In this liminal landscape, a place between stories, it is more and more important to find a place of belonging. In my own journey this has been the gift of a garden, a place where the worlds come together, the spirits of the land and the beings of light, together with the beauty and colors that change with the seasons.
Walking between worlds, between stories, in a landscape where everything is uncertain, requires courage and conviction, a desire to step outside the arid land of our present civilization and its conditioning, even if we still walk its streets, still buy our food in its supermarkets. That is why it is so important to have communities to support us, a simple spiritual practice to anchor us. And if possible to find a place of belonging in a world that is becoming more and more out of balance, at times even appearing increasingly crazy. How we find this place of belonging is part of our own story. It often comes unexpectedly as a gift, as it did for me when I arrived in a small town beside the ocean thirty years ago, where people in the store seemed to know each other.
As I have said before, all we can tell is our own story, the threads we have followed, or which have been woven into our life. Over half a century ago when a Zen koan awoke me from a grey English middle-class life, I found myself in a garden beside a river, with the sunlight sparkling on the water, and colors I had never seen before. Everything was alive with light, and there was a wonder and joy present. For the first time life opened its door of magic and laughter. It was like a first love, unexpected. My mind did not attempt to understand, but over the years I held this experience as a moment complete in itself.
Now, as the seasons of my life draw to a close, and I am no longer a young man in the intensity of awakening, I find myself back in a garden, feeling gratitude for another moment of belonging. As I grow older I find the world beyond our small town increasingly alien, difficult to understand. I prefer what is simple—the wind in the trees, a hot cup of tea, the silence of prayer and remembrance. And the beauty of the gift of a garden.
Our house on a hill beside the bay has a beautiful garden, which my wife made and tends with love, watering and weeding. It is full of color and fragrance, purples and yellows and pinks, buddleia bushes and foxgloves, clematis falling over the fence, hummingbirds’ tiny beaks drinking nectar. It is a magical space and the spirits of the garden are so happy. It is one of the delights of my old age, to sit in the courtyard, watching the birds at the birdfeeders, mostly sparrows and finches, but sometimes woodpeckers, their bright red heads pecking the seeds.
When I used to come back from travelling, I would always first step into the garden and feel its peace, sense its natural magic. Then I knew I had come home. This is a meeting place of the worlds where all are welcome. Sacred place always used to be a space for the worlds to come together—the spirits of the land and the beings of light, with human beings as the guardians or gardeners of these spaces, keeping open the doorways, allowing magic to be alive.
Traditionally humans were always mediators between the worlds. Not just shamans and healers, but all those who danced to the drum or dreamed of the hunt. For thousands of years our consciousness held a magical awareness of the land and its many inhabitants, told in stories and remembered in songs. How this role slipped from our consciousness is part of our story of forgetfulness, but there was a time when all the land was a multidimensional environment, awake in many ways. But if you can find a doorway that is open, stay there, watch your dreams and sense what is unseen. The inner worlds need us to remember their existence, just as the light needs to be welcomed back. Storyteller, gardener, dreamer, lover, these are words that hint at our covenant with creation. If we can help a small piece of land become alive again, a wasteland grow flowers and attract bees and birds, we may find that we are back in a place of belonging. Love and care for the Earth are words that come alive in our fingers, then a spark returns to the web of life.
Not all of us can become organic farmers, restore wild places, or plant trees. But we can each feel that the soil is sacred, even in a city window box of herbs or flowers. We can show our children how to plant seeds in the ground and watch the simple magic of green shoots appearing. We can also reimagine the inner garden of our soul: create a place protected from the demands of greed and desires. We can work to restore this inner land, often polluted by the noise and clutter of today’s world, returning it to its natural beauty, and sense of peace. Through prayer and love we water and nurture the garden, until it flowers into our life. As I describe in the previous podcast on prayer, St. Teresa of Avila imaged the soul as a garden, and used the figure of a gardener watering the garden to describe the stages of prayer, from the initial hard work of drawing water from the well, to the final stage of grace when it rains.
Through silence and grace we may also begin to sense how our soul and the world soul meet and merge, are part of a single inner landscape that also needs our attention. Our partnership was never just with the physical world and its many species, but always with all the worlds, seen and unseen. At the beginning it all flowed together, only much later did it begin to separate and we needed initiations or practices to enable us to see. That is why children can for a few early years remain in a world of enchantment, before their eyes become clouded.
I do not know in the coming centuries what quality of perception will be returned to us. I hope that a reconnection to the natural world around us will help us to step out of the blinkers of a purely rational consciousness into a more fully relational way of being and seeing. At present all we can do is recognize that the world around is alive in ways we do not fully understand, and allow ourselves to listen to the trees and the streams, to remember a fully animate world. Here in my own garden there is a simple meeting with the sacred, felt in the air as fully as the sweetness of the honeysuckle in the evening. It is like a note that is deeply reassuring, reminding me of a place of belonging that is not just physical. As I sit in the evening watching the shadows lengthen across the flowerbeds, seeing the chipmunk still scurrying for seeds fallen from the birdfeeder, I no longer feel a stranger in a world spinning out of control.