Yesterday I mentioned the seed parable of Jesus. Actually there are several parables where he uses the seed to convey his teaching. This is one:
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Mt 13: 31-32)
The mustard seed is in fact one of the smallest seeds in the world; and when I first saw a full-grown mustard tree, in India, I was astonished how massive it was. How does Jesus see the kingdom of heaven in this, that he had obviously seen and wondered at himself? The simplicity of his language, as of his teaching, reflects this experience of what was later called the ‘contemplation of nature’ – the facility to read the book of the natural world in symbolic depth rather than just skimming over it unobservantly, literally as we usually do.
It is the natural world he is looking at but also the human intervention in it. ‘A man took and planted’ the seed in his own field, that is in his life and being. The act of taking and the act of planting change nature without harming it. He is not crudely exploiting but respecting the forces of nature in his work of cultivation.
Our spiritual practice should also respect the natural process and the conditions in which we practice. What may suit one person may be harmful to another if applied in an unobservant way. Anyone can meditate; but someone suffering mental illness, for example, may need to adapt the discipline. Children can meditate but for less time and with less emphasis on the daily discipline (although many children do choose meditate daily). St Paul said we ‘work out’ our salvation. The Buddha continued to practice meditation even after his enlightenment. The church, for all its historical faults, extends the life of Christ ‘until the end of time’. Taking and planting the seed suggests a practice that starts small but continues indefinitely. Although this is a natural process, it is not, at any stage, a passive one.
Growth happens when the conditions are right: if the developing seed is properly cared for. The focus of the parable is not to zoom in on the minutiae of the process, to observe what is happening moment by moment. Similarly, when we meditate it is not helpful to evaluate and measure each meditation period. If we do so we will fall into thinking of good and bad meditations and we will make the process, the perseverance, much more difficult for ourselves. Instead, allow yourself to see the larger picture in which the seed of your practice (the seed of your mantra, your ‘little word’) is growing. As it grows it also expands the world view you are living with, your universe. Our very way of judging is changed by this growth; and so to cling to the old way, limited, narrow and self-referring, sets up a resistance to the very growth we want to go with.
We grow beyond isolationism, beyond private goals and desires. We grow into inter-dependence, into reality. The seed becomes a tree that is not competing with other trees but offers hospitality to the birds to come and rest and nest on its many branches. The tree has become, as we hope we may become when we grow up, strongly rooted, multi-dimensional and wholly other-centred.