Easwaran’s Talks & Writings

The Field & the Garden

By Eknath Easwaran

In India we have a story about a man who was asked his occupation. The man replied, “Farmer.”

“You don’t look like a farmer,” he was told. “How much land do you have?”

“Five and a half feet.”

There was a loud laugh. “How much can you raise in five and a half feet of land?”

“This is very special soil;” the man replied. “This body is my field. My thoughts and actions are the seeds, and karma, good and bad, is the harvest.”

The Gita is using the same image. Body and personality, it says, are very much like a farmer’s field. In the soil of the mind we sow thoughts: desires, hopes, fears, resentments, and so on. There they take root and grow – into habits, attitudes, personality traits, patterns of responding to the world around us. And these finally bear fruit on the physical level, particularly in our health. That is the meaning of the much misunderstood word karma, which this whole volume will explore.

Sri Krishna begins by pointing out that we are not the field we till. Put that way, it sounds absurdly simple. Yet if someone asks us who we are, most of us point to our bodies. “This is me– five foot eight, one hundred thirty pounds, brown skin, not very luxuriant hair on the head.” Sri Krishna would object, “That’s not you. That’s your field, your little garden. You are the gardener.” To me this is a most comfortable way of looking on my body: a handkerchief kitchen garden, just the right size for my needs and abilities. I can appreciate other people’s gardens, but I like mine as it is; what would I do with someone else’s? So I take very good care of my body-garden: but I never believe that this is who I am.

I have a friend, Steve, with a talent for gardening. Every day after work in spring and summer he takes his children out to their large backyard to plant vegetables and flowers, and he lets them do a lot of the planning. The last time I visited, I saw none of the straight rows and tidy signs of a conventional grown up garden. Instead I found all kinds of twisted paths – Beet Boulevard, Carrot Corners, Artichoke Alley – making leafy, colorful designs through the yard. By August the garden was as lush and dense as the jungle in India near which I grew up. I was unable to locate anything there. But the children knew just where to find the reddest tomatoes and the sweetest snap peas, and just where to hide too. Their teepee of scarlet runner beans was so thick that all four could huddle inside without a grown-up ever seeing them.

Steve knows that garden too. With a taste he can tell if the soil lacks anything. He knows the nuances of sunlight, temperature, runoff, and mineral content from place to place, and how each plant affects the others around it. He and the children are able to bring me gifts of their finest produce all summer long.

But imagine what would happen if Steve believed he is his garden. I don’t think he would know that plot of land at all. He wouldn’t like being dug into and turned over with a spade; and as a result, the soil wouldn’t get cultivated. He would object strenuously to people planting vegetables in him that he did not like. If somebody criticized his soil, he would take it personally and feel people were insulting him. And suppose he didn’t enjoy children poking their fingers into him? All in all, that garden would do rather poorly. There would be no way for Steve to stand outside himself and see the garden objectively, no way to evaluate what it needed and what would do it harm.

Each of us goes through the day making a very similar mistake. We believe we are the body; we believe we are our mind. The consequences are disastrous. To the extent that we identify ourselves with the body, we are constrained to define happiness by what the body and senses find pleasant. It is a definition that excludes a good deal of life, especially as the body grows older. We might eat too much, or eat what is not healthful, simply for the sake of taste. We might smoke, drink, or take drugs because we find the sensations stimulating; we might fail to get enough exercise because inertia seems more pleasant than activity. Or we might spend all our time thinking about the body, trying to reform our complexion with queen bee preparations or to improve the definition of our biceps, as if who we are depended on how we look. All this can only make us more insecure. The body has to age and change and die. When we think that is all we are, the passage of time becomes a terrible burden.

In other words, unless you know that you are not this garden of body and mind, how can you cultivate it? You can have very little control. That is the essential message of this verse. But there is a deeper implication that should be spelled out too: that body and mind are not separate, but two aspects of the same field. The medical implications alone are far-reaching enough to shatter our conventional ideas of health and aging. 

With all the progress of science over the last two centuries, modern civilization has reached a stage where almost all of us believe there is nothing more to life than the physical, biochemical level. Even thought is currently held to be reducible to electro- physiological events. This is the lowest possible view we can take of life, particularly of the human being. It is like thinking there is nothing to your garden except its harvests: no soil, no seeds, no nutrients, not even any roots. Plants simply adhere somehow to the surface of the earth, no one knows how, and we get good or bad harvests by chance. Our knowledge of the physical world amounts to the discovery that apple trees, to a statistically reliable degree, can be counted on to produce apples rather than pears or any other fruit; that is all.

Now, this is useful information, I agree. But a botanist would not be impressed. “If you think that’s useful,” she might say, “let me tell you about seeds and soil. Those little black things inside the apple are seeds. If you plant them in the right kind of soil and take care of them, you’ll get more apples– every time.” Imagine the significance of this kind of knowledge if you had never known about seeds! You would realize that you had never scratched the surface of gardening. It is the same with the garden of body and mind, which are as intimately connected as fruit and seed. When you see the way thoughts and desires grow into hard, physical conditions, and how surely a certain kind of thought leads to a certain kind of action, you will feel you have scarcely scratched the surface of life.

A cave man, I imagine, might not know about anything but harvests. He likes apples and knows how to pick them, but he doesn’t know there is any relationship between seeds and plants: after all, they look utterly different. And he doesn’t know there is any relationship between the apple he eats and the soil, rain, sunlight, and so on by which it grew. He has all kinds of seeds lying around – apples, thistles, pigweed, pansies – but they are so tiny, so insignificant, that he doesn’t pay any attention to them. If the apple seeds lie on clay and the thistle seeds in well-drained humus, what does it matter?

The person who thinks there is no more to a human being than the physical body is in a very similar situation. What does it matter to his body, his health, what thoughts he thinks? He thinks what he likes, waters his thoughts with a lot of attention, and after many years – for thoughts do grow slowly – he begins to suffer a few physical ailments, which look no more like a thought than an oak tree looks like an acorn.

“All that we are;” the Buddha says, “is the result of what we have thought.” He means even physically, as I can try to illustrate. Suppose a person is habitually resentful: that is, he frequently responds to unfavorable circumstances by thinking resentful thoughts about the people involved. Many unfavorable consequences follow from this, but here I want to look only at those that affect bodily health. Those thoughts are seeds; if he keeps on sowing them, and particularly if he keeps on watering and feeding them with his attention by brooding over them, they have to begin to germinate. All this takes place in the soil of the mind, out of sight. But after a while, if favorable conditions persist, those seeds of resentment sprout. In the language of medicine, the physiological correlates of resentment – stomach tension, elevated blood pressure, and so on – become a habitual conditioned response, which any adverse circumstance can trigger.

This response can be unlearned, just as it was learned; the garden of resentment can still be weeded and new seeds planted. But if it is not weeded, after many years there will be a harvest of ill health. Physiologically, the body will be living in a state of almost continual readiness for defense – a grossly exaggerated response, granted, but that is the only way the body knows how to respond. Its resources for dealing with stress will be mobilized day and night, like the National Guard in a state of emergency, as we can tell from the signs and symptoms that may come: high blood pressure, chronic stomach tension, digestive problems, migraines, irritability, perhaps a low resistance to common ailments like colds and flu. All this takes a severe toll on the body’s resources for good health. For various reasons, including genetic factors, the final breakdown will differ from person to person. One might develop arthritis; another, a gastric disorder. But whatever the ailment, it is the fruit and harvest of a mental state, the seeds of resentful thinking.

Ironically, such a person often responds even to these physical problems with resentment. Life, he says, has dealt him one more unfair blow. That is how entrenched the mental habit has become: resentment has taken over the whole field. And so, tragically, the harvest of ill health goes on reseeding the mind.

For a more cheerful picture, look at patience. Isn’t there a flower called impatiens, which they say anyone can grow anywhere? Anyone can grow patience too, though it’s not yet one of the twenty favorite houseplants of the mind. And it is a highly medicinal herb. Imagine the same person going through life with a garden full of patience instead of resentment. The same events that once provoked a stress response would be met with calmness, detachment, even a sympathetic respect. That person is likely to live longer and feel better than if he lived in chronic resentment: good health is the body reaping the harvest of right thinking.

As long as we identify with the “field” – the physical, chemical organism that is the body – glands and hormones dictate our lives. Many people today believe in astrology, but almost everyone believes in hormonology. “I was born under the sign of Adrenaline,” they say. “He was born under the Gonads, with Thymus rising.” The lives of those who identify completely with the body are dictated by their chemistry; the Gita would not disagree. When life is reduced to biological functions, it says, what else can you expect? But those who break through this identification can undo this tyranny. They can rise above and eventually transform their chemistry; for the chemistry of our living follows rather than dictates the responses of our mind.

This breakthrough culminates a complete remaking of personality. Over and over again I hear talk about “alternative life-styles.” Change your clothes, talk differently, grow a mustache or paint your eyelids mauve, and you have changed your life. This simply doesn’t follow. But there is a way to change your life, and that is to change your ways of thinking. When Michael down the street ceases to think of himself as his body, he is no longer Michael – at least, not the same Michael with whom you went to school. That was the old Michael, the pauper, as Meister Eckhart would say. This is the new man, a prince of peace.

This transformation is not all peaches and cream. There is a terrifying aspect to it. When mystics speak of the death of the old man, the pauper, the ego, this death is not at all symbolic. It is very real. The ego is done away with, or nearly so, and it does not appreciate the process either; it suffers. But even while it suffers we can experience the fierce joy of knowing that beneath the surface, a radiant new personality is being born.

This excerpt is from Eknath Easwaran's book To Love Is to Know Me: The Bhagavad Gita for Daily Living, Volume 3.