I keep my garden tidy as best I can, and I try to brighten bits of it up by growing flowers. The latter is very much a hit and miss affair, because, alas, I’m not much of a gardener, still making the same mistakes I made thirty years ago. Having said all that, I do love my garden.
From a purely practical perspective, gardening is futile – you pull the weeds, you run a hoe through the borders, and within a week, fresh weeds are settling in once more. You can work all you like, the whole year through, but turn your back on it for a moment – say while you go away on holiday – and sure enough, on your return, the weeds are knee high, obliterating any tidiness you’ve created. You’d be better covering it in concrete – except there’s nothing like a bit of green for losing yourself in, nothing quite like running your fingers through the tangles of nature’s locks and seeing her shine.
I spent the whole of Sunday weeding, knowing full well that what I was doing would be overwhelmed in no time by nature’s relentless passion for a more uniformly shaggy look, and I wondered what trace would be left of where I’d been, say in a month? And what of another ten years? Another twenty? Maybe by then I would have sold the house to someone else, who might indeed cover the garden in concrete or excavate it for a swimming pool. Try as you might, suburban gardening is no way to make a lasting mark upon the earth. They say there’s nothing like a garden for teaching you about the cycle of the seasons, and that’s true, but there’s also nothing like a garden for bringing home to you the impermanence of things.
My weeds were knee-high in places, and those that weren’t were thickly knotted in a clay-soil, still black and heavy after rains. I worked methodically, forking out the weeds and tossing them into the trug. Then I lugged the trug to the green waste bin, and returned to where I’d left off. I kept this up all day – nurturing a sense of satisfaction at the progress I was making. Yes, it’s a pointless exercise, but I know of nothing else that can leave you feeling quite so mellow at the end of the day.
It’s an idealisation of nature, this gardening business, this “tidying up” – the weeding, the manicured lawn, the nicely painted fence and shed, the floral displays; it’s an attempt to harmonise our dwelling within its little patch of mother earth. There’s no vanity in this, provided our point is not to outshine our neighbours of course, but more simply to submit ourselves to the experience and spend time with our fingers in the earth. If we can do this we will eventually arrive at a state where we do not mind the ephemeral nature of the impact we think we’re having.
We do not mind the futility of it.
We do not mind that we are nobody in the face of nature, and that when we finally hang up our trowel and shuffle off to that great garden in the sky, there’ll be no lasting trace of us left on mother earth at all.
And that’s the way it should be.
I don’t know if I’m there yet, at this sublime level of acceptance, but it’s where I seem to be heading.
The weeds will return, just like the moss will re-infest my lawn until it’s like walking over a sphagnum bog, and the slugs will eat my hostas and my strawberries, as soon as they work out where I’ve put them. There really is no labourless solution to these things and we should not chase them. Like life itself, gardening is a process of continual application; we turn up, we get stuck in where we can, and we try to make a difference,… but also like life, when we’re weary of it, it can leave us wondering about the point of things.
One of the biggest psychological challenges we face, whether we’re on some kind of mystical path or not, is reconciling our apparently infinitesimal smallness with the feeling we are each of us of infinite worth, that what we do somehow matters, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. I believe we do matter, as individuals, but I also believe that in order to attain our greatest potential, we have to undergo the trial of making ourselves very small indeed, of sacrificing our ego, our imaginary sense of self worth. It’s not easy, for in losing our ego, there’s a fear we are also losing the most vital part of our selves. But it seems this is not the case.
Being nobody, going nowhere. It’s a phrase I’ve borrowed from Buddhism because it encapsulates much of the angst we’re haunted by: that we’re nobody, going nowhere. It’s unthinkable. I mean,… if that’s really what life is like, then what’s the point? We instinctively resist it, because whether we’re rich or poor, there is always the urge to be more than we are, to feel ourselves going places, getting promotion, moving on, moving up the ladder – for how else are we to demonstrate our worth in the world, both to others, and to our own selves?
I’m fortunate in this sense, having recognised early on I simply didn’t have the nerve for it – this “getting on” business. I’ve not done too badly, as an engineering drone, embedded in the collective of a big company – and 35 years of continuous employment is a blessing in these uncertain times – but I’m careful to mind my craft and leave the managing of it to others. I’ve only to spend a few days in the company of the managerial classes to find myself in desperate need of solitude and Tai Chi. How you cope with the soul denying stresses at an executive level, or the Punch and Judy of politics, I just don’t know. It seems an unnatural way to live, at least for me, and I can only surmise they’re a more resilient breed – and thank God for it because the world would be a materially poorer place if everyone was such a timid little field-mouse as I am.
But in our pursuit of material success, it’s easy to forget the real challenge of our lives is to discover the secret of a true and lasting happiness, also to feel the suffering of our fellow beings and to adopt an attitude of compassion, regardless of the social sphere we find ourselves inhabiting, regardless too of our personal nature, and our abilities. It’s a road with many a twist and turn, and one of the earliest insights is that material goods, wealth, and material success don’t make us happy for very long.
We will always want more.
We all know this.
If we think back to the moments when we were happiest, we realise our happiness had its roots in other things – things like the love of others, or the awe we’ve felt at glimpsing an underlying, mystical quality to the natural world. Such things loosen us up, they have us smiling to ourselves and feeling good, even though these days the material world seems to be in freefall, because true happiness is always non-material by nature. Do you think two devoted lovers coming together right now, for the first time, care much about the parlous state of the Eurozone? Economists can wring their hands all they like, parade their funereal expressions on the TV news, and, grave though things appear to be, these pundits will always look ridiculous if you can only see the world from a transcendent perspective. And what is more transcendent than love for someone else, or to feel oneself loved, or to feel a genuine compassion for someone else’s pain?
One of the most significant mileposts along life’s mystical path is this acceptance of our anonymity in the great scheme of the material world, an acceptance that really, in life at least, we are nobody and we are going nowhere, that we will leave no lasting trace of our presence, other than perhaps a vague smattering in the gene-pool. It sounds like a miserable recognition of the bare facts of one’s nameless, fleeting life, but it needn’t be so if, in accepting our anonymity, we also seek a personal relationship with whomever, or whatever we think might be in charge of the non-material underpinnings of the universe. It’s like one of those infuriating little paradoxes quoted at you by Zen Masters: to truly realise your self-importance, you must first let go of it.
My garden’s been overwhelmed in recent years by a particularly invasive crocosoma. I planted it for its beautiful flame like flowers. It blooms gloriously for a few weeks in July, but the rest of the time great bunches of drab leaves droop all over the lawn, killing off the grass. It also multiplies with impressive vigour, so I’ve been thinning it out, digging up the bulbs – and discovering other bulbs among them: forgotten daffodils, and the tiny white pickled onion-like bulbs of the bluebells.
Curious thing, a bulb. Slice one open and it looks pretty much like any other. I remember in biology classes, how we drew the cross section of a bulb and carefully labelled all its bits and pieces. And I thought to myself, that’s all well and good, but where’s the part that determines the coming into being of say a crocosoma? And how does it differ from a bluebell, or a daffodil, or an onion for that matter, when, materially at least, they look like pretty much the same thing?
It’s still a mystery. Even biology professors cannot spark life from a handful of materials, no matter how cunningly they’re arranged. We cannot manufacture DNA, we must always borrow it from nature. There is more to the universe than matter. To get anywhere near an understanding of it we have to abandon our materialist orthodoxy. We have to dare to speculate that somewhere underlying the material world, there might be an invisible matrix wherein resides the information for the unfolding of the whole of creation. The changes, the development and the evolution of species takes place first in this so-called morphogenetic field. So the difference between a crocosoma and a daffodil lies at a deeper level, more subtle than the one we can easily see.
And like the crocosoma, so the human being unfolds to a pattern written at the same subtle level. But it’s not a static pattern, no more than nature is a static phenomenon. It can be changed, influenced by feedback from the material world, by what works, what doesn’t, but also by our thoughts and feelings.
As I turned out to work this morning, the lawn sparkled under a veneer of dewdrops, like fairy dust, and seemed all greener and more beautiful for being highlighted by the worked soil of the weed-free borders. It pleased me to see it. I caught a glimpse of something in it.
I’m sure we each make a difference, and we each mean something, if only by virtue of our unique perspective, our unique way of looking at the world, so the world can see itself through our eyes in a myriad different ways. Where we do not make a difference is by shouting the odds, nor by standing on the necks of others to get what we want. Proper stewardship of the material world is very important of course. There are so many of us alive now, and dependent on mother earth, we need managers and executives and politicians with extraordinary qualities of insight, leadership and selflessness, or the world’s suffering in the years to come will be immense, and the staggering gulf between those who have and those who have not, will widen even further. Some might say that judging by past and current performance we’ve not much to look forward to. But I remain optimistic.
What are we to do then? We who are too timid, or feeling ourselves too small and helpless in the face of the overwhelming power others seem to have over us – the shouters, the stampers, the “look-at-me’s”, and those who look with cockeyed grins and raised eyebrows at our non-materialist, transcendentalist aspirations? Well, accepting we are nobody, and going nowhere isn’t about reconciling ourselves to a lowly position in the foodchain, while others enjoy lifestyles of outrageous excess – though that may often be the way things work out for us anyway. It’s more about grasping the crucial insight of the shallowness of those materialistic values. It’s about the sense of knowing, that if you can look at the world and see beauty in it, anywhere, and if through that beauty you can manifest a profound happiness, or an uncanny sense of the otherness of things, no matter how fleeting or seemingly trivial, then becoming nobody, going nowhere, you also become one with God, and in that moment you too acquire the power to change the world.
Use it wisely, we must.