I learned something new about agriculture yesterday (most things I might learn about agriculture will be new to me…). It was that there is a method of farming that rejects the tilling of the ground on the basis that the soil retains more of its nutrients when it is not disturbed. This approach also helps prevent erosion and increases the retention of moisture.
Given that ‘cultivation’ is a metaphor we use in the spiritual life, I was drawn to the idea of an uncultivated field as a different kind of metaphor for spiritual growth. In addition, I am always drawn to the cluster of metaphors around ash, dust, soil and dirt that are so prevalent on Ash Wednesday. So here goes with a bit of metaphor-stretching:
What if we turn away from ideas of the purification of the soul by removing the weeds that infest it towards an idea of the retention of all of our ‘organic matter’ – our dirt and soil – because we recognise it to be the fertile ground of our lives? Might it not be healthier for us to look towards an integration of all that we are, our faults and misdeeds included, rather than seeking a purgation of those elements of ourselves we judge to be ‘dirty’? I see a couple of good reasons for doing this. One is that we don’t always know for sure what is dirt and what is fertile soil, or what is wheat and what is weed. There may be an experience of wrongdoing that tells us something rather important about ourselves. Another is that self-judgement can easily lead to self-hatred, and I wonder how easy it is to forgive others when we can’t forgive ourselves.
Another dimension of this metaphor of an untilled field is that it suggests an approach to the spiritual life that is not over-concerned with method or refinement. The spiritual mind is our natural mind and we allow that natural mind to do its thing by letting it get on with the business of ‘minding’, ie paying attention. The Zen teacher Irmgard Schloegl was fond of the idea of ‘gentling’:
‘There clings an aspect of primitive wildness to the heart which is in need of taming, gentling, and transforming to that which it is by nature’ (The Zen Way, p.62)
For no-till agriculture is still agriculture – it requires some activity to allow the soil to be what it is by nature. Our spiritual practice, which gets an extra focus during Lent, might then be concerned with the ‘activity’ of simply letting the fertile field of our lives be what it is. It does not need forceful intervention, it just needs our attention, a quality of mind that is accepting, open and still.