If you are not actively defining your path, life is defining it for you.

Posted by Lissa Carter, LPCA

Right now, we are one week into our group "Permaculture and the Psyche". The first principle we study is the permaculture principle Everything Gardens. 

What does this mean?

Permaculture is derived from the observation of natural systems. When we observe a natural system, one of the first things we notice is the way that natural forces work on a landscape. 

A sudden downpour of rain might sweep down the center of a property, creating a stream that erodes the soil and leaves puddles for weeks.

A herd of deer might bed down for the night, crushing vegetation, nibbling bark away from trees, and leaving ticks behind.

People might cut through the landscape in a shortcut to somewhere else, leaving a trail of worn dirt and a hole in the chainlink fence. 

The reason observation is necessary before creating a design is this: we cannot change these forces! There will always be rain and deer and people. They have to be incorporated into the design.  If we don't understand that deer and rain and people are part of our garden system and actively plan for them, they will continue to act as gardeners on our landscape, transforming it in ways we may not like. 

When we think about our own mental landscapes, there are plenty of forces gardening them too! Old beliefs that no longer serve us, unwanted intrusive thoughts, unpleasant moods, unhappy relationships; all of these shape the course of our actions whether we wish them to or not. We cannot remove thoughts, beliefs, or moods from our mental landscape any more than we can remove deer, rain, and people from the physical one!

Here's the thing: those thoughts, beliefs, and moods will be transforming our landscape whether we are aware of them or not. If we become aware of them, we can put them to work in our design.

If you are not actively gardening yourself, other forces are gardening you. 

Let's return to our fictional landscape where deer, rain, and people are shaping our garden. Imagine that we want to plant a fruit orchard on this piece of land, but are worried that the rain will wash soil away from roots and drown the trees, that the deer will kill the trees by eating their bark, that the people will compress the soil and steal the fruit. 

First, we dig a series of swales on the contour of the land. This ensures that as rain falls, it collects in these ditches rather than channeling itself into one erosive stream. Then the water gathered here percolates slowly down, watering our trees for us. The rain is still gardening the land---but now it is working in a way that we wish it to. 

Next, we plant a thick hedge around the border of our orchard, stocking it with native plants that grow thickly and provide cover and habitat for birds and insects as well as forage for deer. As the deer work their way around the hedge, they are kept from the tender fruit trees, but provided with food. They leave their nitrogen-rich droppings in a circle around the property before they move on, adding a source of nourishment to our trees. The deer are still a force on our property, but now they are adding value rather than removing it. As a bonus, we've ensured lots of healthy pollinators by providing habitat for them---as well as a stock of healthy predators for any insect pests that may want to attack our trees. Those same birds and insects will help to control any ticks the deer leave behind. 

Finally, we make the extra effort to notice where the shortcut leads that encourages people through our property. Near the hedge that protects our trees from pilfering, we create a path of old concrete blocks set into the ground along this desire-line, and plant a few edibles along this path to nourish our human companions. Now there is an easy way for people to get where they want to go without compressing our soil or taking our fruit. 

The first step in all of this was awareness. The second was acceptance, and the third was creativity. 

Imagine now if we engaged in the same process for the forces that garden our behavior metaphorically. First, we notice what they are. Social anxiety? Old anger? Fear of rejection? Outdated ideas about who we are? Preoccupation with what others might think?

Then, we accept that these forces are going to be there. 

This doesn't mean we agree with them. However, it does mean that we create a design that allows for them instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and pretending they don't exist!

Finally, we get creative about how we can use them in our favor rather than fighting them. 

Imagine that depression is gardening you by limiting your engagement with friends and preventing you from exploring activities you used to enjoy. 

First, you notice the depression. You take data on the thoughts and feelings that come up, and the toll they take on the dreams you have for yourself. 

Then, you accept the fact that depression is there and shaping you. You don't pretend it isn't there, you don't wish it away with positive thinking, you simply accept that it is a part of your mental landscape. 

Now you get creative. You look at what depression creates and how that can be useful in your life. Does it get you off the hook for activities that scare you? Plan facing fears into your life design. Does it numb you so that you don't have to face a painful past or difficult relationships? Plan counseling into your design. Get curious about what it would take to change those difficult relationships. 

Now depression is still there, but it is serving as a compass to point you in the direction of healing. 

So, what is gardening you?

As always, I love to hear from you in comments or by email.