LESSONS FROM THE GARDEN
ALANDA GREENE writes about likes and dislikes, annoyance and irritation, and how a simple shift in attitude can make all the difference in the world.
I’ve been weeding in the Tomato House – a recently built small greenhouse that replaces the decades-old plastic “hoop house.” Although this year the number of plants growing inside it is reduced by a third, the space feels crowded, especially during this weeding process.
The tomatoes are supported by jute cord strung from the ceiling and tied at their base. As the plants grow, I wrap them around the string instead of tall support stakes used in previous years. The poles were easy to see but these thin cords are often not noticed as I reach for weeds. My hand repeatedly collides with taut string. Stepping and bending between plants, crawling on my knees, I get tangled in the thin black tubes of irrigation hose lying on the dark soil, also often not noticed. Leaning to grab a few more weeds in an uncomfortable stretch, I feel the twang of another support cord as my leg collides with it.
The mind is swayed by likes and dislikes.
These cause mental perturbations that
push and pull with attraction and avoidance.
They feel compellingly justified.
Seeing into the nature of likes and
dislikes is a way to be free of them.
And I notice how these persistent interferences – reaching for a weed and feeling restrained by a tangle of hose, leaning for another and finding a string blocks the motion, gently moving aside a frond and tearing off an unnoticed one – these obstacles feel irritating and I recognize that this is a response that often arises in situations where movement is constrained, obstructed or blocked.
I begin to move more slowly and deliberately to avoid tearing out an irrigation line or breaking leaves, or – which has happened – pulling out the entire tomato plant as I lurch in an awkward loss of balance against one of the support strands. In this slower, more careful movement, I wonder, “Why does this irritate me, these tangles and this sense of being restricted when I reach for something and feel blocked, held back by invisible restraints?”
I note that this feeling arises elsewhere in my life, when a momentum with intentions, desires or goals is blocked.
There is no inherent quality of
irritation, difficulty, discomfort in it.
Those qualities come from my condition
of dislike at being constrained or blocked
and from wanting it to be otherwise.
Neutralize my response and there’s no reaction.
In the greenhouse, I want to explain that it’s because of my poor eyesight and accompanying lack of depth perception; or that it’s an offshoot of my two brothers delighting in doing what brothers often do – torment sisters. They enjoyed holding me down, sitting on my legs, tying my hands behind my back, pressing my face into the living room carpet.
But my eyesight and childhood wrestles are blame wrongly placed for this irritation. I have to face where the issue arises: when I hurry, rushing to finish something or get somewhere and an unexpected situation hinders my progress, I get annoyed. It isn’t about the past – it’s right now. I realize also that it isn’t about the hurrying but the feeling of being restrained.
Feeling some chagrin, I distill the insights to: Things aren’t going the way I want. I resist writing these words. They appear too blunt. They seem to tell me that not getting my way annoys me. Annoyance is a version of anger but gentler. Am I trying to escape facing what this feeling really is?
But the word anger is indeed too strong for what is a more subtle, almost background irritation, going along beneath the birdsong that brings soft delight, the tangy scent of tomato leaves and freshly moved soil, the wonder of delicate yellow blossoms and tiny balls of emerging fruit. It could be easily missed, probably often is missed. But the garden atmosphere allows these subtle patterns to be recognized. So finding this annoyance at being restrained is both pleasing – as a discovered behavior to identify and change – and something I’d rather not find, for the same reason. The irritation has been subtle enough that I haven’t acknowledged it; in catching it, my self-concept of who I am in the garden needs adjustment.
So here is the condensed insight: I’m doing something, I’m hindered. I don’t like it. Thus I arrive at what is essentially a like/dislike situation. In the simple environment of the garden, my response leads me to seeing into my human nature once again to find a basic yogic teaching: The mind is swayed by likes and dislikes. These cause mental perturbations that push and pull with attraction and avoidance. They feel compellingly justified. Seeing into the nature of likes and dislikes is a way to be free of them.
Here in the greenhouse where there is no particular hurry, I have the space to attend to this response and make a choice to release it. Each time my hand gets twisted with a hose or a strand or a branch, as the feeling of dislike for the sensation of being held back rises, I breathe into the moment, soften it and let it go. After awhile, I don’t notice it anymore – the irritation that is. Getting tangled in hose, colliding with strands, my grasp obstructed: this continues. My response has changed.
I wonder about the situations outside the garden, where it’s more than just tomatoes and me, the cases where what I want is thwarted. My teacher Kirpal said, “I cannot take the thorns out of your path, but I can give you heavy boots.” His words delighted me. “What do thorns matter, if they do not pierce my feet, if I do not feel them?” I asked myself. His gift of metaphorical boots has been an inestimable treasure of teachings, practices and guidance. But in this moment with tomatoes, I have a renewed insight as to my responsibility to put on the boots. The irritating situation is still active but if my response changes, the irritation is nonexistent. If I wear the boots, the thorns aren’t felt.
In the greenhouse, the tangles and obstacles have not changed. My response has. I see that it can be this simple each time irritation at these restraints arises. It isn’t like once the lesson is learned the situation that provoked irritation ceases to exist. It’s just that when these tangles do not evoke a response, it is as if they no longer exist. Thorns are on the path. They are not felt when wearing heavy boots. When the challenges of life arise, as they do, I can put on my boots and choose my response.
This feels so simple that I laugh out loud and recall the lines of the 14th century Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Longchenpa, who wrote:
Since everything is but an apparition,
Perfect in being what it is,
Having nothing to do with good and bad,
Acceptance or rejection,
You might as well burst out laughing!
The tug of the irrigation hose, the tangle of the support strings, collisions with unseen stalks as I reach for a weed – this is just what’s happening. There is no inherent quality of irritation, difficulty, discomfort in it. Those qualities come from my condition of dislike at being constrained or blocked and from wanting it to be otherwise. Neutralize my response and there’s no reaction.
“This,” I tell myself, “is another small step on the path of liberation.” At least for now, in the greenhouse, I am liberated from the tangle of irritation. Birdsong continues, the scent of earth, strands of twine. Laughter.
Article by ALANDA GREENE
June 29, 2020
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