September 20, 2011

Returning to the Path of Practice, Again & Again. ~ Seth Segall, Ph.D.

Constant Gardening.

We had a beautiful garden this spring and summer—a never ending procession of lilacs, daffodils, tulips, irises, roses, poppies, peonies, wisteria, lilies, chrysanthemums, clematis, hyacinths, echinacea, and black-eyed susans.  Along with these beautiful flowers, our archenemy, aegopodium podagraria, or bishop’s weed  (also known as gout weed, ground elder, goat’s foot, and Jack Jumpabout) made its nefarious return.  Bishop’s weed is a formidable foe.  It defies almost every method of eradication, and the more countless hours we spend rooting it out, the more vigorously it returns.

A few months ago in his dharma talk, Sensei discussed how meditation was like gardening. It seemed a fitting metaphor.  After all, the Pali word for meditation is “bhavana,” which literally means “cultivation,” a word with clear horticultural roots.   Professor Glen Wallis has written:

“I imagine that when Gotama, the Buddha, chose this word to talk about meditation, he had in mind the ubiquitous farms and fields of his native India. Unlike our words ‘meditation’ or ‘contemplation,’ Gotama’s term is musty, rich, and verdant. It smells of the earth. The commonness of his chosen term suggests naturalness, everydayness, ordinariness. The term also suggests hope: no matter how fallow it has become, or damaged it may be, a field can always be cultivated—endlessly enhanced, enriched, developed—to produce a favorable and nourishing harvest.”

Buddhism also employs another horticultural metaphor—the metaphor of “bija” or “seeds” to describe how past thoughts and actions lay down the karmic traces which affect our future thoughts and actions.  Our current thoughts and actions are seeds which, if properly watered and fertilized, grow into future thoughts and actions which eventually bear karmic fruit.  Similarly, if we avoid watering and tending to them, they tend to wither and die.  In this manner we can use awareness to cultivate skillful thoughts and actions, while weeding out unskillful ones.

 But Sensei was making a different horticultural point that evening.  He was pointing out that in gardening, no matter how hard we work at it, the weeds always return.  Weeding is a constant practice, whether in gardening or meditation.

Of course there are many different kinds of mind-weeds—an infinite variety of desires, wishes, concerns, fears, and aversions in never-ending succession.  Sensei had one particular sort in mind, however: one that relates specifically to Buddhist practice.  These are the perennial questions of “what next?” and “what else?”

I had brought these very questions to Sensei in dokusan that very evening. “I’m wondering if I should be doing anything more with my practice?” I asked.

“What did you have in mind?” Sensei replied.  I confessed I wasn’t sure, and Sensei responded with “Just sit.”   “If there’s something else you need to do,” he added, “it will emerge from your sitting—no one else can tell you what your practice needs.”

Sensei was pointing out that in both beginning and mature practice the same questions arise, but the answer is always the same: just return to awareness, sit quietly with the question, and allow what’s needed to emerge.  In Zen there is no beginning practice and no advanced practice.  There is just returning to awareness.  Nothing is missing.  Nothing needs to be added.  There is no “next” or “else.”


I heard a charming gardening fable while interning at the Center for Mindfulness, Medicine, and Society in 1996.  It’s one that’s made the rounds over the years in various forms.  Psychologist Marsha Linehan incorporated one version into her Dialectical Behavioral Therapy workbook.  The fable tells of a gardener who’s tried everything to rid his garden of weeds.  In exasperation, he contacts a famous expert who inquires whether he’s attempted a variety of remedies.  When the gardener replies he’s tried them all, the expert pauses and reflects, and finally replies “all I can suggest is that you learn to love the weeds.”

We shouldn’t be distressed or disturbed when mind weeds that we thought we uprooted long ago return once again.  We should treat them like old friends.  It’s not that we’re doing our practice wrong.  It’s just the nature of things.  The weeds come back.  We must be constant gardeners.  The path of practice is unending.  We return to it again and again.



Seth Segall, Ph.D. is a retired member of the clinical faculty of the Yale School of Medicine, the former Director of Psychology at Waterbury Hospital, and a former president of the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation. He is the editor of Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings published by SUNY Press in 2003. His blog,The Existential Buddhist, explores issues related to Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethics, meditation, and social activism from a non-dogmatic point of view. Seth is also a professional grandfather, classical piano student, gardener, environmental activist, and aspiring novelist. He is affiliated with White Plains Zen. You can follow Seth on Twitter by clicking here, or on  Facebook by clicking here. Subscribe to his blog’s feed by clicking here.



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