The Tao of Gardening

The Tao of Gardening

Taoism is an ancient philosophy; the principles were first laid out by Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching begins with the premise that it is impossible to define the “Tao” without rendering it something other than what it is. Nevertheless, Tao has been broadly defined as “way”, and indeed, the Tao Te Ching does describe the “way” of the universe, observing that certain actions lead to certain results, without preaching as must or must not be done.

Taoism is a nature-based philosophy, as opposed to a theologically-based philosophy. To paraphrase Lao Tzu, nature is the ultimate truth, notwithstanding the ultimate irony that our observation of nature removes us from it. We cannot “be” nature, itself, but in “not” being, we are already in the process of becoming: “If you want to become whole, let yourself be partial,” the Tao Te Ching states, “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty.

Nowhere have I felt the visceral truth of these notions more keenly than when I have gone from observing nature from a distance to experiencing nature first-hand – literally, in my hands, in the form of gardening.

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When I first anticipated moving from the city to the country, I couldn’t wait to have a beautiful flower garden. I became a self-professed expert on all flowers – I knew what I liked and I knew what I would plant.  But after moving in and making my first trip to the nursery, I set the pots down on the dirt and promptly called a handyman. I couldn’t dig in dirt – what did I know about dirt?  What could I possibly want to know about dirt?

Still, as I watched the handyman make quick work of his hole-digging and plant plopping, something felt amiss. Sure enough, over the course of that summer, I watched my new flowers wither until one day, I knelt down on the soil and started to dig – with my fingers and a rock (since I didn’t own any tools – gardening expert that I thought I was). What I found was that the earth was hard and dense, and my flowers were as separate from it as if they still remained in their plastic pots – their roots tightly wound in the shape of those pots.

Without knowing what to do, I did what needed to be done: I dug and raked with my fingers until the earth felt soft and the air smelled sweet. I gently loosened the root-balls and laid them out in newly dug holes in the freshly dug soil. And I filled the holes with water, watching the roots soak it up, before replacing the dirt and smoothing the surface. I learned only later that what I was doing was enriching the soil with light and air and providing my newly planted flowers with their very own “womb” of water and nutrients. But somehow, somewhere inside myself, I must have known.

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Seven summers have passed during which my hands (knees, feet and face) have been continually dirty from April through September. I’ve acquired some gardening tools, and sometimes I let myself think that I’m an expert, which according to the Tao is an inevitable mistake, for “those who know do not talk– those who talk do not know….To know that you do not know is highest – To not know but think you know is flawed.” 

Photo Credit: Maia C

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Lauren Cahn has written extensively about yoga, health and wellness since 2004, when she earned her first yoga teaching certification from Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga Center (NYC).