Updated: Jul 13
By Paul Fetler
I have never forgotten when I first read Swami Kriyananda’s book, The Path, the story about when his master Paramhansa Yogananda cried out to some monks who were apparently too rough in moving a delicate but cumbersome tropical plant, “Be careful what you are doing. Can’t you feel? It’s alive!”
It reminded me of a potent life lesson I had received in my early twenties.
Preparing the Soil
More than thirty years ago, I spent a few weeks house-sitting in an old Craftsman house for a warm-hearted bohemian woman nearly three times my age that I had befriended through mutual friends. Sage was a free-spirited soul, who often wore a headband, boots with embroidered flower designs, and took care of animals, including a scruffy sheepdog, rabbits, and many feral cats.
Before she went out of town, she carefully went over the feeding of the animals, but gave little explanation of care for the plants. We both naively “assumed” I knew how to care for them.
When she arrived back, surveying the large assortment of the plants in stages of neglect in the backyard – I had spaced out and did a poor job tending to them, she was furious.
“Oh no, no, not the rare bonsai tree! It’s dead now and I’ve spent years raising it,” my friend Sage said in horror.
“Paul, try to understand that these are living things."
I felt horrible and apologized profusely. If I didn’t cry in front of her, I certainly did in private later.
After Sage simmered down, her compassion returned. She then briefly described to me the Zen teaching of surrendering the monkey mind and being in the moment with the natural flow of life.
The excruciating experience taught me the value of paying attention more sensitively to plants, animals, and all living things.
“I just don’t have a green thumb!” I rationalized to myself. The truth, of course, was that, having just graduated art school, my self-involved focus was elsewhere. I was feeling radioactively stressed with freelance work, emotional roller coasters and mental static. Her poor silent plants were not able to get a word in edgewise.
Fortunately, time proved my warped self-definition was not etched in stone. About fifteen years later, I was potting - and nurturing - a diverse variety of flowers with glowing colors in front of my apartment. Putting my fingers in soil and planting reawakened childhood memories of being in my dad’s backyard watching leaves growing little green balls, which became larger yellow, orange, and red tomatoes.
Patient and Loving
Paramhansa Yogananda suggested being patient and loving with our spiritual practice as if tending a garden. It has been deeply humbling, challenging, but over time reassuring, in meditation and other spiritual practices to be able work with and accept my nature. Letting go of the temptation to compare my growth with others: why try to compel a sunflower to become like an orchid or cactus? There have been countless life changing benefits in my increasing reliance on meditation and prayer to rise above “earthbound thinking” towards the sunlight of the guru’s divine love. Within this inner garden, if we don’t tend to it, as any relationship in life, it will wither. Not that God - or the guru - ever goes away. Rather, our living, breathing awareness of Spirit dries up.
Cultivating patience also includes not forcing growth on other beings, any more than overwatering a plant, or overfeeding with fertilizer. It requires an acceptance that each soul needs dignity in their own learning pace, even if we strongly disagree at times with their choices. This messy process includes those we are the most intimate with, such as our close associates and spouses. Being patient in such instances, of course, is often easier said than done. Transformation is greatly supported by being among others who are willing to be present and honest, have yogic tools to uproot harmful traits, and fertilize their consciousness with wise teachings.
Spirit, as Yogananda called the Divine Mother – all embracing - loves us entirely, regardless of how many mistakes we make. When open to being channels of Her love, we can feel Her nurturing power that waters beautiful expansion from the inside-out.
Rooted in Spirit
Wounds from the house-sitting drama did heal and friendship deepened with Sage. My spouse Willie and I even had our first commitment ceremony in the same backyard. Some years later, Sage - then in her late seventies- told me that when she was a little girl living in Los Angeles in the 1930’s– the master Yogagananda himself once came up to her at an outdoor restaurant and smilingly shared kind words with her. It seems our souls were more intertwined than I could have predicted and are indeed rooted in Spirit.