On tending a mental garden

The idea of the mind being like a garden is one I first remember encountering in a novel, in the following passage:

… being tired he lacked the energy to ‘weed the garden of his mind.’ This was the metaphor that Kang had been taught … Some thoughts were flowers; others were weeds; still others were vipers. Constant vigilance was needed to correctly identify each.*

Although I’m not particularly enamoured of this novel I have read it several times and each time found this concept interesting without particularly thinking about it or fully understanding it. I tend not to think when I’m reading – if I wanted to think I wouldn’t be reading in the first place, I’d be thinking. But recently I’ve been on the search for metaphors that will help me understand and describe the mental processes and changes I’ve been experiencing recently.

Many things have become easier for me of late. Progress in all things is simply less difficult because I am learning to reduce the time I spend standing squarely in my own way and defeating myself. Goals that once seemed unattainable are now realistic and certain things that were once stressful are now barely worthy of my attention. And now, as you may have read in recent posts, I find that new positive changes seem to happening of their own accord. This made me curious and I wanted to find a way to explain why that is happening. After some thought I realised that, lurking in the silty chaos that is “stuff I’ve read somewhere,” was the garden metaphor which is proving very useful in helping me understand what’s going on. So here’s the metaphor as it applies to me.

Firstly I want to say that the word ‘garden’ could be misleading to anyone who’s only ever known small tidy urban/suburban gardens. My mental garden is probably at least a couple of acres. Do not imagine manicured lawns, neat flower beds or tidy shrubs. Instead imagine what would happen to a rough, fertile piece of ground left entirely untended for approximately a quarter of a century. First the small weeds take root and spread; the fireweed and the rough grasses. Over time a single bramble becomes an impenetrable head high tangle and a stinging nettle sprout becomes a shifting sea of dark green fronds.

Of course I was still living in my mind during those 25 or so years. If I’d had some idea of how to weed out the unwanted thorns and intrusive invaders perhaps I would have done so, but what happened instead was that I walked around the bramble snarls and circumnavigated the tide of nettles, occasionally wondering why my strawberry bushes weren’t thriving like other people’s. Gradually the paths became narrower, the weeds around them higher, and it became harder and harder to avoid the thorns. There wasn’t any point trying to plant flowers, fruit or vegetables because I knew now they had no chance of growing.

It got to the point where something had to be done because my mind had become entirely uninhabitable. I called in professional advice. Of course landscape-gardeners on the NHS are not able to offer much, but they did supply me with an SSRI-type weedkiller called Sertraline. Like all weedkillers it was no substitute for having kept a clear garden in the first place, but it did make things more manageable. The toughest weeds were immune but it cleared some of the softer ones and gave me space to consider the ways to tackle the rest. It also gave me some stout overalls and thick leather gauntlets. I still didn’t know how to tackle the weeds but I had some of the tools I would need when I was ready.

Gradually I was able to begin recognising the different types of weed and the different approaches I needed to get rid of them. Some could be simply prevented from seeding and left to die, others could be pulled up by the roots and others would have to be dug out. Some had deep roots that I still can’t get to; others had suckers to other areas of the garden that made them difficult to handle. Still others I didn’t recognise as weeds because they were so familiar and needed other people to show me that they were undesirable.

As I made progress it became easier. I was so much more experienced with the weeds and the few attractive plants I was replacing them with. There was room to see what I was doing and to look at all sides of a large problem area before deciding how to tackle it. I was able to stop using the weedkiller and return to organic methods.

Five years on, I think I’ve reached a place where it looks like a garden and not a terrifying waste. I don’t have to hide it behind 12 foot concrete fences any more because it doesn’t hold the horrors it once did. I can look at other people’s garden and maybe even help them see the ragwort, the dandelions and the docks and offer advice on dealing with them. I can look at the good things in others’ gardens and see how I can grow them in my own. At last there is free, fertile soil for the offspring of the new thoughts I carefully planted. The first-generation flowers and fruit have hybridized, producing stronger strains that I couldn’t have predicted. There is room for them to grow and no hostile competition for the soil and light.

Weed seeds will still blow in and sometimes I’ll struggle with them, but I’m a gardener now; I’ll handle them.

* John Case, The first horseman (1998).


Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 thoughts on “On tending a mental garden

  1. Liz at Libro says:

    What an absolutely beautiful post. Well constructed and written beautifully too. It’s actually brought a tear to my eye!

  2. I completely agree with Liz – absolutely beautiful post.

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