I have title this message “cultivation” and I have a shameful confession to make - I have done nothing - literally nothing - with my small garden this year.
Any idea what happens to a garden that has not been cared for at all?
Well… Shakespeare had it right in Hamlet: “Tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.”
One of the important words in gardening is cultivation. Cultivation is preparing the soil, planting the seeds, thinning the seedlings, feeding, watering, weeding, and dealing with the inevitable onslaught of pests and diseases.
And all this cultivation is done for what? To produce a certain result - to guide the fertility of the earth and air and rain and sun in a particular direction.
A lack of cultivation does not lead to no plants, as my neglected garden proves. I've got a tomato plant that grew from a hardy seed dropped from an overripe fruit last year. There is some mint that refuses to be killed no matter how badly it is treated.
But mostly there are those things that Shakespeare called “things rank and gross in nature.” They are there - insistent - invasive - resilient. We call them weeds. It’s not that they are all bad, but they are certainly unplanned, uninvited, and if they are in any way beneficial, it is purely by chance rather than intention.
Of course, the other meaning of cultivation is how we ourselves grow. When I talk about our own growth, I sometimes wonder if there is a point where it stops. Is there the human equivalent of the mature forest that - having passed through many stages over the centuries - has now become more or less unchanging. Its becoming is done.
Are you done?
I remember being certain that my parents were done - and they were much younger than I am today. They knew so much. While I was learning to walk and talk and read and write on my own, they seemed unchanging. Mature. Complete.
I thought then that being an adult meant being done with growing - that there would come a time when I would be pronounced "grown up" and then there would be no more of this changing my mind. No more learning. No more epiphanies. No more new skills. Not only would I be called done, I would in fact be done. I would feel done.
I have not grown up yet, apparently. Or, more likely, growing up is not entering a state of being finished.
My whole life, I’ve changed and grown. Some of those changes have been subtle and some have changed my life in dramatic ways.
Sometimes we are deliberate about changing and growing. I've taken classes, exercised, changed my diet, read a book that took me in a new direction, or taken steps to learn a new skill.
More often though, change and growth happen in our lives without a plan. This kind of growth is many times the kind of growth that hurts even if it is ultimately beneficial. We must sometimes get rid of something old and comfortable to make space for something new and better.
Of course, we can't change everything about ourselves, but there is a great deal we can affect.
You can’t make yourself taller or shorter, but you can change in the horizontal dimension!
You can’t increase the memory capacity of your brain (yet) but you can decide what to put in it.
You can’t change your innate musical talent, but you can learn to play an instrument or several.
You can’t change the structure of your face, but you can change the way people see you. A smile can be more attractive than perfect cheekbones or piercing blue eyes.
Think of all the things you have changed for the better throughout your life - sometimes deliberately and sometimes as a result of uninvited events. You may have learned to play a sport, speak a language, understand a different culture, care for children, heal the sick, or mediate disputes. You may have become more compassionate, more kind, more understanding, or more open.
And you - like I have - have sometimes changed for the worse - becoming more fearful, more angry, more impatient and so on.
We change and we will continue to change. The question that each of us must answer is whether we want to guide that change or, like my garden, let whatever happens happen. We each have the opportunity to cultivate something within ourselves instead of allowing whatever seeds come along to germinate and take root.
If we do want to guide our change more deliberately, what direction will we choose? Do we want to cultivate courgettes of compassion, asparagus of acceptance, rhubarb or resilience?
Two weeks ago today, I invited people to name people they admire and to consider what that says about the qualities we might want to cultivate in ourselves. The following day, a lovely group of people met with me to help plan for today and we enlarged the list still more.
What we all came up with is on the back of your order of service. I’d love to have you read this list…
Are there other qualities you'd like to mention?
How many of you have noticed one or more qualities that resonates with you - qualities that you could see as important goals in your own life?
If none of these seems right for you and you don’t have something else in mind, I’d suggest you think about what bothers you most in your day-to-day life. And then, turn that around and ask what quality could be the antidote. If you suffer with anger, you may want to cultivate compassion. If you suffer with distraction, you may want to cultivate mindfulness. If you suffer with fear, cultivate courage.
Ramadan begins in two weeks. You may be most aware of what observant Muslims give up during Ramadan - especially food and drink during the day. But Ramadan is about much more than what is given up. To a great extent, it is about personal and communal change. During the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslims engage in practices that encourage them to be more generous, more grateful, more compassionate, more faithful, and more connected to loved ones.
What we do changes us. We become what we do.
More giving during Ramadan cultivates generosity. abstaining from food and drink during the day and engaging in the practice of prayer help to cultivate greater appreciation and gratitude. The joyful family gatherings after sunset each day cultivate greater connection.
During the month of Ramadan, New Unity is marking Ramadan in our own way. You are invited to join other New Unity friends in a time of cultivation - choosing to be deliberate about what you wish to cultivate in yourself and committing to practices that will get you there.
We are always becoming. When we are not deliberate about what we do, we become what we do nonetheless. Often we do quite the opposite of what we are hoping to cultivate. We may want the world to satisfy us and yet we practice dissatisfaction. The tube is not fast enough. The wait for the bus is too long. The weather is too cold or - 4 degrees higher - too hot.
We may want to understand others and yet we practice talking instead of listening.
We become what we do. What will you do next month to guide what you are becoming?
Next week, with Claire MacDonald leading the morning and evening gatherings, there will be an opportunity to focus on practices. The first step, today, is to consider what it is you wish to cultivate in yourself.