mostly edited, structured pieces of writing (in the process of migrating from Medium)

tending to my garden

on cultivating gardens in our lives

art by @launshae

At the Hundertwasser museum bookshop I flipped a book and found a quote that really spoke to me:

“The growth of plants is an amazing thing. The plants yawn and stretch, wrinkle their leaves if something happens that they don’t like, and they smooth themselves out, turning this way and that…turning away from things they dislike, and from people they dislike. But this happens in such a slow rhythm that the human eye does not register these things as movement…The slower one paints…the deeper one penetrates the secrets of paint.”

– Hundertwasser, Tape recorded letter to the students of The Master School at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna (1982)

Hundertwasser called his style of painting ‘vegetative painting’:

“My painting is, I think, completely different because it is vegetative painting. One reason why other people do not want to paint vegetatively or want to take to a vegetative way of life is because it begins too unpretentiously, it does not have great eclat or drum roll; on the contrary it grows quite slowly and simply, and that does not appeal to our social order, people want instant results based on the slash and burn principle.”

Hunderwasser, source

I am not a painter. These days I mostly write, collect, and work on this website. I was someone who worked in extremes – I would work on something furiously and intensely, then burn out and not be able to touch that thing for a long while after again. I knew I was prone to burnout but I never really questioned why I suffered from burnout so frequently. It is only in recent times that I realised I have a regulation problem, not only biologically but also psychologically: I don’t know when to stop.

With this knowledge, I sought to change my patterns consciously. Sustainable change is usually slow, because quick changes usually require force, and most of the time forcing something to happen makes it snap back to right where it was. I also learnt that my expectation of myself to change quickly if not instantly was also an outcome of chronic patterned thinking that is related to my issues with regulation. It is a form of intolerance, an inability to tolerate the time required for something to take place.

We can’t force vegetation to grow faster. We can put fertiliser, spray insecticide, give them the most ideal conditions to thrive, but there is a limit to how fast they can grow. Want a tree? Wait. Want something too fast? There could be a price to pay:

“Many homeowners want a fast growing tree in the landscape. However, we may pay a price for fast growth. Fast growing trees often have the problem of being weak wooded and break apart quite easily in ice and other types of storms. Thus, a fast growing tree near a home often becomes a hazard.”


I think this applies to the development of a human being and creative endeavours in general. Speed comes at a cost. The visibility of the cost is often delayed, and sometimes the awareness of it arrives too late.

I knew if I wanted this website – which is an extension of my consciousness – to truly thrive, I needed to work on it in a sustainable manner. Bit by bit I slowly transformed the way I thought about it. Previously I would only work on it if I had the energy to make wholesale, dramatic changes. These days I am glad if I made one small change. It could be just a touchup of the styles, or curating the posts on the homepage. I didn’t even have an /about page until a short while ago. There are a lot of things I don’t like about it but I tolerate it, because I know I would drive myself crazy if every single step of the way I sought perfection without compromise.

I realised I was tending to it like I would tend to a garden. Watering it, pruning it, adding a little here and there. I enjoyed the process. I like making a small change and knowing it is a little bit better than before. It wasn’t like this labourious, painful, tiring process I was used to. I try to not work on it past 8pm because it affects my sleep, I stop when I notice I’m mentally tired – this awareness wasn’t easy for me to cultivate, on days when I am not well I don’t even attempt to do anything.

I was often filled with semi-conscious guilt when I am not doing anything “productive”, and this guilt is one of the components that trigger my depression. I also associate it with laziness, so the perception of myself being lazy (and useless) is an additional layer that contributes to depression.

This is not just about tending to this website like a garden, but also a metaphor on how I am also learning to tend to my self like a garden. I try to go about it day by day now. If I can exercise a little bit more today, that is progress. If I can make a healthier choice for one meal out of the two to three each day, that’s better than completely giving up because it is just too hard to be completely strict. If today sucks for some reason, I try again tomorrow. Sometimes while waiting for something I read a few lines of a book from the kindle app on my phone. Other times I try to remember to write record transient but meaningful thoughts in my journal. It all adds up, it all compounds.

It is also about the capacity to tend to myself like I am a growing, living, person, not an object to be beaten into shape. A person who has organic, shifting, complex feelings. Sometimes things fail and that is simply part of life. Flowers wither, and you could give your best care to a plant and it will still die.

Our psyches are like a garden too. We need to know what should be kept, what should be removed, what should be pruned but not destroyed, what to water, what to protect. I am feeling a lot better ever since I identified what usually triggers me, and to even admit that I am a person who is easily triggered is a difficult step. We are conditioned to perform like we are capable and strong, and we condemn signs of weaknesses in ourselves and other people. My gung-ho spirit seemed to be commendable but it was slowly killing me because I was trying to be who I am not, and denying who I am.

We can’t make mushrooms grow into flowers. If we can rightly identify the seeds (or spores) we will know what type of conditions they will thrive in. In similar ways, some people need different care, handling and environment to thrive. Perhaps with the right conditions, they too can make contributions to the world in small but meaningful ways – and who can truly judge the true magnitude of something? Who knew that funghi is instrumental to the health of a forest?

Going back to what Hunderwasser said about vegetation moving so slowly that the human eye does not register it as movement – I think we are obsessed with speed to our own detriment, and there is a lot of joy and meaning in learning to appreciate slowness, or phenomenon that may not be clearly measurable.

For me, going slow is an act of courage, to radically leave the rhythm and pace society has conditioned me to, to ignore all the noise out there urging me to speed up, and then slowly cultivating my own space to move slowly at my own pace, whether is it for this website or for my self. In return I develop the capacity to notice and appreciate little movements, and the considerable frustration that comes with impatience and intolerance has diminished significantly.

Oliver Sacks wrote that gardens are powerful in healing us. I think there is something inspiring about witnessing something that is so alive yet so stoically remaining in its own pace and place, something that we somewhat sense that has its own sense of time and plane. I think that apart from physical gardens we can cultivate gardens – the spirit of them – in other areas of life too.