The Zen Approach to Farming: Connection, Awareness, Humility

Cultivating a love of gardening, farming and caring for the land according to the Zen philosophy involves more than planting a seed, nurturing its growth and reaping its results.

It requires a fundamental shift in ourselves, in our attention and in how we think. It is not expecting to get something in return for our efforts; instead, it is asking ourselves, what am I giving?

If we look at the sustainability of farming as a relationship, every activity of farming and gardening is the fertile ground of Zen practice: cultivating stillness, silence, awareness, attention, connection. 

We come to acknowledge that everything is teaching us if we are present, are open to seeing and are willing to love something as it is — not as we want it to be.

To begin helping us understand what it means to practice the Zen aspects of farming and sustainability, organic farmer Sara Tashker offered her personal insights and learnings from her nearly 20 years at Green Gulch Farm, one of three residential Zen Centers which make up the San Francisco Zen Center. Tashker has some insights to share with those seeking a deeper relationship with the natural world all around them.

Be mindful you are part of something bigger

When you’re doing something you love, whether it’s walking along coastal bluffs or tending to a garden, you feel connected to something that can’t be grasped or seen, something even words can’t reach. It’s an experience of being a part of something so much larger than we can conceive of.

“When we reduce sustainability to metrics or specific practice, we’ve already objectified the earth and the dynamic living relationships,” Tashker said. “Can I be open to things other than what I want to get out of it?”

When we slow down, it allows us to understand we’re part of this world; we’re not separate. “Then we can love it. Our efforts are coming from a place of love,” she explained, “instead of objectification or extraction.”

Let go of the illusion of control  

For Tashker, letting go of control was a lesson she learned working at Green Gulch Farm. She saw the way water flooded the fields in winter, making it difficult to work the soil in a consistent way based on Tashker’s idea of how the fields should be farmed. Then she realized she was trying to control the system rather than understand she was part of it.  

“I needed to learn to listen, pay attention to and harmonize with this living system. It was asking ‘where does the water want to flow’ – not, ‘where do I want it to flow?’” she said. “ I discovered how to work with the natural system, love it for what it is and work with it, rather than wanting it to be some other way.”

The importance of this lesson is to understand our connection with everything, and do so with humility. We must recognize that we’re part of something larger than ourselves, something we’re not in control of.  

“This opens the complexity of the wonder of life, and this is my right size in relation to these other things,” Tashker said.

Tend your relationship with the world 

The foundation of organic farming is the living soil — the remnants of plant and animal matter decay that’s known as humus. 

This organic matter supports all plant life, and, as Tashker puts it, is the dynamic pause between death and decay (the raw organic materials of the compost pile or forest floor) and life (new plant growth utilizing available nutrients). Humus also provides space for air and water retention in the soil.  

A good farmer knows not to feed the plant itself. It’s the soil a farmer feeds, because when the soil is balanced and healthy, then the plants will be, too. 

“If we care to cultivate a relationship with soil by doing our part to offer the right conditions for humus, it just might appear,” Tashker said. 

So, Tashker explained, though we aren’t in control of anything, we do our part by tending the relationship between us and the soil. 

We make a concerted effort to support the compost pile with the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen and the right amount of moisture. We carefully alternate kitchen scraps with straw and green weeds. We add a little water and inoculate it with some finished compost or good garden soil. 

Then we stay in connection, in relationship with the soil, by giving it our attention.  

“They say the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footsteps – paying careful attention to what is actually happening, rather than what we want to see or what we wish were happening,” Tashker said. 

In the example of the compost pile, we look and touch to find out: is the outside of the pile too dry, or is the inside too wet?  Is the pile ready to be turned?  We make our best guess, our best effort based on what we can see, feel and consciously know.  

And when the conditions are right, mysteriously and seemingly miraculously, life comes to the pile and transforms it. Heat-loving bacteria show up in the humus. Actinomycetes, a fungus-like bacteria that helps finish compost, help it move from unstable to stable organic matter. Then insects, worms and other creatures come in to complete the process. 

“Giving our attention and carefully tending to conditions, while holding an awareness of and making room for unknown and even unknowable processes, is how a good farmer tends to their fields,” she said. 

The Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once said that we don’t “feed the plant” of our maturing or our spiritual growth. We nourish the soil and the conditions for growth, and allow this process beyond our control.  

Cultivating and nourishing, rather than doing or making, is an expression of a deep understanding of our place in relationship to all living beings. 

Perhaps you’d like to be part of something bigger at Enso Village. 

We invite you to learn more about your relationship with the world and what it truly means to choose a Zen-inspired senior living community.

Our staff is here to answer your questions and help you discover more about life at Enso Village. Simply share your contact information and we’ll reach out to you.

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