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As you should be, lost and mindful in the garden.

People often say how they like to lose themselves in the garden, and this has of course become something many of us have found plenty of time for in recent weeks.  The fact that resting in a green space surrounded by plants & nature has a calming and beneficial effect on us is well known, to many reading this I imagine anyway… But how many of us actually stop and do this regularly in our own garden, or, taking this further, have even purposefully designed our gardens to better enable a slow enjoyment of them and as a means for meditation?

I can admit to being one of the worst at doing this.  The garden is my passion but can also become an ever present task master.  With so much to do and so little time to do it in I bash & crash my way around, taking striding short cuts through the middle of borders to reach another place. Often in the garden, much like anywhere, I’ve more in common with Lewis Carrol’s White rabbit; late, flustered and no time, no time!  Rarely do I stop, just to take any of it in.   After a strangely unsettling period of winding down these last few weeks, I’ve now found myself stopping, sitting and looking, and feel much better for doing so.

If we look to other cultures, and particularly the gardens of China & Japan, we can learn a lot about how a garden can be better designed and then experienced for the benefit of the mind.  These Eastern gardens have developed out of the Buddhist culture, which as a non-theistic religion relies on followers to self-guide towards enlightenment; much of this being done through self-discipline and mindfulness.  Traditional oriental gardens were purposefully designed to be a tool to aid this way of thinking living and working.   No space here to bash and crash around, they are designed to be experienced slowly and thoughtfully as a form of meditation, for one’s spirit & soul.  

Parallel to this, in the Shinto belief nature is sacred, which ties in perfectly with the core Buddhist belief that his teachings exist in both sentient & non sentient beings.  Therefore Japanese gardens have also been designed as temples to the natural, to honour shinzen, the self-created.  By connecting with the natural, which is pure and uncorrupted, the belief is that the onlooker becomes imbued with the purity of nature.   Whilst the Christian faith may differ in some of the reasoning behind these approaches, I think there is a lot to be learnt from this approach to garden design. 

This is totally different to the western approach to garden design, which, from the Age of Enlightenment onwards, has largely been about man’s control over nature; showing how we can take control of natural living things and turn them into art.  An extreme example perhaps are the great parterres at Versailles, which exist to show off the skill of the designer and honour the power of the King; effectively using a garden to champion human power & knowledge. 

So, how do we design a garden to better enable us to stop, to think, to leave anxieties behind and make room for a closer connection to God?  Looking at cues from Japan we need to start right at the garden entrance, we shouldn’t just blunder in.  An entrance to a Japanese garden is often narrow and low, to ensure one has to perform a deliberate, slow and careful way in, in effect bowing to the garden as you duck under a low arch.  Once inside, having clearly made a transition from the outside to the inside, the paths will often be narrow with many twists & turns, with uneven paving and steps.  This again is on purpose, to slow us down, to make us stop, sometimes completely at a large obstacle, so that we have to notice the garden around us, rather than continue to concentrate on the clutter in our minds.  This path will usually take us on a deliberate journey too, a prescribed route, with places to stop, to look up and notice a tree or a rock, or to listen to the waterfall.  Again, this is all to gradually empty the mind of self.  The path often then culminates in a seat, or resting stone, on which to simply sit and be.  

If this all sounds very much like preparation for a period of meditation then that’s no accident, that’s the aim of this sort of garden.   One has to concentrate on the complicated and bumpy way, and to stop and look, thereby freeing the mind of the clutter which it entered the garden with.  One’s mind is clear, which in itself is beneficial to wellbeing but also then open to higher teachings. This way of emptying the mind by concentrating on a tortuous route is of course also the point of a labyrinth.  These were part of Middle Eastern and early European culture but have been somewhat lost from our traditions.  Some may remember the QGT show garden at the RHS Malvern Spring Festival in 2014.  This featured a labyrinth, exactly to demonstrate this as a tool for mindfulness and meditation in a garden.  Whatever method you use, be it a labyrinth or traditional Japanese design, perhaps look at how you can design your garden to be a tool for meditation and mindfulness rather than just a pretty place.  Also take care to slow down and treat the garden with a mindful respect, to use the mindful approach to oriental garden walking on your existing garden.  I have deliberately stopped charging through the middle of my rose border in order to grab a short cut to my wildflower parterre.  I now go the slightly longer way around, down the narrow path between the hedges, that I take so much care on, and enter the parterre through its narrow entrance, a little calmer for having done so.  The garden is in charge of my journey through it and my mind is all the better for that. 

Patrick Swan.

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