'Meditative Gardener' aims to cultivate good nature

By Kevin O'Connor, Rutland Herald, March 21, 2010

Vermont, USA -- Gardens sprout bouquets and salads, but can they also seed inner peace?

<< Cheryl Wilfong of Dummerston, seen here at Brown & Roberts Hardware in Brattleboro, is the author of "The Meditative Gardener: Cultivating Mindfulness of Body, Feelings and Mind."

Vermonter Cheryl Wilfong remembers a 2005 meditation retreat in which a Buddhist nun sought to weed everyone's minds of wild, invasive thought.

"Imagine a flower garden growing in your heart …" the instructor urged. "Imagine a lotus streaming forth golden light …"

For Wilfong, something else sprang up: the idea of grafting her three favorite interests — gardening, meditation and writing — into a book.

Five years later, the Dummerston resident has published "The Meditative Gardener: Cultivating Mindfulness of Body, Feelings and Mind," a 256-page paperback blooming with insight, instruction and color photography.

"Just as we cultivate our flower, vegetable and herb gardens, we can bring such intention and effort to nurturing our inner garden," she writes in the introduction. "The Buddha's teachings help us understand the similarities between nature and human nature."

Wilfong laughs when recalling how the nun's calls to imagine were supposed to plant visions of loving kindness. Instead, they got her looking at her life.

An Indiana native, she had come to Vermont in 1972 and discovered gardening in 1977, just before marking her 30th birthday with her first meditation retreat.

A counselor by training, Wilfong went on to graduate from the University of Vermont Extension's Master Gardener program in 1999 and enroll in the Community Dharma Leader course at California's Spirit Rock Meditation Center in 2005. Needing a class project, she began her book.

Having already written "Following the Nez Perce Trail" — a 512-page guide to the historic passage from Montana to Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon — Wilfong knew she needed to start with an outline. For "The Meditative Gardener," she found her framework in the basic teaching points of the Satipatthana Sutta, a Buddhist text whose title translates into "Discourse on the Foundations of Mindfulness."

That complex work reflects on the body and its myriad sensations, be they pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, and the mind and its states ranging from love to hate. Through it, Wilfong saw a simple truth: "The mind is the master, and the body is the slave."

With mental focus, she has moved from her first garden — a small plot of flowers and vegetables — to develop a backyard Eden of almost 30 beds. But other times her thoughts drift and dawdle.

"Our minds are a jungle of exotic greenery that we walk or run through every day without really recognizing what it is that grows there," she writes. "We may even develop a certain fondness for some plants that we later find out have poisonous roots."

That's when the mind, touched by desire, hatred or ignorance, triggers the body to actions of greed, aversion or delusion. Wilfong cites such garden-variety examples as purchasing too many plants or procrastinating from weeding.

She also writes about the rest of the world. The short biography on her book jacket makes her life sound serene: The author wakes daily before dawn to meditate, then gardens, studies Buddhism, naps 20 minutes every afternoon and teaches at Brattleboro's Vermont Insight Meditation Center before retiring early.

But Wilfong feels the sting of being, and not just from mosquitoes. Having come of age in the 1970s, she recounts on page 120 the camaraderie of sex, drugs and rock and roll — and the consequences upon waking up.

"I was really trying to skate around that," the author says.

But her editor pushed for personal detail.

"I did it, as briefly as possible," Wilfong says with a laugh. "It's just being honest that I'm human."

Wilfong's book doesn't chisel a set of moral commandments. Instead it coaches readers how to contemplate whether attaching to or avoiding something harms more than helps.

Alongside a set of related exercises — consider "Loving-Kindness Meditation toward Bugs" or "Sprouting Compost Contemplation" — the author also urges everyone to exhale.

"Having goodwill toward the garden is important, but even more important is having goodwill toward the gardener, which is to say, yourself," she writes. "If we practice mindfulness, we realize we don't have to improve anything; we need only bring awareness to the time we spend in the garden."

If only publishers acted accordingly. Wilfong spoke with several who liked her concept but wanted changes. Deciding to print the book herself, she received help from Windham County photographers Gene Parulis and Lynne Weinstein and book designers Dede Cummings and Carolyn Kasper.

The author is advertising the $35 paperback in the Buddhist magazines Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma and Tricycle, through mailings to fellow members of the national Garden Writers Association, and on her Web site, www.meditativegardener.com (which features downloadable meditations).

With the weekend's arrival of spring, Wilfong is getting ready for another summer of gardening.

"I went with the break-your-back theory for almost 30 years."

Then she hired someone to help out.

Isn't that cheating? Wilfong considers it compassion.

"This was a way to be kind to myself, and I could hire a mother and support her. We're doing each other a service."

And sharing their good nature.

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