Posted by: chrismaser | October 19, 2009


Over the more than twenty-five years that I have studied ecosystems in various parts of the world, I have often been overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the ecological and social problems with which I was dealing. “How,” I used to ask myself over and over, “can I as one person affect anything?” And because I saw no way for me to change anything for the better, I often felt despair, depression, and helplessness. Then, some years ago, while in my early sisties, I commenced gardening.

And it was while working in my garden, that I realized all the global problems with which I had for so long been wrestling (ecological, social, personal, and spiritual) reduced themselve to the human dimension of personal awareness and understanding in ways that I could never have imagined as a younger man. Every conceivable problem is only a matter of scale and essentially the same, regardless of culture, language, or ecosystem and is played out again and again, whether I had experienced it in the subarctic of Alaska, the Northwest Territory of Canada, the deserts of Egypt or the American Southwest, the jungle of Malaysia, the forests of Slovakia, the Swiss and Austrian Alps, the Himalayas of Nepal, the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, or the coast of Oregon.


The problems were not only repeated elsewhere but also occurred in my garden in one way or another. This is not surprising, when I think of it, because culture is a structure that is artificially imposed on people through the centenarian halls of time and consequently reflected in their gardens. While the specifics might differ, the principles are identical, and the scale of the problem in my garden is one I can understand, relate to, affect, and expand again to a global view.

On the other hand, “think globally, act locally” is much too abstract for most people to grasp even if they want to. “How,” people use to ask me repeatedly,” can I as one person affect any positive change in the world? What can I do?”

For a long time, I had no good answer, but now I find that my garden is the perfect passageway to understanding the relationships among local action, global consequences, personal responsibility, and spiritual growth. Simply stated, everyone acts locally and affects the whole world. It cannot be otherwise in our singular, interactive ecosystem—planet Earth.

And yet, my garden is also an isle of solitude around which the increasingly hectic, time-diseased human world turns. I thus return again and again to its quiet confines, there to touch my spiritual ground, while I confront my understanding of the overwhelming worldly problems outside of its borders. It is this the inner journey through this passageway that I want to share with you, because it can inspire us, as gardeners, with a sense of our personal ability to make a positive contribution to the welfare of our home planet.

In my garden, I find the spiritual and the material, the intuitive and the intellectual (including the scientific) coming together—not in the deadly grapple of today’s outer world, but in a dynamic harmony that becomes ever clearer as I mature in both life and the art of gardening.

I offer these ideas with the hard-won realization that, of all species on earth, we humans are both blessed and cursed with the greatest of powers:  the power to consciously change ourselves, to struggle towards an ideal of being, and frequently to fall short of that ideal. In struggling, however, we must understand and remember that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly for a while.

I say this because we have control over what we choose to think and do—what we cause to be set in motion. The outcome (consequence) of our choice is therefore our responsibility. As such, it is within our creative power to change ourselves, one by one, from collectors of society’s increasing psychological and technological garbage to trustees of one another’s dignity, and it is within our power to transform the world from a growing toxic waste dump back into a heavenly garden.

We are at this juncture because we humans have forgotten that we are an inseparable part of Nature, not a special case apart from Nature. Although this juncture originates as the thoughts and motives in our hearts and minds, it is manifested through our decisions and the subsequent actions we commit in our surrounding environments and on Nature’s landscapes throughout the world.

What I have just described is a global problem, which is an abstraction to most of us almost beyond our grasp and seemingly beyond our ability to affect. To me, however, the abstraction becomes a concrete experience while working in my garden, provided I can see how my garden is actively connected with the larger world.

I now invite you into my garden to accompany me on a journey of consciousness, where we shall encounter the labyrinth of apparently competing values, such as the spiritual versus the material, and the intuitive versus the intellectual and the scientific. Our journey is a search for the center of the garden in which all things coalesce. As you wander my garden, remember that your sense of truth, like mine, and even the history of people and events recorded in books, is a flight of fantasy on the wings of perception in the eternal moment.

We are at this juncture because we humans have forgotten that we are an inseparable part of Nature, not a special case apart from Nature. Although this perceptual crisis originates as the thoughts and motives in our minds, it is manifested through our decisions and the subsequent actions we commit in our surrounding environments and on Nature’s landscapes throughout the world.

What I have just described is a global problem, which is an abstraction to most of us almost beyond our grasp and seemingly beyond our ability to affect. To me, however, the abstraction becomes a concrete experience while working in my garden, provided I can see how my garden is actively connected with the larger world.

I now invite you into my garden to accompany me on a journey of consciousness, where we shall encounter the labyrinth of apparently competing values, such as the spiritual versus the material, and the intuitive versus the intellectual and the scientific. Our journey is a search for the center of the garden in which all things coalesce. As you wander my garden, remember that your sense of truth, like mine, and even the history of people and events recorded in books, is a flight of fantasy on the wings of perception in the eternal moment.

I love my garden because it is small, and I can physically care for it, touch it, feel it, and smell it; whereas I can only love society, care for it, and touch it through words on paper or in front of an audience or a TV camera. But in my garden, I need no words.

My garden as an isle of solitude reminds me of an Eastern fable about an emperor in a faraway land who built a palace, which he named “House of the Singing Floors.”1 When the palace was completed, the emperor looked at it and decided that he wanted some gardens planted to accentuate the palace itself in the midst of an Earthly Paradise.


The emperor sent for the wisest and most skillful of his gardeners and commanded him to create the palace gardens. The gardener, who was very old and very wise, selected a place at some distance from the palace and built for himself a simple chair, which he covered with a canopy of branches as protection from the elements. There he quietly seated himself.

Summer passed slowly and gently as the old man sat in silence, watching. Autumn came. The leaves of the trees changed colors and fell. Many of the birds departed as the north wind began to blow and the storm clouds to gather. As the sky darkened, snow began to fall, and winter lay upon the ground. But still the aged gardener sat in his chair observing quietly.

The winds sent snow whirling and spinning across the land, sweeping the ground clear in one place only to bury it in another as the trees now bent, now whipped back and forth under the fury of the gale. The gardener, meanwhile, pulled about him his woolen cloak as he reached for another bowl of hot tea.

Spring came. The snows melted. Little streams swelled. Birds began returning, once again filling the warming breezes with song. Through the spent stalks of last year’s grasses and the limp, decaying bodies of fallen leaves came the delicate heads of spring flowers. And still the old gardener sat watching in silence the mural of the seasons.

At last, summer came again. The gardener, having sat in his chair for a year, arose and entered into the presence of the emperor.

“I will now plant the garden,” he said.

By the following summer, the earthly paradise was completed. On every hand bloomed rare plants. Strange and wonderful fishes added color to the ponds as shining native fishes swam in the streams. Birds, which migrated from afar, nested in the shrubs and trees, filling the garden with song. Little shrines reposed atop large rocks, and ancient stone lanterns enchanted pathways.

When all was in readiness, the old gardener requested an audience with the emperor, and led him onto the wide verandah of the palace.

“O Son of Heaven,” he said, “my work is finished. In every season and with the passing of every year, this garden will retain its perfection. Each plant in its growing will become a living part of a balanced completeness.

“The fragrance of spring, hidden in opening blossom and unfolding leaf, will perfume the air with Heaven’s own scent. The leaves of the trees will create an ever-changing dance of light and shadow as the flowers nod and the ferns and grasses sway in the breezes of summer. The falling leaves of autumn will form patterns upon the ground and in the ponds as berries ripen into hues of blue and orange and red. Through the leafless branches of late autumn shrub and tree you will see in vista grand the snow-capped mountains. With winter will the ponds and streams freeze in patterns bold and intricate, a perfect mix of composition and harmony. And with spring, the streams, released from winter’s grip, will form ripples, eddies, and pools in their flowing, each perfectly attuned to the rest.

“It is for this reason that I sat for a year in meditation. There can be only peace here, for conflict cannot abide where Heavenly peace reigns. Each passing season will express itself in its own way. There will always be harmonious beauty in the gardens of your palace.

“As your majesty advances in years, your perceptions and tastes will change, but the gardens will grow and change also. You will thus find happiness in them as long as you live. And when at last you return to the sky from whence you came, those who follow after you will find themselves in this garden as you have found yourself. I have created a miniature world to reflect for you the mysteries of a far greater world. This, O Son of Heaven, is a wise man’s garden.”

The fabled emperor is the Self, the garden one’s life, and the aged gardener one’s own wisdom with which one must build one’s earthly paradise. But the mystery of this fable cannot be understood by reading the words; it can only be felt inwardly as a spiritual experience while gardening. By gardener, I do not mean one who just tends to the soil and the plants that grow therein, but rather one who consciously, purposefully tends simultaneously to the soil of the Earth and to the Spirit of one’s own being—for only in their union is it possible to flourish within the flow of the Universe.

In this sense, my garden reconciles me to my mortality within the scheme of things and binds me to the ever-changing great and small cycles of relationship, even while it reminds me of the Mayan term for human: “Those who bear the burden of time.” My garden thus molds and transforms my worldview as it teaches me that my duty is one of respectful trusteeship of the environment and society for those present and those who must follow.

Although my garden is still subject to the effects of Nature, when I stand therein, I am at the point of balance between a world of Nature and a world of culture. As a product of culture, it is therefore the quality of the compromise that I strike with Nature that’s important, not the perceived correctness of my position or my act; for it’s through the quality of the compromise that I assess the sensitivity of my connection with Nature.

As we tend the garden of our lives, through the effects of our thoughts, motives, decisions, actions, and their outcomes, we struggle with concepts both for purposes of clarification and because change in our ever-evolving perceptions opens new vistas to explore. Each concept, such as compromise, is the seed of thought, which I cannot define in language. I cannot, therefore, approach anything directly or absolutely through language. Words are at best only symbols or metaphors for those things I cannot fully grasp or explain because they go beyond language to the center of the Universe, which encompasses all symbols, all metaphors—all words.

Lao-tzu, the Chinese philosopher, understood that no word can define the object of its focus; he wrote:

Existence is beyond the power of words
To define,
Terms may be used
But are none of them absolute.

While most of us attempt to “cut the best deal” by trying to open the Universe to ourselves, Lao-tzu opened himself to the Universe. This is but saying that while we seek positions of outer authority from which to control our surroundings, Lao-tzu lived from a well of inner authority, through which he simply placed himself at the disposal of Universal harmony.

Although I have not yet achieved such harmony, in trying to “define” my inner Universe within the greater context of the outer, I have become a gardener. It is through gardening that I have struggled with such concepts as:  crisis, self-knowledge, experience, change, killing, death, and peace. And it is in struggling to understand these concepts that I daily refine the inner garden of my soul in thought, word, and deed and see it reflected in my outer garden through Nature.

As I mature, I find that each concept not only has been central to my life at one time or another but also has become a fascinating, ever-changing kaleidoscope of perceptions and illusions of the Truth. The latter has taken shape in the form of lessons that I needed to learn, lessons that ultimately brought me a little closer to the Truth. In this, as in the whole of life, whether we know it or not, whether we accept it or not, we all follow the same path, the path that leads toward Truth.

Be that as it may, George Santayana, the American philosopher and poet, found that, “Truth is allowed but a brief interval of victory between the time it is condemned as falsehood and belittled as trivial.” Nevertheless, it is the concepts with which we struggle that become the stepping-stones of understanding along the way. We must, however, pay heed to these stepping-stones lest we sleepwalk through life and live in the shadow of an idea without grasping it.

So it is while working in my garden, that I can, for a while, be untouched by the various wars (both those of ideology and those of physical weapons) that are raging in the outer world; or by the disease and hunger that are ravaging this country or that; or by the corporate greed that is destroying whole ecosystems and cultures, both at home and abroad. It is not that I don’t care about what goes on in the outer world, but rather that my garden is at once the field of battle in which I struggle within myself to grow in consciousness, an isle of solitude in a sea of worldly strife, and an entrance into a realm of reality beyond the material, much like the rabbit’s burrow leading to Alice’s Wonderland.

It is here, in my garden, that I personalize my perception of the world in a scale with which I can cope and to some degree affect. Here, as the French painter Ingres says of art, “one arrives at an honorable result only through one’s tears.” Thus, in some small way, I can affect the world at the scale of my garden by consciously learning to understand and work with those physical, biological, and spiritual principles that govern the intrinsic wholeness of Nature—and myself as a quintessential part thereof.

As such, it is spiritual succor that I find in my garden when the burdens of the outer world grow too heavy for my shoulders. It is here that I kneel before the Eternal Mystery and find peace in turning the soil and in weeding. And it is while weeding that my inner vision shifts, and I often see my garden not as an infinitesimal place in the world, but rather the world as an infinitesimal part of my garden.

I say this because, if my garden were encircled by a high stone wall in which there were four gates, one for each cardinal direction, I would name each gate by the element it brings to the inner unity of the circle wherein lies my garden. One gate would be named “Ecological Consciousness” in honor of the awe inspired by Nature, another “Social Consciousness” to commemorate the human struggle for just governance, the third “Personal Consciousness” to highlight the courage it takes to change and grow, and the fourth gate would be named “Spiritual Consciousness” to connote the unity of all things found within the garden, which is a reflection of the same unity found without.

Each gate would be perpetually open to anyone who wished to enter, and upon entering, one would merge with the Tao—the gateway through which we are constantly passing. It would matter not, therefore, through which gate you passed, for one is equal to another, and all paths merge as they lead into in the center of the garden, in which lies to the unity of all things. Knowing that the Well of Unity lies in the center of the garden is important because it is a safe harbor in life’s sea of uncertainty.

It is interesting to see the reactions of those who come into my garden. The scientist clearly enters through the gate of Ecological Consciousness, whereas a State Legislator I once entertained found her way through the gate of Social Consciousness. Now and then someone enters through the gate of Personal Consciousness, but it is a rare person indeed who finds the gate of Spiritual Consciousness. There is, however, a commonality to almost all who enter; it is a statement related to of the peace they feel within its confines.

We shall, in our journey of consciousness, experience the relationship of each gate to the divisiveness of the world outside of the garden in contrast to the unity of that within, beginning with the gate named “Ecological Consciousness.” We begin with the gate of Ecological Consciousness not only because the concepts of this domain are the most concrete for many people to grasp but also because without these ecological underpinnings neither the garden nor we as human beings would exist.

The gateway is at once the end of one world and the beginning of another, which means we are in both worlds simultaneously when we stand in the gateway of the ineffable present between the past and the future. I say ineffable present because the gateway is like sitting alongside a large river of mild current in which that part of the river immediately in front of me represents the present, that which flows towards me a future dream, and that which is already by me a past memory. There is no stopping the flow of the river, so that grasping past and future in the fluidity of the present moment is the purpose of Tao—the gateway. “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “we must carry it with us or we find it not.”

Go, therefore, into your garden, and—if you allow it to—it will teach you everything you need to know about gardening, Nature, yourself, and the Way. These lessons are particularly important today because much of industrialized humanity is dangerously out of touch with the fact that we, the people, and the biophysical world in which we live are inexorably interwoven.


Related Posts:

• The Gate Of Ecological Consciousness

• I Participate With The Whole World While Working In My Garden

• The Gate Of Social Consciousness

• The Environment Is Our Social Mirror

• The Gate Of Personal Consciousness

• To Be In Control, I Must Give Up Trying To Control

• The Gate Of Spiritual Consciousness

• Finding Peace In My Garden



  1. Manly P. Hall. Self-unfoldment by Disciplines of Realization. The Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles, CA. (1946) 221 pp. (I have slighly modified this parable.)
  2. Witter Bynner. The Way of Life According to Laotzu. The John Day Co., New York, NY. (1944) 76 pp.

These essays are largely excerpted from my 2005 book, “The World is in My Garden: A Journey of Consciousness.” White Cloud Press, Ashland, OR. 232 pp. I wrote this book with the help of Zane, my wife of more than 28 years. She wrote the guided meditations. Leslie Edgington crafted the illustrations.

(The UK edition was published by Polair Publishing, London, in 2003.)

Text © by Chris Maser, 2009; Illustrations © by Leslie Edgington, 2009. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection

If you want to contact me, you can visit my website. If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.


  1. Very nice. I really liked this post. The garden is a wonderful metaphor that “fits” so many different ways.

    I find your insights valuable and congruent to many of my own experiences.

    I believe that our purpose here is to learn to create responsibly and holistically and that creation is, first and foremost, directed, conscious thinking.

    Many of us have irresponsible minds or have forgotten that we are the gardeners of our own existence – the cultivated region of our mind, thoughts and experiences.

    Some of us cultivate thoughts that produce wonderful fruit and seeds that spread. Others cultivate thoughts that, like weeds and brambles, choke out the life and beauty of Spirit. As one wise man said, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

    Our thoughts are not empty, nor do they appear upon a whim like an apparition floating through the hallway of our mind. They are the buds and emerging leaves of belief systems we accept and hold to be true and real.

    These belief structures are built in our minds through conscious thought and experience, connecting our ideas of life and of ourselves in a structure that seeks to branch out for sustenance (through roots or limbs) to strengthen the foundation and core of the original thought or belief.

    On so many levels of experience we are learning to be responsible thinkers. This plays out in so many areas of our lives, reflecting across reality like light through a prism, creating seemingly different patterns and effects, but each beginning with the same source. This is the classic comparison of macrocosm vs. microcosm.

    Our minds are infinitely more powerful than we realize, we are eternally more than we accept, and the limitations we adopt instead become our experience as we work out everything else in between. Our ignorance, selfishness, short-sightedness, and pursuit of dominance causes innumerable problems that play out en masse through society, politics, media, economy and environment. We then try to tackle a problem, but never really formulate a real solution.

    The problem is that we find ourselves in gardens we don’t like, ugly brooding gardens with shadowy briars that look like monsters’ teeth coming to devour us. We find ourselves choking on black fruit, unable to plant viable seeds that will grow to produce the life and shelter we need to live. We do not recognize our responsibility for our perception and how this follows from the thoughts and beliefs we choose to hold and create as real experience in this world.

    We have become absent-minded gardeners, believing that someone else will take care of our gardens for us (television, pastors, teachers, friends, parents and a host of other tell us how to live).

    One day we will return to our Garden only to find obnoxious weeds have completely taken everything over. And we will not prepare the garden we truly want in our lives if we do not seek out and pull up the weeds in our minds. We have to look at the briars and brambles, the thorns and thick brush and trace them to the very roots and pull them out. The roots are in our minds, in our thoughts, our expectations, our desires.

    We cannot be responsible co-creators if we do not very carefully cultivate our thoughts through persistent mindfulness. One of the best ways to watch our thoughts is in quiet meditation or performing some meditative task – like gardening. In those moments of thought and experience, the mind is open, questions are asked, quiet answers are given and we are connected to something larger than ourselves. We see the universe play out in our little plot of land. This is what draws me to gardening.

    I have no doubt that what I do on a small scale in my backyard ripples through ocean of time and space and can have far-reaching effects – just as I am sure that my own private thoughts do not end at the small bony circumference of my skull.

    Thanks for the read, Chris

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