Saturday, 28 June 2014

Are Japanese Gardens Good For Our Health And Wellbeing? Part 2

Continued from Part 1....

Distinct from Western gardens, Japanese gardens are arranged according to the design principle of asymmetry. Rock arrangements and plantings are often governed by arrangements of uneven numbers; tradition regards even numbers as being static, incapable of change, and unsound in geomantic terms. The asymmetry of a rock arrangement is expressed within a carefully contrived complex sense of balance, or resolution of opposing dynamics within a relationship. Counterintuitive though it may seem but the behavior of the heart is naturally non linear and irregular. In a healthy heart there is a pronounced irregularity in heart rate variability (HRV), and usually a more regular heartbeat is found in older people and hearts which are affected by disease. Greater variability in HRV indicates a healthier heart. As physiological systems become less complex they are less adaptable and less able to cope with a changing environmental situations. Change and fluctuation calls for adaptability in response, this is also reflected in brain activity as coping with change in a positive manner encourages new neural pathways and connections to be made.

In Japanese gardens complex patterns of constantly fluctuating active and passive energies are evoked in the same composition. Asymmetric composition allows for a greater integration of information and stimulus in the interaction of the viewer with the viewed. In this way the viewer is drawn further into the dynamics of the composition, the viewer is not simply a passive force in the interchange of energy at any level. Ultimately in all successful compositions there is a sense of resolution to the seemingly random distribution of the garden elements. Resolution is important on an emotional level as it generates a sense of completeness that is ultimately satisfying to the viewer. In other words a state of excitement, fluctuation and change is generated that includes such conditions as curiosity and attention retention, which is then brought to a harmonious conclusion within the viewer. A sense of wellbeing then becomes embodied within the viewer.

Researchers into the effects of electromagnetic fields on the heart report that positive outcomes can be derived even from intention, and the projection of positive emotional states. In other words we can experience alterations on a physiological and psychological level by intention. In the creation of Japanese gardens attention is paid to projecting positive values of harmony and peacefulness through the work. As a garden apprentice in Kyoto I learned of this directly from my teacher. He would encourage his apprentices to work with a positive manner, as this “will feed the garden, and those who come here”. As an apprentice one learns to be fastidious in regard to detail, to imbue the work with one’s best intentions. Carrying out the work in a positive state of mind seems to affect the outcome, and enhances what it is that the viewer receives from the work. Therefore great attention needs to be paid to the quality and suitability of the materials that go to make up the work; but also careful attention needs to be given to less tangible qualities that are brought to bear in the execution of the work. This extends to the ongoing maintenance of the garden too. If the garden is neglected it will very quickly become a place of disorder. The proportion of the plant elements of a composition will lose coherence, and a sense of imbalance will be what the viewer embodies as an experience.

Healing occurs when just such a sense of wellbeing is generated and rises towards the conscious mind. Positive emotional messages are very important; affirmative messages, such as hope, pleasure, and stability are all transmitted to the viewer, thereby enhancing the experience of the garden. The Japanese garden is particularly attuned to this broadcasting of what we unconsciously register as positive emotional indicators. As William Howard Adams writes, “Gardens deal with transformation, mutability and faith. They fix if for only a brief moment nature’s flux, but their illusion of order gives us hope.”[1] The relief of stress bolsters and reinforces the immune system, which is one of the most potent drivers in the healing process, whether on a physical or mental level. Japanese gardens are in many way distilled and condensed experiences of the natural landscape. They are not the natural landscape. By being a composition, that is something filtered through human cultural experience, they can attain enhanced and empowered qualities. Through the work of organisations such as the Japanese Garden Society (, gardens have been created in locations such as nursing homes and hospices, where patients, staff and families report positive outcomes through exposure to Japanese style gardens.

The Japanese garden tradition is not solely specific to the geography and culture of Japan, it contains a body of knowledge and awareness that seems to have universal application. In a world where there is a profound disconnect between man and nature, the creation of gardens may well be a way of beginning to find a level of equilibrium and self-healing. We need to study and absorb all we can from that tradition to enhance both  ourselves and our society.

[1] William Howard Adams, Nature Perfected. Abbeville Press, 1991.

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