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Build a Compassion Cell Garden

Courtesy Kevin Anderson

Do you accept the challenge to take a walk and take a stand? The compassion cell garden blends nature, reflection, and a charge to spread compassion through your world.

For those of us not affected directly by violence, a percentage of whatever measure of peace and joy we find in life is taxed away by ever-present news of senseless slaughter.

Terror’s nightmarish images linger in our souls like the stench of dead fish washed up on a gorgeous beach. We live with anxious anticipation of the next tragic headline and fear that the world might ultimately descend into crazier and scarier scenarios. It’s easy to feel helpless.

All the news about terror cells made me reflect on the human biological system. When harmful cells enter the bloodstream, they are swarmed by helpful cells.

I imagine a world in which human beings join together in a worldwide immune system response, acting as compassion cells.

To make this dream a bit more real, I designed what I call a compassion cell garden. I built it with my wife and children in our backyard. A few years earlier, I’d simply mowed the shape of it in the yard to get a sense of whether I’d be crazy to build it. That version, the kids said, looked like some sort of crop circle. I think it’s come a long way since then.

When I spend quiet time in our compassion cell garden, I experience what I suspect the Roman philosopher Juvenal felt when he wrote: “Never does Nature say one thing and wisdom another.”

As a poet and psychologist, everything for me has two levels of meaning: manifest and symbolic. On the manifest level, the compassion cell garden is a beautiful setting for walking meditation, quiet journaling, or coffee and conversation with a friend. I love watching the day’s first rays of sun light up the water vapor steaming off the pond on a crisp morning. I smile when I see a frog hop into the pond. We didn’t see their kind around in the twenty years prior to building the pond—an amphibious version of “build it and they will come.” The sound of the babbling fountain seems to calm my brain and remind it that my species was drinking from streams for millions of years before we invented bottled water. As wonderful as all of that is, it was the symbolic level that motivated the creation of the garden.

The compassion cell garden seen through a drone’s camera lens speaks to me of the oneness of all human beings. From the drone’s higher vantage point, the 16 gardens around the central fountain and pond symbolize the many nations, cultures, races, and religions of the world. The aerial view of the garden shows that humanity’s sub- groups are separated by our different pathways. Only when we lift our perspective above our own group consciousness can we see the beauty of the whole and realize that all of our paths emanate from a central oneness.

How we treat ourselves, our intimate partners, our children, and the people we work for or with are the primary ways we can be a compassion cell in our troubled world. Every individual, couple, family, religious community, business, and civic group can choose to be a small part contributing to the good of the whole, a compassion cell in humanity’s immune system response to terror.

I invite people all over the world to consider building a compassion cell garden in their yards, on their church grounds, or in local parks. If even one person reading this article decides to build a compassion cell garden, then my theory that the spiritual work we do at the center of our lives can ripple out to the world will be validated—and so will all the time and sweat that went into creating our garden! Consider that an invitation and a challenge—and please email me pictures when you build your garden.

  • The fountain at the garden’s center symbolizes self-compassion. If I cannot practice kindness and gentleness with myself, I will not spill over with abundant compassion for the rest of human-kind. Self-compassion is the central energy source for any contribution I can make to a more peaceful world.
  • The pond around the fountain represents the inner circle of my life—my wife, children, extended family, and friends. We hope our closest relationships will be our haven in a chaotic world, but they are sometimes the hardest place to practice compassion.
  • The first ring of gardens beyond the pond represents the next layer of my life—the people I can impact in my work and my small social circles. When I walk that part of the garden, I am reminded that the world is not best divided into “loved ones” and “not loved ones.”
  • The outer ring of gardens represents the larger groups to which I belong—my city, nation, religious tradition, and so on.
  • The mown pathways that extend beyond the garden’s outermost circle represent how the self-compassion I cultivate at the center can ripple out not only to those in my inner circle, to those I work with, and to people in larger groups that are part of my identity, but to the whole world.
  • I imagine the paths extending beyond the garden to be rays going out from the light of compassion I want to be in the world.

Read Kevin's Compassion Cell Credo.

Compassion Cell Garden From Above

This drone photo shows the garden in full bloom before the central garden was replaced with a bubbling fountain.