stressful and fractured nature of life, people often want to be somewhere else. It doesn’t need to be like this. If you want something that reconnects you to the world around you, which makes you more mindful of the present moment, than look no further than the green grass beneath your feet. You really won’t find a better meditation mat.