How to Encourage Contemplation With a Zen Garden

How to Encourage Contemplation With a Zen Garden


If you’d like to develop a Zen garden of your own, follow these suggestions.

You may have experienced times in your life when you wanted something deeper than the “to dos” on your work list or the “want to dos” on your bucket list. I found myself at such place after retiring from 30 years of teaching. My children were grown, and my retirement years just beginning. This, to me, was the right time to focus on shifting from a complex, busy way of living to a more contemplative way of being. Knowing that it’s not always easy to transition from one way of moving through life to another way of being in the world, I decided to develop a Zen garden in our yard as a reminder to be more attentive to the deeper dimensions of life.

I started by doing some research. I looked for more than just the “how-to,” as I wanted to gain deeper insights into the meaning of the design and elements of a Zen garden. I discovered that the principles of Zen gardening include naturalness, simplicity, and absence of clutter. I also found that carefully raked sand or gravel with precisely placed rocks tend to be the main parts of a Zen garden. The sand is often raked into a round or spiral pattern, and the rocks on top are carefully arranged to reflect symmetry, balance, and/or simplicity. While plants can be added, they’re kept to a minimum and are usually low, spreading plants versus upright ones. The intent is to encourage contemplation or meditation, not to plant a typical garden.

Although we had a large back yard, I decided to keep the Zen garden small. I chose an area outside the window of our den. The area was somewhat secluded and shady during most of the day. I gathered the basic materials (sand and rocks) and a few additional items that were special to me: a wooden wind chime and a lantern. I chose a wind chime because it calls attention to air – one of the basic elements that sustains us and the rest of the natural world. I placed a candle inside the lantern and lit it each time I sat on a nearby bench to meditate. Fire, like air, is one of the basic elements of the universe; and I knew that in some cultures, smoke represents peace and our path at death.

While I was generally pleased with my initial arrangement of the garden, I sensed that something was missing. The Zen garden had become important to me—not only its physical presence in our yard, but its spiritual presence in my mind and heart. I thought about the garden often during the day and about what it symbolized. One day, I was thinking about the garden as I stopped by a barn sale not far from our home. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but once I spotted a simple ceramic bowl, I knew I found the missing piece for my garden. I would use this piece as a reminder to be open and receptive to what life might bring. I took the bowl home and placed it on a flat rock in my garden. I kept the bowl empty, as I wanted it to remind me of the importance of openness and receptivity. The ability to be open has always been difficult for me, as I tend to be a planner and a doer. I tend to work toward anticipated goals and shy away from unexpected outcomes. This tendency, I believe, can be limiting. I wanted my Zen garden to call me to a different way of approaching life.

It’s been over 20 years since I first created my Zen garden; and I now live in an apartment with no outdoor space for creating a garden of my own. What I have, however, is the memory and spirit of the garden within me. I remember the sand and stones so carefully arranged. I remember the wind chime, the lantern, and the meaning these elements held for me. I especially remember the empty bowl and the way it called me to a deeper level of receptiveness to life the way it is and to what it can be. I’ve experienced many disappointments and challenges since I first developed my Zen garden many years ago. The benefits of having developed it, however, include the deepening understanding that what’s given is a part of the overall design and purpose of one’s life. A Zen garden isn’t designed to produce food to be eaten or flowers to be picked. It’s designed to help us grow. My garden has done this, and for that, I am grateful.

If you’d like to develop a Zen garden of your own, the following suggestions might be helpful.

Keep it simple. This suggestion may be one of the most important suggestions to follow, as simplicity is one of the basic design principles. Keeping it simple will not only honor this principle, but will also promote a sense of sereneness within yourself.

Keep your garden modest and unpretentious. The purpose of a Zen garden isn’t to impress anyone. It’s to promote introspection and mindfulness. If you include plants, choose ones that aren’t excessively bright or colorful. Keep the same unpretentiousness in mind as you look for one or more items to use as focal points.

Keep your garden clean and uncluttered. Weeds will try to grow, and leaves will likely find their way into the garden. Spend some time removing the weeds and debris, as they can become distractions. Remember, though, you’re keeping the garden clean—not to impress anyone—but to keep the space conducive to meditation. A cluttered garden, like a cluttered mind, can distract from contemplation.

Enjoy the process; not just the product. Having a Zen garden is not the same as Zen gardening. A Zen garden is a place; Zen gardening is a verb, an action. Zen gardening includes the process of going deeper into one’s life and making stronger connections with the world around you. The focus of a Zen garden isn’t just the place where it’s located. The focus is within you and all round you. With this focus, magical happenings are given a chance to grow.

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