Why Gardening Offers a ‘Psychological Lifeline’ in Times of Crisis

This more symbiotic form of relationship — responding to and working with nature, rather than controlling or exploiting it — is what we need to shift to collectively. So it becomes less about simply taking what we want from the garden, and more about a way of gardening that is beneficial for nature in the broader sense, through enhancing biodiversity and caring for the soil.

There’s that Zen expression, “Chop wood, carry water.” When you’re doing something, be in the moment. Like weeding: It’s repetitive, but meditative.

Absolutely. Those rhythmical, mindful activities that engage your hands are very replenishing, a form of meditation. There are other ways you can experience this; it’s not exclusive to the garden. But working with nature’s creative energies is unique to gardening.

People often describe losing themselves in the garden. Therapeutically, this is important. When the ego falls away and we are at one with a task, we experience a sense of inner calm. For people who are depressed or struggling with anxious or negative thoughts, that switching off the dialogue in their head can be very, very helpful.

“The garden gives you a protected physical space,” you write, “which helps increase your sense of mental space.” You mention gardeners losing themselves in flow states.

I think weeding can be an effective way of entering into a flow state. The immersive quality of gardening helps pull us into the present moment. It can be a form of mindfulness which has well-recognized anti-stress effects.

While gardening brings us into the present, it also has an intrinsic future orientation. The sense of positive anticipation we can feel in working with the natural growth force brings with it a sense of purpose and motivation. There are many times when this can be extremely helpful. I sometimes feel the garden pulls me in and gets me going.

The way we experience time through the garden is central to its therapeutic effects. Rather like the paradox of empowering and disempowering, gardening puts us in touch with the transience of life, but it also allows us to feel the continuity of life. This can be enormously consoling for people recovering from trauma and loss.

I only half-joke that my favorite place is the compost heap, that eternal-life dimension.

I quote Stanley Kunitz, the poet, in the book about that. As a young man, he worked on a farm, and learned that “death is absolutely essential for the survival of life itself on the planet.”

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