Blooming with Purpose
Growing Flowers can Lead to a Greater Self-Understanding
I probably killed around 100 baby plants before I finally got my first batch to grow fully enough for containers or the garden. (Sign up HERE to receive emails when I write those posts). Now my house is overflowing with plants - propagated house plants, baby bonsai trees, and flowers and winter greens grown from seeds. I even propagated a Japanese Maple cutting in water!
Along the way I’ve learned that tending plants is engaging in a process of attention and care. Observing the stages of a flower - the first leaves sprouting from a seed, a bud blooming into a flower, then a deadhead falling off full of seeds to produce the next batch - we learn how our own lives unfold in similar stages. This close attention to detail, of shutting out the world to engage directly with another living thing, brings you to a place in the present moment where you can also find yourself.
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We learn that every stage has a purpose, and we gain appreciation for the small things. We learn that patience and perseverance lead to beauty. And most importantly, we are reminded of the power of interconnectedness: growth of one thing is integrally connected to the growth of another. Death and decay yield birth and life.
Clearing the Mind in Pursuit of Happiness.
With a constant hum of thoughts produced by my ADHD, I have had to learn to slow down, zoom in on the present moment, and just be. Knowing how to clear my mind has allowed me to perform better in all areas of my life. Through a process called “effortless mindfulness,” I have learned that I have been walking around with open awareness this whole time. The problem was that I didn’t realize it. I was too entranced with the story my ego was telling me to see the truth: that there was this “I” at the center of my thoughts, mixing up the truth with my opinions.
I was letting the weeds of my ego grow up and around the flowers of my awareness. You can tend to any plant and it will grow strong, and eventually might even bloom into a flower of some kind. But if you let too many weeds grow in with your plants, then you can no longer see the best parts of the garden.
The story I was telling myself has changed over the years. My childhood story was full of fear. I was terrified of the idea that other people would see through my mask and find out who I really was. As I got older, my story began to get jumbled up with substances and alcohol. Those substances helped me manage the fear, and even forget about it for a while. But fear still drove me, and I developed a habit of running away from things. I was ingesting the world of Beat writers and fancied myself a modern-day Jack Kerouac or Charles Bukowski. I incorporated tenets of existentialism, and erroneously concluded that the point of life was that there was no point. I justified my increasing use of alcohol, psychedelics, and eventually much harder drugs, with the story that all great artists dabbled in these things.
My story became “everyone is addicted to something.” That story propelled me into a long dark night of addiction that still terrorizes my dreams to this day. I was living death and decay, unaware that soon the seeds of a new and beautiful life would be planted. It’s easy to forget that every phase has its purpose, even the ones that cause suffering. Now I know that I could have “deadheaded” my life and made space for new growth sooner. But “who we are is how we’re broken.” Even if it didn’t feel like it at the time, that pain and suffering would become the source of how I would finally become helpful to my fellow humans.
My rock bottom was fairly severe. When I went into recovery I had absolutely nothing left. I spent 30 days and a thousand nights in detox, and then went to start my life over at a sober living home. It was during this time that I got a job in landscaping, and because I was terrible at weedeating (it turns out I was slowly losing my vision), I ended up working on the flower crew. All the guys on the “mow, blow, and go” crews acted like being on the flower crew was some kind of punishment, or where people went when they couldn’t do the “real” work. But for me, it was amazing.
I also started long distance trail running. You can read my story “Forged on Red Mountain” (link coming) to see into those days. It was then that I learned that part of my solution had to involve nature. I could go out into the woods and get lost in my head for hours, riding the rush of endorphins.
It was also during this time that I started practicing meditation again. After rejecting traditional religion in my adolescence, I sought peace and serenity in Zen, Buddhism, and other similar traditions. I had not processed my religious trauma at the time, so I was unwilling to be dogmatic at all. But I began sitting, spending time in the woods, and working on the flower crew. Little did I know the stage had been set for what would become my path to peace and happiness.
Building Relationships with Plants and Letting Go of Expectations.
If you told me 10 years ago that I would be building relationships with plants, I might have laughed about that. But as it turns out, once you start growing a plant a relationship does emerge. Logic might tell you that your relationship is due to the investment in time and energy. But if you let your heart be open, you can really start to feel connected to what you’re growing, and why. For example, during the winter months I grow pansies, violas, and several winter greens. I grow these hearty plants because even ice won’t kill pansies and violas. They will just drop the leaves and flowers that froze, start over, and push out a whole new plant – as long as you don’t touch them while they’re frozen, And I grow greens because they’re winter season plants. And they’re beautiful and tasty.
But there’s another “why” for me - nostalgia. Every time I see a pansy I time travel back to those days of hard labor and simple life when I was going blind but waking up.
The more time I spend with my plants, the more I can see things like when they lose their brightness, maybe they need fertilizer; if they get droopy, maybe they need water; and if they turn the wrong colors, then maybe they're getting too much water.
We can go a little deeper with a connection. When I spend time with my plants, I'm also spending time with myself and with the present moment. All these things are bringing me closer to the plants and to myself. My days are capped at the beginning and end with small but meaningful tasks of taking care of the plants: moving them inside or outside in bad weather. Swapping them onto the shelf in front of the sunny window. Putting them on the bookshelf with the grow lights on the tops of the shelves. Or preparing for potting when the seedlings are ready to move on to the next phase of the process.
Find Joy in the Process No Matter the Outcome
This connection that forms must be one of acceptance rather than expectation. Because bad things happen in the process of learning. Mistakes are made using the wrong fertilizer on your 5-month-old Giant Sequoia, or waiting too late to pot Sunflower seedlings, or forgetting to water the Japanese Yew in the teeny tiny pot just one day (called shito in the bonsai practice).
Yes, these are all things that have happened to my plants, and I have several more examples of mistakes or missteps that have led to the death of a plant I have grown to care for over months or longer. But failing is an integral step in the process of learning. So I no longer have a Giant Sequoia bonsai or a Japanese Yew shito. But I have the pictures, the memories, and the experience, which is applied knowledge that will help me grow as a person and help me grow my plants for years to come.
I had to learn to create the proper environment for seedlings to grow. I had to schedule maintenance (water, light, heat). I had to understand the basics of how long it takes to germinate. Then I had to have another plan for when they sprouted. Then I had to have yet ANOTHER plan once they became proper seedlings.
But the most essential element was trial and error. If I never tried the first batch, then I might still think my first plan was going to be enough. If I stopped at the first batch, I'd be walking around with the firm belief that growing plants from seeds is too hard. If I stopped the second batch, I might have thought I was cursed with not having the “green thumb.” The failure of each batch led to the improvement of the plan. But it took multiple failures to gain enough knowledge and experience to get the plan right.
The experience of growing my own flowers taught me that true fulfillment comes from setting a goal, creating the right environment, learning the basics of achieving the goal and then having a plan for execution and a plan for maintenance. But most importantly, it taught me that to fail is to learn and grow. The only people that aren’t failing are the ones that aren’t learning or growing.
My Life with Plants.
Today I practice mindfulness daily in all areas of my life. I’m not even close to being perfect at it, and I make mistakes all the time. But I’m growing. Now I plan out my next growing season several weeks before planting time and start seeds in trays with lights and heating pads. I have a handful of houseplants that I regularly propagate and give away, because I love to share the beauty of plants with others. And I keep a small collection of bonsai trees, but they are all babies in the bonsai world. I have a long time to live and work with them. But that’s ok because I have time now. And every moment is a large space for me, especially when I’m slowing down and living in the moment.
I have several containers that live on my front porch that are always full of flowers. I have 3 different seed stations, and they’re all in different stages of seed starting. My next learning project is figuring out how to collect and keep the seeds I get from my plants so I can keep my favorite ones going for years and years to come.
And my story? It’s become very simple. It turns out, I am not my story. I’m just an open awareness that’s experiencing each moment as it passes. I can choose to attach myself to my thoughts and feelings and get swept away. And of course, I still do, all the time. That’s why they call it practice. But I’m getting these little glimpses of my true nature, and every little peek gives me a little more joy. And for me, there’s no better practice than practicing with plants.
So my question for you is, what is your gardening? What are your flowers? What process are you using as a tool for self-discovery? How do you find peace within?
If you have one, great! I support you and would love to hear more about it. If you don’t, I would like to invite you to the wonderful magical world of gardening. Growing flowers can help us to find a sense of interconnectedness and appreciation for the small things, and it has the potential to lead to greater happiness and fulfillment.
If anything I’ve said resonates with you, I would love to have you along with me on my journey. You can click here to subscribe to my newsletter and I will send you my articles as they are published.
And if you are hurting, or healing from trauma, grief, and addiction, I’m building a community called Fantastic Lights, where I will be helping people in early recovery by sending a plant and encouraging involvement with people who have time both in recovery and raising plants.
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