At Zen temples, in medieval monasteries , and in modern day retreat centers, gardens have played a key role in spiritual practice. Uplifting, calming, healing places where humans and natural forces work in harmony to create beauty—these sanctuaries invite meditation and prayer.
Recently I attended a retreat at “The Abode of the Message—an Eco-Sufi village” (www.theabode.org) and wandered into an herb garden that carried me right into the spirit of sanctuary. The retreat, called “Emerald Earth,” was guided by the leaders of Ziraat—Sufi teachings which directly connect spiritual development with nature. (See: ziraat.org,) The retreat center and the Inayati Sufi path with which it is connected, look to the great Sufi mystic, Hazrat Inayat Khan, as well as to his son and grandson as spiritual guides. Among the tenets or “Ten Sufi thoughts” of Hazrat Inayat Khan (inayatiorder.org)— “There is one holy book, the sacred manuscript of nature…” In the herb garden I encountered small and weathered signs among the flowers and culinary herb beds bearing other aphorisms from the mystic, among them: “I feel Thy Presence in this landscape, which draws my heart so close to Thee.”
When I visited, it was early May and the Green was just beginning to flourish; behind the garden, trees unfolding new leaves were filled with birdsong. As I walked the garden paths, I felt peace, but also liveliness, purpose, and the embrace of Something gentle and wise.
Between sitting-meditation practices, Not only could I walk in the garden, but also had the opportunity to interview its primary keepers—Nizam and Regina, who told me about the garden’s history and its present day functions.
The Abode of the Message is over four decades old, and the garden was begun early in its history. Its distinctive design is thanks to Melissa Clare, a visionary Sufi healer who now practices Plant Spirit Medicine. (www.bluedeer.org/teachers/melissa-clare) The present gardeners have been inspired and guided by her. The two of them of described for me Melissa’s vision for what she named “the Joyous Garden of Healing.” Melissa felt that while the garden would certainly produce medicinal herbs for teas, the primary source of healing would come from just being in the garden: breathing its fragrances, taking in its beauty, feeling the presence of the spiritual beings there, being uplifted by joy. Among the herb beds are ornamentals like peonies and magnolias, just for beauty, and giving the feel of an English country garden.
Beneath the corners of the garden, large crystals are buried, emanating healing energies. And the layout of the garden is full of symbolism. At one end of the rectangular plot an octagon of rose bushes encloses an open lawn, at the other end plantings, paths, and stones delineate the Sufi symbol of a heart with wings. The heart contains a star above a crescent moon, giving us the thought that the receptive heart, open to the divine light of spirit, becomes winged. I asked about the specific plantings in this section, as the crescent moon filled with silvery Artemisia seemed so apt. Nizam said the plants here change over the years, but always in the center of the heart is a Rose, with lavender, under which is buried a crystal.
The rose octagon is contained by a larger square, in each corner of which is a mini-garden representing one of the four elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. Practices with the elements are an important spiritual component of Ziraat—see Purification Breaths of the Elements In the Water garden, there is a little pool circled by rocks, water-loving plants, and blue-flowering plants. In the Fire garden are many spiky plants that seem to reach upward, and plants that flourish in full summer. The Air corner includes a bird-bath to welcome the winged ones and a big airy, blossomy Baby’s Breath. The plants of the elemental gardens are chosen for their colors and their gestures, but also for their energies. The gardeners listen to the plants to feel where they want to belong. In the Earth corner, are growing strong medicinal plants like elecampane. Between the Earth and Water gardens lies a swampy area, where they have planted healing plants that “like to be wet:” Angelica, Ginger, Primrose, Swamp Milkweed. Both Regina and Nizam feel strongly about growing medicinal plants, to meet the needs of our times. “I like having representatives of all the different herbs, their essence, their presence. I know this was in Melissa’s heart and mind,” said Nizam.
The 18th century settlers of this part of New York were Shakers, who themselves set up a spiritual community and cultivated the medicinal herbs which made the remedies sold in the first pharmacies here. Nizam got a grant to research and cultivate the herbs grown by the Shakers, and thus their legacy has also found its way into the healing garden.
So—how has this Joyous Garden, rich in symbolism as well as in diversity of plants, served as a sanctuary?
It turns out that from the beginning, Melissa had insisted that part of the garden always remain wild, to make accommodation for the Nature Beings and the Fairies. As well, there are many animal visitors to the garden. Woodchucks, moles, frogs, snakes, many birds and many insects come on in from the neighboring woods. How are they received by the gardeners?
“We talk to them, sometimes put them on a shovel and relocate them, otherwise let them be.”
Before setting shovel to ground, the gardeners pray that they shall “first, do no harm.”
As to the human visitors— people who come for retreats, or to investigate the eco-village are encouraged to take their morning tea or coffee and just go sit in the sanctuary. Those who come on a work-study program find their lives changed by working in the garden. On the lawn within the rose-octagon, sacred ceremonies are held: Ziraat ceremonies on the new moons, weddings, spiritual initiations. Sometimes there is music and dancing there. A group of friends gathered annually in the garden, in memory of a beloved friend and teacher. Solitary individuals come to meditate or do yoga. Sometimes guests are sent away with seeds or living plants from the garden, to carry its blessings out into the wider world. It seems everyone goes away with something, even if that is a secret carried deep in the heart.