“When the pupil is ready, the master will appear,” is a saying sometimes attributed to the Buddha, when in fact it comes from the pen of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (Madame Blavatsky to the likes of you and me), occultist, guru/charalatan, co-founder of the New Age inceptive Theosophical Society, “the mother of modern spirituality” according to her biographer Gary Lachman.
If “The Master” stands for “that which the pupil needs”, then one could exchange the second part of the equation with almost anything we find life-enhancing: aromatherapy, knitting, hang-gliding, gardening. The master, the garden, or the knitting needles providing us with meaning, pleasure, direction. Some of the ingredients of “happiness” in philosophical/self-help parlance, or to put it in a way that I find more useful and also garden-aligned: some of the components of flourishing.
This is how it was for me. Up until my early 40s I had little interest in gardening. As long as the grass was mown, shrubs in the border, for me a garden was first and foremost a place to do non-gardening activities in. Something productive like studying, or writing, or abstemious meditation.
I’m not entirely sure what contributed to my readiness for gardening. Often it is a crisis of sorts that brings Masters good and bad (I’m thinking here of John Fowles’ The Magus, a touchstone book for me) into our lives. It is true I had just passed through a turbulent and somewhat destructive relationship – that may have been part of it. But break-ups previous to this one hadn’t occasioned me picking up trowel and fork, so what made this latent gardener ready for his Garden, his Guru?
Another foundational factor was that I’d been doing a lot of countryside rambling in the preceding years which had perhaps opened my eyes as never before to nature and the soothing effect it had on my somewhat jittery nervous system. And maybe I was looking, though not consciously at the time, to create a natural sanctuary closer to home?
Like the start of any new journey where an inkling is given to us of a new direction, the circumstances of its initiation seem more governed by happenstance than anything else: me taking myself out into the 40 x 20 foot back yard that I share with two others flats in my not-especially-leafy, kind-of-drab suburban semi-detached outskirts of London, a back yard that I had ignored since buying the ground floor flat in 2008. Most likely just a whim, a let’s-do-some-weeding whim.
Crouching down in the flowerless flower beds, hands smoodging through the clayey soil, sun on my back, mind empty with the task I’d set for myself, something in me must have registered that this feels good, and maybe even “You should be doing more of this kind of activity rather than sitting inside struggling to fill a blank page or screen”.
So with the benefit of hindsight, I somehow stumbled, weeded, clod-scrabbled my way into getting a taste of gardening flow, that attention stabilising, heart-settling condition of optimal experience (more on that in Gardening/Life #2).
Although the self-help industry still very much believes in one dimensional “happiness” (over 17,000 Happy titles in the Health, Family, and Lifestyle Self-Help section of Amazon), if we look very carefully at happiness generating activities, what it turns out we really need, and can get from a garden is Flow.
Which is the 2nd lesson my garden taught me.