Odeon of Herodes
In our formative years we have little control of how our minds develop. For most of us, for the first year or so, our mothers are our head gardeners and it is they who lay the foundation of our minds. Very easily we learn attitudes and values from her and others we grow up with. If, through poor parenting or our own carelessness or laziness our minds are not inviting and the garden is not a delight, that maybe weeds are taking over, perhaps we may have to repair the soil and start afresh. Usually though, taking control does not require such drastic measures.
However. at some point in our lives surely we should make a conscious choice regarding the cultivation of our minds. Do we want to take the course of least resistance and accept whatever state our mind gets into? Or do we sit down, evaluate and make a plan?
For any garden the environment plays an enormous part in its creation and maintenance. The terrain, weather, seasons and climate; resident inhabitants like insects and molluscs; intruders like birds and cats; air pollution and neighbours; these all determine the challenges a gardener will face.
For the mind, the environment is also the biggest challenge. Few live isolated from outside influences. The culture we are born into, our language, economic circumstances and just like a real garden, climate, weather and the terrain will influence what and how we learn.
For many, current technology with the means to communicate and share information with anyone is the most challenging aspect of the modern environment. We need to assess well how and from whom we receive information if we are to remain in control. Although the care of the soil through having positive attitudes and healthy values will provide resilience and protection, we may also need barriers, defences that keep out what is seriously harmful. These barriers are often just simple rules that we choose to obey. God’s commandments, I believe, are just that, defences He knows will give us the needed protection.
Planning And Creating Our Gardens
Here we now enter the exciting area of our analogy and there is no point in using this form of prose unless it helps us evaluate, highlight, bring our attention to and motivate us to improve the condition of our lives.
With all the above considerations: the natural order, the soil and the environment it is time to consider the type of garden we are and want to be, we need to make a plan. There are many types of gardens and minds too; good healthy, fruitful minds are also varied. Firstly how would you identify your garden and similarly, your mind? How would you describe it?
What types of gardens are there? Well, there are formal and informal gardens. There are English country gardens and Japanese gardens. There are kitchen gardens, rose gardens and water gardens. There are summer gardens and all the year round gardens. In England a typical garden might be like this: it may have a lawn, a flower bed, some randomly scattered pots, some vegetables in one corner, a compost heap in another or maybe a loosely scattered family of gnomes. (Now I have nothing against gnomes, in fact there is too much snobbery about them!) Whilst such a garden may be pleasant for a month or two of the year does it have a clear identity?
Now when it comes to a garden you may be happy with this, you may not very often need to say to someone the type of garden you have, but when it comes to the mind, identity is usually more important. Whenever we are in new company it is not unusual to declare some identity or other, it could be gender, family, nationality, religion, profession, a sporting team we follow, a skill we have spent years perfecting, depending on who you are describing yourself to you may choose one or more of these identities. What matters more is which of these identities is at the centre of your life? Even in the simple garden described above, one feature does stand out, which would be the lawn. Although it may not catch the eye it still sets the boundaries and locations of everything else in it. Even when covered with snow it will be that space that can be easily identified.
So ask yourself, what am I? Your mind, how would you describe it? What are its predominant features? Do I have an identity? If we are interested in cultivating our minds then a useful idea would be to ask what features we might want it to have.
Most attractive gardens have some architectural features. I do not necessarily mean buildings, bridges or monuments just some permanent shape or feature that provides a framework or boundaries for planting. Although a lawn is organic I would still regard it as an architectural feature because it is nearly permanent and creates boundaries and shape. Other architectural features maybe paths, walls, rockeries, terraces, pergolas and patios. These features will provide a framework for the garden, a framework that will be hard or impossible to alter.
Is your mind like this kind of garden with one prominent feature? Or are you a gardener who picks up interests or fads to follow for a season? You have an idea but soon lose interest, you take up a sport or join a club or begin to develop a skill that is the flavour of the month, but soon it is given up on or accumulates dust as it clutters the attic.
But then you may find one activity, association, possession or skill that obsesses all your waking hours. You align yourself with one religion that allows nothing else to find root and bring variety to your life. By religion I mean anything that offers identity, security and power. Like for example, a soccer team (I use the word soccer for the benefit of U.S. readers). As an example I may be a Manchester United supporter, the best team in the world! I buy a season ticket every year; buy the latest strip, go to every match and all my conversation and identity is wrapped up in red and gold. This one feature is like one tree that dominates your garden, all of it. Okay, a tree harbours many life-forms, all dependent on it, and a tree can be a glorious thing and if that is how you see yourself, so be it. You have a clear identity. But how interesting is it?
Now forget football, there are many types of tree and there are many centres of devotion; religion, politics, humanity, sport, academic pursuits, art, music to name a few. Those who make a difference in this world seem to be those who have found one cause, one centre to their lives, but for most of us such a central feature is not our lot and most of us either would not want it or do not have the dedication to pursue it.
But I guess I am here showing my bias. The gardens I enjoy the most are rich and varied, that with each season of the year bring new delight. Yes, there can be one predominant feature that attracts the eye and defines it, but for me variety is the spice of life. Your garden may be both useful and aesthetically attractive, it may include a vegetable garden as well as flowering plants but does it have a theme, a style an identity that makes it what it is. Does it have synergy, the whole being greater than the sum of its parts?
In the life and legacy of a garden the biggest challenge would seem to be for you the gardener to one day look at it afresh and say, this is not the garden I want. It may be that it has no distinguishing feature and all it needs is a new purpose or centre. Now that feature may be easy to establish, like a statue, a pergola or water feature that can be purchased or built. Or it may be a tree or perennial garden, like a rose garden, that takes time and perseverance to establish. For our minds such a new central feature could simply be a new object bought late in life, like retired men buying the car, boat or motorcycle they have dreamt of since a boy. Or by going one step further it may be the restoring of such a machine to former glory and parading it around the summer rallies and gatherings. Or with more patience and persistence it may be taking up a musical instrument or studying for a degree or taking on charitable work or political association or editing a website woops! The vista of possibilities is colossal.
When it comes to cultivating the mind then what we are born with, i.e. gender, race, religion, location, the predominant culture of that location and to a large extent your economic status will similarly determine the boundaries and opportunities you must live with. But although these features create boundaries, we may not want any one of them to be the identity that best describes who or what we are.
So what occupies your mind to the extent that it defines you? What is the identity that you want to be your centre? It could be one that you are born with like, ‘I am Welsh’, even if you have never lived there, but that is what defines how you think, feel and is the predominant identity that describes you as a person.
Next week: When your mind is not a garden, Dressing and Keeping