I strode into the garden on a recent morning, armed with pruners, shears and secateurs, determined to tame the wild green wall that had somehow sprung up where neatly clipped bushes used to stand.
Not wanting to miss the BBC news hour, I hung my little solar-powered radio on a branch near my first target and started slashing. Couldn’t hear properly over the noise of the shears, so turned up the volume. This deranged the tuning, always delicate. Then the radio slipped from its twig and buried itself in a thorny shrub.
Newly attuned to messages from the cosmos by a few weeks of sporadic meditation practice, I recognized this a sign that I should be paying attention to the here and now and not trying to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle. I rescued the radio, silenced its squawkings, and focused on the greenery in front of me.
I tried to name and note the characteristics of each bush as I attacked it. Here’s yew, with its needle-fine dark green leaves and tough woody stems. This golden yellow one with the feathery foliage is arbor vitae, maybe. And here’s a self-sown forsythia with spindly tall spires that just have to be lopped off at the root. Sorry.
As I clipped and shaped and saw more clearly where one plant ended and the next – so different in texture, shade and scent – began, I started to feel less adversarial, more appreciative of the natural variety just outside the back door. So wrapped up was I in green thoughts that I nearly missed my weekly meditation class, and showed up sweaty from my bike-ride, picking bits of yew from my gardening clothes.
A small group of us – five or six - meets in a local Unitarian Church for an hour. We start with a five-minute session of basic meditation, involving the simple but far from easy exercise of keeping attention on our natural breathing, and gently bringing it back when we stray. Then, if we feel like it, we share experiences from the previous week, and end with a longer practice.
This week, our down-to-earth teacher talked about how we have such high expectations of summer: we’ll be relaxed, the weather will be good; we’ll have fun gatherings with friends and family. Then when reality fails to match this fantasy – the kids are bored and cranky, there are weeks of rain and thunderstorms, or it’s too hot to even think of firing up the grill – we feel short-changed, frustrated. Mindfulness, she reminded us, helps us recognize and accept things as they are.
Recharged and re-focused, I cycled home, intending to return to the garden. But among the junk stuffed into the mailbox, the latest issue of Oxford Today, the University alumni magazine (www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk) caught my eye. The cover story: “How to be Happy. . .His Holiness Gyalwang Drukpa and the scientific defence of meditation.” His Holiness, who heads the Drupka lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, recently visited Oxford for a meeting with Professor Mark Williams, an internationally-known authority on depression and founding director of the University’s Mindfulness Centre, in the Department of Psychiatry.
The article notes recent scientific studies – including research carried out at Massachusetts General Hospital – showing how regular meditation can alter the physical structure of the brain, with resulting “hugely beneficial effects on health and wellbeing.”
Both the professor and the Buddhist leader have recent books aimed at the stressed masses. The Drupka’s is Everyday Enlightenment, Walking the Path to Happiness in the Modern World (Penguin Books 2012). Professor Williams’s offering, co-authored with Danny Penman, is Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Platkus 2011).
If owning a stack of books on meditation brought enlightenment, well-heeled suburbia would be bursting with bodhisattvas. But reading about mindfulness is not the same as practicing it, Williams emphasizes. As he told His Holiness: “I own all manner of books on gardening. Getting out there with a trowel and planting something is much harder!” Planting is a challenge, for sure, especially for the black of thumb. But mindful pruning? That’s open to anyone with an overgrown bush and a pair of shears.