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Turn life's struggles into compost for the soul

"The lotus can only grow from the mud"
“Let’s face it, sometimes life sucks.”

Unless you’ve lived a charmed life in which nothing has ever gone wrong, which is unlikely, I think we all recognize this observation by Zen teacher Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara (in one of her gently insightful talks on the website). 

She adds: “One Zen master was asked about his experience of life and he said, ‘It’s not without joy; it’s like sweeping shit into a pile, then plucking out a precious jewel from within’.”

I was turning this thought over in my mind while turning the compost to make sure it rotted down well. It’s inspiring to watch how nature transforms those old apple cores, vegetable peelings, grass cuttings and leaves back into food for the vegetables we shall later eat. If you want to see the magic of science unfolding, just look deep into your compost bin, beneath the surface, and watch the worms at work – nature’s wriggly alchemists, turning base materials into gardener’s gold.

Our lives, like the seasons, are made up of many – often overlapping and frequently interconnected – periods of sowing, growing, harvesting and composting. The “pile” mentioned in the quotation above represents life’s less welcome experiences: when it feels like we are just “shovelling shit”. 

But good, bad and indifferent, everything we face in life is absorbed by our brains and transformed into something for (possible) later use. 
The “precious jewel” is the wisdom we gain from learning from our experiences. 

I don’t think experience automatically leads to wisdom. We can have many experiences, but if we make the same mistakes over and over again, we are clearly not learning from them. That’s when life either stinks – like the compost bin full of too much soft, wet, green waste – or seems dry and lifeless – like the bin with too much dry, leafy, woody, brown material – and full of unresolved issues that just won’t rot down into something nourishing for the next turn in our life’s cycle. 

That’s when we may have to do something ourselves to turn our experiences into wisdom. We may have to revisit our unresolved issues, turn our inner compost and rebalance our relationship with our past so we can feed our experiences back into our lives in a healthy, nourishing, empowering way. If necessary, we may find it helpful to seek guidance and support in this process from a trained ‘inner gardener’, such as a counsellor, or a trusted friend or (a term that sounds a little archaic in our youth-obsessed culture) a wise elder.

I think the point of experiences is to enrich the soil of our lives that we may sow again, grow again, harvest again... and compost again – and so the cycle keeps turning until life decides we have experienced enough, learned enough. 

As Richard Bach says in Illusions – The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah: “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

Robin Williams, in Good Will Hunting, has another take on the difficult periods in life: “Bad times come along to wake you up to the good times you weren’t paying attention to.”

Maybe that, too, is the “precious jewel” – the reminder to live fully in the joy of each passing moment, in each scoop of the shovel, alive to the potential in every handful of compost.

The fact is, life is messy. But there’s only one way to live it: to get stuck in until its earthiness is in our nostrils, deep in the pores of our skin, and lodged beneath our fingernails.

Another Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, puts it like this: “The lotus can only grow from the mud.” Or, to put it another way: life may sometimes be shit, but that’s so we can come up roses.


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