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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Friday 27 June 2014

Are Japanese Gardens Good For Our Health And Well-being? Part 1

Even before one considers the implications of the ‘healing garden’, there seems to be a naturally arising synergy between the concept of the’ Japanese garden’ and the ‘Healing garden’. In the Far East a relationship with Nature and the natural world has for centuries be seen as something that brings a cornucopia of benefits to humankind, among these is the profound realisation that health is influenced by contact with landscape and nature. It is a measure of the alienation inherent within modern society, particularly in the developed world, that we even consider and acknowledge a split from nature. This alienation occurs on many levels from physical separation, through reckless economic exploitation, to an increasingly barren spiritual dimension to our relationship with Nature.  Gardens are an outreach of the landscape in which we reside, and upon which we depend for our existence. Of interest is the fact that broadly speaking the Japanese garden tradition has maintained its link with the original concept of what the garden represented.

In all societies where the creation of gardens has been undertaken the notion of the garden representing a paradise can be found. Paradise in this sense is an idealised relationship with the landscape and environment. A relationship that is mediated through consciousness, and reminds humans of both our place and responsibility in relationship to the environment we inhabit. Thus paradise has a spiritual but also a practical dimension woven into the dynamic of our interaction. The earliest examples of  niwa  (gardens) created in Japan from the 8th century onward, were places created to attract the gods from their abode in the heavens, in order that humans could gain both a sense of physical well being, as well as  moral authority from the relationship.

The Sakuteiki (‘The Record of Garden Making’)[1] is one of the oldest manuscripts that addresses the creation of gardens and was compiled in the mid to late 11th century. During the Heian period (794-1184), a critical turning point in the development of Japanese culture as a whole, there was a broad scale re-assessment of cultural elements that had been brought to the Japanese island from Korea and China, out of this process a more clearly distinct Japanese culture was born. In looking at the Sakuteiki from a perspective of ‘the healing garden’, we can find many references to actions that are advisable in promoting and protecting good health and well being, as well as taboos on actions that may have the opposite effect. We should understand that underlying this perspective was the notion that the landscape itself, and all elements of the landscape were animate. A rock or tree was infused with the same primal force or energy (chi) as a human being. This perception was not unique to Japan, it also found expression right across SE Asia, as well as being common in Europe.

In the Sakuteki one sees that stones and their placement held a central position in the art of garden creation. In chapter 8 it is recorded that “stones are imperative when making a garden” (senzui wo nashite ha kanarazu ishi wo tatsu beki), also the author writes in several instances the phrase ishi no kowan ni shigahite (“follow the request of the stone”). Stones were regarded as being the holders of energy, their seemingly unchanging nature and form endowing them with the quality, and power of the eternal. In the section of the Sakuteiki that deals with taboos, there are quoted instances of the setting of stones that will attract malevolent forces to the garden and thereby to the occupiers of the household.

“Do not set a stone by the southwest column of the house. If this taboo is violate, the household will be unceasingly plagued by disease.”

“Using a stone that once stood upright in a reclining manner or using a reclining stone upright is a taboo. If this is done, that stone will become a ‘phantom” stone (reiseki, literally a ‘spirit stone’) and will be cursed.”

“ Do not set a stone that is higher than the verandah in the immediate vicinity of the house. If this rule is not obeyed, troubles will follow one after the other, and the master of the household will not live for long.”

The Sakuteiki is a complex document that draws on Shinto beliefs (the native religion to Japan), as well as being overlain by Taoist and Buddhist perceptions of nature (both imported from China). What has been quoted here is a very narrow selection of examples that may suffice to illustrate the perception of an intimate and conscious relationship between gardens and wellbeing. Although the document is over a thousand years old, it still has the ability to speak to us today. Encoded within what it has to say are perhaps universal truths that speak direct from the garden to the heart.

One characteristic of the Japanese garden tradition as it developed over time is the importance of the role of the viewer. The viewer, ‘the one who perceives’, arguably becomes the experiential hub of the garden. In Zen Buddhist circles the question is debated of the existence of the garden without a viewer. Without the viewer, does the garden still exist? The integration of the viewer into the very fabric of the garden closes a circle, bringing with it a sense of completion. With the closing of that particular circle then energy can flow from the one into the other, in much the same way that yin (Jap, insei) also contains an element of yang (Jap, yōsei). Thus the garden is an anthropocentric experience that generates an intimate relationship between viewer and garden. There is a flow of energy between the two, an interactive energy that is dynamic not static. If it were a static relationship it would generate a negative response in the viewer.

The world we inhabit is a vast, infinitely complex matrix of electromagnetic energies that we are constantly receiving, interpreting and responding to. Electromagnetic energy is generated at a cellular level by all animate things. This of course includes humans and other animals, but also all other forms of life including microbes and plants. Inanimate things are also capable of generating magnetic fields, they may be very subtle, but they do exist and are part of our perception to the environment. Further to this all animate being are sensitive receptors of fluctuations in the energy field that surrounds us constantly. As John Pearce Chilton remarks, “Our bodies and brain form an intricate web of coherent frequencies organised to translate other frequencies and are nestled within a nested hierarchy of universal frequencies.”[2] Therefore the manner in which the Japanese garden is organised will determine to some extent the way in which we respond to it. Our response to, say, Katsura Rikyu (a stroll garden) will differ greatly from our response to Ryoan-ji (a karesansui or ‘dry landscape’ garden). In the reception and perception of environmental energy patterns our own internal energy fields shift and alter. As that occurs there are alterations to our physiological state as well as our emotional state. Additionally as we alter the focus of our awareness from thinking to receiving external sensory there are alterations to the cardiac cycle, and there also follows a series of alterations to our physiological, emotional and cognitive functioning. The full complexity of what we receive and respond to is infinitely vast, just as it is infinitely powerful and subtle.

A garden is composed of a complex pattern of sensory experiences; we respond to both the physical elements that compose the garden, and we also interact with spatial relationships within the garden. Further to this we are also affected by temporal cycles expressed through a garden. Gardens reflect the seasons, as well as the particular points of the day, in which the garden is being experienced. All these different cycles are nested within one another, interacting with one another. The sum total of this multisensory, non-linear experience becomes our perception of the garden.

[1] Sakuteiki (Visions of the Japanese Garden), Jiro Takei and Marc P. Keane. Tuttle. 2001
[2] John Pearce Chilton. ‘Evolution’s End’. Harper. 1992.

Part 2 follows shortly.

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Tuesday 24 June 2014

Singing Into The Stones Of A Japanese Garden

In creating a garden we are seeking to use the essential energy of the materials themselves. This requires a shift of consciousness on behalf of the garden creator to recognise this fundamental truth. We are called upon to see beyond the simple material form, the shape that can be analysed, formulated and expressed in number or mind concept. Essential energy cannot be grasped only by mind alone. Mind by itself can only grasp the outward appearance; the way something appears to be. We see the shell, not the interior, we see the interior and the shell by not their innate wholeness. With the mind alone we cannot penetrate the absolute interdependence of all aspects. This arises because the mind is in itself interwoven with the body, and the body interwoven with mind. Mind-body are interwoven with the world in which they manifest. Even to speak of 'mind' and 'body' or 'mind-body' is to separate water from the river.

The poet Bashō wrote in the 'Narrow Road to the Deep North', the following poem (translated here by Donald Keene):

How still it is
Singing into the stones
the locust's trill.

In Bashō's poem he is showing us both the independent existence of things and the interpenetration of things. At the moment of acknowledgement of this relationship arises the stillness. The river flows in ceaseless movement, because that is the nature of the river, yet the river is still within its flowing.

It is demanding to seek out this truth of all things. It is easier to fall back into only dealing with the outward appearance of that with which we work, to find a formula that satisfies the eye and rest there content with our work. The Japanese garden teaches us that the search for deeper expression goes beyond form, beyond formula. It pushes us into seeing with both mind and body, and even beyond that to transcend mind and body until we really see things as they are. When creating a Japanese garden we are working with the energies of all those elements we draw together in that place and time. The rock has its energy and its song; the pine, the water, each and every element has its energy, its song. The garden creator is both composer and orchestrator of these flows. Yet there is no separation of the garden creator and the garden, they are one and the same thing. So whatever the garden creator brings to the process will be reflected in the work.

It is no accident of history that many garden creators in Japan were priests, poets, painter, tea masters and so on. Broadly we may label these characters as artists, but the characterisation lacks meaning beyond being a label. All of these creators recognised that in order to create we have an obligation to integrate our own search for meaning and truth into the work. The work is our search for meaning and truth. As the novelist Tanazaki Junchiro remarked, 'Beauty rises from the reality of life'. The very fragility and insubstantiality of the garden are the very qualities of the garden creator. The resonance and the persistence of the garden is resonance and the persistence of the garden creator.

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Monday 23 June 2014

Summer Solstice Songs

Perhaps a cloudless sky beyond,
Hoverflies holding their space,

High summer woods.

Midsummer fire
Between rooted earth and receiving sky -
Raising kundalini
In the chalice of the wood’s embrace.

At the gate
Summer’s midpoint,
Where ancestors stretch time backwards
And future, yet womb wet still –
Oh joy unbound, the pulsing flow!

Neither seeking answers nor questions,
Amongst the dry leaves
A blackbird searching out his own truth.

Humbled by acceptance
Gracious thanks to one’s sensei.
The soft explosion
Of a wild strawberry on the tongue

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