The Garden Teaches Managed Attention

There is a lot going on within a garden. It may even contain more than one ecosystem—a pond, a wild meadow patch, trees, ornamental borders, and a kitchen garden. There is upkeep for all of them and the infrastructure too—paving to be kept moss- or weed-free, benches and seats to be kept rot- or rust-free, and trellis or supports to be maintained. Attention and diligence are required. We gardeners learn to pay attention to all areas and prioritize our focus and activities too.

When we step into the garden, there may be more than one need competing for our attention. We can triage plants into water now, catch before we finish, deadhead now, prune later, remove pests now, and add frost protection before we wrap up. The wind-rocked, newly planted shrub gets priority over a slightly shaggy lawn. The weed about to flower—or, worse, disperse its seed—gets the “next” before the squeaky shed door gets the oiling.

On one level it is common sense, but it’s also a catchment of your experience—you know that if you don’t water the wilted plant, it could be set back detrimentally or even die overnight. You know that not bringing the tenders in before the heavy frost may mean losses. All this previous experience creates effectiveness. All this repeat effectiveness strengthens our effectiveness response and brings that potential to other aspects of our lives.

People who struggle with efficiency have an issue with prioritizing what needs to be addressed or seeing the forest for the trees. The garden—and its constant elicitation of managed attention—trains a clarity with regard to need and even crisis. We gardeners are fixers. We are prioritizers by nurture and, soon enough, by nature. In a crisis, we quickly spot that, yes, it’s a good idea to fire a flare gun, but instead of everybody waving to the horizon and shouting “Help!,” it’s better if the majority of hands tend to the leaky boat. The longer one stays afloat, the less likely one is to go under before rescue.

In a garden, a workplace, a domestic crisis, or a life-threatening circumstance, with so many stimuli competing for attention, the survival protocol is effectiveness. Part of that is knowing what to do, but a lot of it is seeing clearly. Mindfulness is seeing clearly without panic— mindfulness is focusing your managed attention to the now. When problems arise, managed attention leads to managed action—and that may lead to more than survival of a wilted herb container.

To discover more ways that the garden can improve our psychology, cognitive function and life dynamics – check out my latest book (all good bookstores now)

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new book

Gardening is a natural provider of mindfulness and well-being: it relieves stress, enlivens the senses, focuses the mind, energizes the body, opens the heart, and radiates from the soul.

My new book ‘seeds of mindfulness’ explores the opportunities of gardening to deliver many of the same psychological benefits of mindfulness and includes ways to incorporate mindfulness, relaxation meditations and focused attention exercises into daily gardening activities.   

Never has the garden been such a solace… a timely read.” – Irish Examiner

To mindfully garden is both deeply enriching and easy to achieve. In this delightful and beautifully designed book, Fiann Ó Nualláin compiles more than 100 mindful gardening moments to inspire the combination of a spiritual practice with a favorite pastime.” – Ixia Press

Available from all good bookstores on online retailers and via

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Finding peace in silence.

The simple fact is that our central nervous system is hardwired to respond to sound, in part as an early warning defence mechanism (listening for danger cues) and in part as a way of reading the landscape and finding surety and shelter in our surroundings (listening for safety cues). So a predator’s growl or a snapping stick behind us may trigger the flight or fight response but so too a gentle rustle of the trees or a babbling brook may quickly flick ‘the at home and safe’ switch.

In the modern world a car horn, house alarm or loud mouth across the street may replace the predator growl but no less trigger the same rise in heart rate and blood pressure and on the flip side of the coin, some pleasant music may stand in lieu of a babbling brook and release those pleasant hormones. The garden can present more gentle background noises, ones conducive to feeling a part of nature, of being at home in nature – the swish of plants, a soothing water feature, bird song, the industry of bees etc and ok the occasions of noisy neighbours or traffic sounds over your fence aside, it can be a very settling experience to just hear the garden. To allow its soothing signals to wash peace over us.

Is it true silence – the absence of noise – no, or at least not often – the debate is, is there such a thing – but it is a close approximation in the deliverance of serenity and it is the serenity that we often call silence, it is not the hearing, it is the surrender or the feeling.

We gardeners often tend in silence and get so deeply engrossed in our work that noise in the moment is filtered out of our consciousness but even when not aware of the sounds around us, the stimuli is still there and the hormones correspond. For the most part the garden is the absence of agitating noise. We natural come to peace with it. We don’t fear the silence as a greater absence, we don’t feel alone in it, we are at one with it.

Mindful meditations, spiritual contemplations, even many psychological exercises all seek to enable a peace with silence, a confidence in aloneness, an embracement of at oneness. And here it is, naturally abundant in the garden.

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Weeding negative prejudices.

Weeding is the perennial chore, but perhaps the most essential, as weeds compete for the resources that our ornamental and edible plants need to survive and thrive – weeds deplete water, nutrients and in several cases even light. I think of it not so much as a tiresome chore but as vigilance in my intent to have a healthy and awesome garden – and by awesome I don’t just mean beautiful, I mean awe-generating.

The old Gardener’s proverb of ‘One year’s seeding, seven years weeding’ reminds us of how important vigilance is when it comes to keeping on top of the pernicious. So too with our prejudices and false or flawed assumptions – about ourselves or about others. Weed those with equal care and let your soul and higher spirit flourish. Weed those negative opinions and unhealthy beliefs with equal diligence and let the resources of your mental energy and ‘better self’ go toward cultivating more compassion, more loving kindness and stronger interconnection.

To weed negative thoughts is to let them be uprooted, not let them root down deeper. We can acknowledge the negative thought, let it come to the surface, recognize it is negative and let it be discarded. Just as we have practiced letting thoughts arise and pass in meditation, so too with negative thoughts in our daily life, we simply won’t attach ourselves, feed it or favour it. Let it come to the surface, exposed now to the light and reality, divested of your energies and concern.. they will wither on their own. Even the stubborn, repetitively sprouting ones will eventually succumb.

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The Lotus Sutra.

The lotus has been identified as a sacred plant in more than one region/religion because it is grounded in the muck but aspires its head to the heavens – just like many a gardener I know.

Perhaps the most important sacred scripture of Buddhism is the Lotus sutra – its core message is that Buddhahood or the enlightened self which is characterized by boundless compassion, courage and wisdom is possible and indeed inherent within everyone, without distinction of gender, ethnicity, social standing, educational opportunities, or other extraneous differences – one does not need to be white robed and aloof, spotless in virtue and fingernails, some of us with mucky boots get there too.

The Lotus Sutra teaches active engagement with mundane life for there too is the spiritual life, there too is enlightenment to be sparked. To live a good life is to live through life with all its challenges. Every human life, with all of its own unique circumstances and universal experience is spiritual life. Each one of us is the seed of enlightenment. It is inevitable, we will germinate when conditions are right, we will bloom and set more seed.

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Cultivating decisiveness

You may have heard of the old idiom ‘live horse, get grass’ meaning if you can only hang on, what you desperately need may come your way – but hanging on may be too long a wait. I prefer ‘live horse, find a less barren field’. The waiting, the procrastination, that may end up wandering into Buridan’s ass territory. Buridan’s ass is a parable of sorts, to expose the potential dilemma when one is presented with two equally attractive and attainable alternatives and therefore loses freedom of choice. So it goes – there is a hungry donkey who is equidistant between two bales of hay but can’t decide which one he should eat, and while he tries to make up his mind, dithering and hesitating, reevaluating and second guessing, he starves to death. Mindfulness can make you more decisive, help you to see clearly that the choice is to live a full life, to filter out the distraction between two equal bales and just go chew on one – the mission is to eat and live, not ponder oneself to distraction or death. Mindfulness is getting on with it. Dead heading is getting on with it, pulling weeds is getting on with it, planting bulbs is getting on with it, gardening is getting on with it. We don’t have the luxury or impulse to procrastinate in the garden, don’t pull the weed then soon there is a whole garden of weeds, don’t plant the bulbs and there is no joyous spring display. Gardening teaches us our capacity to get on with on. Mindfulness enhance that focus and capacity. Mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance of challenging circumstances – it is a practice that helps us be present and alert to the reality of the moment, to the necessity of the moment, to see it for what it is and to get on with what needs doing – or being. Yes, it is good to know and appreciate, that we cultivate that.

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How to be still.

Stillness in a physical sense is as important a function of tension release and self-nourishment as any quietening of the mind may be. It is the letting go of endeavour, the ceasing of striving, the release into a grounded serenity. This deliberate slowing down or letting go of activity is just as effective in easing the minds turmoil as mental techniques of calming and self-soothing. So just stop a moment, still yourself in a moment to moment experience of not having to do, of simply being – of simply being still.

Just stop what you are doing and don’t move about for a few moments, have a time out. You can stand still, lean on your spade, sit calmly, kneel quietly, hold that downward dog or even play statues. Just stop. It’s something we gardeners often neglect to do. Just stop doing, let your physical self come to rest, restoration is here in these quiet time-outs, inner peace may manifest or thoughts may arise, if so, they can be acknowledged and allowed to pass on, the aim here is to just rest the body, to centre the self in some moments of not doing. It doesn’t have to become a meditation to quell thoughts, daydream if you wish, survey the delights of the garden, hear the bird song, make a wish, just let your body be.

Yes, we can use managed stillness in attaining rewarding meditations, yes, we can use perfected meditations to slow our anxieties or quickly transport us to an enriched sense of self, but simple time outs are just as valid. Yes, a stillness can be a prayer, yes, a stillness can be a recharging of your energies, Yes, it can be a gathering of your thoughts or a letting go of your woes, it can be many things the trick is to do nothing and let the something happen without effort. Stillness is acceptance, stillness is loving kindness, stillness is yes.

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The oldest preoccupations.

Don’t fear your fear, it is nothing but a long evolved chemical reaction. You don’t have to kneejerk to it or stay in it, just see it for what it is – a true warning sign or just a miss-ping on the radar. If you are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve then you will easily ken the proverb ‘once bitten twice shy’ – not just the problem of the fruit but the snakes in the grass. Ever since, they say, man and woman’s prime preoccupation has been ‘looking out for danger’.

Sure, in the concrete jungle we may scan for cyclists before we cross the road as much as for crocodiles before we wade into the river. And a dark alleyway may ping the same chemistry as a newly found cave. Danger ever lurks – at least in the human brain, if not in reality. We humans have evolved to be risk assessors – the risk takers predominately got edited out of the gene pool; so much so that risk taking or sensation seeking are now hallmarks of psychosis.

Fear of the unknown is natural. But we evolved art and storytelling to pass the wisdom, to dispel the fear or least guide the cautions. We made maps and later even zebra crossings. Fear can be managed – of course it can also be confronted.

Not every seed will germinate, pests and diseases will come, frost will harm and sun may damage. The garden may not teach us to be fearless, but it can teach us to get over setbacks, to take it all in our stride, to keep going, to fear less.

We who garden, cultivate perseverance – the second oldest preoccupation and the antidote to sour grapes and bad apples. Yes we can fear less, yes we can persist more.

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The garden as therapeutic space.

In the field of social and therapeutic horticulture, many people come to gardening as a break from stress, anxiety and fear, to break from those harmful preoccupations by participation with a more natural engagement. Gardening is the perfect distraction, the place to get lost and lose your worries but it is also a safe place to engage with mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapeutics and other corrective methods to our harmful thought processes. It doesn’t just have to be happy place it can be contemplative too.

When I work the garden, I forget my woes but when I have woes that need attention and solving I often go to the garden to ponder over, I may weed as I go or I may just sit on the bench and get some perspective thinking in. Sometimes when you think the world is collapsing you need to flip the thought as way to asses its validity, to think ‘ok what is the evidence that the world is not collapsing’? Often just sitting in garden, with its natural rhythms, with all the knowledge of the effort it took to create and maintain, is the evidence of your personal perseverance and resilience. Here the world goes on, it is not collapsing. Here you have been useful, achieving, caring, attentive, productive – a good person. The evidence abounds.

So, as a relaxation space or contemplative space, the garden just gifts the therapeutic opportunity. Ones does not have to wait for the crisis to avail of it, but in a crisis it can help you recover and flourish.

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Maskne (facial covering related breakouts)

Certainly the stress of the new normal and the additional home snacking and comfort eating occasioned by covid circumstances is contributing to more skin complaints and in particular pimple and acne breakouts but the essential and lifesaving wearing of masks and facial coverings for prolonged periods is contributing its own complaint- to what dermatologists are dubbing “maskne”.

So while we have this new name “maskne”, it’s not a new condition, workers whom have long worn visors or facial PPE and sports people with helmets and face guards have been dealing for decades with this form of acne – known as acne mechanica – so the good news is we know how to treat it.

In essence it is a complication of the covering of the skin, so with medical masks and facial covering the breakouts tend to affect around the mouth, chin and bridge of nose – the pores beneath the reach of your mask being less aerated and more prone to friction and agitation, can become blocked by sweat, your natural oil secretions, and makeup, thus laying a seedbed for acne (which is bacterial in nature) to erupt – then the fact that we are breathing heat and moisture into the masks and across the contained skin’s surface fuels the activation and spread of the bacteria and more frequent breakouts.

There are a couple of steps we can take

Mask etiquette. Masks are essential to our fight against covid, it’s a problem we can’t ditch so quick but some mask etiquette will go a long way to prevention and faster recovery – a fresh mask each day or several changes over the course of a day will help, after each use dispose of your disposables or wash your renewables.

Face hygiene. You won’t have to wash your face as frequently as we all wash our hands now, but washing your face before you put a mask on and after you take it off will reduce the bacteria that causes the breakouts. Don’t use harsh soap or strong chemicals that can disrupt your skins barrier layer and only put it under more stress. A gentle soap and warm water will do the trick.

Cleansing regime. There is no need for hard exfoliation or strong peels, a big part of ‘maskne’ is the friction of the mask, so think gentle – let the skin recoup when not under the mask rather than trying scrubs and treatments. You can continue to cleanse but in a very soothing way – there are many natural cleansers that will soothe skin irritation while removing bacteria and excess sebum and simultaneously supply a gentle exfoliation of dead skin cells that may house the bacteria. Coconut oil, honey, dilute apple cider vinegar, oatmeal can all be utilized to cleanse and care for affected areas

The ‘go to’ supplement – Essential fatty acids are great to balance hormonal and stress triggered acne but also are very useful when topically applied, to inhibit bacterial growth and work against both infection and inflammation. One of the best is gamma-linolenic acid – potent in evening primrose oil, borage seed oil and black currant seed oil.

Other Garden aid – Cleaver juice is great for all types of skin eruptions. Witch hazel extract makes an excellent pore closer and cooled thyme tea is a natural cleanser with potent antibacterial properties.

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