by Yvonne Castañeda, MSW, LICSW
A Personal Perspective: How to keep your mind healthy and fertile.
- Negative thoughts are like weeds in a garden.
- A healthy mind requires dedication and commitment.
- Minding your thoughts may help your dreams flourish.
Having lived in an apartment for most of my adult life, I was thrilled to move into a single-family home with a front and backyard. No sooner had I unpacked my belongings did I begin to picture a beautiful front garden, with flowers and plants I couldn’t name, but which looked beautiful in my mind.
I’d grown up watching my father dedicate hours to the many plants and trees in our backyard, his love for nature having been tucked into his pocket when he left Cuba in the early 1960s. I’d never asked him much about how to care for plants or trees when I was a child; I’d been too busy playing with Barbies and driving my older brother out of his mind, but that didn’t stop me from believing I could be the Latina Martha Stewart of landscaping and gardening.
I called my father and asked him a million questions about all things gardening. “Which plants should I get? Do I need fertilizer? Should I plant them in the spring or the fall?” He filled my head with tons of information, all of which I tried to remember as I walked into Mahoney’s Landscaping. I bought the plants I loved most, and I dedicated a weekend to clearing the area, digging, planting, and watering. The process was both exhilarating and stress-relieving, and as I took off my gloves, I could already picture the hydrangeas and dahlias in full bloom, a vision that filled me with joy.
My father had given me some parting advice in his slow, methodical way of speaking. “A garden is a lot of work, remember that. You need to tend to it often, and make sure to yank weeds otherwise they will choke and kill whatever you’ve planted.” He paused. “And you need to be patient. I know it’s hard for you, but you have to remember that plants don’t grow and blossom overnight.”
Ouch, I thought. He really knows me. He also told me to talk to my plants, to offer them words of encouragement and love, and although I appreciated his advice, something about talking to plants made me feel all kinds of weird.
I truly enjoyed the whole process of digging, planting, and watering, but having patience and weeding? Not so much. For a week, I checked on the garden every day when I got home from work, with my father’s advice to me that I remain patient at the forefront of my mind. But as the weeks passed, I checked on it less and less, all of my time and energy consumed instead by an unfulfilling job, by my relationship, friendships, and family, and by responsibilities and daily stressors.
At the time, I was miserable in my career; I felt disconnected from a sense of purpose. I was grateful for the security my job provided, but deep down, I was disappointed in myself for giving up on my dream of finding a job that filled my spirit as opposed to my bank account; as my father had lovingly pointed out, I had always struggled with patience. I’d also told myself repeatedly that perhaps I should settle for what I had, and that maybe I wasn’t capable of more.
Dissatisfaction in my career took a toll on my emotional and mental health. I got home from work one day and decided to check on the garden, hoping it would make me feel better. I was not at all concerned that almost four months had passed since I’d first planted everything.
No surprise, it was overrun with weeds, and none of what I had planted had grown let alone blossomed. One of the hydrangea bushes appeared to be dying and the dahlias were not far behind. Disappointment consumed me. I’d planted everything with so much love, with a clear vision for what I wanted to grow, and yet I had neglected all of it, leaving the plants to be overtaken by nasty, pervasive weeds that had stolen the nutrients they needed to grow.
I called my father and told him what happened, and asked if the plants could be saved. “Of course,” he said. “If the soil was fertile in the first place, you can save those plants. But you have to yank out the weeds and then follow the steps I gave you: Plant, fertilize, weed, and remember patience.” I followed his instructions to the letter. And I yanked every single weed that dared to grow, and after a few months, I was thrilled to see growth.
I am so grateful for that experience, as I recognized the parallel between my approach to gardening and to my dream of finding fulfillment: In both cases, I’d failed to nurture and tend to both, and yet I’d expected to see them growing and blossoming. Furthermore, I realized that my own thoughts were the “weeds” that had sucked the life out of my dream.
Our mind is indeed like a garden; throughout our lives, we plant the seeds of our dreams in the hopes that they will grow and someday blossom. Maybe we dream of finding a fulfilling career or a loving partner, starting a family, going on a vacation, opening a business, achieving optimal health, or finishing our education.
But it is simply not enough to plant and water these seeds once in a while. A garden requires dedication, commitment, and patience, and it requires us to always remain vigilant for the “weeds” that threaten everything we’ve planted. These weeds are negative, self-defeating thoughts that grow quickly when we’re not paying attention, when we’re distracted by our jobs, by arguments with our partner, by our families, annoying traffic jams, grocery shopping, the list is endless.
Much like with a garden, we need to consistently pause and take a good look at what’s going on. For our dreams to grow, our mind needs to be healthy and fertile, and it requires that we take both proactive and reactive measures to keep everything alive and blossoming.
Not sure what that looks like? Here are some tips:
- Plant and water. Whether it’s an old dream that has been choked by weeds, or a new one that wants to grow, identify which dreams you would like to grow. Then, water them by visualizing what your life will look like when they blossom.
- Use fertilizer. Speak words of encouragement often, even and especially if it feels silly and weird. These words are nutrients for whatever dreams you’ve planted. I am capable. I am worthy. I am strong.
- Yank the weeds often. Always remain vigilant and aware of any weeds that might be growing. An easy way to do this is to notice when there’s a downward shift in your mood, as this might be a clue that negative thoughts are growing in your mind: I am so stupid. I am an idiot. I can’t do anything right. Things will never change. There’s no way I can do this. It’s also important to notice negative thoughts directed at others, as they are just as pervasive and deadly: She’s such an idiot. He probably thinks he’s better than everyone. She’s an awful person. He’s so annoying and stupid. Lastly, don’t let words that other people say to you become weeds in your garden. These could be harmful words such as, You are a disappointment. You are so dumb. You don’t deserve a good life. Remind yourself that none of these thoughts fertilize your dreams in any way.
- Apply weed killer. A mindfulness practice, daily prayer, deep breathing, exercise, and a practice of gratitude may be effective ways to prevent weeds from growing in the first place. What you choose as weed killer will be unique to you; try different methods and decide which one is best and most appropriate for your own garden.
- Notice growth. Sometimes we get so focused on managing our negative thoughts that we overlook all the good things that may be happening. Of course, it’s important to yank all the weeds, but it’s equally important to identify growth, regardless of how tiny it may seem. Growth might be a positive shift in your mood, less anxiety, improved focus, or an increase in your overall level of energy, all of which may impact whether or not your dream will blossom.
- Most importantly, have patience! You would never plant a seed in infertile soil, right? Be patient with the process, and remind yourself often that when you planted the seed, you must have sensed deep down that you have what it takes to make it grow and blossom.
And you do.