The 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.