Fly on the Wall—The Zen Garden of the Mind

All Aboard with Guy Debord

At last it is Canadian spring, when finally we burst into action.  Pens and paper, laptops and textbooks, they are all thrust to the wayside as we celebrate what there is to do outdoors. But wait, there’s work waiting for us in the yard!  If we’re privileged enough to have some outdoors of our own to tend we easily can fall into a drudgery that feels akin to studying one hour too many on a sunny afternoon.  Maybe mindfulness will give a meditative glow to our labours.

A garden of heart and mind is what we want as we weed and mow and trim and lop.   Yard work and coursework share a common reality in that they’re always there with us.  Familiarity easily breeds contempt, though, and AU can trigger a sense of dread—especially on a sunny day. But, then, so too can our unkempt outdoor climes.  It’s a double-bind that inhabits our mind; too much attention is demanded.  How do we seize pedagogic inspiration without falling victim to rote routine and how, when outdoors, do we enjoy our surroundings without feeling like there’s always more to do?

A Little Zen Salad

Japan, noted for fabulous cherry blossoms and fastidious manners, presents an intriguing portal to the prioritization required when we tend to a vegetable garden or enable our academic potential.  Behind the stereotype of being an “incredibly fastidious people who sleep and work and don’t take time off” Japanese culture also has space for play. One Boston University writer reports a student’s experience of Japanese college cafes in the 1960s:

“Soon after we arrived, we were asked to take off our clothes.” Artists at the café painted White’s body with bright, cobalt blue paint, and then she and the other participants became living paintbrushes, à la Yves Klein, pressing themselves against the white sheets. “This was not the Japan I expected,” she says. “It never is,” (Hyde-Keller, online).

Perhaps to genuinely enjoy gardening our mind (and minding our garden) we have to overcome our expectations.  First, though, it’s necessary to see the positive potential and propitious peril that attentiveness may lead us toward.  We might do well to heed Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 injunction to our culture: “When will you take off your clothes?” (Ginsberg, online).  After all, whatever we wear or wherever we go, we’re the ones doing the being.  It remains for us to reconsider our desire to keep up appearances to our image-oriented selves.

Naked Minds in a Garden; Seeing Our Selves Without Spectacles

A Zen garden; it sounds like a placid place where island time might trickle away into nirvana-inducing daydreams. Yet, in Japan, the trains do run on time and are well-maintained.  Japanese train conductors deploy mindfulness on their job, acting out a verbal “checking and calling” system called shisa kanko. Mindfulness while minding bullet trains proved empirically successful: train conductors who call aloud the many items on their safety checklist do indeed make less errors as they inspect:

“A 1994 study by Japan’s Railway Technical Research Institute, cited in The Japan Times, showed that when asked to perform a simple task workers typically make 2.38 mistakes per 100 actions. When using shisa kanko, this number reduced to just 0.38 – a massive 85 percent drop” (Powell, online)

So, there’s that. But on the train of life, and specifically conscious life where we perpetually prioritize and evaluate our thoughts and feelings in the context of our surroundings, to resort to a static checklist of must-do’s is maybe not a recipe to success.  In fact, we might end up a neurotic train wreck if we’re too diligent about what needs to be done.  Our studies, like our yards, are always there and we could just keep slogging away until the cows come home (or we suffer from burnout).  Mindfulness has its limits when we consider how the greatest joy in a garden well grown or an essay well written often lies in just lying back and basking in the mutual glory of our own creation combined with letting life’s juices unfurl.

A Spectacular Solution

We’d make a spectacle of ourselves if we walked around all day calling out our plan for what has to be done next in our lives; likewise, if you, like me, have spent time in the Great Canadian Suburbs where neighbours are a mere water pistol shot away in every sense of the word, there’s a lot of negative social sanctions invoked when you talk to yourself while upkeeping your own personal back forty.  People tend to reserve their one-sided conversations for their dog.  So shisa kanko has its problems if we apply it too literally, and any time we ask ourselves to pay extra attention to our duties for awhile we might best remember: what goes up, must go down.  Attention must be refreshed by rest and relaxation.  Be it some recreational reading or just lying in our yard, we can’t expect to be on all the time.  Social philosopher Guy Debord (1931-1994) even suggested that our society has misled us into valuing spectacular performances, think here of the dubious claim a person might make that they practice mindfulness constantly. Debord’s Society of the Spectacle succinctly states that reality is ebbing away as people transform the claim act the way you want to feel into a catechism of fakery:

“The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production.  It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration.  It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society.  In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life.  It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption” (Debord, online)

Debord seems to confirm what many of us suspect: consumerist culture and its fetishism of advertising has framed and formed even our deepest desires for fulfillment.  Surely it behooves us to recall the consumerist basis of demands and expectations for combined productivity and serenity.

If we are to rise above the dull desire to constantly advertise ourselves as though we were a product for consumption by others then we must put our garden trowels where our academic mind is and remember that, in distance education most of all, it really is what’s inside our brains that counts.  We won’t be happy or successful all the time and that’s just fine.  So next time you feel like you must tend to your outdoor realm, remember that AU success works best when we have balance and not too much lingering guilt over coursework left undone.  And out of a tangle of weeds joyful epiphanies may germinate.  Sometimes the happiest hours of our lives are when we just rest on our laurels for awhile.

Debord, G. (1967). Society of the Spectacle. Retrieved from
Ginsberg, A. (1956). ‘America’. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved form
Hyde-Keller, O. (2010). ‘Surprising Spaces in Cafe Culture in Japan’. Boston University: Research Magazine. Retrieved from
Powell, S.J. (2017). BBC Travel. Retrieved from
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