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Gardens

Gardens are the most practical way of engaging with Mindfulness in nature in our every day life.
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Hello again, and welcome back to the forest for the last session of this module. So far in this module, we’ve looked at how mindfulness is often and perhaps unnecessarily represented, or idealist as embedded in beautiful natural landscapes. Nonetheless, we’ve seen that there are clear benefits to our health and well being if we practice outside amongst the plants and trees. We then moved on to consider specific mindfulness practices, like the elements practice from the satipatthana. That deliberately emphasis our relationship with the natural world. And finally, we looked at some of the ways in which contemporary mindfulness might be naive about the land politics of its practices.
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In this session today, I want to talk briefly about one of the simplest ways in which mindfulness might be related to nature in our everyday lives. Mindfulness in gardens and gardening. Alongside this session, this module contains an update on the mindful garden project at Leiden University, to encourage you to check that out too. For many people living in cities, which is most people getting out of the city into natural environments like this forest can be difficult, can be expensive or simply impossible. So perhaps for a majority of people, the most likely sites for engaging with nature are going to be parks and gardens. And I think I have two general points to make about this.
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First, when it comes to the health benefits of being in nature that we considered earlier in this module. You’ll be pleased to know that the evidence shows that being an even a very small garden for a couple of hours a week will have beneficial results. In Japan, the Association for shinrin-yoku or Forest bathing offers guided practices in the heart of Tokyo and other mega cities. Sometimes just escorting a group of people to a tiny patch of land on a street corner where someone has planted and tended to a couple of trees or some flowers. The garden is too small for people to stand in it.
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So participants view it from the street getting as close to the greenery as they can, being with it breathing in the air that is filtered by those trees. In short then, if you only have access to a window box or a couple of trees in the street outside and that’s enough to get some of the benefits, but and this is important. Just like with mindfulness in general, you have to make the choice to go and spend some time with those plants just noticing them and walking past isn’t going to cut it. You might need to adopt such a place as your sit spot a few times each week.
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Even better if you have a space where you can cultivate your own garden. Getting your hands into the earth and immersing yourself into the life of those plants in an intimate way. Evidence suggests that these actions will release even more of the chemicals that boost our immune systems and our well being. So even if you can’t be here in the temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island. Your garden or a few planters on your balcony or some greenery on the ruined plot at the end of your street, that’ll do fine. My second point today, when it comes to the connections between mindfulness and gardens, many of you may already know how important gardens are in Buddhist temples.
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Many temples maintain beautiful, often small gardens for the monks, nuns and laity to practice walking meditation or sit in contemplation. They often contain ponds or streams with fishing them so that people can do a good deed and offer food to the animals. And the gardens are invariably maintained by the practitioners themselves. And working in the garden is not only part of the work rotation for the residents, but it’s also an opportunity an explicit opportunity to practice mindfulness in action. If any of you ever get the chance to do long residential mindfulness retreats. It’s a pretty good chance that you will be mindfully working in the kitchen and in the garden and these will be daily tasks.
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One especially famous example of that experience might be Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village Monastery in France. Indeed, following the tradition of earlier Zen Masters such as the 13th century Japanese monk Dogen. Who extolled the virtues of working in the kitchen as an ideal site for everyday mindfulness. Thich Nhat Hanh has offered a range of teachings on mindfulness in the garden. To some extent, part of the idea here is simply that gardening is like any other kind of daily activity to which we might choose to bring mindful awareness. Perhaps you can remember trying this early on in the course with simple everyday activities, like brushing your teeth or eating a raising or tying your shoelaces.
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Well we can all bring this quality of attention to gardening also. And as we’ve seen several times in this course, almost any activity can become an opportunity for practice. If we make the decision to bring mindful awareness to our movements and sensations. However, although it’s not necessary to garden in order to cultivate mindfulness just as it’s not necessary to be on a mountaintop. There are ways in which gardening can be especially supportive of our practice. It’s not just a generic everyday activity, it’s a particular one. So what are the particular characteristics of mindfulness in the garden? Aside from the health advantages of being amongst the plants, deliberately tending to those plants in a tender and mindful way.
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Can engender feelings of intimacy with and compassion for the natural world, contemplated exercises like this. Work towards transforming the natural world from being only a context for our lives into being effectively into woven with our lives. Trees and plants and rivers that changed from being objects outsiders into non human companions. We don’t have to go as far as the monk Dogen who as we saw earlier in this module, wanted to write letters of friendship to his favorite trees. In order to feel this transformation occurring. Perhaps you feel it in something very simple, such as when you look forward to going back into the garden tomorrow.
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Or when you wake up in the night and wonder how an ailing seedling is doing in a storm outside. In other words, the effective power of mindfulness can work towards enabling us to love the natural world around us. And perhaps even might encourage us to treat it better. In combination with practices such as the elements contemplations, gardening can support the development of open awareness. The elemental sensations that we encounter with our hands in the soil, or our skin rubbing against bark or gently touching some leaves. Can help open our awareness to the continuity of ourselves with the natural world around us and within us.
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Having said all this, sometimes we do just want to go to the garden and look at the flowers. Perhaps we don’t have the emotional or mental resources to make it into a practice on that occasion, and that’s obviously fine too. One thing that can help us establish and help us distinguish this is to establish a little ritual for ourselves. When we know we intend to make use of the garden is a space for practice. Perhaps you can identify a threshold outside that patch of land, a couple of trees, a gate to the curb, whatever it is.
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And then before you enter the garden, with the intention of practicing, pause at the threshold, take a breath and remind yourself of your intention. Perhaps ask permission of the land to do your practice there today, it might just take a few seconds. And then when you leave, pause again at that threshold and offer some thanks to the garden for supporting your practice. Wrapping your practice in the garden with respect and gratitude like this may help you feel that space as a place of practice when that’s what you intend it to be. Sometimes I like to bend down and just press my fingers into the soil when I’m at a threshold like that.
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It takes just a moment to offer my greetings and to settle my intention.
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Okay, so I think that’s pretty much it for today, and that’s it for this module too. I hope you’ve enjoyed these sessions and the extra materials in this update to, of course, and I hope you get chance to play in the garden a little today, too. I wish you well.

Gardens are the most practical way of engaging with Mindfulness in nature in our every day life.

Are you able to make time to engage with nature in gardens, parks of even a window box? How do you start your practice?

How do you feel when mindfully gardening, or even just sitting near plants or trees in an urban area? Does it make you more empathic or affective to the natural world?

Leiden University

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