Gardening: Good for our Soul
by Peter Cock
Photo by Belinda Towns

Probably most of us have been in a garden on a particular day and time and felt a rush of wellbeing- of joy, being recharged, uplifted, a sense of healing, being in tune with the infinite. I hope that through sharing my perspective on spirituality and wellbeing in the garden this will assist in clarifying your own.

A garden is usually defined as ‘a piece of ground appropriated to the cultivation of Herbs, Plants, Fruit, Flowers or Vegetables’. It can be much more. Gardens can clear away the fog of the noisy, fast, techno world, and the mindless focus on the clutter of trivia. This trivia hides us from what matters and what we need to be in relationship to each other, to being alive to our being and becoming and, in the larger picture, being alive to the earth. We all have our issues, our edges to expand or contract. And we need all the help we can get. Gardening attunes us to life’s struggles for renewal, richness and balance. Dimensions of healing, psychological development and physical wellbeing are all part of the spirit of gardening. For example, gardening every day and through the seasons keeps us in touch with the cycle of life- we can see plants each day through our seasons that are thriving, dying, seeding, fruiting, healthy and battling with disease.

In contrast, gardening books, in their content and categorisation, are separated from ecology and separated again from spirituality. Here I am addressing each as part of the others. It is important to carry with us the awareness of gardens as part of a continuum of our nature connections - for example bush walking, surfing in wild places, being down on the farm. Spirituality in the garden in its largest sense refers to the diverse manifestations of the earth’s life forces. This is expressed in the Old Testament, as the Garden of Eden. This garden includes all the species, habitats, climates, and geology etc that go to make up the earth’s garden. In particular this encompasses wild places, which we visit and seek to protect but in whose evolution we were not an active partner. It includes places other than domestic gardens, such as organic farms, where the focus is on growing food for sale rather than your own family’s consumption or enrichment.

The ecology of gardens is ideally one of partnership between humans and the rest of nature. I am focused here on gardens we as humans have consciously co- created. Gardens are important because they are our personal connections with nature, they remind us that we are part of nature and cannot live fully without her. They also remind us that now the rest of nature needs our assistance, our partnership for the regeneration of the earth.

Each garden has different capacities to evoke spiritual experience. This is more obvious in the grand experience of sunrise and sunset, in large powerful naturescapes of desert, mountains and sea. The spiritual capacity of gardens is more subtle, intricate and human shaped in places where we are co partners in their creation. Through our gardens we have the opportunity to bring spiritual experience into our everyday lives rather than leaving it to church on Sunday or to the grand desert or sea journey.

What we bring to gardening
People from a gardening family or with gardening cultural heritage, or those who have experienced a ‘fall’, often know they need healing and are more likely to be open to the capacity of gardening to cultivate their wellbeing. Those of us running flat out in the fast lane, full of their power and sense of autonomy are often blinded and disabled from spiritual attunement.

To consciously cultivate wellbeing, rather than leave it to the unconscious or live in an unaware state, we need to research and observe ourselves. What attitudes, values and assumptions do we bring to it? Why are we coming to the garden? To work, to play, to listen, to rest, regenerate, for time out from the everyday world, for time with non-human nature, to give and receive? More important what do we bring? - How much time, how often, in what frame of mind? How open are we to learning, listening, observing? Do we come with an attitude of partnership with the rest of nature, to be of service to life or to control and dominate and demand returns? Are we there to have a quick visit, do some work or to lingeringly meditate, observe, create, touch, feel, and wonder?

Gardening as a Partner
Consider what you bring to the partnership and what the rest of nature brings. Gardening as a partner with the rest of nature means we have to let go of control to allow the garden to do its magic and as a consequence transcend our obsessions with mind. We also need space within and time off from without for the garden to work its magic. Gardening being good for the soul happens to us not only because of our willingness and openness. It is as much about the power of the garden as it is about what we do, bring, think and feel. How difficult we find it to focus on what we are looking at in the garden, to see only the detail of a flower, instead of being concerned about what we think or feel about it and then rushing to do something to it.

There is a tension between creating and being created. Garden writing focuses on the garden as subject and us as garden creators, managers, and designers with green fingers. By inflating our role we diminish our attunement to the experience of ourselves as the subject and the garden as grower of soulfulness. Seeing ourselves as if we were a plant that the garden grows helps developing humility in the face of life’s story. So we need to be mindful of a partnership between us as servants of the garden and us as the subject of service- our giving and receiving is an ebb and flow between both.

When we allow ourselves to see the garden more in its own terms, to reach beyond ourselves to the garden, then we become more one with it, and no longer standing outside and above. To allow attunement to the processes of co-creation through gardening, it can help to symbolise this through providing space, such as a seat for sitting and soaking up lessons of the garden. In particular, the garden remind’s us about the truth about being alive on this planet- that we are born, we live, we die as does the circle of all life on the earth- we are part of nature, and interdependent with it.

The honouring of the power of the rest of nature might appear to be suggesting that therefore gardens should be full of weeds as they, rather than being a plant out of place, are also a plant out of control. They are plants that show us nature’s power but also threaten to take over and create a monoculture because of a disturbance we have created. We therefore have no choice now, but to explore partnership with the rest of nature.

This partnership includes all of nature and all of ourselves. We more readily acknowledge a place for conscious attunement through, for example, sitting still, meditating, and being in one’s special place in your garden to heighten consciousness of soul connections. I am wary of limiting spirituality in the garden to designed spiritual places and/or sacred plants within a garden. While we often have preferences for special places to sit and meditate, they are best seen within a large sense of spirituality in the garden. Likewise we usually have our favoured plants, those with special meaning. The inspiration of spirit, and becoming in tune with the infinite often comes in unexpected places, at unexpected times. These are free gifts from the garden and not dependent on what we make happen.

We tend to understate the importance of our unconscious and overstate the role of disciplined consciousness as the path to soulfulness. As co-gardeners we need to acknowledge the unconscious healing and spiritual attunement that comes out of making a contribution to the garden. The constantly repetitive tasks requiring minimal awareness and small energy enable our right brain to be responsive to the left field. Chopping wood and carrying water are examples offering equivalent opportunities.

Co-gardening includes you, your needs and your cultural history. Most of us contribute roots from some other place to the process of growing our roots here. Therefore to be true to ourselves means our gardens often reflect where we have come from as well as where we are. So some of us need more color in our lives than that which Australian plants can. To be good for our soul, gardens need to not only honor the power of the more than human in nature, but also who we are and from where we have come. Our gardens are then more likely to consist of a mixture of plants from all over the world; no problem if we have done our homework about what they are and the nature of their power.

The Pleasures and Pains of Gardens
It is often far easier to speak on the surface of the aches and pains than the joy and self-transcendence of gardening. The deeper pain of losing a plant you have nurtured has not cultural space for it’s owning or sharing. Our culture doesn’t seem to want to liberate us from its one-sided expressions of the interdependencies between pain and pleasure. However before we begin to wax on about the joys of gardening, it is important that spirituality in the garden is grounded and sensual, enabling its manifestation in earthy pursuits.

Often we have to garden or walk the dog when we least feel like it - yet these necessary calls of nature can keep us fit in spite of ourselves. We can provide ourselves with a sense of meaning from being both a service to life and in partnership with it. However, we can allow our dutiful gardening to become oppressive of us if, for example, we become obsessive about it and try to make it perfect with all lines straight and all weeds eradicated. ‘Gardening until we drop’ deprives us of time out to rest, reflect and plan in the garden for the garden and for ourselves.

If anything we tend to over-garden, work the ground too hard, and try to maximize productivity. In the name of love we risk killing the garden through excessive interventions. For example, if plants are overfed and watered, they become more dependent on our interventions, so that when we go away are less able to survive. Give them the minimum, so that they can draw more deeply from the earth, and become resilient. With this in mind we are allowing for a partnership- a two-way flow.

The Garden as Soul Guide
Spirituality at its core means the breath of life. The Latin root is ‘spiritus’ meaning breath, vigour. It is about being attuned to the essences of life through the experience of self-transcendence and synergy with the life of US that is in tune with the infinite. By Us I mean that of all species on earth. By spirituality I mean the experience of being aware of being part of the energy of and for life. By the infinite, the Webster Dictionary says ‘extending beyond measure or comprehension"- the spirit of the infinite is the breath of life that exists before us and after us, that is in us, flows through us and transcends us.

Our soul isn’t just a residue of an unexplained, unknown self-a kind of god of the gaps between what we know and what we don’t. It relates to the ground of our being. The core or essence of who we are as human earthlings and the central issues that matter and connect us to life and death. Being soulful enables us to be integrated as persons and attuned to the larger whole of which we are a part. The Webster Dictionary on soul says, "the part of one’s being that is thought of as the centre of feeling, thinking, will etc apart from the body". Soulful means to be full of deep feeling. A soulful person is one attuned to the being and becoming of their person and their role as part of the larger universe of life. Soulfulness has of its very essence fuzzy boundaries. Being full of soul means being full of feeling in a way that reaches beyond one’s boundaries of self, even our humanity, to feeling connected to the aliveness of the universe.

Spirituality in the garden is more about access to experience rather than worry about belief. This is a spirituality that is accessible through openness to reach for partnership with that which is more than I, through the apparent otherness of nature. As the Bible says ‘he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.’ Christ’s journey of forty days and forty nights in the desert or the American Sioux Indian Vision Quests are traditions that draw on wild places to facilitate attunement to the larger universe of life, to clear away the fog of everyday life that clutter and marginalise core life meanings.

Spirituality is also available in the garden through observation of everyday life and death- a chance to see your own life cycle through time and at this point in time through observation of what is happening in the garden. We can consciously and unconsciously draw on the cycles of nature to attune to our own position in the life cycle and what is needed to work on for our becoming. Aspects of particular plants and flowers may call us, draw us to them and may be a source of personal insight into our growing edge. This can be activated through being aware of being attracted to particular plants, for example. These may have a message for you through considering the particular characteristics of that which attracts you and then mirroring those attributes back to yourself as a stimulus for self-affirmation. Alternatively such awareness can serve as a vehicle for a more critical consideration of our growing edges, of that which we could work on to become more in balance (see Roszak: 1995).

What kind of garden is more likely to facilitate access to spiritual experience?

How is the garden viewed?
Is it seen as an extension of the house- taking the house out into the garden rather than bringing the garden into the house? A house-scaped garden focuses on its built form with a tendency towards monocultural beauty that is diligently planned- a blaze of one or two colours as illustrated by TV programs’ backyard blitz with their gardens in a day. What a contradiction creating a garden in a day. How quickly the garden fashion of the moment becomes dated and we become dependent on the gardening consultant to advise on the latest garden fad. An assumption from backyard blitz that needs to be challenged is that a good garden is made through professional design, brawn and money.

Key barriers to access to spirituality in Australia are excessive order and control. Design comes out of our right brain, the linear ordered side of us. This is great for processing our experience but when dominate gets in the way of access to spirituality. Formal gardening designs are often more fashion driven rather than nature driven. The over designed, manufactured, managed garden is a pretence to the realties of life and is suppressive of their capacity to access and cultivate our experience of soul full ness.

We need to be constrained by history, relationships, so that our voice in the garden is made of many but one and that we listen to the other voices. This calls us to carefully observe, and come to know how our plants respond to climate, the earth, and water, our hands. We aren’t perfect or always rational so why should we try and make the rest of nature so? Our consciousness loves contrast, for we are complex beings and need difference to heighten our awareness. Therefore, while there is a place for order and brightness, so too for chaos, wildness and softness.

What not to do?
Rip out the existing garden the week after you take possession of your new house? Rather sit, observe its character and research its history, its microclimate. Yes, change it to make it your own, but not exclusively so. Honour if possible its ancestors, keep some of the plants that others and the rest of nature have provided.

Recognition of and a place for the elements.
All gardens have air and earth. The addition of a water feature is increasingly popular for good reasons. Blocking out the sounds of the city by adding another voice actively aids our own reflection and relaxation. Water lubricates all of our being, not just our bodies. Likewise we can include the influence of fire, symbolized through the role of light such as through solar powered soft lights, and candles to symbolise the flicker of life and its vulnerability. A barbecue and a brazier also introduce the fire element, while others might consider a fire circle around which people may gather. For example, our cluster of neighbours shares a rock fire circle surrounded by log seats, which are used for gatherings and sometimes rituals or celebrations.

Evoking Senses of Wildness
Being wild means that which is not under human control and has its own life force. Basic to cultivating spirituality in your garden is allowing space for the voice of nature’s power (see Bruchardon: 1998). Use wild places to inform your design work. Beyond that we need to be wary of giving ourselves too much power in design. We can however aid human receptivity to spiritual experience by providing for a sense of mystery, for the unknown of which we only have glimmers. It is the unexpected of nature that helps to keep us present. Through for example, the use of curves, and the small intimate hidden space that is around the corner. The paradox of being at least partly lost or unsure leaves open the door to left field and right brain. The less space you have the harder this is. You may have to really get down on your knees to observe the wildness in the soil or look up to the sky if your area is very small.

The more we intervene and attempt to substitute for the rest of nature, the more we have to do the work and the less nature can be a partner with us. This is why I don’t like plants in pots on windowsills and especially minimised plants as they symbolise the ultimate in human domination. Corporate gardeners that bring in to the high rise or the office building large pot plants and then six months latter take them away half dead, is offensive to partnership gardening. I know of an example of a rich lady living in well to do apartments in the city, equipped with the latest roof top garden but forbidden by the rules to sit in the garden. How can we expect such ‘garden’ to be a powerful source of spirit when this capacity for life is so restricted? Yet, this is all that some have access to. Any garden is better than none. But let us not pretend that all gardens are equal in terms of their capacity for soul.

A soul garden is one where the forces of nature are more powerfully evident than our own power. This is honoured and expressed for example through plants that regenerate, and are thereby not as dependent on humans for their existence. These are often labelled as weeds. In our vegetable patch I am the berries person. I like raspberries because they regenerate. We have a large neighbourhood patch that is a mixture of berries that basically grow wild- there is chaos. At harvest time we make new paths through the patch. Another example is from our house garden, which sits on the edge of the forest in a clearing. The garden is in some powerful senses an extension of the forest- for the forest reaches through the tree ferns and other gum trees that have established themselves. This isn’t to say that we don’t make choices and that some have been added while others are taken out. Some of the trees were local indigenous planted by my students and Sandra and me; others have self-sown and been allowed to mature. There is a dance between the power of the forest and us. This is very different from a new fashion, which calls for a wild patch alongside tame ones. Wildness is not just another niche within a garden.

Designing for soul
Think and reflect on yourself and your needs. Then consciously put them aside and go and observe wild places and thereby allow for both the voice of you and the rest of nature and then consider how you can be partners.

To allow for the voice of wildness design so that you allow for the voice of change, chaos and contrast. For example provide for curves and links versus bits and pieces, with no rigid formula of numbers or rules, rather a provision for randomness. Take notice of what you might call ‘odd’ ideas, or visions that might come in your dreams or the spaces between them.

Design a garden that also allows opportunity for plants to make their contribution to the shape and life of the garden. Not over-designed. Allow space for each plant’s character to have a voice in shaping the garden. This will then mean they are not continually pruned to fit.

Design a place where the human hand and technology is minimised, not only to save labour but also to free up the power of the rest of nature to have its voice. How easy it is with today’s powerful technology of the backhoe and bulldozer, to rip out everything and how hard to constrain our interventions, especially if you are like me and love to landscape.

Choose plants that:
• Honour and illustrate all our seasons.
• Reflect the full cycle of life. For example leave some dead branches and plants, don’t rush to replace a sickly plant.
• Predate you and will outlive you if given half a chance- this helps to locate you in and through time and the cycles of life and so able to act as a vehicle for self transcendence.
• Honour the history of the bioregion and respond to climate, elements, topography, for example a local tree that doesn’t require watering.
• Honour your relationships – by including well-loved plants of well-loved people both alive and dead and of course gifts from the garden of significant others.

It is important that you do some of the work directly, but by all means have helpers. I worry about a garden being merely the product of paid labour- you may have the money but whose garden is it? Minimize the need to intervene not just to save labour and water but also to allow the plants their own expression to be who and where they are thus freeing you to be in the garden as much as do in it. Design for permacultures, with minimal pruning and weeding- work less so that you can connect more at a soul level.

Less than 4% of our work force is involved in agriculture but so many more are at the hobby, self-production level. So a design that facilitates growing some, even a very little of your own food, and also medicine, is important for dissolving alienation from the earth. Planting, harvesting, eating keeps our spirituality grounded and honouring of body and soul as part of and partner with the earth.

To generate authenticity, design gardens that are part of and honour your local place through the use of local materials. For example, we had rocks all over the place from the house excavation, which have been used to terrace a herb garden and water feature.

Design a garden that is beautiful, of diverse colour, shapes and heights. This nevertheless is only a surface quality. Contrasts are vital for being aware, as are the colours that resonate with you. So self-knowledge is important in terms of comfort zones and knowing what stimulates your growth and honours your being and your development.

Social and cultural aspects
We garden for our well being –physical, emotional and spiritual. This is achieved more when we include the interests of others- such as growing more to share. What a joy it is to share a meal with friends, some of which has been home grown.

We need gardens that are shared with human others as well as have space for private encounter- so that our experience of spirituality is a social experience as well as an individual journey. This includes cuttings and plants from friends’ gardens so there is an active connection between the people and places that matter. Create a sacred, social garden by choosing a place where some or all the ashes of a loved one can be buried or spread.

To counter the loss of space with the intensification of the city we need to look at sharing spaces. Community gardens need to move from being an assorted collection of private plots grouped together to those that include common areas with space for wildness, for permacultures and for encouragement of wild life.

The social aspect includes connections with species other than plants, so increase the richness of your garden by making provision for animal and bird life which will also accommodate the existence of ants, slugs.

A role for rituals
Enjoy a ritual presence in the garden each day, if only for 10 minutes. Through the ritualized discipline of digging the garden, singings, observing a flower or sitting on a sacred seat, take care of yourself through taking care of your garden.
Conduct shared rituals that honour what the garden has given you and you have given it. Rituals can self-consciously aid thanksgiving and acknowledging of the seasons; for example, the shortest and longest day, the equinox of equal day and night.

All gardens have some capacity for access to spiritual experience. The more they have their own power and are freer to express their species characteristics then the greater their spiritual facilitative promise.

All of the dimensions discussed can add to the richness of your garden as a source of wellbeing and soulfulness. The ingredients to consider include yourself, your friends and family, the place as well as the plants and their interconnections. Provide space for each voice. While sitting in the garden or dreaming at night or washing the dishes, let each aspect mill around. Whenever you do this, trust that this dance will evolve pathways for your garden. The onus isn’t all on the garden; it is equally with us. Our minds initially are a barrier to ‘other’ experience. It isn’t easy, given our society, to open up to spiritual possibilities, by attuning to left field and right brain while slowing our pace, stilling our voices. ‘Chopping wood and carrying water’ can still our mind so the rest of us can receive. Our being will also be well, the more we are able to be in the garden and allow it to be itself. Then partnership for cultivating wellbeing can become real.

Bruchardon, P. (1998). The Healing Energies of Trees, Gaia books, London.

Roszak, T., Gomes, M & Kanner, A. (1995) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth,
Healing the Mind
, Sierra club books, San Francisco.

Human activity that is repeated can evoke a sense of timelessness that aids transcendence of the everyday towards attunement with the infinite. An example comes from our cooperative’s Guilfoyle-designed garden on top of Mt Toolebewong. (Guilfoyle was an important 19th century landscape gardener in Melbourne). Paths meander through different areas leading to an intimate circle enveloped in soft evergreens. This has come to be called the Fairy Garden, where rituals that honour the seasons or welcome in a new member are held. This began with the children from our co-op’s kindergarten holding their plays and dancing there- one time dressed up as fairies. The space called them there and shaped what they did and together they have shaped what has followed. We are comfortable calling it the Fairy Garden because it was our children, not us, dancing around dressed up as fairies- yet if we would allow ourselves to reclaim and regenerate more of our childhood we would have more openness to spirit.
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