Affective disorders like anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder are unpredictable. Even when well-managed, when one has been stable for years, a difficult mood can still strike and knock a person into a tailspin or a racing mind, even if only for a short time.
Uncertainty can aggravate, even precipitate, these moods, and no year has been more uncertain than 2020. In 2015, no one got the question right, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Any sense of order has been obliterated. Our lives are always full of situational stress. But this year even nature, through the scourge of a virus, is aligned against us and our mental health.
It’s normal, in the face of such uncertainty, to seek to bring some order into your life. I do this through gardening.
I grow things. Things I choose, in places I choose to put them, and whether they live or die is largely up to the care I give them. In this way order is reestablished.
I teach meditation but am troubled by the lack of diversity in the community of meditators. Retreats and classes are full of affluent, progressive-minded white people, and flush with success, few teachers fret that most people seem untouched by the benefits of focused attention held with effort for a defined period of time.
But then, maybe many more people experience these benefits than we think.
I equate movement and meaningful work with classic, seated and focused on the breath, meditation. I think that for too long we’ve been teaching people that there’s one way to meditate. One way that doesn’t work for everybody. One way that is discouraging for many.
Meaningful work, on the other hand, is accessible to most everyone, and can be just as meditative an experience. This work does not have to be one’s job. It can be a hobby.
I garden, and find the same benefits in cultivating dirt and seedlings and watering basil that I’ll turn into pesto that I find in any period of Zen meditation or centering prayer. For me, working with the land is powerful prayer.
Even if my land isn’t much. We live in the city, so everything I grow is in pots in front of the house, on the patio out back and up on the roof deck. But I have trees and lavender, an azalea and vegetables. My wife and I like to sit in this garden and try to make sense of where this year is taking us. The space is not an escape, for working in it, enjoying it, I am completely present and aware of exactly where I am, and where I don’t have to be.
Just like in what people call meditation.
In fact, I think work that takes us into the land, into nature, work like gardening or farming, raising animals, hunting or fishing, even the work of swimming in the ocean or birdwatching, yields the same benefits as mindfulness meditation.
I haven’t always been this in tune with my surroundings. When she was about four, my daughter, a city kid if there ever was one, sat in the car as we drove through a road with a canopy of trees. “Is this the suburbs?” she asked. I said yes and asked her what she thought. She said, “Too green.” That’s when I started gardening.
As things slowly stumble open after this long shutdown, we can visit the public gardens again. My wife took our daughter to a farm to pick strawberries and cherries and snap peas. We ate them together. My daughter knows what herbs to harvest off of the roof when I cook. No one can tell me that when we experience this bounty we are not meditating.
Any productive work, especially work you do with your hands, can bring order to a disordered mind in a challenging year. Meaningful work is meditation. My garden is a testament to the power of focused attention and the healing gift of applied effort.
George Hofmann’s new book, Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, is available wherever books are sold.