Back on Track

August 2010

On the first day of the school, Socrates said to his students, “Today we are going to do only one thing. You first swing your arm forward and then backward.” He demonstrated to his students how to do it. And then he asked, “From today, you have to do 300 times of arm swings everyday, can you do it?” Everybody laughed because they thought this to be too easy. One year later, Socrates asked his students how they were doing with their daily exercise of arm swing, there was only one person who persisted. This was Plato, who became one of the most famous philosophers in history.

After my vacation and nephew’s visit, I went into my vegetable garden and I saw how pathetic it looked. I realized that I was just like the majority of the students in Socrates’ class.

I started my first vegetable garden with great enthusiasm this spring. I prepared the soil, added manure, planted the seedlings and watered. And now, the weeds are almost as tall as the few surviving lettuce and definitely more robust looking. The spinach has turned yellow and dry and bends over like a sickly person; the tomatoes and beans are trying desperately to stay erect but some parts were broken because of lack of support. What happened? Like the majority of the students in Socrates’ class, I thought taking care of the garden every day would be easy. I imagined a bountiful harvest with not much effort. Then as my initial enthusiasm wore off and as life got busier, I visited my garden less and less frequently. Now and then I would realize that I had totally forgotten about my garden for several days, and then I rushed out to dump in some water or pull out some weeds to relieve my sense of guilt. Until the fateful moment when I heard a voice in my head saying “If I don’t see it and don’t think about it, I won’t feel bad.” So, I stopped thinking about the garden.

Yes, arm swing is easy. But doing it every day is not easy. Taking care of a garden, saying loving words to your family and friends, eating healthy food, exercising, meditating, striving to have a positive attitude, being patient… It’s not difficult to do it for one day or one week, but doing it everyday consistently is difficult. However, in order for something new to grow and to mature, it takes persistent cultivation with intention. A common mistake we make is “big thunder, little rain” meaning talking excited about something without action or starting something enthusiastically but not able to continue with perseverance. Giving the garden a lot of attention at the beginning and then leaving it alone doesn’t help to have good harvest. In Chinese Medicine, we believe that the intention comes from your Heart system. Once you have an intention, you become more aware, and your Qi tends to flow to where your intention goes to generate ideas and actions. The Heart beats consistently and if we are connected with our Heart, we’ll have consistent intention that leads to the persistent action. However, we are not always connected with our Heart because the Mind — the habituated conditioning tends to be very loud and keeps getting our attention. Our laziness, self-doubt, lack of confidence, fear, frustration are like weeds growing rapidly whenever they are given chance. When I told myself “if I don’t see my garden, I won’t feel bad about not taking care of it”, it’s the moment I blocked my connection with my Heart system and stopped that persistent intention and action. The result: I have a pathetic garden in front of my eyes when I open my eyes and look. The denial is like a comfortable blanket; we may not even feel it as we are slowly smothered to death.

Now the question is, what should we do when we find ourselves off track and feeling frustrated, guilty and discouraged? It’s just like during meditation when we realize that our mind wanders off and we say to ourselves with frustration, “Damn, I did it again! How can I ever stop this crazy mind?” The instruction is to just come back to your breath. Simple. Do not engage with your thoughts and feelings. Come back to your breath. In life, it’s just like in meditation. We come back.

I looked at my garden, and saw some tomatoes and beans actually doing ok. And I noticed the eggplant blooming. I appreciated these plants for being strong despite my neglect. I pulled out as many weeds as I could. I got some stakes to provide more support to the beans and tomatoes. I watered them and I walked away with the intention that I will return tomorrow.

Have you started something good for you and then fell off the wagon because of distractions? Do you have projects that you started but didn’t finish because your enthusiasm waned? Have you become too busy recently and neglected cultivating your inner garden? Go back to it. Today. Now.