Life Lessons from my Herb Garden

Here’s what my herb garden looked like this morning, after a long summer of perfect herb-growing weather and no gardener. I was feeling ambitious in March as I selected all these plants in their tiny biodegradable pots. The reality is that my poor garden has been on its own for the past four months.

Herb gardening can be fun. For a minimal investment of time, money and space, you get fragrant, interesting plants that attract bees and butterflies to the garden and make you look like a chef on the Food Network. The rosemary plant is a favorite. My Sicilian heritage predisposes me to a great passion for cooking, plus I love rubbing my hands on this plant and then inhaling the piney fragrance on my palms. The plant itself has grown into an impressive shrub and taken over just about half the space in my tiny garden. What I didn’t know until I got started this morning was that this beautiful specimen, growing unchecked, obliterated the stevia, the marigolds, and something else I don’t recognize anymore.

Beyond the rosemary monster is the basil. Back in the spring, I got carried away at the garden center and bought three plants. I really like pesto! The basil plants did not disappoint. They basked in the Savannah sun, smiled up at our afternoon thunderstorms and thrived. Then they trampled on the sweet English lavender plant I foolishly established as their neighbor.

How often have you heard, “You reap what you sow?” Gardens often serve as a metaphor for life, and no wonder. It’s an easy comparison to make. Lives, like gardens, need careful cultivation to produce the best fruit. As long as we are diligently pulling the weeds of vice, our garden can thrive. Let those weeds take over and they choke out your virtuous flowers. You can even look in the Bible for a garden metaphor. In one of his parables, Jesus likened his followers to different kinds of soil with varying levels of receptivity to the seed of his teachings.

Back to my herb garden: I spent the better part of my day pulling weeds and harvesting a mountain of basil and rosemary. All the while, I wondered what on earth I was going to do with all this bounty and reflected on what this particular plot says about its slack gardener.

Maybe the overgrown mess represents the issues in my life I try to ignore. Every single morning when I opened the back door to let my dogs out I saw this jungle in the making, and every single day I thought, I need to harvest some of that basil and pull those weeds. But I didn’t. It occurred to me that I’ve been neglecting a couple of other matters in remarkably similar fashion. Not surprisingly, they’re growing a little wild, too, like that paperwork I haven’t felt like addressing or the phone calls I need to make. Worrying over my procrastination is starting to wear the edges of my conscience a little thin.

The real lesson could be in what’s left of the lavender plant. Lavender is my favorite smell in the whole world, especially in its natural state. So if the lavender was important to me, why was I so careless with it? Why, when it started to cower in the presence of the basil bully, didn’t I come to its rescue and either cut that basil down to size and eat it, or move the lavender plant to a more hospitable location? How many times in my day-to-day life am I careless with important matters because I just can’t find the motivation to act?

Hmm. Actually, this little patch of green bears a strong resemblance to the inner workings of my mind.

One of the first exercises when learning to meditate is called witnessing the mind. You sit comfortably with a tall spine, close your eyes, gently focus attention on the breath and just watch the mind’s antics. It doesn’t take long for a distracting thought to pop up. In this practice, you observe this thought in a detached manner without getting involved in it so that it can pass across the sky of your mind like a cloud on a breezy day. For example, if the thought that jumps into your awareness is “Pizza!” you let the pizza fade from your consciousness rather than allow the mind to start choosing toppings. Once the first thought clears out, another follows. This happens over and over. With continued practice, the sweet, silent spaces between distracting thoughts grow longer and longer.

You also gain an awareness of just how much nonsense takes up space in your head every day. Left to its own devices, my mind has a mind of its own; it latches onto random, usually useless, ideas and won’t let go. These thoughts get bigger and bigger, kind of like my basil plants, until they demand that I act on them. They drown out other, worthier thoughts. They multiply and run around my brain like a Jack Russell terrier. Clearly, someone has to be the grown-up here and bring order to this chaos.

This is why it’s called the monkey mind. The purpose of yoga is to train the mind, this powerful, willful child between our ears, so that we can experience real peace in all situations. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? It’s the practice of a lifetime.

Herb Harden After

Here’s an evening update: My garden is tidy, the overgrowth has been removed and I have about two pints of pesto in my freezer, ready to enliven my culinary efforts with a spicy burst of summer flavor any time I want. It’s only September so I probably have one more mini-harvest before my garden goes to sleep for the winter. If only it were this easy to pull all those weeds from the border of my mind.