Landscaping Our Own Gardens: Cultivating Your Essential Self

Topiary in The Topiary Park, Columbus, Ohio. for Gardening blog post

 

It’s spring. City and land dwellers are out and about, faces raised to sunshine and newly leafed trees. The pandemic’s brutal onslaught, if not quite over, is less severe. The gardeners among us have spent the long winter months studying nursery catalogs, fantasizing about what we will plant in the coming season.

My own yard has undergone several incarnations. When our children were small and willing to pick and can, we grew apples and plums, asparagus, tomatoes, and rhubarb. As the kids grew older and weary of those tasks, the yard morphed, as did my family. Along with the children, my husband and I were undergoing our own transformation. These were our quasi-hippie days when we happily foraged in forests and ate wild plants. (The main lesson about most plants was that if you boiled them a dozen times, doused them with butter, and ate them, you would not die.) Our yard became a glorious wilderness of prairie flowers and grasses, a colorful sanctuary for butterflies and bees.

Now our lawn has terraced slopes and the gentle woodland feel of an English country garden. Gardens are a metaphor for many things, and one aspect we can explore is how they relate to our inner gardens. What nutrients are missing from the soil? What seeds do we wish to cultivate? Which are the volunteer plants and invasive species that pop up unexpectedly, and are weeds that must be dug out by the roots?

Our front garden in Wisconsin for Gardening blog post When we bought our house, we inherited Mr. Peterson’s formal gardens: pruned conifers, symmetrical beds of imported tulips and peonies, exotic roses that required infinite care. My taste and garden ambitions did not match his.

In the same way, we inherit seeds from our parents, genetic markers, along with more subtle influences—propensities, inclinations, predispositions—and what some might call ancestral threads.

But we also come into life with our own essence, our own karma or destiny, if those words fit your worldview. Recognizing who we are as particular souls and living out our authentic lives constitute the great lifetime work of becoming whole, becoming a self.

The great depth psychologist Carl Jung called this process “individuation” and saw it as a cornerstone to his psychology of self-realization, “the discovery and experience of meaning and purpose in life.”

In Awakening the Soul: A Deep Response to a Troubled World, Michael Meade, storyteller and scholar of mythology, describes the process of becoming a self in slightly different terms:

“As fingerprints as well as footprints have always implied, human life exists in the particular, in the distinctive shape of the unique individual who bears an original soul within. Because each soul is by nature distinct from all others, it is each person’s singular way of seeing and being that is ultimately at issue. Because each person born is a unique being, to truly “be” means to be as oneself, to act in authentic ways. . . .Typically, the dilemma of who we are is solved in too narrow a way. We limit ourselves to prescriptions of what others consider attainable and renounce the hidden potentials that our souls hint at all along.”

Baby eaglesLike all mammals, human offspring must learn to fend for themselves. When the time is right, mama leopards walk away from their cubs. Eaglets must learn to fly and catch fish on the wing. Hatchlings eventually build their own nests.

Becoming independent from our families is something we do naturally. Becoming an individual requires something more: not only separation but knowing yourself. Knowing your tastes, values, fears, and desires. Knowing exactly what you want growing in your garden.

In today’s world, we are mightily swayed by social media. Influencers of all kinds barrage us with how we should dress, how we should fix our eyebrows, our hair. What we should listen to, what we should read, who we should or should not befriend. We are even being encouraged to ignore our own perceptions and accept truth as others see and experience it.

How difficult, under these conditions, to sort out your own feelings and impressions from the mass of leadspeakerish pronouncements of shoulds and should nots. More reason to sit quietly with yourself, feel the rhythm of your breathing, the rise and fall of your belly, the pulse in your neck. This is you, your body, the vehicle and vessel of your soul on earth. Why do you think you are here? What is your purpose in this lifetime? Do you feel connected to a larger, cosmic order? If not, how might you remedy that? Approach the still small voice within with patience and openness. Trust that answers are waiting to reveal themselves.

The 11th century Japanese poet Izumi Shikibu in a 1765 woodblock print by Komatsuken for Gardening blog postPoetry can be your friend in quieting your mind. Poetry enlivens our attention to the particular and the specific. It opens the windows of our perceptions and provokes curiosity about our inward voice in dialogue with the outward world.

Here is a poem by Izumi Shikibu, a renowned poet of the Japanese classical period. The speaker allows us to experience an intimate feeling and moment in her life. It is particular to her, but it is also a universal experience. What would you name as one of your longings?

Lying alone,
my black hair tangled,
uncombed,
I long for the one
who touched it first.

From The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani.

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”



Fate and Destiny: What Role Do They Play in Your Life?

The Three Fates, Flemish tapestry for fate and destiny blog post

 

Six months after recovering from a serious illness, I got on a train and headed west to Montana, where I rented a car and drove up into the mountains. Not only had the illness, with its gripping mixture of uncertainty and fear, been a voyage into the unknown but now I was setting forth on a different kind of journey, this time in search of healing.

Brooke Medicine Eagle by her tent for fate and destiny blog postFor a month, I lived on the wilderness property of Brooke Medicine Eagle, a Native American wisdom teacher and author, in a caravan by myself. Every day Brooke and I went into the mountains or to the river and performed ceremonies for restoring my mind, body, spirit. I had never done anything like this before. I didn’t know what I really believed about so-called “energy” or “spiritual work.” What I did know, however, was that though my surgery and treatment had been successful, I did not feel completely healed. Intuitively, I sensed something in me still required repair. I understood I needed a different perspective on the meaning of “well-being” or “being well.”

The mythographer and storyteller Michael Meade reminds us that life is our great teacher. We are most aware of this at big turning points in our lives, when a crisis arises that can’t be ignored, dismissed, or laughed off, when no simple or previous solution fits the remedy. At such times, old ideas, patterns, relationships, and jobs can feel depleted of relevance, requiring that we let go of the past and start anew. Decisions must be made, a path forward uncovered.

In his book, Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul, Meade writes:

“What I am calling fate has to do with the way a person’s soul is seeded and shaped from within, like a story trying to unfold and become known. What I am calling destiny has to do with the inner arc and arrow of one’s life. For each soul is secretly aimed at the world and inclined toward a destination that only becomes revealed in crucial moments and at turning points in life. The elements of fate and destiny are intimations of the story our soul would have us live, both the limitations that must be faced and the destination that would be found. As fate would have it, they are often found through what seems like a big mistake, a strange accident or a surprise.”

Fate. Destiny. Soul. These abstract nouns sound outdated, even ludicrous to some. We are much more comfortable with words like adversity and resilience, empowerment and recovery with their scientific, reality-based aura. However, the concepts of fate, destiny, and soul have always been interwoven with humankind’s search for meaning and underlie the roots of most religious traditions. They point to a vastly larger, wilder, and incomprehensible universe whose mysteries we are still unlocking, and which can never be fully known.

Of fate, Meade continues:

“Fate is a mysterious presence found within each life and encountered in all serious undertakings . . . Fate appears as whatever limits, restricts or even imprisons us; yet fate is the territory where we must go if we are to awaken to our inner destiny.”

Many traditions contain a similar understanding of a guiding force that is both a part of us but also connected to a larger cosmology. Call it our Buddha nature, our daimon or genius, the Self, or the Soul, something beyond our ego that exists as a governing principle that shapes the story we live out. It manifests in the twists and turns, struggles, possibilities, and opportunities for growth.

We often talk about being “resigned to our fate” but “seeking our destiny.” Here is how Meade distinguishes the two:

“Fate may involve the earthly limitations of our ‘lot in life,’ but destiny, from the Latin, destinare, implies that we are also ‘of the stars.’ . . . Destiny can mean ‘to stand out, to stand apart, ’ especially to be seen standing in a visible relation to one’s inner genius. Destiny involves an irreversible process of becoming from within.”

The caravan photo for fate and destiny blog postWe are called to acknowledge the interplay of fate and destiny during life’s most perplexing moments when something beyond the rational seems to have laid its hand on us, often when life and death hang in the balance. Why did my house escape the tornado when all the houses on the block were destroyed? Why did I get stuck in traffic and miss the fire at my office? Why did I get the position when I’m not as credentialed as the other applicants? When we look deeply into these questions, we uncover how the fateful event serves a deeper purpose threaded throughout our days. While we enter life with both limitations and unique talents, our destiny plays out in how we creatively incorporate these into the unfolding narrative of our lives.

To return to my own story, illness knocked me out of complacency, swept me out to sea, and deposited me on the shores of a new continent. It altered my sense of safety and security. An enormously important event had disrupted my world. The way I perceived life had been forever changed. This was my fate. My destiny involved honoring an inner voice that prompted me to go in search of healing, but I would have no map. This is exactly what fairytales teach: to find the golden egg, to escape the ravenous monster, to reunite with our lost soul we must be extraordinarily brave, abide with uncertainty, trust the helpers along the way, (instincts and intuitions are often represented in tales as helpful animals or humble elders), and most fervently bring our faith and all our heart to the task.

Honoring the promptings of my intuition, I contacted Brooke and set out on destiny’s adventure.

We have been living through a hard season of plague and disruption. Many of our assumptions about ourselves as a society and as a country have been shattered. The time is ripe for considering how the thread of our individual fate is interwoven with the destiny of the country and the planet. Here are some prompts for beginning that exploration.

  1. Make a list of the major turning points in your life. (You can illustrate these questions with a brainstorming mind map to help you see the connections between turning points.)
  2. What do you think was being asked of you at each of these fateful moments?
  3. Were you required to make a decision?
  4. What was the result of your decision?
  5. What do you understand now about the situation that you did not understand previously?
  6. What pattern and toward what inner goal do you believe these events were leading you?
  7. What do you feel is still unresolved and perhaps waiting to unfold in your life story?

Bringing your full attention to these questions will prompt your psyche for a creative response. Watch and note your dreams as your answers take shape!

This post appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of my blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”