Category Archives: Garden/Jungle Analogy

Cultivating with the core insights

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In exploring the question What am I cultivating here? we have been working with a gardening analogy. In this analogy we haven’t yet looked at what is represented by the soil, the rain and the sunshine. This seems a pretty big oversight! So let’s look at these most important aspects now:
The Buddha identified three characteristics of existence that, if understood, transform our whole way of being in the world. They are the underlying wisdom upon which all the rest of the teachings rest, and to which all the rest of the teachings point. On the graphic chart of the Buddha’s teachings, these three ‘marks’, as they are also called, are at the very center. They are the core of the teachings. Every insight that you will have in your meditation and your life will lead you to one or more of these three core understandings of the way of things. I know that’s a major claim, but try it for yourself, as the Buddha says, and see if it is true.
So what are these three characteristics of existence? In Pali, they are anicca, anatta and dukkha. Unless you plan to be a Buddhist scholar, or you just like to know terms, it’s not really necessary to remember those Pali names. But it is helpful to understand the concepts, which are:
Anicca: Understanding the nature of impermanence and our inability to maintain anything to our satisfaction. Things change and we don’t like it. Things don’t change enough and we don’t like it. Things change, we like it and assume now we will be happy forever, but we change in relationship to the thing that doesn’t seem to be changing, and we’re not happy. You get the picture. Impermanence is a fact of life, and how we are in relationship to it, to a great extent, determines our ability to be happy.
Anatta: Understanding that there is no separate self that needs constant shoring up and defending. The separate seeming nature of being is useful for practical purposes in this life, taking responsibility for this particular body, family, finances, commitments, etc. But taken to be complete reality, believing ourselves to be isolated individuals separate from the rest of being, causes suffering.
Dukkha: Understanding that, while there is pain that comes with birth, illness, aging and death; the greatest suffering we experience is created by grasping at, clinging to and pushing away all that arises in our field of experience.
For the purposes of our garden analogy, we could say that dukkha is the soil. The quality of suffering is very earthy. We can get caught up in it, ‘dirtied’ by it and buried in it. Yet when we understand dukkha, we can plant roots and draw nourishment in our deep understanding of its nature.
One student in class had a problem with planting her roots in suffering. Another student pointed out that we are planting our roots in the insight about dukkha. Since class, I have gone around in my mind whether this is an apt metaphor or not. What I’m thinking now is that earthly life, full as it is of suffering, is where we are planted. It’s not always an easy place, but as we put down roots, we become better able to sustain ourselves in it. The Buddha taught that birth, illness, aging and death are the four messengers. So there is something in the soil of dukkha that we need. When we are experiencing pain in our lives, can we be fully present for it, rooted in the experience — not grasping and clinging or pushing it away, but simply here to receive its nourishing message? I will never forget one time when I was younger and my back went out, and suddenly I understood that old people walk slowly because they are in pain! My pain nourished me, didn’t it? It cultivated an insight and compassion that has been of benefit to me in all my relationships.
This extended metaphor is a work in progress, so I’m open to ideas to make it better. Comments?

Anicca, impermanence, we could see as water. Rain comes and goes. There are droughts and floods. There are clouds and clear sky. Water is constantly transforming: Now it’s ocean, now mist, fog, cloud; now rain, snow, sleet or hail; now puddles, rivulets, streams, lakes, rivers, seas and back to the ocean. It’s also present in all life, including our bodies.

Anatta (no separate self) could be represented by water too — I often think of this fleeting life as a droplet of water flying over a waterfall, soon to rejoin with the flow of the river to the ocean. I also love the phrase ‘The ocean refuses no river’ which repeated over and over again is such a comforting message of self-acceptance. But since we’ve claimed water to represent the nature of impermanence, we will let sunlight represent that sense of no separate self: We are all energy, inseparable, radiant light.
One student asked, since we are applying the elements to aspects of the teachings, what of air? Ah, air! Well let’s let air be air: The breath at the center of our practice that is both a focus and a way to shift energy (releasing excess on the out-breath, bringing in enlivening energy on the in-breath). With breath we cultivate spaciousness, putting ‘air’ around our thoughts and emotions as they arise in our awareness so that they don’t overwhelm us. Every plant in the garden needs sufficient air to thrive.
Through our meditation practice (sitting in our garden enjoying simply being alive?), the support of the teachings (all that wise gardening advice?) and our community of practitioners (fellow gardeners who support us?), we create the conditions for the qualities we explored in the two previous posts (generosity, lovingkindness, resolve, etc.) to grow and flourish.

The Finite Balcony vs. the Infinite Garden
Without being rooted in the infinite wisdom of the core understandings of
anicca, anatta and dukkha, you can still cultivate these qualities, but it’s as if they are planted in little pots on a balcony, finite and contained rather than rooted in the infinite, and you need to attend them constantly. They will not spread and propagate, and they are not connected to the vast web of interconnecting gardens full of birds, butterflies, etc. that help keep the garden healthy. (If you are an apartment dweller and like your potted plants just fine, or if you have no interest in gardening whatsoever, remember this is just an analogy!)
As we practice and have naturally arising insights in our lives, we recognize the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. We don’t adopt them or accept them because the Buddha was an enlightened being and who are we to question what he taught. He asked us to see for ourselves the truth. That’s the heart of our practice. Being at ease in the practice, we create fertile ground for insights to arise. As arising insights do indeed confirm the Buddha’s teachings, we release any self-sabotaging doubt we may have had about the value of our practice and our path. Our practice itself becomes a celebration of gratitude where we can delight in the garden just as it is, ‘weeds’ and all.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But don’t let it become a distant ideal. If you feel stuck on the balcony tending little pots, hey, you are still creating more beauty in life! But every day in your practice notice your inner ‘balcony’ expanding until it becomes an inner garden.

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #4

21618.jpgThe first three questions in this series — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? — are useful any time we are feeling we are on the verge of being unskillful in any way. Or we can use them if feel we may have been unskillful and are trying to see how that happened and how we might not repeat that unskillfulness.

The next questions in this series are more for insightful overview of our lives as they are now. This is not a historical reflection, but really looking at the lay of the land, this inner and outer landscape we have created, whether we realized we were creating it or not. We can look both with appreciation for the beauty and with a gardener’s eye to what changes we might need to make in order to live with greater ease, harmony and joy.

Consider that in every moment of our lives we are planting seeds and nurturing them, so it pays to be mindful of what exactly it is we are cultivating. So our fourth valuable question is:

What am I cultivating in my life? After meditating or a going for a quiet walk in nature, we can take a few moments for this inner inquiry. We can notice whether we are cultivating ease, compassion, equanimity and joy. Or are we cultivating fear in all its variations and manifestations?

Cultivate is also a very accurate and satisfying word for what we do in meditation. We cultivate spaciousness. We cultivate ease. We cultivate kindness and compassion. We don’t push anything away. We plant the seeds of wise intention and wise effort and wise concentration, and what we reap is wiser mindfulness, wise, view, wise action, wise speech and wise livelihood — all in direct measure to our skillfulness in cultivation.

When we are working in the garden, we discern between plants we have purposely planted and ones that as seedlings may seem pretty or benign but in no time take over or shoot off seeds that root everywhere. So we make (sometimes difficult) choices. And so it is in our lives. But using the first three valuable questions will help us to make more beneficial choices.

You reap what you sow
I like the word ‘cultivate’ because it reminds me to recognize how responsible I am for the way things are in this moment and the way things will be in the future in my life. At the same time, just as a storm will come in and reek havoc in a garden and then there’s a period of recovery, I can recognize that it is not all up to me, that sometimes causes and conditions are such that I need to learn how to live in skillful relationship to great difficulty, great pain, loss and the ongoing unavoidable truth of the nature of impermanence. Can I be resilient? Can I find beauty in the storm? Can I find pleasure in the small sweet moments amidst the storm?

While I have no control over when the sun will shine or the rain will fall, I do have the ability to adjust my plantings accordingly: ferns and azaleas in the shade, roses in the sunny places. I can assess the soil and the average rainfall and choose accordingly. I can recognize that conditions change. A tree dies and is removed and now this shaded area is sunny, so some adjustments need to be made. So too in life when I come up against the loss of some ability to do something I love, can I find some other activity that will be more suited to current conditions? Or will I feel helpless? Will I wish things were the way they used to be, and wallow in the mud of a garden that hasn’t been lovingly tended?

In my life, there may be events and conditions beyond my control, but by being present and noticing, I can make skillful adjustments to accommodate changing conditions so that the seeds of my wise intentions have the best chance to grow.

Does this make sense to you? Are you cultivating the seeds of your wisest intentions? Or are you just letting your inner garden become an impenetrable jungle. Beautiful in its way, but when difficulties arise, as they will in any life, it’s a more than a bit daunting to try to navigate amidst the tight tangle of vines, the poison oak, and the possibility of slipping into a slimy swamp where who knows what is lurking. Oh my!!

What foolhardy soul would go there? So instead of spending time in the garden you get up to all kinds of distracting, dulling and even dangerous activities to avoid the whole mess. Sound familiar?

Another pitfall is to fall in love with the jungle, believe it is who you are, cling to that identity, as painful as it may be.

Another pitfall is to hate the garden unless it’s perfect, willing everything into orderly rows, just so, losing touch with any understanding of the necessary collaboration of the gardener and nature’s own awesomeness. The true green thumbed gardener is attuned to nature. They are nature, too.

That’s why a regular practice of meditation is so immediately useful. It naturally creates spaciousness in the inner garden. Over time we become more skillful at cultivating compassion, balance, ease and joy. We plant a seed in fertile soil enriched by our practice and trust that with the regular watering of our daily practice and our intention to be mindful in our daily life,something will grow. There is no immediate expectation. Seeds take time to sprout. We’re involved in the process, but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.

I sometimes use the phrase ‘cultivating spacious ease’ in my meditation practice. I find it helps me to develop wise balanced effort. If I find myself lost in judgmental thought, I might use the phrase ‘cultivating kindness’ or ‘cultivating compassion’. Notice how different these phrases are from ‘I should be kinder’ or ‘I should be more compassionate’ or ‘What a mean rotten person I am.’  The word ‘should’ is a clue that I’m not being skillful, that I’m looking through a faulty lens of fear at myself and the world.

Thinking of it as cultivating these qualities accepts that I am not necessarily being kind or compassionate right now, but I am cultivating those qualities and with steady attention and patience they may grow within me.

As inner gardeners, we can look at all the areas of our lives and ask:

Am I cultivating health?
What am I cultivating here when I mindlessly eat more than the body needs in this moment? When I over-indulge in things that don’t nourish? When I don’t listen to the body’s need to move, relax, sleep or eat?

What am I cultivating when I let a complex pattern of thoughts and emotions around self-image get in the way of attending the body’s wise messages and taking care of its simple needs?

Am I cultivating healthy relationships?
In each family, friend and workplace relationship we can see patterns at play in the way we interact. We can see how we have cultivated warmth, caring and kindness. And perhaps where we have cultivated relationships that are thornier and difficult.

We may feel we are helpless to change a relationship, but it is worth experimenting to see. I know from my own experience and from reports from students that when we let down our defenses and instead send infinite loving-kindness in our thoughts to even the most difficult people in our lives, the energy shifts. This can be done from a distance. Any time that person comes to mind, just think ‘May you be well.’ This can be done not just with people we know personally but, for example, people in power with whom we disagree. This sending of metta doesn’t condone their decisions. We can still write, phone and march to let our positions be clearly understood. But if our words are venomous and our actions are violent, then what are we really cultivating?

While we wish all beings well, some relationships are potentially toxic for us, and it’s important to notice if when hanging out with someone, we revert to unhealthy habits that don’t support us — overindulging in food or drink, smoking or doing drugs, engaging in malicious gossip, spending beyond our means, etc.

There’s no need to blame the friend. He or she is caught up in painful cycles and is deserving of our compassion. But we don’t follow them into those cycles either. If we feel susceptible to temptation, we compassionately pull back from spending time with that person. Instead we send them infinite loving-kindness from a distance. May you be well. May you be happy.

We don’t proselytize or try to fix anyone. We are each on our own journey here. But we can trust that if we live true to our own wise intentions, we may without realizing it, offer inspiration to others. And that is a greater kindness than giving ourselves away and losing ourselves in the process.

Am I cultivating a healthy work life?
The practice of meditation over time puts us in touch with our deepest wisest self. Our fear-based efforts to be seen in a certain light fall away, and we grow into the fullness of simply being. The result is that we are authentic and accessible. Ambition to be seen as ‘a success’, however we define it, falls away. Our work is a contribution to the world, a valued and necessary activity that stems from our abilities and interests.

Often in work situations, we might find we have patterns of over-exertion and exhaustion. Seeing what we are cultivating with unwise effort — the quality of the work product, the effect on our health, the effect on our relationships in and outside the workplace — really helps us to develop more skillful balanced effort.

Am I cultivating a healthy planet?
Acknowledging our power includes taking responsibility for how our actions impact all life. If we belittle ourselves, we feel our actions don’t matter. But they do. If we get caught up in guilt we become paralyzed and unable to make simple choices to leave only footprints, not poison the communal garden of our planet. So now that it is not only possible but easy, and even fun, to live more responsibly for the benefit of all life, why not do it?

These are just a few examples of areas you might explore with this question. See for yourself if asking ‘What am I cultivating here?’ gives you a valuable way of looking at your life. And whenever you can, practice cultivating spacious ease.

Cultivating spacious ease makes room for wonder in our lives: Both the questioning kind of wonder and the awestruck kind of wonder. We make room for our buddha nature, our own access to universal wisdom, to whisper its truth to us in our most quiet, relaxed and attentive moments of meditation.

It’s a Jungle In There! Coming into Healthy Relationship with Our Minds

Continuing with our focus on the Third Foundation of Mindfulness… 
Imagine ‘pleasant’ ‘unpleasant and ‘neutral’ as seeds scattered in the garden of our minds. If we leave them to their own devices, if we are not mindful of them, they root and grow into a jungle of thoughts and emotions made up of desire, greed, aversion, hatred and delusion. We get entangled in the vines and feel trapped. We are so entwined we can’t see sky, can’t feel the ground beneath our feet, can’t imagine anything beyond this strangling-vine existence that we take to be who we are. We are lost deep in the jungle, and this is normal for most of us.

When we meditate, we develop the skill of mindfulness. This is a radiant quality that sheds light infinitely in all directions. This light allows us to use all our senses to become fully aware of this moment and our current experience. We can feel the earth beneath our feet, see the sky and feel the rain. In this state of awareness, we see the tangle for what it is — not us! Not who we are. Just a jungle of thought and emotion that now has more and more space between the trunks and vines so we can explore mindfully.

At this point, we might develop an aversion to the jungle. We might think meditation is our ticket outta-here. But that is just planting another ‘unpleasant’ seed that grows quickly into a tangle of aversion. 


So we look at those seeds more carefully. When we notice ‘unpleasant’ arising in our experience in response to some cause or condition, before it can turn into a full-blown angry rant that twists us so tight we cannot breath, we shed the light of awareness on it and the seed, exposed, dries out and dissolves. 

Next we notice ‘pleasant’ arising, and before it grows into a kudzu vine of craving more of this pleasant experience, we shine our full light of awareness on it. We find we can be with a sense of pleasant without being taken over by desire for more and more and more of it.

Shedding the full light of awareness is what the Buddha did as he sat under the Bodhi tree confronted again and again with all manner of ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’ thoughts and emotions that could easily have gotten him entangled, and surely had in the past. But his purpose was clear: To stay mindful, to stay present, and to see the manifestations that taunted and tempted him for what they were. In this skillful way, he was able to see the causes of suffering.

When we are entangled in the jungle of thought and emotion, thinking ourselves kings or queens of this jungle, claiming it proudly as our own — while in reality we are as much its victim as a bug caught in a spider’s web — then we are suffering. We might not be aware that our entrapment and attachment to that entrapment is the cause of our suffering, but with mindfulness we see it clearly for what it is.

Now in this same garden of our existence there are also seeds that are pleasant, unpleasant and neutral that thrive in the full light of mindfulness, that root and grow in ways that are beneficial. There is the pleasantness of sitting and knowing we are sitting. If we can simply allow that pleasant seed to grow into a dedication to practice, it will bear the fruit of pure joy and wisdom. There is the unpleasantness of forgetting to do our meditation practice, and with the light of awareness it will grow to remind us that mindfulness requires dedication to practice. 


There is the pleasantness that comes with being kind and generous, and there is the unpleasantness that comes from having said or done something hurtful. Both of these seeds, when noticed, inform us in a way that we become more skillful in our words and actions, bring more joy into the world and into ourselves. 

There is the neutral of noticing all aspects of a situation, not ignoring things that might make us uncomfortable or don’t support our argument to which we may be very attached.

It is important not to embellish this jungle analogy with chores beyond what is prescribed by the Foundations of Mindfulness. Shedding compassionate radiant light is all we need to do. We do not need to weed, eradicate, dig or spray toxic chemicals in the jungle-like garden of our mind, and doing so would be counterproductive. We are not doing a makeover! Whatever changes happen arise naturally as a result of our paired intentions to be present in this moment, and to be compassionate with ourselves when we discover we have not been present at all.

In class students said that this analogy helped them to visualize the way thoughts and emotions work. Does it help you? I’m always happy to read your comments or answer any questions. Just click on ‘comments & questions’ below.