Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

One man and his dog - and the healing power of nature

She’s staring intently at the ground, eyes fixed, body rigid, ears up, head slightly cocked to one side, the occasional swish of her tail brushing the dust.
I’m looking back towards our small white fluffy terrier-like dog from further up the farm track, having realised she is out of sight - she’s usually well ahead of me, jumping through hedges or grass, or nose hoovering up smells along the path or verges. But not this time. Something has grabbed her attention, and held it, so I wander back slowly to have a look. She doesn’t move. I peer at the spot that seems to have her transfixed. Nothing. What is she staring at? I peer closer and there, hidden beneath the early blades of grass is a tiny, wiggling, furry red bottom poking out of a hole in the earth. It’s our first bee of the year. We both stay watching, transfixed by this miracle of nature - tiny and magnificent.

And this experience sums up the nature (excuse the pun) of the following weeks and months as I use this sudden gift of re…

When the fields are brown

There is a sense of quiet settling across the once-busy fields, now shorn of their wheat, barley and rape. The flowers in the ditches are no longer as riotous or plentiful in colour and variety and the birdsong is somewhat muted.

The cereal harvest is gathered in and there is a sense in the air of that pause that comes after frenetic work to get a project completed by deadline, that moment of relief that it is now done and the opportunity to take a moment to breathe and enjoy the sense of completion. There is satisfaction in the air but also a kind of melancholy, knowing that spring has gone and summer is nearing its end, the days still have the upper hand but they are now perceptibly giving way to the nights.

But the year is not yet done with colour and fragrance and song. Still rosebay willowherb, knapweed and tufted vetch are abundant in the ditches, the set-aside is full of speedwell and scarlet pimpernel and butterflies still flit from flower to flower. But this not just a tale of…

Looking to the stars for answers at our feet

Another year has passed, another year older – yes, I recently celebrated my birthday and, like many people, looked to the stars to see how the winds of life will be blowing in the next 12 months: I read my horoscope.
Now, I have no wish here to make a case for or against astrology; my interest is in what the mind does with information presented to it. And how we can use that information skilfully to write the story of our lives – because each of us is a character (and co-author) in the human chapter of a cosmic story that has been unfolding since the beginning of time.
Last week, I wrote about how we naturally seek patterns in life, and I have long admired the way we – as individuals, societies and humanity as a whole – try to explain what we don’t understand, often using stories, mythologies or parables, until science catches up.
For example, I love basking in the starlight, watching the constellations wheel around us, weaving stories in the night sky of gods and goddesses, heroes and …