In March 2020, as it became clear that we would be spending more time cloistered in our homes than ever before, I took up gardening. In the midst of chaos, digging in the dirt felt fitting, I decided. I would participate in a human experience that went back for millennia, in times of crisis and in times of peace. It felt universal.

Still, gardening was, for me, almost entirely foreign. I grew up in the arid landscape of Southern California, and until moving north, the only plants I tended to were succulents that required a few drops of water a month. But as I listened to the radio and read the headlines last spring, I knew that succulents weren’t going to be enough anymore. I wanted to experience the small thrill of growing something edible from a tiny seed, the everyday joy of watching a shoot rise out of the dirt and blossom.

The Buddhist concept of shoshin, often translated as “the beginner’s mind,” refers to the practice of approaching a subject with a spirit of freshness, curiosity, and even wonder. In the midst of a traumatic event like a global pandemic, pursuing wonder can feel simultaneously frivolous and daunting. Nevertheless, over this past year and a half, on days when it felt like my world was spinning out of control, discovering a tiny fringe of sprouts that might someday become a handful of carrots felt exhilarating, bordering on miraculous.

Still, my new undertaking was not without it challenges. As I pored over directions on the back of seed packets, my fear of failure threw me into a tailspin of worry. How should I take into account the appropriate row spacing for the tomatoes I was planting in a cylindrical container? What was the proper method for thinning zucchini? What if I watered the seedlings too much or too little and nothing grew?

Each time these concerns that my hobby garden might fall short of perfection cropped up, I tried to stop and breathe. If I plant my radishes six inches apart instead of ten, the world won’t come crashing down. If I miss a day of watering, my backyard won’t become a barren wasteland. Of course, in some instances my fears of failure came to fruition. Earlier this year, a basil plant that was “100% guaranteed” to grow never sprouted from its windowsill pot, leaving me slouching off to the garden center for another packet of seeds. Still, most of the time, plants do what they’ve always done: They find a way to grow. And though my ragtag collection of raised beds won’t be featured on the cover of Better Homes & Gardens anytime soon, this ordinary hobby is deepening my understanding of the beginner’s mind. I’m reminding myself that it’s okay to not have the answers. It’s okay to be mediocre. It’s okay to fail.

When I strive to cultivate a beginner’s mind, I’m better able to face challenge and uncertainty in my work, my relationships, and in my own heart. If my offhand remark hurts a friend’s feelings, my apology comes more readily. I don’t hesitate as long before admitting that I don’t have the answer to a student’s question. Perhaps most important, as I learn to embody the beginner’s mind, I hold fast to the liberating truth that I don’t need to get things right the first time after all. If I return to a familiar situation with curiosity, less bound by my own preconceptions, with more space for nuance and marvel, I might have an entirely new experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic is slowly coming to an end, but I can still be found, from time to time, in my garden. As I undertake haphazard weeding and celebrate the harvest of a handful of anemic tomatoes, I’ll also try to celebrate the joys of mediocrity, of failure, of trying again with a happy heart. And some days, with my knees on the ground and my hands in the dirt, in a state of openness and wonder, I might find freedom.

Barnes Martinez ’12 is a writer and educator living in southcentral Alaska.

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