Making Peace with Gophers: How Personal Transformation Can Transform a Garden

 

 

In May 2015 I went to a Mindfulness Meditation retreat in the tradition of Community of Mindful Living, where I was reunited with old friends and made some new ones. The road to Ukiah was a long one, as it led to the journey within, to an interior of long-untouched places. There were many surprises, many unexpected openings, and even more healing and flowering of possibilities. Among my awakenings, I learned to care for my inner child with both historic tenderness and fierce protectiveness, both long overdue for my little girl. In the fertile ground of introspective work born of being thrown into close proximity with many people, the idea of equanimity both challenged and unfurled in me, holding my attention as I grappled with the realities of the concept as it applies to my emotional, physical and mental bodies. The question arose in me, What is it to make room for the other, the beloved?

 

I borrow from Stephen and Ondrea Levine’s book, Embracing the Beloved, for their work of naming the conscious relationships that can unfold and are encompassed when one allows for and embraces the “beloved”. They write that the “Other is the basis of every cruelty, all bigotry and war” for it is a practice that permits us to dis-identify as connected, a state wherein we are “nonfamily, nonfriend, nonrelationship, nonhuman, nonfeeling.” Indeed, these are all the many ways we separate ourselves. We can see this behavior and thinking everywhere. It is the most terrible disease of our modern times. Yet, it is all too easy to fall into this casual Othering and judging. For one, I am the Other, and two, the Beloved is me. The Beloved is all of us, our neighbors and those we don’t wish to hold close or dear: The shooter and the shot. We cannot chose. We must hold all in our center. That is equanimity.

 

As I breathe into this new-found understanding, I touch hesitation and resistance, discomfort and relief. When we hold the Beloved, the precious one, we hold ourselves all the more tenderly: Our adorable screaming infants, as well as our well-behaved and compliant studious children, held with the same love. We don’t get to choose any more than we select our skin color, birth order or origins. When I get angry, I aim for a smaller tilt and less unraveling. I come back to myself with purpose.

 

The mindfulness retreat was a place to practice all the things I’ve been studying in Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioral Therapies for six months. With most of the day spent in silence, the focus turned naturally inward. I found myself utterly depleted after Dharma talks, crying uncontrollably after meditation, enraged by a benign comment. Could I really be carrying all that unclaimed emotion around with me? Yes. In fact, I have been moving in the world, unconsciously acting on a lifetime of unacknowledged feelings, sensations and urges. When feelings are not taken care of properly, they act out on our physical and mental bodies. They will be heard. They will kick, scratch, ache and strain to be seen. By opening the door and committing to my whole self, experienced in the full breadth of my existence on earth, I have felt more than I ever imagined. Part of my work was also attending to my needs: To cry and be held; To laugh and share joy; To risk shame; To open and be rejected; To stand firm in my own convictions. I had no idea of the degree of capaciousness in me, that I could feel so much and not explode, and I found myself alive like a newborn star, delicate, bright, precious.

 

This process is not surprising to me, since as the years pass, I’m more inclined to look for and invent the path of least resistance. That is not to say that I’m afraid of conflict and confrontation, for I’m learning to deal with both, as they arise, with skillfulness and tact though it is not and has not been easy, and they will doubtless continue to instruct and inform me as firm and loving teachers. Still I look within and without for solutions to the habitual patterns, some destructive, some not, that have kept me from growing spiritually and emotionally, and these are surely the treasure troves of my own renewal.

 

Even before leaving home for the retreat, some calcified, implacable obstinacy in me had already begun to give way. Perhaps tired of the hunting, I had asked Hal to construct some cages from chicken wire we had in the garage. I had the idea to bury the cages to protect the dahlia bulbs and the broccoli roots in the garden, favorites of the gophers, who seemed to have voracious appetites and greedy spirits for my own favorites. As I returned home to my full self, the container of violence in me seemed to crack open, if only a hairline. I saw the chicken wire as protecting the gophers from me, from my need to control and contain the order of the universe represented as my garden, according to my plans. The chicken wire, then, has become the symbol for my own countermovement away from fighting toward boundaries that allow and invite. After all, what is an organic garden for if the gophers cannot roam there as well? Why has so much hate and violence been activated in me and directed to a creature whose own natural habitat I have cultivated with rare and delicious delicacies?

 

Through meditation and the observation of the land and my own habitual reactions, my own vigilance and anger have subsided, and I have begun to see fewer signs of the gophers’ presence though they’re clearly still in residence. The furious hiding, tunneling and unearthing seemed to have quelled into a gentle, beneficial tilling of earth and dirt. With less resistance, I have found that our gophers have eased up on their devouring, ravishing hunger and have become the tunneling resident foragers they’re meant to be. Could this all be my imagination? I don’t think so. I hope not. Hal now puts in shallower cages as we consider the needs of vegetable roots. There’s enough here, a whispering says.

 

I’ve stopped worrying that the dahlias will be eaten or that the blueberry bushes will disappear one morning. This is life, the very reason I garden, to witness the cycles of life up close, participating in the dance of seasons with the Beloved.

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Believing in People: Practical Practice in Supporting Each Other

 

 

I’d like to think that as a teacher, it’s my job to believe in people, especially when they don’t believe in themselves. But even when I’m not wearing my teacher hat, I find myself looking for the sacred in other people, looking for that one particular element that is precious and perhaps goes unseen, some overlooked dollop of goodness even we may not see in ourselves when we look in the mirror. We may miss it entirely. This, unfortunately, happens to many of us. Life batters and abuses us. We make so many mistakes we become strangers to ourselves. Perhaps we can no longer look upon ourselves with compassion and kindness. Our self-love is fraught with conditions. Negative thoughts can spirals into decisions that are not always made with our well-being at heart. That’s when we need someone to believe in us, to look into us with the loving light of compassion.

 

This is no trivial matter. Many people feel or become invisible after setbacks, withdrawing into pain and isolation.

 

Believing in someone can save a life. It is a human need to be seen and recognized. When John Legend accepted the Oscar for his song, Glory, he told everyone watching the Academy Awards that evening that he could see them. It was a powerful moment, symbolic of a soul seeking to water the goodness in our society, a flood of recognition and an outpouring of love from a public figure to nameless witnesses. It was Legend’s way of saying that the daily struggles of our lives are not in vain, acknowledging our collective journey toward a more just society. For Legend, “seeing us” was an affirmation of us, showing his belief in us, in our ability to change institutions with our awareness and activism. His simple act of seeing affirmed the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and witnessed the continued unseen struggle and toil of the many people working for societal transformation.

 

We all need to be seen. We all want someone to believe in us, in our ability to surpass self-imposed limitations and external barriers, to act with courage in the midst of our fears and doubts, to involve ourselves for the betterment of our communities, to stand with conviction. It’s not clear to me if we can believe in someone else if we can’t believe in ourselves. My hunch is that we can build up a reserve when we practice this act of loving kindness. Like a muscle, it will atrophy from disuse and strengthen with repeated exercise.

 

Essentially, this is time sowing and watering seeds. We do it for friends and family or strangers; it will form the foundation wherein we allow love and support to flow back to us. The Rev. Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist philosopher and teacher, talks about the importance of watering the seeds in oneself and others that we want to nurture. The seeds are attributes, traits or emotions. He asserts that the seeds that get the most attention, intentionally or otherwise, are the ones that will thrive. Therefore, it’s vital that we look deeply into at each other and really see the gifts therein, and to selectively water the ones that foster health and wealth in all their forms.

 

Unfortunately, if the seeds of love, peace, and joy are not watered, they will not bloom.

 

The path to connecting can take many forms. We are the bees in the garden touching every flower. Maybe it’s taking a few minutes to affirm an aspiration without interrupting. We can mentor an older woman starting something new, or listen to the dreams of young people around us. Take a moment to be kind to folks in transition or depression and recommend and promote their gifts. If you see a spark in someone, name it, because it’s one of the ways to grow a society that is strong and good: by looking into a heart and honoring those gifts. We can step up for each other when it really counts.

 

The truth is, believing in someone else sets us free. We get to leave behind our judgments, criticisms and fears and just let ourselves see the light in another person. We create an environment for ourselves where feelings of appreciation and friendship can be reciprocated. In other words, we get to be seen, supported and loved because we’ve made room for those things in our lives. Imagine the wonderful world we can create by taking time to believe in each other.

Learning to Age with Grace and Dignity

 

Now that I’m older and more aware of the cycles of life, I see how critical it is to stay open to care, love and support from family members and from unexpected people and places. I have a small fragmented family and no children, so I can’t expect that care will come from the traditional people. I’m open to receiving love from family and other sources of care and love. I’m also open to giving it where and when it is needed. That’s how I became involved in caring for my good friend’s aging mother last year. The experience has made me think more about aging, and more specifically, how I want to age, because I do believe we have a choice to make.

 

After a series of accidents and unexplained injuries requiring medical treatment, my friend’s 80-year-old mother needed round the clock support for several months in order to prevent further unexplained harm. Various factors undermined her independence: her inability to continue driving, extreme memory degradation and physical limitations, stemming from inflamed joints. Because of her impaired memory, no one could account for periods of time in which she went missing; objects disappeared from her home and purse. She created fantasies about her adventures and repeated her fantasy narratives constantly. Most of this was about medication, but trying to manage and assess the cause of the problem was challenging. For one, she didn’t want help—she was outright belligerent at times and did not want anyone around except for her daughter, who she asked for constantly. Two, she could not remember from moment to moment what was going on. Three, she was often irritable, gruff and occasionally angry, which was often connected to over-consumption of coffee, diet or personality. Notwithstanding, we joined the team of community members ready to pitch in.

 

To care for her, I resorted to tactics, not all successful and not all tactful. I spent time in the car, waiting for her to show up; we pretended to renovate our home so we could sleep in her house. Eventually, we fell into a routine. We ate lunch together and read magazines and newspapers together, gossiping about local news and the celebrities, and found in the midst of it all, that we shared a love of gardening and floral arrangement. We drank tea and watched the light change in the afternoons.

 

The things that were a hard for her were about her perception of giving up of her freedom; independence is indispensable, and she is a fighter. When she fought me, I knew she was fighting to be the resourceful, energetic and bossy lady she wants to be. The problem was, we were working, all of us, to keep her independent, safe and outgoing. But I was an interloper in her private domain, the earwig in her dahlias—I wasn’t wanted. I was a reminder that our society seldom lets us age with dignity.

 

She’s better now. Her medication doesn’t cause her problems; she’s adjusted to walking to places in the neighborhood rather than driving everywhere. This experience made me thinks about what it will take to remain in our home with the familiar things we love as we grow frail. It makes sense to fight for liberties, but we have to know when to entrust ourselves to others, when to open the door to friendship and kindness.

 

I sense the places where it will be difficult for me. I have to let go having things done my way, now. I have to give in to the yielding part of myself, to let others do things their way, even in my space. I never thought about my control issues as a potential hindrance to relationship, but I can see that if I allow my perspective to get entrenched, no one will ever be able to wash my dishes, cook my meals or launder my clothes as well as I can, and those are the exact openings for a friend to step in and lend a hand with the least intrusion.

 

Instead, I’m going to try to infuse my day with more mindfulness. I’m going to breathe when it’s not as I would have it and just say, “Thank you.” So what if it’s not my way? At least someone else is sharing my load.

 

I have to learn to “yes, please,” while there’s very little at stake, so when my time comes, I can say, “Yes,” with grace and dignity and let someone do for me what I’m willing to do for others.

Remembering My First Encounter with Master Thich Nhat Hanh

Some of you may have already been introduced to the great Buddhist master and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh because Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated him for a Noble Peace Prize in 1967 for of his non-violent work with the Vietnamese people during the Communist Revolution that led to years of war in Vietnam and Hanh’s eventual exile from his homeland. Reverend Thich Nhat Hanh, the monk and activist, has only ever stood for peace, a human beacon during the most difficult times for his people. Fortunately, he continues to work for peace all over the world. Unfortunately, peace is not easy to obtain because it is not simply the absence of war and military turmoil. It can also manifest as an ongoing unsettled self. Too often there is war in our hearts and souls, and Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us how to relinquish the holds and perceptions that can prevent us from experiencing inner peace.

It was on just such a journey, while I searched for peace and quiet in myself, that I first encountered his message and his teachings touched my life. Twenty years ago, I was sitting in the lounge of a retreat center with the intention of eating a snack before going to bed. The front of the shop had chairs arranged for viewing films on a TV set. When the VHS tape was put into the player at the front of the row of chairs, a man with the softest voice you’ve ever heard began to speak. He was wrapped almost completely in a chocolate robe, a disembodied head floating on a cloud. Because of the softness of his voice, I had to sit very still and lean forward, abandoning my snack for his soul food. As he spoke, his words penetrated my heart, causing tears to roll down my cheeks, issuing from the wellspring of untouched emotion and pain in me. I understood that to change my life, to heal myself, I had to learn to love myself. I began the journey to know and love myself as my own precious mother, father, sister, brother and daughter right then and there. I didn’t have time to waste. I had to be present for myself so that I could love and forgive, especially myself. He was an answer to my prayers, the reason I had left my home for the ashram. Until this day, he continues to be a source of guidance and inspiration in my life.

Over the years, I have heard Thay, “Teacher” as many know him, speak and teach, and I’ve stopped being surprised by his soft-spoken stillness, knowing that it will be nearly impossible to hear him even when he uses a microphone. It’s a lesson in quietness. Maybe a few words will drift down over the air and into my heart, perhaps piercing my consciousness, and I can leave satisfied. I have walked with him in silent meditation during the predawn hours without a destination, looking at myself, following my breath, inching forward into the recesses of my psyche. It is in such moments of quiet, if we allow ourselves, that we can begin to hear our true selves. I have had to fight past the thick mesh of voices, riddled with doubts and judgments, to sit with my authentic self and accept her, unconditionally. I can say from experience that it is a hard and scary process to turn off the external noises that keep us insolated from ourselves, which is what draws me to Thay, again and again. The Edissa I don’t know and don’t understand yearns for a deep spiritual connection. When I touch that peace, I feel a profound connection to everything around me. So those many years ago, I wanted to find meaning in my life and to let go of the dangerous anger that I only had the courage to turn on myself. So it was his message, “to be my own mother” that touched me. He invited me to hold my mother and myself in compassion and explained exactly how to do both. In that way, Thich Nhat Hanh has been a constant and influential presence in my life as my spiritual leader and mentor, pushing me to start again when I fall short of my goals.

If you are hungry for peace, give Buddhist monk, learned man, doctor of comparative religions, author of over a hundred books, community organizer, leader and healer, Thich Nhat Hanh some consideration. You don’t have to abandon your faith or become a Buddhist to learn mindfulness, because he teaches practical ways to get quiet, repair relationships and look deeply at our interior and exterior environments and do something to repair what needs our attention—gently. As a teacher I have introduced various books and essays of his to my students; they always love his work. In particular, True Love: A Practice of Awakening the Heart is a constant favorite. It’s the kind of book that sons pass to fathers and mothers share with sisters. It’s a treasure for its simplicity and clarity of language as well as the clear, concise explanations of love. My guess is that you might also find some value in his life’s work.

If you don’t know his work, I urge you to read one of his books today. Attend a retreat with him if possible. He has several communities where he practices regularly: Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California; and Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. All, with the exception of Green Mountain, have activities throughout the year that are open to the public. Reverend Hanh is aging, but you can still see his luminous spirit for yourself.