Tending Your Garden
Inner and Outer Stewardship
We are the gardeners who identify, water, and cultivate the best seeds in ourselves and in others.
— Thích Nhất Hạnh, How to Love
I have spent a lot of time thinking about ontologies. Wiktionary defines “ontology” as “In a subject view, or a world view, the set of conceptual or material things or classes of things that are recognised as existing, or are assumed to exist in context, and their interrelations”.
I have defined an ontology for myself that I feel fits with everything I see and I’m even working on writing about it so you can read my thoughts. Or perhaps it’s more of a meta-ontology. But I digress.
The thing about ontologies is that they define what exists and how they work. They don’t really tell you what to do about it. Usually, a goal must be set that assumes some desired outcome. This may be morally driven or utility-based or have some other similar justification. My question quickly became about what ties these together. What sort of rules could potentially be applied to any ontology, any situation, any moral or utility, that would give specific direction toward achieving a beneficial outcome?
I was reminded of Buddha Gotama’s phenomenological studies of self and the ontology he created based on those studies. I was inspired watching training montages and TV shows, reading books about heroes having journeys, and trying to understand relationships. And I think I may have figured it out.
We are all garden stewards, tending to ourselves and our surroundings. We tend to the inner garden and cultivate our interiorities: our responses to outside and inside phenomena, our understandings, our beliefs, our thoughts, our feelings. We tend to the outer garden and cultivate our exteriorities: our actions, our words, our projections, our reactions, our life works, our teachings.
I found three concepts to follow in stewarding our gardens, which I will illustrate with three words, though the words don’t matter themselves. They are the finger which points at the moon. These concepts are those of STRENGTHEN ; RELAX ; REFINE. In my silly mind, I represent these with a triangle or, more recently, the Chinese character 丰 fēng (a vigorous, flourishing plant; abundant; beautiful); one horizontal line for each concept and one vertical line to remind me that they are all connected. These are not simply ontological phenomena to understood, these are actions to be taken; no matter the circumstances.
Whether it is our muscles, our resolve, our love, or our faith, we must endeavor to strengthen. Strong does not mean hard. Strong does not mean unmoving. Strong does not mean stupid. Strong does not mean cruel. Strong does not mean brittle. Strong does not mean rough.
In Japanese, one of the verbs for strengthening the body and improving skills is 鍛える「きたえる」kitaeru and means “to forge” as one does metal (“to hone” is another word, which is also used much as in English). In a forge, weak metal is subjected to intense temperature, heated and cooled, tempered and manipulated by the blacksmith to form strong tools. Much in the same way, intensity in life is worth using to strengthen ourselves. As the saying goes, strength begets strength.
In nature, you either bend or you break. Living systems should be strong but yielding. Stiff muscles are weak because they cannot perform their duties: they are tight and taut, and fibers are liable to tear. Stiffness brings both weakness and injury so it is best to relax.
In personality, calm resonates power. In thought, plastic minds learn quickly. In action, slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
Relaxing is more difficult than strengthening. And the faster you go, the harder it becomes. So take the time to slow down and put attention to relaxing. I don’t mean “take a break” or “take a vacation”. I don’t mean to sink into your couch and watch TV. I mean to be present with yourself and truly focus your attention on physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually relaxing. It is a skill like any other and it does take practice. In any place, in any circumstance, with any goal, relax.
Small things lump together. Big things break apart. “Refine” can mean to break into small pieces but I am introducing it here in a slightly different sense. “Fine” means small but... Fine dining is posh. A fine pie is delicious. Fine craftsmanship is admirable. Perhaps “refine” could just be glossed as “improve” but it’s not quite that simple, is it. Refinement has a sense of cutting away; of paying attention to details — fine details, if you will. Fine is accurate; fine is distilled; fine is detailed; fine is intricate.
Fine is what you get when you take the coarse and break it down, when you remove the excess and leave the important, when you carve the granite to free the statue within. Refinement is the process that takes you from coarse to fine. Refine what you do, whatever it may be. Refine your skill, refine your movement, refine your strength, refine your sleep, refine your thoughts. A refined muscle is a powerful muscle, a refined mind is a powerful mind, and a refined heart is a powerful heart indeed.
All Together, Now
These three things, considered together and applied together, I believe to be a possible remedy. A remedy to uncertainty; to that question “what do I do?”
I am still learning how to apply them practically, myself. It is a skill, as with all things. But I think they are proving beneficial, at the very least in bringing clarity to my actions. I hope you find use in them as well.