Aches and pains

Sundry aches and pains are perhaps the most common complaint for gardeners – due to the physicality of maintaining a garden and the potential for repetitive strain or just plain old injury – never mind the headache of greenfly.   Whatever the source or intensity there is help at hand but it is good to understand that pain is your body’s way of saying something is wrong, if you know that it is just the wrong lifting technique from earlier today or the wrong way the hammer just hit that thumb then ok reach from some natural ‘aspirin’ from the garden – but if you are not sure why you have stomach cramps or bad pain anywhere in the body then a visit to the GP is timely. 

Garden treatment:  The garden can produce many herbal analgesics (pain sensation suppressants), some best taken as herbal teas but also some that make great rubs or topical treatments. My favourite pain-relieving teas would be fennel seed – the seeds are magic bullets packed with at least 16 analgesic and 27 antispasmodic phytochemicals all yielding up into a cup of boiling water.

Liquorice root is also excellent with as much as 10 analgesic and 20 anti-inflammatory phytochemicals and you can’t beat meadowsweet tea hot or chilled.  Meadowsweet was the inspiration for aspirin – in fact the word “aspirin” takes its middle letters from meadowsweet’s old botanical name “Spiraea Ulmaria” – and its similar compounds shut down pain receptors in a similar manner to the drug.

Feverfew as the name suggests lowers fevers but it also decreases the frequency and intensity of migraines and other headaches. Borage, evening primrose and black currants are potent sources of pain dampening Gamma-linolenic acid. Daylily flowers are edible and a tea of the petals is slightly sedative and somewhat analgesic – used for pain relief in the ethnobotany of its indigenous growing regions.

While topically, arnica- long lorded for shrinking bruises -with its phytochemical compound helenin, delivers analgesic and anti-inflammatory results and then there is the classic wintergreen is even to be found in OTC creams from muscle and backache. 

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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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seeds of mindfulness 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

Therapeutic gardening at its best and most enjoyable‘ – Bord Bia 

Available from all good bookstores on online retailers and via https://store.doverpublications.com/0486845389.html

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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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