In a 2012 survey of British young people (16-23 y.o.) about the origins of the food they eat, 40% were unable to link an image of a dairy cow with milk. 7% instead thought milk comes from wheat. A survey this year also found that 30% of UK primary students thought cheese was made from plants, and a quarter believed fish fingers came from chicken or pigs. Nearly one in three British adults had no idea how potatoes were grown, and one in five thought that parsnips thrived on trees. Hopefully Australians are a little more knowledgeable about growing food, but the link between cultivating food, and grabbing it off a supermarket shelf, is certainly more tenuous than for past generations. A counter movement has been the increasing popularity of home vegie gardens, farmers markets, and taking food miles into account when shopping.
The Pali word for meditation is ‘bhavana’, which means ‘to cultivate.’ To cultivate something implies ongoing effort and attention. It’s easy to stick a seed into the ground, and at the time of planting, you feel pretty good. This is like going to a workshop on mindfulness, or reading an inspirational book – you might feel you’ve done something important that you will benefit from. Yet most of the time, simply planting a seed isn’t enough. We also need to nurture it – by watering it, providing compost and other nutrients, and keeping the area free of weeds. Young plants also need to be protected against pest and diseases. All this has to be done on an ongoing basis, whether you feel like it or not. You might be in a rush to get to work but have to water the garden in the morning before a hot day. You might yearn for a lazy Saturday afternoon, but instead find yourself out in the drizzling rain weeding the vegie patch. This is like having a regular meditation practice – you just do the meditation, regardless of whether you are in the mood for it or not, whether you’d really prefer to be doing something else with your time.
Seeds also require the right growing conditions – to be planted at a certain time of year, in sandy or rich soil, in full sun or shade, protected against wind or supported with a trellis. This is akin to the conditions of our lives around the meditation practice, in particular our ethical behaviour, and how we relate to other people and the environment. Seeds don’t grow in isolation, and neither does our meditation practice. We rely on the guidance of teachers, the support of other meditators, and our own good intentions, if we would like to establish a meaningful meditation practice in our lives.
Once we have planted a seed, it will grow according to its own nature. We can tend it and protect it, but there is nothing we can do to force the process – it simply unfolds according to its latent potential. Similarly, during meditation, we have to put our goals aside, and trust that the process will unfold in its own way. For example, we might be learning meditation to help us with our anxiety, but the initial practice might involve sitting with very acute feelings of anxiety. Eventually, with regular meditation, the anxiety will decrease, but there is no point in sitting down to a meditation determined to make the anxiety go away – meditation is a process, not a result.
In our modern society, we’re not always in touch with cultivating what is important to us – be it knowing where our food comes from, or making time for practices which develop equanimity and a calmer mind. We can flit from one workshop to the next, always looking for ‘the answer’, when mindfulness is actually always with us. All we need to do is cultivate it, provide the right conditions, observe what else is required, and tend to it day after day, regardless of the external conditions and the lure of more exciting pastimes. There is nothing glamorous or exciting about meditation, but if we commit to a regular practice, it will provide our soul with the nourishment we need.