What a Japanese Garden Taught Me about My Spiritual Life {and my closet}

JapaneseGarden3Ed

Lately I’ve been busy pruning. First I pruned my closet, keeping only the clothes I love and that fit (I finally parted ways with my favorite red pants because clearly “just three more pounds” is never going to happen).

Next I pruned my backyard, yanking errant coneflower, goldenrod and phlox from the flower beds and clipping dead branches and twigs from the river birch and magnolia trees. Eight leaf bags later, I now see open space and bits of sky and earth instead of a tangle of unruly branches and unkempt perennials.

I’ve altered my work space, too. I switched from the small antique letter desk I inherited from my grandmother to a larger table, removed all but three of my favorite knickknacks and wiped the surface clean.

A couple of weeks ago my family and I returned from a ten-day trip to the Pacific Northwest. We spent our last day of vacation at the Japanese Garden in Portland, Oregon, where our guide explained the gardening technique referred to as “pruning open.” She pointed to the various maples, pine and dogwood surrounding us, all of which had been dramatically pruned to reveal an aesthetic presentation of limbs, branches and foliage.

“Pruning open” allows the visitor to see up, out and beyond to the sky and landscape, our guide informed us. It creates a sense of openness and lets in the light.

JapaneseGarden2Ed

JapaneseGardenEd

As we meandered along one of the garden’s wooded paths, my son Noah noticed that everyone in our tour group whispered as they walked. In fact, every guest we passed during the more than two hours we spent in the garden that morning spoke in hushed tones. Something about being in such an uncluttered, serene landscape naturally quieted us.

I’ve thought a lot about the concept of “pruning open” in the days following our visit to the Japanese garden, not only as it relates to my physical surroundings – my yard, closet and workspace – but also how the practice might impact both my mental health and my spiritual life.

Like most twenty-first-century Americans, my days are cluttered with demands, responsibilities, deadlines, errands and appointments. My personal calendar is full of social obligations, and even my supposed down time is comprised of a cacophonous mix of television, the Internet and social media. My smart phone is always in my purse or my back pocket, and the moment it dings, I pull it out and swipe its face.

What would it look like, I wondered, to “prune open” not only my physical surroundings, but my personal time and my inner life, too?

In light of that question, I’m trying to carve out a bit of time each day, even as little as a half hour, in which I do nothing but sit quietly in the chaise lounge in the corner of my back patio. I leave my phone indoors, and I don’t read or write, text or talk. I simply sit with no goal, agenda or purpose. I do nothing, and in the process, unclutter my mind and spirit, at least for a short while.

We can’t “prune open” our entire lives; after all, we have jobs, families to tend to, demands to meet and duties to perform. But we can “prune open” a small space and a sliver of time each day in which to quiet ourselves – a clearing in the jumble and tangle of our busy lives that allows us to see up, out and beyond ourselves.

{This article ran June 27 in the Lincoln Journal Star}

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