The Japanese Garden: A Place of Refuge

A surprising way to manage holiday stress.

Posted Dec 13, 2017

We can all use a dose of serenity during the season of holiday madness. But after a while, the tried and true techniques can get a little stale. Yes to yoga, cardio and mindfulness, but really, how many bubble baths can one take? And the "one for me, one for them" dictum of buying presents gets very expensive very quickly. What else can we do to keep stress in perspective? I found inspiration in an unlikely place: the Japanese garden.

On a crystalline autumn morning a number of weeks ago, along with Tomoko Nagakura, Assistant Curator of Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, we created an interactive workshop called "Contemplating the Japanese Garden." The program was organized by Justina Crawford, manager of Lectures, Courses, and Concerts at the MFA

The MFA is home to a stunning Japanese garden, Tenshin-en, the Garden of the Heart of Heaven which opened in 1988. Through the careful placement of stones, gravel, trees and plants, the garden, designed by Kinsaku Nakane, suggests mountains, waterfalls, islands and the ocean all contained in a very small space. The vastness of the landscape is captured in microcosm and distilled to its essence.

Tomoko grounded us in the history, style, and design of Japanese gardens, while I guided both a sitting and walking meditation. There are different types of gardens, including the Stroll Garden, the Meditation Garden, and the Tea Garden. Tenshin-en incorporates aspects of each type. However, there was a principle of the Tea Garden that was entirely new to me, and that has continued to inspire me weeks after the workshop. These gardens are designed in a way that invites mystery; you can’t see everything at once. In each garden, there is something that is hidden, a surprise, some element that is unexpected.

Psychologists have the concept of a “cognitive reframe.” I have been thinking of this idea of discovery as a profound teaching on how to live one’s life. And, I have been finding it an especially useful perspective to have during the holidays. Rather than bracing yourself for the annual put-downs from your mother-in-law, the drunken behavior of Uncle Donald, and yet another ugly Christmas sweater that you will never wear (all of which might not even happen), try this practice to add some humor and perspective to the obligatory holiday ordeal.

Finding a Refuge

photo by Susan Pollak
Source: photo by Susan Pollak
  • Start by sitting comfortably, outside if possible. Most of us don’t have a Japanese garden to visit. No problem. Parks and gardens will do, even a playground.
  • Take a few breaths to ground and refresh.
  • Let the holiday stress fall away—all the things you need to do, all the snarky behavior, who said what to whom, all the familiar tensions.
  • Breathe in the fresh air. Rest.
  • Listen to the sounds around you.
  • What do you hear? Wind? Traffic? Birds calling to one another? Children laughing and playing?
  • Take it in. Let this green space be a refuge.
  • We don’t need a manicured garden to experience this. Open to hidden beauty wherever you are: a tree’s branches covered in snow, the last golden leaf on a shrub, the startling red of a cardinal, a frozen daisy nestled in snow.
  • Take a walk, feeling each foot touch the ground. Look around.
  • Open yourself to mystery, both physical and psychological. What is present that you’ve never seen before?
  • It can be mundane, such as the vibrant colors of a hydrant, or interpersonal, perhaps a kind word or deed by a relative who usually ignores you, or a funny comment by a young niece or nephew.
  • Try seeing the world with fresh eyes, with what the Zen masters call “beginner’s mind.”
  • As the garden instructs us, there is always something new to discover, some mystery just around the corner.

Marcel Proust put in well, “The real voyage of discovery lies not in finding new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Wishing you a healthy and peaceful holiday season.